Today I will consider the challenges faced by public servants who equally cherish the glory of the individual mind. If Steinbeck’s words mean as much to you as they did to me, if they awake something deep within you and make you yearn for the glory about which he writes, then I’m talking to you.
Steinbeck praises the boundless energy, dynamism, and creativity of the individual human mind. He worries what will happen when the logic of mass production enters our economics, our politics, and religion. Then he writes lines that should sound grimly familiar to anyone who has experienced Basic Training: “And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged.”
Steinbeck closes with a rousing affirmation of the individual human soul: “And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government that limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about.” If the glory can be killed, he writes in closing, we are lost.
Military service–and really, employment in any large bureaucracy–requires conformity and the subservience of the individual to the organization as a whole. No surprises there. Organizations need to steer the efforts of their diverse employees in the same direction and for the same purpose, and militaries in particular need to ensure obedience to orders in the most stressful conditions imaginable. Basic training and subsequent courses are designed to reinforce group loyalty and conformity to organizational culture. These are not bad things. Fortunately, the “repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning” fade after our first weeks of Basic Training, and we discover that we are still individuals. Our hair grows back, we dress how we want on the weekends, and we gradually reclaim the time to pursue the relationships, interests, and hobbies that we’re passionate about.
Still, there is a deeper level of soul-crushing “mass production” at work in any large bureaucracy, and I think this is what Steinbeck has in mind: the simple logic of division of labor. When I was a cadet at USAFA, I studied astronautical engineering because I dreamed of the future. I grew up reading and writing science fiction, living half my life in imagined worlds. I built robots in the garage with my dad. I wrote software, turning abstract visions into concrete products. So it only seemed natural to study a subject that would allow me to design spacecraft that would sweep future pioneers to new worlds. But I came to a sad realization along the way: an engineer in today’s world doesn’t design a spacecraft. He designs a particular circuit in a particular computer that communicates with five other computers to provide the inertial guidance for the spacecraft. If he is an engineer in the Air Force, he likely manages contracts for the civilians who design those circuits. That is how engineering now works; thousands of individuals, each crafting tiny fragments that will eventually add up to a reality far removed from their personal experience.
It’s no different in any other profession. Few Americans plant their own crops and see them through to a harvest; our food reaches us via a production and distribution chain so large we can hardly envision it. We have lost something, which is why it’s so satisfying for me to eat an orange from my backyard tree or build something with my own hands. One summer I slaved over a new backyard patio. I’m terrible at home projects, and nearly wrecked the entire thing on more than one occasion, but eventually I got there. I still savor the memory of sitting in a lawn chair on that newly finished patio, wiping sweat from my eyes and downing a beer in the warm afternoon sun. A small glory, but a glory nonetheless.
Which brings us to those who serve in the military or government, who are tasked with addressing problems on a global scale. We are a vast bureaucracy, as vast as the world we inhabit. The meaningful work–winning wars, negotiating alliances, developing nations, tackling diseases, growing economies–is sliced and diced into so many little fragments that the whole disappears almost entirely.
If we’re lucky, we can at least glimpse how our piece fits into that whole. I’m fortunate to be a C-17 pilot, because our missions enable and respond to world events; you can guess what’s on our scheduling board by reading the news. But not everyone is so lucky, and in my field, flying is only a small part of what we do.
Your average military officer does not spend his days “fighting the war”; he adjusts the font colors on slide 8 to satisfy his commander, so the commander can brief the data to his own boss at tomorrow’s meeting–even though it’s redundant with three other Excel and PowerPoint products, and the boss doesn’t especially care anyway. Then he gets called for random drug trusting the fourth time this year and goes to pee in a cup, and after that he stays late writing award citations for decorations that are given automatically to soldiers who have valiantly served their country by having a pulse. Even on his best days, the days when he does his most exciting work, the kind of work he signed up for, it’s often less than he once imagined it would be.
We all know what I’m talking about. We’ve all been there. It’s Dilbert in a uniform and a reflective belt, and it’s almost worse for us because we naively had visions and ambitions of international proportions.
Such work robs the soul and kills the glory. It eats at us night and day, and it drives many of us out the service entirely. Surveys show that an overwhelming majority of veterans separate because they are frustrated by military bureaucracy. They hate the risk-aversion that stifles free thought, critical thinking, and experiments in change. They resent a conveyor belt promotion system, which decouples talent from advancement. In my own service, we bemoan a system in which fighting the war always seems to be the lowest priority; who has time for that, when there are parties to plan and airshows to host and ASEVs and SAVs and ORIs and OREs and a hundred other inspections to prepare for? I don’t even need to comment on PowerPoint culture, which is derided in a new essay every 3 or 4 months and unfailingly provokes a flurry of passionate commentary in the blogosphere.
The officers who remain in aren’t staying because they disagree with these critiques; they stay despite their frustrations. The soul-crushing bureaucracy drives them mad. Even the best leaders, who are truly devoted to public service, agonize with friends behind closed doors about whether or not they really want to stay in and for how long. This is as true of civilian leaders as it is of military members. As much as they love serving, let there be no doubt: for most of them, continuing to serve entails much sacrifice, and a lot of that sacrifice is imposed by our own organizational culture.
That is why, when I first read them, Steinbeck’s words flashed from the page like a lightning bolt.
Here are my questions: does it have to be like this? Is there a better way to work? Can we find ways to nurture individual minds and souls within the context of a large organization like the US government, and put all that glory to work for us? These are questions I will consider in Part III of this series. Finally, in Part IV I’ll reflect on how we can seek the glory and find the richness in our work, even when the hammerblows are falling.