Small Wars Journal

The Times They Are A-Changing: A Few Thoughts on American Military Discipline and Organization

Fri, 03/22/2013 - 3:30am

Author's Note: Special thanks to Dr Chris Lamb of the Center for Strategic Research and Fletcher Schoen, scout-sniper with the 25th Infantry Division, for their help in revising this piece.

Like its politicians and its war, society has the teenagers it deserves. - J. B. Priestley

As Americans, we are practical and unimaginative people, and our discussions of national defense reflect our love of numbers and hard facts: we focus on things like budgetary requirements, troop numbers, what hardware can be bought or designed and what the newest technology promises.  But high technology is neither a stable nor enduring character of war.   It is men who fight wars, not budgets or weapons, and it is the organization of the military that binds men together and gives them the purpose, common language and coherency of action that can turn political will into reality.  Failing to maintain the organizational discipline of the military is far more problematic than failing to keep in lockstep with the latest technological offerings.

Every military organization is a social construction imbued with the values, mores, expectations and hopes of all its members and faces two competing forces as it organizes young men and women for war: the need to forge fighting men through discipline and acculturation into the military system; and the countervailing pressure of lifetimes spent being indoctrinated with societal values that, at least in the West, seem increasingly at odds with traditional military virtues.   Yet we are charged with enforcing higher standards and stricter discipline than that enjoyed by civilian society.  This puts us between a rock and a hard place: civilian oversight of the military will continue to become ever more stringent and will increasingly limit the effectiveness of traditional means of discipline and indoctrination as changing notions of social justice will be privileged over the laws of military necessity.  At the same time, modern American values will continue to grow apart from traditional military values and will inexorably change the face of military culture.  We can put soldiers in uniforms and cut their hair to make them look different from civilians, but we will always be limited in the extent to which we can remake their personalities and how permanently we can install those changes.  Although boot camp is for many young men and women a transformative moment, a halcyon experience from which they emerge with the enthusiasm of the newly converted, we then allow them to enter massive bureaucratic organizations where they get lost and slowly return to being the people they once were.  We need to prevent that from happening and maintain the rigor and vigor which boot camp instills in young men and women.  What follows are a few painless organizational tweaks that can help reshape American military discipline.

Shape Behavior Through Meaningful Rewards

American youth understand rewards differently than do their elders.  A prime reason for the common lamentation among staff NCOs and officers of a certain age that “kids coming out of basic training just aren’t good enough anymore” is that the rewards offered by the military aren’t tailored for today’s youth, but rather for young Americans from the 1940s.  Although it is true that as a nation we are increasingly self-interested, undisciplined, and focused on short-term pleasures, today’s youth are also smarter, better educated, and more independent-minded than ever before.  If we aren’t getting what we want from younger service members, it’s at least partly because our system of punishment and rewards is broken.  They need tangible reasons to act the way they are supposed to, or they will simply slip back into old habits.

There are few rewards in the military commonly given to junior members which carry any value beyond that of public praise.  Although we might say that doing a job well done is inherently rewarding, most 18 and 19 year olds do not share that view.  Most see the  military as a stepping stone to other careers, meaning that if we do not actually provide rewards there is no real incentive for them to do more than “just good enough”.  Creating a reward structure that is actually meaningful to junior service members (hint: they really aren’t impressed by Certificates of Commendation) and encourages individual contributions to unit effectiveness would be an important step.

What we have currently is an “award structure” not a “reward structure” –ribbons and medals all have deep existential meaning for those of us who feel personally tied through tradition to the past and future communities of the military; but most young men and women have greater attachment and would be more encouraged by material rewards.  And indeed, in an “all-volunteer, professional military” it would make sense for us to incentivize performance with monetary rewards much as is done in the rest of society.  In fact, for the majority of history battlefield performance has been directly tied to monetary and material rewards through the accumulation of plunder, the granting of prizes, and the awarding of the titles, lands and property of the conquered to one’s loyal soldiers.  It was only in the late modern era, with its use of mass conscript armies motivated by patriotism or revolutionary zeal that rewards became bureaucratized into awards and the quotidian replaced by the symbolic. 

