The Military's Overlooked Brain Trust

As the debate over the best course of action to take in Afghanistan heightened last week, I was in a unique setting to consider the implications. As part of a workshop on media and the military at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, I was one of about 25 journalists who were given the opportunity to experience the military, meet soldiers, and even get a taste of life "inside."

The resounding message from Army leadership? "We've changed."

From the highest levels on down, the officers seem to genuinely want to create a military that reflects 21st-century thinking on communications, organizational psychology, and even holistic health. (Unfortunately, the Army is still light years behind in understanding gender dynamics.) Officer after officer used words like "collaborate" and metaphors like "fuel change."

We were told that the Command & General Staff College, the "intellectual center of the army," now counts blogging, engaging with the media, and public speaking among its graduation requirements. The Army's old public-affairs curmudgeons used to grumble, "Loose lips sink ships." The new strategic communication officers exclaim with infomercial-like zeal, "We want to foster a culture of engagement!"

For all of the military's recognition that our broader communications environment has changed drastically, it has yet to enact similar changes when it comes to internal communications. Namely, communication within the Army is still a one-way, top-down affair. All of the blogging and public speaking in the world won't make the military better if it won't foster a "culture of engagement" with its own soldiers -- at all levels.

The Army boasts about its intention to train "agile and adaptive leaders who are creative and critical thinkers," but there is still no mechanism by which those who make the orders listen to those who follow them. Soldiers, even at surprisingly high ranks, are trained to see the trees, not the forest. They are conditioned to not talk back or question the wisdom of those in authority. Questions like "Is the war on terror 'win-able?'" or even "What are our limitations as a foreign army in places like Afghanistan and Iraq?" are rarely asked -- at least not out loud -- by the rank and file. Soldiers are socialized to believe that they should leave the big-picture thinking to the people who make the big bucks.

But if you sit down to talk with many of the soldiers, as I did last week, you will find that they have varied insights and vast moral imagination to bring to bear on the challenges we're now facing. Take Maj. Brian Heverly, a military policeman from northern Pennsylvania, who told me colorful stories about his three tours of duty in Afghanistan: rebuilding schools, drinking tea for hours on end in the blazing sun with community elders, and stumbling on a ton of hashish in the dark of night. "The challenge ahead is interagency cooperation," he explained. "For years we were all playing a different tune. Now we've at least got the same sheet music."

In the next breath, however, Heverly told me that moral questions and big-picture strategy aren't his area of expertise. Soldiers are still taught to talk only about "what they know." The enduring authoritarian structure and culture of the Army -- and the entire military for that matter -- leaves precious resources like Heverly sharing these stories and thoughts at the gym with buddies or at the pub, not playing a role in influencing policy.

The United States military is a $651.2 billion operation -- the largest part of the federal budget. What's more, 4,349 American soldiers have been killed and 31,501 have been wounded to date in the war in Iraq. That kind of funding, that kind of loss of life, demands the kind of "engagement" -- to use the Army's favorite new word -- from every member of its organization.

I asked many soldiers, "Why did you join the military?" and every single one gave some version of the answer "To find purpose." Sometimes it was also to escape abuse. Sometimes it was for economic or educational opportunity. But always, at its most basic level, these young people were looking for meaning in their life. They want to matter.

They deserve to be encouraged, not just in lip service but also in real life, to contribute to a dialogue about our military policy. Putting one's life on the line, after all, should include some very deep forethought and spiritual reckoning, not just fear or adrenaline. These soldiers deserve an opportunity to analyze the big picture. Instead, they are broken down by hoarse drill sergeants, trained to scream, "Hoo haa, I want to kill somebody!" as they stab their bayonets into old tires, and conditioned to follow orders instead of their own moral compass.

Where is the "creative and critical thinking" in that?