A Little Tribal Overlap

I have a theory that service-members of my generation and later are less likely to accept the premise that their military identity is an exclusive one. Many of my enlisted and commissioned peers consider themselves to be equally members of other tribes and communities–not just as a matter of personal perspective, but as a fact easily facilitated by having lived a majority of their lives actively online. Consequently, they naturally recognize that in that overlap between tribes there is the added power of diversification and added diversity. This is an advantage that our institutions should bear in mind, but which many still stubbornly refuse to learn.

It follows logically that these anti-establishment, radical youths are also unwilling to accept the demand that they cut themselves off from others. I see ranting and raving from ‘olds’ in response to this, often amounting to monologues on the merits of deprivation and solitude, as little more than their “raging against the dying of the light”. It is their right to rage as they grow gradually less relevant, and the last echoes of their ravings can be their legacy for all I care. Those leaders who learn to understand the new generations and leverage their significant strengths in new future contexts are the ones who stay relevant; and relevance is a particularly important attribute for anyone who hopes to lead.

I see consistency with these trends in recent challenges to long-standing conventions about whether military identity takes supremacy over our roles as spouses, parents, and family members. I can tell you that I, for one, do not accept (without significant caveat) the tenet of “service before self”. I think that simply because the military demands something of me does not automatically mean the demand is worthy of my or my family’s sacrifice. This likely sounds absurd to my selfless, service-minded forebears. I am perhaps less service-minded than I am values-minded; perhaps it’s a product of growing up in a world where ideas matter more than identities. In virtual agoras bustling with blossoming ideas like Reddit, your words are your identity. Tribalistic affiliations mean less. They shape how users experience the world, perhaps not so much how the world experiences them…

So, as a modern, values-minded individual, rather than simply accepting a prolonged family separation as a matter of course, I could feel fully in my right to ask questions of proportionality. For example, are we hurting my family for a deployment? Is it to fill an urgent need? Is this simply because the idiot assignment system thinks it’s my turn to PCS into a specific billet, and the other idiot assignment system thinks my family can’t come with? Would others gladly go in my stead? I believe we could all be a little more values-minded around inevitable issues of conflicting identities.

If you tell me to jump, I will say “How High?”… most of the time, sure, because norm-enforcing gatekeepers can be so attached to my obedience that they’re willing to punish me for caring too much about the value of my time. But if you tell me to jump thousands of miles from the ones I love, to leave them to fend for themselves for a period lasting between 6 months and 3 years; there’s a decent chance I’m going to ask for a goddamn explanation before I get busy lacing my boots.

I am not an enlisted member of the US Air Force at the expense of other identities. I am a husband, a father, and one of only two caregivers for a profoundly disabled teenage girl. I am a writer, a musician, a terrible poet, and much more; and all these other elements of who I am are strengths that I bring to my service. Yet I find myself often needing to aggressively negotiate the balance between who I am and what is demanded of me, and so many leaders focus only on ensuring that my military identity has primacy.

It’s not enough to simply allow your people to have personal lives and identities if they really fight for it. We are made stronger if you ensure that they do so. Uniformity, contrary to popular misconceptions, does not make the military stronger. It makes us weak and reduces our collective resilience, as does the cultivation of any mono-culture.

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