Obviously, I am not suggesting that we encourage the taking of booty on the battlefield – and arguably any sort of rewards for individual bravery on the post-modern battlefield is self-defeating – but certainly, at least in garrison, rewarding individuals and units who perform better than others is a wholly logical and American thing to do.  Pushing young Americans to do better and then rewarding them for their effort in a way they understand simply makes sense. Giving them not only the leadership and management skills to be effective military and civilian leaders, but also that responsibility, rather than emphasizing trade skills and the chance to get out early to go to college, is another. 

Decentralize Disciplinary Authority

In order to maintain discipline across large organizations, punishments must be available that can correct and reform the individual as well as deter others from making similar mistakes.  To do so, punishments must be logically tied to the offense, culturally acceptable, and either draconian in nature or delivered swiftly by someone intimately familiar with the culprit.  Unfortunately, the range of punishments available to the military and the level at which they can be assigned has shrunk considerably in recent times.  Preventing hazing and the abuse of power is important, but it is something that can be accomplished without hamstringing ourselves when it comes to correcting behavior. 

The punishments available to today’s leaders are almost entirely bureaucratic - delivered impersonally through paperwork by people not particularly familiar with the incident or the humans behind it and thus lacking in psychological force and emotional weight.  For example, punishment for insubordination or a failure in leadership - things which at one time would have been considered the very worst offenses a human could commit, but which are now dwarfed by things like public intoxication - generally requires documentation of a number of previous offenses before leaders can actually mete out the punishment.  This usually takes the form of restriction or loss of pay, to be delivered by a company or battalion commander who probably has never met the offender before.   

But why not let the man or woman who is directly responsible for the offending individual have a little greater leeway in imposing punishments before things get to the level where higher brass needs to be called in?  We need to relax the restrictions on what constitutes appropriate “extra military instruction” so that punishments are once again actually punishments and acknowledge that sometimes young people don’t learn unless they suffer a little boredom or sweat as a consequence of their actions. 

If we can trust a sergeant to lead twelve of his peers into battle, and hold him accountable for not only his actions but theirs as well and thus implicitly make him responsible for their life and death in situations which are far beyond his control, we should give him a little respect and let him assign a few extra hours of standing watch or peeling spuds when his men don’t behave.  Similarly, if a staff non-commissioned officer or lieutenant is to be trusted with perhaps forty or fifty lives and millions of dollars in equipment, it would make sense that he or she could perhaps take away some of their pay when they fail to accomplish assigned tasks or uphold standards.

Although standing tall before the man carries its own particular terrors, being punished by someone you don’t know in the form of having to initial a short stack of documents doesn’t offer much hope in reforming the individual or deterring others.   We have only a few punishments left and these can rarely be tied to any crime in either nature or severity - there are few meaningful punishments in between yelling at someone and ending their career in a flood of paperwork.  Further, rarely are serious punishments delivered by someone intimate with the offender - someone such as an NCO, Staff NCO, or junior officer.  A greater range of meaningful punishments need to be made available to junior leaders rather than forcing them to exercise disciplinary authority in the breech and “when the Sir isn’t looking.”

Maximize the Potential of Small Units by Expanding the SOF Model

Contemporary American military leaders pay constant lip service to the importance of small units, decentralized authority and junior leadership, but we don’t actually do much to establish it as part of the organizational structure and culture of the military.   This is a pity, because pushing down authority to small units not only allows one to react quicker to threats, make better decisions at an appropriate level, and leverage modern technology to its fullest potential; but it is at the small unit level that group identities, loyalties, and behavioral controls are most meaningfully created.   However, the hierarchical, stove-piped  organization of the services makes it very difficult to exploit these advantages.  Sure, there are thousands of squad or fire-team sized units in the military, but they are just cogs in a very large machine.  Think about it: outside of special operations units, the smallest units to have a stable identity and composition are battalions composed of several hundred soldiers.  Research shows that the largest groups that can effectively function as “teams”  ( a group in which the talents and assets of all individuals are combined to create a product greater than the sum of its parts) are composed of no more than 8-12 people.   Coincidentally, this happens to be the upper limits on the size of most SOF units.

