“…these Americans are achieving the same effects our adversaries aim to achieve…”– Briefing to HASC, April 2022
In many of my conversations over the past week, a few important themes have emerged and among them is the question about malign influence in the military. Our DoD leadership is concerned about the effects that influence campaigns and misinformation are having on good order and discipline within the establishment. While these threats are a reality, the attention placed on them also deflects focus away from an issue having much more of a profound impact on readiness now: systemic retribution and reprisal of its own members. The military institution’s emphasis on combatting external malign influence, while well-intentioned, is also hypocritical in that:
1) It continues to be apathetic towards the more present and pressing issue of its own Americans abusing, alienating, and disenfranchising their “teammate” Americans, and,
2) In doing so, it, as is so often the case, demonstrates how quick it is to assess blame on external threats, whilst refusing to look inward and accept culpability itself.
In April 2022, I provided a briefing to HASC Vice Chair Representative Elaine Luria regarding the reports I published the month prior on toxicity and abuses occurring in the Defense Intelligence Agency. The report was a collation of 70 witness accounts alleging a swath of wrongdoings including discrimination, harassment, violations of the Intelligence Oversight act, and endangerment of lives. The main theses of the briefing shown in the final slide was:
“The toxic and abusive culture within DIA is a threat to national security because the civilian cabal within the DAS, and likely in other places throughout DIA, is achieving the very effects that our adversaries aim to achieve: alienating and disenfranchising our intelligence personnel while disrupting and degrading operations.”
I summated the briefing as such because the abuses I and others witnessed, or were victims of, in DIA had nothing to do with Chinese propaganda or Russian misinformation or hackers or terrorists. These acts were carried out by Americans on Americans while a complicit chain of command and inept Inspector General spectated, and, in some cases, actively participated in the abuses. Careers were derailed, lives were upended and valuable talent which the military finds itself now unable to replace, bled out of the service. And despite the resultant mission degradation, DIA leadership and its IG didn’t bat an eye. The question for me at the time was: were they the exception or the rule in the DoD at-large?
I chose to revisit that April 2022 HASC briefing this past weekend because the same theme of ‘American fratricide’ is rearing its ugly head again, only this time, it isn’t limited to just the Defense Intelligence Agency. After having several dozen conversations and reading several other recounts this week about what has transpired in the military over the past two years, one issue is becoming clear: Americans throughout the DoD have inflicted wound after wound on their own people and the Americans who are being victimized are those who served with honor and integrity, only to be later capriciously abused, ostracized or coerced/forced out of the service. And while we hemorrhage talent from the services, the institution either ignores this inconvenient ugly truth, or blames some exogenous scapegoat such as “external influence campaigns.” As for the mission degradation this has had and will have in the future – for that, China and Russia didn’t even need to lift a finger.
Compounding factors: Lacking transparency, lacking a grasp on reality?
If it has not already been conveyed explicitly, I will here: opacity breeds mistrust. And in the land of opaque, the DoD hails as King. There is also this compounding phenomenon I’ve observed that as scrutiny of the military institution increases, so too does their willingness to be transparent which thereby widens the trust gap – usually at a critical juncture in which it needs closing. I have seen this happen on a micro level with nearly every IG investigation: the investigation is carried out under a shroud of secrecy, then months or years later out pops a generic “your complaint was unsubstantiated – if you’d like to contest the findings, you may FOIA the report and file an appeal.” The complainant subsequently requests the Report of Investigation and months/years later, it comes back heavily redacted (usually, overly so), and is veritably unusable for any purpose of appeal. The ultimate result: the existent trust gap in the military grows by yet one more person. You can identify a number of other examples of this lack of transparency playing out in the military today and the result is this: the DoD is not helping itself in its “hearts and minds campaign” against misinformation or malign influence by its, oftentimes inexplicable, lack of transparency. Further, when the military institution attempts to pin the blame on something other than itself, when it itself is so blatantly the culprit as is the case of the failed IG system, it only backfires and erodes trust in the institution even more.
Gen Z and the armed forces
I would like to offer a hypothesis that the generation of Americans coming into the military do not generally respond well to the “that’s just how it’s going to be!” rationales we oftentimes heard in the military as Gen X’ers. In essence, Gen Z needs to be sold on an idea before they can be bought in. If you are reading this and yelling at the screen, “but it’s the military!” I don’t disagree with you; however, I would argue that you also have to strike a balance with the people you are enlisting – after all, you want to attract and retain them, something the military is undeniably failing at currently. In this respect, you have to consider the wants/needs/psyche of the generation of youth you are bringing in to the military – what they respond to, what they don’t, what makes the military an attractive career to them, and what repels them from it. Is it then a huge leap to say that Gen Z is turned off by how the institution carries and presents itself (and thusly treats its young enlistees)? Is it also a leap to say that the military institution hasn’t made that connection and its recruiting and retention is suffering from it? Again, I return to malign influence and misinformation…is Gen Z ‘misinformed,’ willfully or otherwise, by external actors, or is it possible that they are well-informed of the dysfunction and corruption afflicting our military institution and that is what repulses them from military service?