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When Cultures Clash - You'd Better Hang On To The Wreckage

J. D. Pendry

"I was moving among two groups...who had almost ceased to communicate at all, who in intellectual, moral, and psychological climate had so little in common that...one might have crossed the ocean." -C. P. Snow

You'd better hang on to the wreckage. That's what the chaplain said one morning at our prayer breakfast. He used a bible scripture to illustrate his point that we have problems in our society and our Army. He said we are losing the values that have been so important to our country and our Army. We've stopped living those values and teaching them to our children at home and in schools. Our collective failure in that regard is impacting society and as a result the Army. The things we see happening in our communities with violence and drugs and the things that cause us problems in our Army are the product of that loss of values. The Chaplain said if we are going to fix our Army we have to stay with the wreckage, hang on to it, repair and put back those pieces that made it so great in the first place.

I agree with the Chaplain's message. At least as it pertains to the problems outside of our gates. I have a bit of a different theory about what's going on in our Army right now. To accept my theory you have to accept that the Army has its own culture. The culture of our Army is older than the culture of our country and the two cultures differ tremendously. Problems happen when we try to overlay one culture (the civilian one) over the other culture (the Army one).

Let's talk about it. Our civilian culture openly accepts most lifestyles. As long as you don't try to force your way of life on me, it's OK we say. This culture insists women are supposed to do all the things men do. Even the physically dangerous things. It's a culture now that insists that there are no specific roles for men and women even though our society and religions have taught and reinforced the idea that there are differences for thousands of years. It's a culture that stresses our differences, characterized as diversity, when maybe it should be stressing our sameness while teaching us to accept diversity. It teaches political correctness in speech, supports public government and leader bashing, and obeys rules and laws that are convenient.

It's a culture of individualism that takes a what's in it for me approach to life. It's a culture of conflicts. It teaches freedom of speech and expression from one side of its face while banning Huckleberry Finn from school libraries out of the other side of its face. Freedom of religion is great, but don't ask me to believe or consider for an instant that there is any validity to your religious beliefs. After all, one of us just has to be wrong. It's conservatism versus liberalism. There's no acceptable middle ground. This culture selects leaders then spends four years trying to destroy instead of support them.

It's a sad culture that pays millions of dollars to abusive, arrogant, self-serving, self righteous athletes and actors while asking someone willing to make the ultimate sacrifice - on their behalf - to exist on poverty level wages and live in substandard housing. But, we're so proud of what you do for us they say.

It's a culture that supposedly places a lot of worth on the family and values while letting its children learn about life from child care providers. Mom and Dad both have great careers to look after. Their idea of a family supper is the note stuck to the refrigerator that says, microwave something Hon or order yourself a pizza dear. Or much worse than that, they sit at home in a broken down apartment house, in a neighborhood where it's too dangerous to venture outside, being raised by the television. Because Mom and Dad, if the children are fortunate enough to have both, are working, but certainly can't afford professional childcare. In this new American culture, both sets of parents will learn of their children's problems from someone else or on the 5 O'clock news.

In our great American culture the wealthy only make contact with the poor when they come to the neighborhood to buy cocaine. If they need a political photo-op or want to feel good about themselves, they'll go stand in a serving line at a homeless shelter on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas. Some of our most prominent citizens make real heart wrenching, tear jerking pleas for charity for poor children - in other countries. Their piece of America is so wealthy I guess they never considered the possibility that there may be some poor, needy children in America. It's a culture whose leadership is passed from affluent to affluent and it's rare when someone poor and not so affluent rises to a position of power and influence.

I think I'm beginning to understand what the Chaplain meant by Hang on to the Wreckage. Our great American culture is a wreck. We have to wrap our arms around it and hang on while putting back those things that made it great in the first place.

Getting back to my original thought, our problems in the Army come when this civilian culture is laid over our Army culture. The civilians we are all sworn to protect sometimes try to impose that culture on the Army or our soldiers bring it with them and have difficulty letting it go. Leaders must always be aware of that influence and pressure on what we do.

Leaders in the Army cannot fix what's broken with a culture outside the gate. They must understand this culture that has changed tremendously since they left it years ago. What leaders must understand, and especially the front line leaders - noncommissioned officers - is that this is the culture that produces the raw material we have to turn in to soldiers.

We counter that outside influence by ensuring that soldiers are taught from the beginning about values, responsibility and the dignity and worth of individuals. They must learn from us the importance of teamwork while learning the importance of accepting diversity. They must be taught to place the needs of the group ahead of their personal desires. We must make sure they understand that ours is a culture where individuals have the opportunity to progress based on merit.

The most senior and affluent members of our culture constantly remind us of the importance of looking after our junior and less affluent because that's where they came from and where their replacements will come from. Soldiers entering our culture must understand that it survives because of values, a sense of purpose, discipline, self-discipline, obeying laws and rules and caring for each other.

We can't fix what's broken with the culture outside our gates. And, it's not in our charter to try. But, we do have to understand the significance of that influence on our soldiers and the difficulties encountered when soldiers have trouble weaning themselves from it and embracing the Army culture that has served us well for over two hundred years.

© 2000 J.D. Pendry