As well as promising tactical benefits, permanently decentralizing authority to junior leaders and using small, squad sized units with a defined group identity and relatively stable composition will increase individual discipline and commitment to the larger unit.  Hyper-individualized American youths have no particular reason to feel compelled by the wants and needs of large organizations or higher leaders with whom they have no interaction.  But they care very much what their friends think, and the smaller the unit, the greater their share of the pain and the joy of responsibility.  It is only by bringing the weight of social pressure  and the logic of military necessary down to this very personal level that most youths will understand the importance of their position.  In a small, intimate unit, there is no place to hide from one’s peers and no where to run if ostracized.

Discipline as Communication: Make Sure You Teach the Correct Lessons

Discipline is the  most important way of communicating our values and our strategic thought to those who serve us.  Every act of discipline, be it punitive or salutary in nature, has symbolic value.  This symbolic value is the most important part of any policy or order.  Unfortunately, these messages are all to often either hidden or lost in translation.   What seems reasonable at the level of a battalion, regimental, or division commander does not seem reasonable to the average individual or it is not made to seem reasonable to the average individual.  This is not to say that we should put much stock in the normal grumblings and mutterings that comprise the majority of interpersonal communication between soldiers, however, we must pay closer attention to how our subordinates receive the unspoken messages that are part of every order and every policy we pass down.  It is not enough to simply pass on a command and “watch stuff happen.”  We need to ensure that our subordinates understand what goals and virtues the order is meant to communicate.

Let us take as an example the recent decision by the Marine Corps to make wearing the Service Bravo uniform mandatory on Fridays.  From a historical perspective, this may seem barely worth mentioning.  After all, it was a policy that had been in place for many years prior to Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom; all Marines are required to own the uniform and should be prepared to wear it; and, of course, Marines like to look good and it is indeed a sharp looking uniform.   Although these points were communicated to all Marines, the explicit message communicated by the writing of the order was not the same as the message that most Marines interpreted for themselves and their squad mates.  Instead of being seen as a healthy return to traditions of the service, the policy was interpreted as a final symbol that the Marine Corps was beginning the transition to a boring, peace-time military organization in which having freshly pressed trousers would be more important than operational effectiveness.  I heard innumerable Marines of all ranks say, “That’s it, I’m getting out. The party’s over.”   It is precisely these small perceived injustices that lead many good people to seek other career paths after exploring this one.  We must be more attuned to our subordinates and think more closely of the signals we send.  What if, instead of “Service Bravo Fridays,” it was “10 Mile Hump Fridays” or “Ground-fighting Fridays”?  There would certainly be at least as much grumbling, but it would be of a different timbre, and the ultimate message - that of a transition into a peace-time routine, a commitment to ensuring that physical standards are maintained and a refocusing of discipline across the entire force - would have been better understood. 

Conclusion: Get Ahead of the Curve

Effective organizations change to match the political and cultural contexts in which they are embedded and find ways to maintain high standards and output in the face of external pressures.  We need to start implementing organizational changes in the military in order to maintain the cultural separateness that makes us effective organizations.  Rather than try to at least match pace with the changing social environment, we are instead reactionary, constantly finding ourselves bludgeoned by Congress and public opinion over topics like the conduct of our soldiers and Marines on the battlefield, the inclusion of females in the combat arms, hazing, or any other bugbear of the moment.   We need to get ahead of the curve and begin reshaping our organizations to ensure we can continue to do our job: to protect Americans regardless of the political whims and social fads of the moment.

About the Author(s)

Evan Munsing is a Light Armored Reconnaissance Platoon Commander for the United States Marine Corps.  He was previously a subject matter expert on organizational theory for the National Defense University where he wrote about interagency military teams.  The views expressed here are solely his own and do not reflect the views of the United States Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.



