American Military Culture in the Twenty-First Century

This study of American military culture is the result of a two-year research effort by a CSIS study team composed of internal staff and outside experts. The team analyzed the existing literature, reviewed survey data from each of the services, sponsored two major conferences, held 125 focus-group discussions, and surveyed 12,500 men and women in operational military units and selected headquarters, including two unified commands and two service component headquarters.

The most important finding of the study is a welcome one. The CSIS team found great strengths in U.S. military culture. Common basic values, ethics, performance expectations, and standards are high across all ranks, in all of the services, in both the active and reserve components despite necessarily different service cultures. Every member of the CSIS team who visited our men and women in uniform was impressed by their skill, dedication, and patriotism.

When CSIS asked military personnel about life in their services and their units, however, they often found disappointment and frustration. In spite of a high level of pride and commitment, our dedicated people in uniform did not typically have high morale and revealed far less satisfaction from their service than one would expect. Overall, the armed forces are overcommitted, underpaid, and underresourced in the units that form their cutting edge. Expectations for a satisfying military career are not being met. Recruiting, retention, morale, and readiness have all become problematic; in the long run, culture is likely to suffer. In addition to these issues, the CSIS team found an uneven quality of leadership in many units, symptomatic of a leader development system that is not always able to cull the most effective leaders from a set of generally excellent officers. Also troubling was a seemingly inordinate perceptions gap between leaders in the field and fleet and senior uniformed leaders over issues ranging from readiness levels to recruit quality.

Perhaps the most important of the many recommendations here is that the Department of Defense and the Department of Transportation (to which the Coast Guard answers) form a military culture task force that will monitor issues that affect the organizational climate and culture of the armed forces. This action will guarantee the long-term visibility and attention to culture issues that are needed to create institutional solutions for the complex problems described in this study.

Edwin Dorn, Howard D. Graves, Walter F. Ulmer Jr., Joseph J. Collins, and T.O. Jacobs