According to an expansive survey of commanders across the US Army, the number one problem identified with new soldiers out of boot camp was their entitlement. This seems to be related to other complaints: “lack of obedience and poor work ethic as well as being careless with equipment, uniform and appearance.” Additionally, they found that the soldier’s attitudes toward command structures were to blame:
“there is too much of a sense of entitlement, questioning of lawful orders, not listening to instruction, too much of a buddy mentality with NCOs and officers and a lot of tardiness being late to formation and duties”
We might think the hoopla here is overwrought, but in the military, many young folks handle big and dangerous machinery: aircraft engines, tractors, hydraulics, not to mention explosives, artillery, and firearms.
In the real world of daily military life, “lack of obedience” and “careless with equipment” equates to injury and death for themselves and others, at home and on the battlefield. Most people don’t know that over the last few years, training accidents have killed more people than combat across the armed forces.
Forget about all the typical entitlement complaints about Millennials and GenZers, the Army’s solution to this problem might surprise us: more drilling (i.e., marching) and ceremony training. It’s in these group tasks where meticulously executed maneuvers build an espirit de corps, but also create an ability to pay attention to detail that most 18-year-olds don’t come by naturally. Hours of drilling instills who is in charge with an objective that only the whole team can accomplish together.
I reflect on the rituals of my boot camp experiences in my new book, Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments:
Because basic military training may be one of the most ritualized experiences in the world. It blows religious rituals out of the water in terms of meticulous performances. The military scripts and choreographs everything so that it’s done just so: picking up a fork in the chow hall, folding underwear with tweezers and a ruler, marching in exact synchronicity, and on and on. …
My fellow recruits and I could moan all we wanted, but in that short time in boot camp we didn’t just learn—we became different sorts of human beings. We couldn’t conceive that surmounting many of those challenges was even possible. We didn’t know we could march that precisely, stand that long in the sun, walk that far, or get all sixty of us teenagers showered and shaved in under twenty minutes.
Uncle Sam had specific purposes for all of those studiously ritualized details in our walking, eating, standing, sleeping, folding, cleaning, and more. Many of us were going to carry loaded weapons or fix avionics on aircraft. If we couldn’t clean a toilet bowl to standards, then how could we be trusted with live ammunition or a pilot’s life?
All of those rituals had an invisible arrow running through them that pointed toward a goal. Although we didn’t know it at the time, every ritual of boot camp aimed at a greater purpose. Our drill sergeants were trying to teach us many things in a compressed amount of time. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t figure out why we had to fold our underwear into four-inch squares. We had to trust them and fully commit ourselves to all the strange rituals they demanded of us.
The result: boot camp changed the way I see myself, my community, and the world. It was the closest thing I’d known to a religious experience at that point in my life. Even in the middle of it, I knew I would never be the same.