Thu, 04/04/2013 - 4:32pm

I'm glad the drift of the comments is to try to come up with some positive corrections after the carping, rather than dump on the Louie for things like a title he was probably given (think--what's the liklihood that a younger guy out of college is going to get to give himself a title--subject matter specialist sure sounds DOD/NDU, and I bet some of the letter writers have had some impressive monikers they didn't choose themselves). The topic--disicpline--is increasingly important as the military gets recruits who are ever less exposed to discipline and working as a team. Then there's the other task he didn't address, working discipline when you're an advisor to foreign troops--like the ANA, or groups like the Afghan Police.
And yes, he's way over the top in suggesting Americans are unimaginative--when the rest of the world thinks we kick in thinking outside the box. Perhaps what he meant was that the public diaglogue on defense issues tends to be numbers driven with an occaisional dazzlement at new technology that causes us to spend a few hundred billions on things like the YF35 so that we can field few and be likely overwhelmed, or that we think that a handful of troops assisted by squadrons of drones can control chaos.
But that being said, with more being expected of the grunt, with less backup, and with increasingly complex operations like Afghanistan-in-drawdown, discipline and other basics tend to be overlooked while we are lurching from one theory of warfighting to another, so I think his thoughts are a useful starting point--and I don't get the idea he thinks they are more than that.
Hopefully, those letter writers with experience on the ground will expand their comments to talk about what they think will work, what doesn't, with today's intake youth and today's missions.
The suck will always be there, but mentorship by those that have gone before is better done through concrete thoughts rather than bellyaching abut titles and side issues, no matter how creative the carping has been.
For instance, those that have had to work with foreign troops as advisors, what would you say on the differing constructs that affect that relationship?
Given that some of the ANA shootings* of ISAF forces have apparently been sparked by bruised egoes, how do you work that discipline?
Look forward to your thoughts, especially if they are half as creative and stylish as the b-ll busting!
*forgive me, shootings by "people dressed in ANA uniforms."

The concept of decentralized authority is what makes junior NCOs the backbone of the Marine Corps and nothing more than glorified privates in the Army. However, there are still maturity issues among the NCO corps, myself included when I received my blood stripes shortly after I turned 21. Marine NCOs, especially freshly minted corporals, are known to abuse their power and hold grudges against what were recently their peers for real or perceived wrongdoings. This occasionally bleeds into the Staff NCO ranks, especially in the MOS fields with absurdly low cutting scores and rapid promotion. If you entrust NCOs with the ability to dock pay as punishment or reward with financial bonuses, you're inevitably going to see Marines robbed of hard earned pay or unjustly enriched by the infamous HABU (Hook a brother up) system. I can get on board with financial rewards for a job well done, but it will have to be awarded on a competitive basis by commissioned officers with several degrees of separation from the recipient. There is already enough abuse in the doling out of Navy Achievement Medals and recommendations to meritorious boards to admin types for simply doing their job and being the cute new PFC.

Vitesse et Puissance

Mon, 03/25/2013 - 12:46pm

I smell the vapors of Theory X and Theory Y here. Soldiers and Marines like Theory X. It is simple, clear and makes the officer or NCO responsible. The key problem, now as before, is how to infuse Theory Y values - motivation, initiative, energy, innovation - into a Theory X culture. The truth about 18 year olds is they thing they know everything, and the difference between what they think they know and what they actually know can get them killed. Awards, reward, shmewards, whatever. The best thing you can do is the very Pavlovian procedure of praising good performance in excess, but sincerity, and criticizing bad performance with equal fervor and integrity.


Mon, 03/25/2013 - 10:36am

Setting aside any claims or assertions about someone's subject matter expertise, it is a thought-provoking article by a younger warfighter; that is why this peice is of value. Admittedly, I almost stopped readng when the author claimed that as Americans we have no imagination, etc... however, after consideration I can accept that experiences might have pushed him to that point of view. (The author revisiting his SOF sources and references may give him reason and desire to revise this statement.)

In the bigger picture, how do we use the strengths of youth to overcome bureaucracy and stagnant thought? How do we adapt the mentoring process to effectively guide and develop younger warfighters and the younger planners and policy-makers that will chart their course. Perhaps the question that really needs to be addressed is 'do we adjust military values or do we find a way to make military values appealing... make them the preferred choice'? Senior leaders (Officers and NCOs) need to figure out how to inspire and challenge in-spite of the bureaucracy and institutionalized thinking we may have come to know.

Getting the military re-focused on objectives and realities will result from small groups of innovative thinkers coming together to provide the answers, and energy, necessary to overwhelm the current bureaucratic and self-interested constructs. Then, if hard-won change is to endure, the emphasis will need to shift in order to defeat creation of the next bureaucracy-in-the-making.

