Has the military become a cult?

Answering that question depends what you think a cult is.

The magazine Wired has produced a number of fascinatingly good articles and videos with interesting stories, and one of this weeks YouTube videos hit the mark yet again. Dr. Janja Lalich is a survivor of a political cult, the Democratic Workers Party, and she answers a number of cult-related questions in her video. Her responses are both focused and enlightening.

Dr. Lalich defines a cult as having 4 characteristics

  1. A charismatic leader that is typically a narcissist
  2. A transcendent belief system that has the answers to all questions
  3. A System of Control that controls behavior
  4. A System of Influence that plays on emotions to encourage conformity

Dr. Lalich also separates cults from religion in that religions encourage freedom and independent thought while having guidelines to live by, whereas cults enforce their guidelines.

Given her definition, let’s see how today’s military stacks up:

  • The charismatic leader part is a mixed bag. On one hand, the glitz and glamor that many of the flag and general officers decorate themselves in definitely contributes to a feeling of awe for these people. However, many of them aren’t very charismatic or engaging. The narcissist trait is definitely present in the military’s worst leaders.
  • The transcendent belief system is spot on. The military has a set of rules for everything. Haircuts? Check. Restrictions on your first amendment rights? Check. Poke-mon Go? Check.
  • Control is achieved through the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which can still punish offenses like adultery and conduct unbecoming of a gentlemen that aren’t considered offenses in most civilian systems.
  • Influence is achieved through awards, assignments, and promotions. If you conform with the rules and stay out of trouble, you tend to promote.

3.5 out of 4 is pretty close. The only questionable point is leadership, and that doesn’t surprise me. Every time I’ve had a bad military leader, military life felt oppressive. Dr. Lalich talks about how all people have doubts when they are in a cult, but they get put on a shelf. If too much builds on the shelf, it collapses.

I think shelves are now starting to collapse in bigger numbers than before. The military has the setup to become a cult, and it is only good leadership that prevents this from happening. But military leaders continue to get put in hard circumstances. How do you explain the Afghanistan withdrawal to your soldiers? Or the poor maintenance our ships receive at a shipyard to your Sailors? Or how almost nobody was fired for massive scandals like the mismanagement of Arlington National Cemetery? You simply can’t, and young people asking hard, pointed questions won’t be satisfied by the bland responses from a Pentagon press secretary.

At some point, the good people get tired and leave, making way for those all too happy to defend the status quo. We’re seeing that happening now. The vocal ones, like Lt. Col. Scheller, make the news, but quietly, we’re going to see more and more people simply walk. The military is designed to replace people. The Marines will find another person to fill Lt. Col. Scheller’s spot. The person will at least be adequate, but anyone taking that roll is going to think twice about speaking out or showing too much independence.

That lack of independent thought will make the military stick to what it knows. We shouldn’t be surprised that the military is slow to embrace ideas like autonomous vessels, AI and robotic fighters. When you’re the best, or at least you think you are, you keep doing what was done in the past. Thus, it shouldn’t surprise people that the Navy still uses an antiquated program designed in 1998 to administer personnel reports, instead of moving to a secure cloud based system, or at least something resembling Microsoft Word.

We will eventually pay dearly for these mistakes, even if it isn’t so obvious now.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency. If you want an epic story to read in the meantime, please check out my book on Amazon.