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Elizabeth Sherman

Elizabeth Sherman

Assistant professor of American Politics at American University; founder and former director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Teaching "Altruistic Suicide"

All human being live in cultural situations and are constantly 'taught" leadership lessons through stories, symbols and examples transmitted though the settings of everyday life -- schools, work, peer groups, families, the media (including the internet), political and religious organizations and the like. The question raised by Tom Ricks is whether the military academies are necessary for the teaching of a certain kind of leadership, and he claims that military leadership can be done just as well, and less expensively, through on-campus ROTC programs in colleges and universities supplemented by in-service training for military officers. After all, if the latter perform just as well or better in training the next generation of military leaders, then why not abolish the academies that may not teach leadership effectively, and are failing to do so at a very high price?

But "performance" is a debatable construct and whatever the operational values identified in this particular definition, they might not be the most critical measure when thinking about the desired -- and required -- result of "teaching leadership" in a military context. Perhaps there is a vital process involving personal transformation that the military academies achieve among their prospective officers that cannot be done as well in other educational settings.

Let's remember that the bedrock value of military organizations is solidarity, all for one and one for all, the willingness to lay down your life for the group, for both your immediate comrades-in-arms and for the larger "group," the nation as a whole. To imbue this value in people, the highest ideals of nationalism and solidarity must displace those of individualism (and other loyalties) that might threaten group cohesion. Emile Durkheim, the so-called "father of sociology," referred to such ideals as the "collective conscience" that regulates group members through rituals, routines, and constantly reinforced moral codes that serve to maintain order and obedience. While that kind of thought control is anathema to liberal, democratic society, in the military, survival depends on ingrained beliefs and reliance on the total system to condition the actions of individuals, especially in crisis situations. That way, everyone can be relied upon to carry out their responsibilities for specific tasks in a rigidly hierarchical system of command and control.

Durkheim saw the military as the ultimate system of "mechanical solidarity" where "the individual is not his own master." An impersonal system transforms individuals to the point that self-sacrifice becomes second nature. Those trained to the military ethic are able to assume leadership responsibilities beyond their rank when necessary. The willingness to perform what Durkheim termed "altruistic suicide," the giving of one's life for the group, requires that individuals be immersed in a separate culture. In this context, "leadership training" is a highly complex affair requiring more than lessons in motivating and mobilizing others. Rather, it involves the transformation of the human psyche to eschew individualism and accept the potential necessity of "altruistic suicide."

This leadership lesson can be taught through immersion in a total institution, an organizational culture, developed to a high level of purpose and precision, which in all likelihood defines and describes our military academies where this kind of "leadership training" consumes nearly every aspect of life to achieve its end.

By Elizabeth Sherman

 |  April 20, 2009; 3:14 PM ET
Category:  Teaching Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Setting the Standard | Next: Judging the Results


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What HELENSGIRLKID1 fails to realize is that "Every person who died in WW I, WW II, Korea, taking out a machine gun nest single-handedly, holding a position so others could advance/retreat, etc" WAS, in fact, a USMA/USNA graduate. You should do some research before you run off at the mouth--- err, keyboard.

Posted by: Nats202 | April 28, 2009 3:11 AM
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Most of the responses to Elizabeth Sherman's thoughtful and thought-provoking piece entirely miss the point: she's DEFENDING the service academies and suggesting a logic whereby those who speak on their behalf might advance their arguments. Based on Dr. Sherman's comments we could ask a variety of questions: is there evidence to show that the service academies inculcate group loyalty more effectively than ROTC programs? Are there trade-offs we can document between in-group solidarity and loyalty to larger public purposes (e.g. civilian controlof the military)? Do the costs of educating our officer corps by a purely professional model rather than in a liberal arts arts tradition outweigh the benefits? All of these are important and fruitful questions, and all of these conversations are made possible by Dr. Sherman's original post. If the criterion for a useful post is the conversation it encourages, then Dr. Sherman's piece is extremely useful. Too bad so few of the comments make use of the space she opened.

Posted by: spangler1 | April 21, 2009 2:15 PM
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Every person who died in WW I, WW II, Korea, taking out a machine gun nest single-handedly, holding a position so others could advance/retreat, etc., who was not a graduate of West Point or Annapolis (many of them weren't even officers) is insulted by this argument.

Posted by: HelensGirlKid1 | April 21, 2009 11:57 AM
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I'm sorry, I was in the military, and I don't buy that Solidarnosc/self-destructive psychobabble for a minute. If you're sending your troops out to get KILLED, then maybe that's good doctrine for your board meeting discussion group or whatever, but if I ever put on the uniform again, I want a commander and an Army that practice making OTHER people die for THEIR country, and making sure that our soldiers are trained and ready to make that kind of thing happen. Period. Anything besides that is a bunch of doctrinal fancy-footing head-game hoodoo-voodoo. You find the Bad People, you aim the artillery piece at them, you pull the lanyard, they're gone, now, so you can pack up and leave, too.
I don't want to ever have to serve in the military again if it's going to be viewed by The Management as some sort of sociology experiment. Should we take a moment to discuss past uses/misuses of military servicemembers as guinea pigs for other 'bright ideas'? I think your concern for sociological correctness probably diminishes in direct proportion to the proximity of people shooting bullets in your general direction. Shooting people is bad, having people shoot at you is DOUBLE-bad, and if you were some lower enlisted soldier in some foreign country somewhere, would YOU be encouraged by a lot of talk about noble self-sacrifice? I'm sorry, if we're going to have our military outside our borders for any reason, or any length of time, let's make sure that the people in charge of it aren't manic-depressive or somesuch. Let's not play head-games with our troops, or allow expert-trained psychologist of various stripe try to play such games, let's send them forth suitably organized, led, trained, and equipped to rapidly and victoriously return home.

Posted by: walkerbert | April 21, 2009 3:22 AM
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I am not sure that West Point or any of the academies are the total institutions that this article imagines them to be. There are rituals and annoyances and self-denials, but they hardly amount to real sacrifices. Experiences plebe year may create some real cohesion, but that disappears pretty quickly once the pressure is off and everyone is doing their own thing. The intense in-group cohesion talked about that is really socially controlling on individuals just isn't there, and I don't think it should be. (God knows we have enough gender issues already.)

Far from willingly laying down their individualism, cadets are masters at finding ways to subversively maintain it--colored suspenders and t-shirts under parade uniforms, elaborate ways of hiding unauthorized goldfish/skillets, pushing uniform standards as far as possible (esp. male haircuts), and brightly colored feminine undergarments for women.

The issue is knowing how to be your own individual within the confines of the culture, and when to fight something and when to "salute the flag" and move on. I think West Point gives people a lot of chances to figure out this balance, and that it may take ROTC people a little longer to figure out the same thing.

--USMA '09

Posted by: aaabbey | April 20, 2009 10:56 PM
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To a degree she states this but all institutions attempt to control and indoctrinate. The real issue for the military is its future. Do these academies and/or ROTC programs produce leaders who can operate in a multi-cultural/pluralistic society. My answer would be it "remains to be seem"..I think the military+industrial complex may be doing as much damage as good. Is the billions of dollars going into Afghanistan to fight a [war] more effective than using the money to feed people, create democratic institutions, & empower women? I say NO!

Posted by: ceo1958 | April 20, 2009 10:41 PM
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Mr Pope, your completely irrelevant and immature response to Ms. Sherman's opinions is a disgrace to your alma mater and all of its graduates. If you paid attention to what she wrote, she AGREES with the idea of leadership taught through military institutions. Re-read the last paragraph of her article if you still aren't clear about this.

On a separate note, I would like to refute Ms. Sherman's theory that the military academies are better at forging "mechanical solidarity" than ROTC programs. It is true that cadets within the academies are in a better position to form stronger bonds of solidarity than ROTC cadets, but it is solely an in-group bond - between the cadets of the respective academy and its graduates. I believe that all future officers, regardless of commissioning source, are equally dedicated to putting the defense of our nation ahead of their personal welfare.
Having said that, I do believe there are certain other aspects of our military academies that provide superior leadership training than most ROTC programs, such as more mentoring and opportunities to practice leadership. In the end, I believe the most important reason we need to keep our military academies is to demonstrate our nation's commitment to sacrifice, selfless service and the protection of our freedom.

Posted by: qwertz82 | April 20, 2009 10:09 PM
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I hate it when I go to the Post home page and click a link to what appears to be a story, only to find that it leads to a collection of stories like this one, none of which is directly related to the subject of the original link.

Posted by: swmuva | April 20, 2009 10:09 PM
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I thought when I started reading this that I would read a very eloquent written product with objectionable material, but once again nothing, but "platitudes" and "cliques." Absolutely no substance. She uses the "father of socialology" to justify your points on the military. Apparently, she's a pedantic scholar who knows absolutely nothing about the military academy or foundations.

P.S. Your an idiot.

Yours truly,
former cadet James Pope
class of 2001

Posted by: usmaalum2001 | April 20, 2009 8:54 PM
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Forget the academies
What about the failure of regular institutions of learning?

Why are we just talking about service adacemies?

How come everyone else BUT service academies receive a pass?

Posted by: ravioliman6666 | April 20, 2009 8:28 PM
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