How to keep a shift from becoming a rift

Book Review: How to keep a shift from becoming a rift

Two new books from two different publishers offer two distinctively written looks at how and why the U.S. military and U.S. citizens face a cultural conundrum that threatens the future of a traditionally reliable and resilient armed force.

Said future is now, whether the Pentagon and the American people fully realize the challenge.
Now, the pair of authors say, is the time for all good mentors to come to the aid of their country’s service members and to the aid of the monolithic organization whose job is to command – and to support – the people who serve.

The two military-affiliated authors speak not as fanatics but as educated and rational citizens, one married to an Army chaplain and one wearing a Marine Corps uniform. Their experiences are diverse yet their conclusions are similar:

The military-intellectual complex needs to keep up with culture inside and outside the Pentagon.

Why is there a lag, a gap, in understanding?

The military failed twice, says the spouse. “Its leaders mistakenly assumed the {military} culture would blindly follow and adapt to large-scale change indefinitely …” 

Second, the military believed “they could skip the important step of understanding their own culture, which would have led to the communication of vision and value to the culture it professed to depend on.”

Essentially, the Department of Defense (DOD) overlooked what E.M. Forster advises in his novel “Howards End” – “Live in fragments no longer. Only connect.”

Today the fragments within DOD are more fragmented, a situation that allows fewer connections and more missed chances to communicate convincingly, person to person.

“The reason the U.S. military is the most powerful force ever assembled isn’t our superior technology or amazing training,” says the active-duty Marine. “It’s our diverse people from our diverse nation.” During the last two decades, the discourse among the diverse is mired.

Here’s the situation report – and here are plans for action.

What the titles mean

  – “Military Culture Shift: The Impact of War, Money, and Generational Perspective on Morale, Retention and Leadership” by Corie Weathers says it all and alludes to the breadth and depth of her astute history (and how it evolved) and assessment. “

The main title, “Military Culture Shift,” could use a verb and does not convey the sensitivity and grace with which Weathers presents her narrative, which is professional and personal, often eloquent, and always clear – especially given subject matter such as sequestration.

– “We Don’t Want You, Uncle Sam: Examining the Military Recruiting Crisis with Generation Z” by Michael Weiss says it all, also, referring to the “crisis” of how to persuade an entire generation, including the author’s, to serve in the armed forces.

The title is a twist on the World War I enlistment slogan “Uncle Sam Wants You” and reflects the tone and the straightforward style of the book that is a worthy expansion to one slice of the challenges presented in Weathers’ study.

Do the authors know what they're talking about?

Weathers is a licensed counselor, a military spouse, the mother of two teenagers, the author of “Sacred Spaces and Authentic Stories: My Journey to the Heart of Military Marriage” (2016) and has degrees from Gardner-Webb University and Asbury Theological Seminary. “For the last 15 years I’ve had the privilege to do life work, work alongside, and study the very tribe I live in.”

Weiss holds two degrees including an M.B.A. from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and worked in “mergers and acquisitions” at a defense technology firm before commissioning. He is a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps, he’s 25 years old, and he knows the Gen Z territory. And yes, he disclaims: “The views presented are solely those of the author.”

What's the authors intent?

Weathers: To show how two decades of a compilation of “wicked” problems such as war (including the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan), a pandemic, climate change, financial quandaries at the Department of Defense and the stress of relentless service are affecting how and why the U.S. military organization doesn’t always work.

The plus? Weathers suggests remedies and tries to “present a narrative to help you develop empathy for the people involved.” Few act with malice in mind.

“My fear, and my reason behind telling this vast and complicated story, is that we are on the verge of losing the loyalty, passion and talent we have built over two decades because we were so focused on the cake and hoped the numbers would naturally be there when we turned around.”

Caveat: The story she chooses to tell is indeed vast – but Weathers uncomplicates things.

Weiss: His goal is “diagnosing and solving a real and serious issue facing our nation. No political party or agenda or group or mindset or ideology on either side will be pandered to … It’s time we actually start putting in work and coming together to build a better future.”

In order to “analyze the difficulties of recruiting Zoomers and propose a variety of interventions aimed at getting my generation to serve in uniform,” he presents enough ideas to fill 240 pages. At Officer Candidate School his “toughest drill instructor” suggested he leave the Corps better than when he entered it. “I promised I would. This is my attempt to fulfill that promise.”