G Martin

Sun, 03/24/2013 - 11:02pm

I'm always interested in organizational theory articles- since I agree the military has some serious organizational issues. The main problem I see with most, however, are that they jump to solutions without really identifying what the problem is. If the problem is grounded in our culture- and is fundamental to the institution- then I'd wager solutions relying on common sense won't solve anything. I submit the problem isn't that we ignore common sense or that our leaders aren't focusing on the right thing. Instead, it is possible that our institution is the problem.

But, even if that is right, the solution still remains elusive. Changing our institution is difficult, if not impossible. Institutional obstacles coming from emergent forces are best changed by revolution in my understanding. Revolutionary change doesn't necessarily happen from the top-down or when or how one wants.

No, instead I'd rather our thinkers touch on the subject of what to do in this very problematic environment. Let's assume we can't change- or at least that our leaders can't make that kind of change happen. What do we do then? One may have to assume that most of the effectiveness of the organization will come from self sacrifice at the lower levels. Articles may have to focus on those types- guys that won't stay in until 20- or those that will get out at 20. What kinds of things should they focus on in order to make mission without running afoul of the institutional guardians of the status quo?

Hubba Bubba

Mon, 03/25/2013 - 8:45am

In reply to by stalkerromeo


I am unsure if you are defending the article, to which you provided no feedback, or the philosophy of a muppet from a science fiction movie?

There are no problems with thought pieces, particularly from paradigm-breakers- who tend to be younger folks seeking deep understanding and are willing to question the institution.

My problem is when a thought piece lacks 'thought.'

It isn't anti-ZEN. It is anti-JUNK.

Hubba Bubba


Sun, 03/24/2013 - 4:25am

Hubba Bubba, it becomes clear from your criticism of the great zen master Yoda that you don't appreciate the zen koan's value in troop leading procedures. For instance...

"When one zen student asked his master what enlightenment was, his master pushed him off the porch into a puddle of mud. The student picked himself up and laughed. The master smiled and said 'There you go'."

As a junior enlisted-man, I have learned a lot about the intangibles of mud and sweat through that koan. Thought pieces, especially by junior leaders, hold a value beyond academic logic. They are in the finest traditions of the warrior poet, the Samurai, and the Zen Monk. These were men who tried to understand, not just quantify and parse through inscrutable logic, the world they inhabited. Leadership and discipline is an art that is best approached through what amounts to artistic criticism instead of the anti-zen logic you show such an affinity for.

Hubba Bubba

Sat, 03/23/2013 - 2:06pm

Gosh- I just do not know where to start on this one.

How about the bio: self –appointing yourself as a Subject Matter Expert on Organizational Theory only is valid if it is true. I did some quick Google searching on the author’s name and “organizational theory” and came up with nothing. I did find a thesis on how High-value Target Teams are an “Organizational Innovation.” Now, that is great that the author had that one work published- but does that make him a subject matter expert in the field? Surely, we all cannot be SMEs if we had an article published or our thesis printed?

In my humble opinion, true organizational theory SMEs are widely published and cited often by their peers in other organizational theory articles, and generally do not need to self-appoint this title in their biography because it is already implied. Consider Dr. Mary Jo Hatch for example. She is widely cited in organizational theory; I consider her an "SME" on Organizational Theory- as do her peers.

Additionally, the author in this single work I could find also stated in the bio for that one that he is a subject matter expert. Thus, he was an SME before that first article got out- so what prior to that exists that establishes such a status in the organizational theory field? I suppose we create our own socially constructed realities anyway, so I will from henceforth refer to myself as Hubba Bubba, Subject Matter Expert on poorly constructed articles posted at Small Wars Journal.

On this article: the logic is, well, just awful. The implied universalization that all of us can be categorized within the many bold, and poorly substantiated musings in here reflects a neo-positivist, categorical, an reductionist paradigm; are we all trapped with the author in this web of linear causality or is he unable to critically recognize his paradigm trap and creatively break away from it? Let me offer an example and then use it to dismantle the article using the first paragraph.
Remember Yoda from Star Wars? He said such wise, cool things, right?

