A few thoughts on cynicism

I recently lamented on not having read the piece on SOF cynicism sooner.

From Small Wars Journal:

After 20 years of teaching SOF O3s and O4s at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), what struck me hardest was that students weren’t just willing to openly acknowledge that they were cynical, but their cynicism didn’t seem to faze them.  Instead, they were quite accepting of it. 

CYNICISM: A brief look at a troubling topic | Small Wars Journal

There are articles that show up in Small Wars Journal from time to time that strike a chord. They’re a slow burn, seeping through the force. This happened much more frequently a decade ago when we were mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, and intelligent and dedicated men and women were looking for a way – any way – to win.

There’s so much more content out there these days – great articles can easily be over-looked or lost.

The SOF cynicsm article was posted in the middle of February, and as readers of my newsletter will know, I was otherwise occupied, so I initially missed this.

I finally read it over the weekend and was thoroughly pleased. It captures, I think, a real trend – a growing cynicism, especially among SOF officers making the move into the field grade ranks.

It is something I’ve noticed, and tried my best not to fall victim to. Until I read the article, I chalked up most of the cynicism to generational differences. And I still think that may be the case, but not so much due to just age – but to military experiences.

The thing that strikes me, though, is that the author shows a lot of data for even more senior officers (O5 and above) demonstrating a similar cynicism.

I don’t have too much to add to the piece – the author does a good job weaving experience and data together and laying it out in a compelling way.

However, I was struck by the cross-over between cynicism and toxic mentorship.

What is stoking this cynicism?

If, meanwhile, you were to ask defense intellectuals and others familiar with the military for their take on what has stoked cynicism recently, most would likely cite: the ‘forever’ nature of today’s wars; the lack of consistent policy; the lack of an overall strategy; the ground hog day nature of deployments; and/or time away from family.  I do not want to minimize any of these, since they have been among officers’ concerns, too, but I would now say that what overarches everything else is loss of faith in senior leaders.  Senior leaders’ inability to change – or to seem to want to change – how (and for whom) systems internal to the military work is corrosively demoralizing.

First, it is always easy to blame the “forever wars” on whatever administrative “garrison” problem we face. This same thing happened in the late 2000s as the Army was studying what was causing the rise in military suicides. The common line and working hypothesis was that it must be the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all of the trauma and separation that comes with repeat deployments. The studies, however, showed a different picture. The majority of suicides (that were included in the study) were from soldiers who had never deployed or had a single deployment. Despite the data, this myth persists. And in fairness, one of the findings was that “perhaps it’s not being deployed so much as being in a war during a high-stress period.” That is, being in the military during the “forever wars” might be the grinder – not so much the deployments.

I commend the author for not falling for that old myth and going deeper. The crux of her article is precisely that – it may be the unique and ever-present demands on SOF that drives some of this cynicism.

“Isn’t cynicism being a realist?”

A response from an interviewed officer

No. Perhaps the most grating thing about modern cynicism is couching it as some kind of elevated expertise.

“There is no measure of accuracy for what is reported.” To which someone added, “maybe that’s why it is called a storyboard.”

A short back and forth on “metrics”

I loved the portion of the essay that featured snippets from interviews. I feel like I’m in that room, where one officer is lamenting at the seeming absurdity and inaccuracy of the modern storyboard, a snapshot of an event or mission that is often used to inform higher headquarters of what is going on. The other officer snaps back with a snarky – but true – reply. It’s easy to grow cynical about storyboards – and any military reporting, really. There’s a purpose for most of the things that are done, and part of the problem is a growing belief – as inidicated through the article – that those that are closer to the fight always know better than higher headquarters. See below.

In fact, as one widely revered (now retired) O6 and former CJSOTF commander put it: “As COs we’re allowed to push just beyond the bounds, but we’re not given the trust to push those bounds and reconfigure the strategy on the ground.”  Yet, he wondered, who was better positioned to understand what was required on the ground than someone who was on his fifth or sixth deployment, someone who has been interacting with the same local, regional, and now national leaders for years?

We’ve fallen for that folly before. Experience is important, but it is often mistaken for expertise. And in a culture that lionizes experience – especially combat experience – that can be dangerous.

I love this section below on what the author calls “happy warriors.”

‘Happy Warriors’ is my term for those who loyally help keep the system functioning.  Happy Warriors are individuals who may be cynical, but don’t feel disaffected enough to exit.  They include many O6s who are genuinely grateful to have made it as high as O6.  Maybe getting to be a company or battalion commander sufficed; maybe something happened along the way to make rising above O6 impossible; alternatively, other priorities (e.g. family) might have surfaced midway through someone’s career.  Regardless, all Happy Warriors (as I am using the term) remain dedicated patriots.  They are smart, highly capable problem-solvers, and while they haven’t lost their competitive edge, they just aren’t as driven to have to (still) be #1 as others are.  Two other features that distinguish Happy Warriors are that few seem to fall into the trap of regarding themselves as strategic thinkers or visionaries when they are not, and most prize loyalty.  Sometimes they are overly loyal to their bosses; more often their allegiance is to the enterprise.

If I had to, I’d count myself among these “happy warriors.” Without question, serving in the military over these past two decades prompts a lot of reflection. The advice I give to others (and myself), is you have to enjoy the life and the lifestyle, otherwise, you may find yourself growing very, very cynical. See the numerous references to “luck and timing” as well as this choice quote: “the system doesn’t care; it’ll keep using you until you’re all used up.”

As for solutions, there isn’t much offered other than better leadership. Talent management is mentioned, and I do think this will help move the dial. There is a role here also for self-awareness. My take is that a lof of the folks who were attracted to SOF in the first place want to believe that their personal contribution is or can be special/unique – and it can. But, it’s still the Army. And every individual is part of something bigger. That gets forgotten or lost somewhere, and contributes to this cynicism.

I’ve skipped a whole section on careerism and the drive to “make it.” That part makes up the crux of the author’s argument, and a lot of it isn’t wrong. It’s not very different though from what you would see in other parts of the Army or just standard careerism.

These are strange times, and cynicism is a simple defense mechanism folks can employ to get themselves through the day. While it can be discouraging to be around (it is), I’m not convinced that it means too much more than that. That is, I’m not sure most cynical officers would allow that cynicism to bleed over into anything of consequence (like carrying out orders). I could be wrong, but this may just be a passing trend.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.