He says “no D.C. politician or big brass general seems to have the correct solutions to his problem. So I reasoned that one lost Gen-Z lieutenant, describing his own modern life thoughts, may shed light on what we’re search for.”

Are the authors successful?

Weathers: Yes.Think of her book as a nuanced, empathetic explanation of how we got to this point, what we can learn from being here, and how we can use the opportunity to improve. The message is dire but the delivery is soothing.

Weiss: Yes. Think of his book as resource, a sounding board of ideas for how to recruit and retain Gen Z – and other generations – in innovative ways that require an open mind. The proposals often are outside regulations, which is what makes them worthy of attention.

We the people

Weathers: “There is no mission without the trust and loyalty of people. Lose that and the mission will fail. The mission begins with people.”

Weiss: “We may have all the advanced weaponry and the latest technology our great innovators have to offer, but without warfighters, it is useless.”

Do D.E.I. or DIE

Weathers: “Millennials, but especially Gen Z, need and respect open dialogue about incongruence, discrepancies, and dissonance … They have something to teach us about accepting the vulnerability of our humanity if we are willing to listen.”

Weiss: Diversity, equity and inclusion each constitute “a separate Gen Z demand for their workplace and larger society … We must actively seek out diversity in the groups that are least represented but have large recruiting pools …

“The military is ultimately cut from many different clothes but wears the same unifying one to work every day… Recognizing, understanding and accepting each other’s differences isn’t some ‘woke’ social experiment; instead, it’s the best way forward.”

Occupational specialties

Weathers: “The military culture will thrive again when the people thrive … but until we are honest and willing to get our own house in order, the military will not have a competitive advantage over the civilian marketplace.”

Weiss: Special operations, for example, is “a natural draw for a generation that doesn’t want to sit around climbing a massively large corporate ladder. Instead, we’d rather use some new technology to pole vault up a mini-stool.”

Among several, a memorable quote

Weathers: “The military community … uses phrases like ‘we chose this lifestyle’ or ‘embrace the suck,’ even though the circumstances maybe unhealthy, undesirable or even dysfunctional. It is often easier to pacify our gut reaction that something is wrong rather than face the overwhelming task of trying to change the situation.”

Weiss: “We’re facing a more powerful and larger threat than anything we’ve dealt with in decades. That should scare the living Sierra Hotel India Tango out of every American.”

News you can use

Weathers: In addition to the insightful considerations in the narrative, she offers at least 15 pages of “Leadership Tips and Questions” that are useful anyone who deals with other humans.

Weiss: The Gen Z guy offers myriad ways to involve Gen Z in finding solutions to the Gen Z recruiting crisis. His effort makes sense. “A cornerstone argument I make here is that only older decision-makers, who are far too detached from the root problems, are tasked with solving it.”

What an editor might suggest

Weathers: The phrase “it is common” is easier to grasp than “it is not uncommon.”  Also, perhaps future editions can include an index.

Weiss: The vague adjectives “unique and “various” are not helpful descriptions. 

The last words

Weathers: “My hope is that we do not repeat what we just endured … We cannot take advantage of humans without weighing the cost. They will give as much as they are given and will care as much as they are cared for.”

Weiss: If Gen Z is “induced to have the propensity to serve, then one day nobody would have to say, ‘Thank you for your service.’

“This would instead change to ‘Thank you for letting me serve.”

Other Reading

Weathers twice mentions “The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny (1997),” which makes this reviewer think the book is worth checking out. Meanwhile – in fiction – your reviewer recommends playwright Wil Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

West Point professor Elizabeth D. Samet’s “Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness” is a smart look at how culture continues to present a sentimentalized and mythological view of World War II.

Military Culture Shift: The Impact of War, Money, and Generational Perspective on Morale, Retention and Leadership” by Corie Weathers, Elva Resa, 352 pages, $35

We Don’t Want You, Uncle Sam: Examining the Military Recruiting Crisis with Generation Z” by Matthew Weiss, Night Vision, 240 pages, $15

Huffman’s book reviews received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He is the board chair of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Marine Corps University Press, 2012).