Well, he really didn’t- he said empty things that, when critically examined, are both illogical and ludicrous. Remember the whole “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” That sounds pretty bad-ass, right? I used to think so when I was a kid...but then I read some books and now I am not so sure. Owing this gem to the great philosopher Harry Plinket (, you can easily substitute other inter-related words into that quote to demonstrate how meaningless it is-

“Hunger is the path to the road of obesity. Hunger leads to weakness. Weakness leads to sadness. Sadness leads to stuffing your face with bon-bons.” Or,

“Love is the path to true happiness. Love leads to passion. Passion leads to romance. Romance leads to joy.”

You can string along any group of inter-related words and bam! You have junk-logic. Now on to this essay and why it bugs me. It is riddled with junk-logic:

“As Americans, we are practical and unimaginative people, and our discussions of national defense reflect our love of numbers and hard facts: we focus on things like budgetary requirements, troop numbers, what hardware can be bought or designed and what the newest technology promises. But high technology is neither a stable nor enduring character of war. It is men who fight wars, not budgets or weapons, and it is the organization of the military that binds men together and gives them the purpose, common language and coherency of action that can turn political will into reality. Failing to maintain the organizational discipline of the military is far more problematic than failing to keep in lockstep with the latest technological offerings.”

For starters, who the heck thinks that generalizing Americans as practical and unimaginative is a good way to lead off an intellectual debate on organizational theory? Perhaps this is what a subject matter expert does?
Men fight wars, not budgets or weapons. That is true; Men also make bowel movements on the can, not newspapers or my morning cup of coffee (although they both are part of the ritual...).

More junk-logic: failing to maintain discipline is worse than failing to keep up with technology. Well, does discipline matter more than technology? I don’t know- why don’t we ask the Zulu, the Comanche, or perhaps the Taliban on that one...

For argument’s sake- I would say that an article not riddled with junk-logic that spews like a string of Yoda quotes would not be suseptable to the following exercise. Let’s take the first paragraph here, and just change out all the key phrases with a compelling argument on the failing Hostess Cupcake Factory. If the paragraph delivers the same logic, meaning, and arguement- well, we then might have a junk-logic essay on our hands here.

“As consumers of cupcakes, we are hungry and happy people, and our discussions of cupcakes and junk-food reflects our love of nutritional numbers and hard facts on diets: we focus on things like weekly shopping budgets, carbohydrates versus fat servings, what diet plans can be bought or designed and what the newest eating fad promises. But diet fads are neither a stable nor enduring character of our food economy. It is people, who choose what tastes good, not flashy packaging or cartoon commercials, and it is the organization of the Hostess Cupcake Factory that binds us as consumers together and gives us the sugary treat, shared emotional attachment to a product, and coherency of snack message that can turn commercial dreams of profit into reality. Failing to maintain the quality discipline of the Hostess Cupcake Factory is far more problematic than failing to keep in lockstep with the latest food production trends, as a good cupcake is hard to find when times are a changing.”

Okay- I modified the end of the last sentence to hook the title back in (relying on my subject matter expertise in junk-logic articles posted at SWJ, of course). But my point is that the article is largely empty- such bold assertions about Americans and what we do with our military are just cast out there, as if they are facts. Unlike swallowing cupcakes, which tend to be rather delicious, I have a hard time with the article when the first paragraph becomes such a poorly constructed, fascinatingly junk-logic ridden structure upon which the author builds his transparent argument. The rest of the essay reads the same; all Yoda, no cream filling.

Hubba Bubba
(did I mention I was a subject matter expert already?)


Fri, 03/22/2013 - 12:52pm

Your opening paragraphs are right on target. If enough leaders come to the same conclusion about the interaction of general society and martial society, we might yet have a meaningful dialogue about why those of us in uniform must often choose between an idiosyncratic social caste, or segregate our selves away from general society so we can play soldier in our provincial towns.

This is a great thought piece, offering meaningful starting points in addition to laying out the problem. And to be clear, this combat arms officer does believe discipline to be a real problem service-wide. While stud and dud units exist everywhere, our general martial culture is a smattering of empty ritual and anachronism. It shouldn't be up to elite units to make up for this with esprit de corps. Esprit de corps should be icing on an already healthy cake.

dos pesos


Fri, 03/22/2013 - 9:57am

I'll be gentle with my criticism, but suffice to say, you'll come to reconsider points one and two when you start dealing with your first Congressional and IG complaints. Trust me on this one.