Tats and Techies: Building the Next U.S. Military

Photo credit Juhan Sonin

Photo Credit: Juhan Sonin


“The U.S. military is unlikely to embrace sweeping change for the best of reasons: The chaotic nature of wars requires substantial individual and organizational discipline to fight and win them. For sizable parts of the force, that may be appropriate – for now.

But warfare itself is changing. The next major war involving U.S. military forces may well demand more skills related to executing cyber attacks on an adversary’s networks than to launching large-scale infantry assaults.

Last Monday, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced a series of personnel initiatives focused on “recruiting and retaining the best and brightest” for the U.S. military. On Wednesday, Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno announced that the Army would repeal a deeply unpopular recent policy that barred recruits with many types and sizes of tattoos, a change from the previous decade-long practice where troops with lots of “ink” not only joined up but soon went to war.

What do these two seemingly unrelated news events have in common? They are both glimmers of hope that the U.S. military is, at long last, starting to adopt the more flexible personnel policies that it needs to succeed in the 21st century.

Carter and Odierno are on the cusp of a big idea. The next U.S. military – and particularly its senior leadership – must open its eyes to the fundamental change represented by young people of the Millennial generation and the characteristics that define them. Frequent job changes. Career flexibility. Intolerance for bureaucracy. Values beyond work. Adjustable work hours. Aversion to hierarchy. Tattoos. And yes, even body piercings.

Taken together, the Carter and Odierno announcements suggest that U.S. military leaders are reassessing existing policies. They both point toward a new talent management approach – acknowledging the changing goals, interests, and preferences of today’s individual service members from a new generation while simultaneously ensuring that the needs of military services are fully met. If carried out, this new direction will inevitably cause major changes to long-held cultures and traditions.

Odierno’s announcement reversed a much more restrictive tattoo policy that was finalized only a year ago and that was strongly opposed by soldiers. His reasons for the about-face are telling: “Society is changing its views of tattoos and we have to change along with it. It makes sense. Soldiers have grown up in an era when tattoos were much more acceptable and we have to change with that.” The Army recognizes it must now reverse course to catch up to a social phenomenon that its current soldiers – and future recruits – already embrace.

Carter’s message addresses the same challenge from a different angle. One of the key themes of his speech at Philadelphia’s Abington High School was the overarching importance of people over hardware in building the military of the future. He told the students in the audience that people “are the foundation of our future force. There are lots of other pieces, too, like having the best technology, the best planes, ships, and tanks. But it all starts and ends with our people. If we can’t continue to attract, inspire, and excite talented young Americans like you, then nothing else will matter.”

He reiterated this theme the next day, in a speech at Syracuse University:

‘…we need to change to remain attractive to people to our children and our children’s children, recognizing that all generations are different. They’re not like us. They have a different way of thinking about their careers, about choice, about what excites them about what they want to do in the way of friends and families and everything else. And we need to understand that and connect to that to continue to have the best people come in.’

The seeds of winning the next war may be found in the speeches that Carter and Odierno gave last week. They are quietly sounding the call for change. There is an entire generation of young American men and women ready to answer that call, and tens of thousands already in uniform who will be heartened by Carter and Odierno’s distinct (and perhaps grudging) recognition that their generation is truly different. To win the fights of the 21st century, the nation’s military must inspire and motivate this generation both to serve, and to stay. To do so, it must be ready to experiment with new ideas, challenge long-held norms, and be prepared to divest those things not absolutely essential. Maintaining a military filled with people capable of out-thinking and out-fighting U.S. adversaries in the next decade may depend on many of these fresh ideas catching fire and spreading throughout the force.”


About rosecoveredglasses

Ken Larson was awarded the Bronze Star during two military tours in Vietnam. His career subsequently spanned 36 years with major aerospace and defense companies and small business consulting. Ken received the SCORE National Achievement Award in 2010 and the MicroMentor Award for Outstanding Service In Mentorship in 2021. Micro Mentor and SCORE are non-profit organization offering free assistance to small business in business planning, operations, marketing and other aspects of starting and successfully operating a small enterprise. Ken is the author of two books, "Odyssey Of Armaments" and "Small Business Federal Government Contracting". He specializes in Small, Veteran-owned, Minority-Owned and Woman-Owned Businesses beginning work with the Federal Government. You can contact Ken for small business assistance at MicroMentor by going to: https://www.micromentor.org/mentor/38640 or by going to SCORE at: https://southmetro.score.org/mentors/ken-larson

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