By Butters’ Bars
Recently a couple friends and I turned to the internet to answer a very important question: are we millennials? A number of sources place the millennial generation between 1980 and 2000—with some variation—putting the most recent group of college graduates (recently minted 2LTs) right at the end of the millennial generation. The motivation for this search was ML Cavanaugh’s article for MWI at West Point entitled: “Abundant Vulnerability: Why Military Millennials Might Be America’s Achilles’ Heel.” So are we America’s Achilles’ Heel? Consensus would seem to be “yes;” we are Lieutenants, after all. What this article ignores, however, is the Army’s ability to train soldiers and officers for tactical contingencies and the overall importance of Army doctrine.
Cavanaugh argues that among the American military’s primary vulnerabilities is the millennial generation’s over-reliance on technology. However, one must ask, is this a generational or institutional problem? Of course millennials are constantly attached to their iPhones – I read the majority of MWI’s articles on my iPhone- but that has nothing to do with tactical competence. The Army teaches officers and soldiers to conduct land navigation with only a map and compass. If North Korea did fire an EMP as Cavanaugh hypothesizes, millennial Company Grade Officers could plan and execute a complex ambush without even the use of a radio, because that is what they are trained to do (commissioning programs, BOLC, Ranger school, etc). Millennials in the Field Artillery could plot and execute fires without their computers, because that is a contingency they plan for. But what of the tanks, planes and other weapons that rely on computers to function? This is a contingency that must be planned for and trained on. The ability to operate without technology is an institutional imperative for the Army, not a generational burden that must be bore by millennials.
In addition to our much maligned reliance on technology, millennials are further derided for lacking the innovation and pioneering spirit of previous generations. Cavanaugh cites David Brooks in his review of Tyler Cowen’s book, The Complacent Class: “Millennials may be the least entrepreneurial generation in American history.” Cavanaugh further states that business owners under thirty have fallen 65 percent since the 1980s and that patents have dropped 25 percent since 1999 as evidence of millennial laziness and inability to innovate. This argument ignores variables outside of millennial “laziness” in analyzing our alleged lack of entrepreneurial spirit and ability to innovate.
The statistics used by Cavanaugh do not truly reflect an inability to pioneer or innovate on the part of millennials because it ignores the broader context of the world in which millennials live. With the rising costs of higher education, less than 20 percent of college students graduate without amassing some form of student debt. In fact, the majority of college graduates face paying off between $26,000 and $100,000 throughout their 20s and 30s. One must wonder where a millennial would find the startup money needed to apply for a patent or start their own business before the age of 30 while still paying off their student loans. A more imposing barrier to millennial “innovation” is the continuing after-effects of the Great Recession. The Great Recession greatly decreased employment opportunities for young people and saw the United States’ youth unemployment rate rise to a record 19.1 percent in July 2010. Laziness is hard to quantify, but debt and the barriers of entry into the workforce are not.
Cavanaugh’s argument that millennials are less innovative goes hand in hand with his next argument that millennials are less independent than previous generations. However, these argument ignores the ability that the Army has to train junior leaders to be innovative and act independently. As Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley remarked, junior leaders must have “the willingness to disobey specific orders” when battlefield realities change and there’s no time or functioning channel to consult superiors. If this is the reality of future warfare, this is how the Army must train. Junior leaders and commanders must be trained to follow the Mission Command principles of exercising disciplined initiative and accepting prudent risk. This is why doctrine exists, after all, to guide training. Training to meet the standards of Mission Command allows junior leaders to take prudent tactical risks with the knowledge that their superiors will support their actions, not tear them to shreds during an AAR for disobeying orders.
Beyond supporting disciplined initiative by accepting prudent risk, the principles of Mission Command (build cohesive teams through mutual trust, create shared understanding, clear commanders’ intent, exercise disciplined initiative, use mission orders, accept prudent risk) provide the guidelines needed for leading millennials as the Army progresses into the future. As Angry Staff Officer points out, millennials always want to know the “why” and the “so what” behind each task. How could the Army possibly ask a leader to do that? Well they already do. That’s why Commanders create shared understanding by providing a clear commanders intent, perhaps through the use of mission orders (see above). And when all else fails, if a good commander has built a cohesive team through mutual trust, that millennial 0-2 or E-5 will follow orders even without understanding the intent.
The millennial generation will likely remain a constant source of debate among military writers. The problems they force the military to face are problems that must be discussed. Furthermore, the military must work towards a solution to recruiting and leading millennials for the future of the Army. This starts with doctrine and training. Every generation provides its own set of challenges (see our parents, the so-called “baby boomers,” Vietnam, the All-Volunteer Force etc), but that doesn’t mean every challenge is an Achilles’ Heel.
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About the Author: This is Butters’ Bars first article. As a 2LT (and a millennial) the author understands that no one cares about his opinion, but he enjoys sharing it anyways. In his free time he enjoys reading, hiking, and wishing the history channel would go back to actually being about history.
Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.
Cover photo: U.S. military personnel take part in Georgia’s Independence Day celebration in Tbilisi, Georgia, May 26, 2015. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili