The year 2020 began in typical fashion before a pandemic abruptly broke out followed by sporadic periods of civil unrest. In my state of California, the bad turned to worst with a surge of wildfires that wreaked havoc on an already fragile economy. With all this bad news, the year 2020 has tested the resolve of the American psyche. The psychological aspects of current social trends suggest a low intensity culture war, a term James Davison Hunter introduced into the cultural zeitgeist with his publication of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. In the last 30 years, the term has increasingly gained currency in the contemporary lexicon. Although not a war in the kinetic sense, the term suggests a conflict between opposing viewpoints and narratives that compete for cultural dominance.
Although the United States has seemingly engaged in a series of culture wars since the 1960s, the protracted tension reached a crescendo in late May 2020 after the death of George Floyd . In only a few days, a series of protests escalated into full-scale riots, looting, and other instances of lawlessness. Widespread violence, triggered by a cultural flash point, seems to underscore two central points: 1) psychological projections—a reflexive process whereby contents of an individual’s unconscious are perceived to be in people or situations—can produce very real tangible effects and 2) the American psyche still has deep-rooted wounds which can be triggered by events like George Floyd’s death, regardless of how accurately they support a specific psycho-social narrative.
As I watched the mayhem unfold on television, I reflected on what people could learn from the military, particularly the U.S. Army. I thought if society assimilated aspects of the Army’ service culture, people could more consciously and constructively address widespread cultural problems and see through their own unconscious projections, which seem exacerbated by a 24-hour news cycle and an increasingly polarized media. Thus, I suggest we can glean important lessons from the U.S. Army, which when properly applied may enable a reconciling symbol to emerge through what the twentieth century psychologist C. G. Jung (1916/1972) called the transcendent function. Viewed this way, the symbol is “the best possible expression for a complex fact not yet clearly apprehended by consciousness” (CW8, para. 148).
The transcendent function is a symbolic process that enables the ego to attain a new attitude by reconciling two diametrically opposed viewpoints, one conscious and the other mostly unconscious. This psychic conflict releases energy and subsequently creates a new symbol which mediates the conscious mind’s relation with the unconscious. The transcendent function culminates with greater self-awareness. The symbol then is the third thing that creates a new attitude through a union of opposites. In this way, the integration of the unconscious invariably has a healing effect on the personality or in this case, the culture at large.
The Army’s shared values suggest a way to transcend the cultural dichotomies of right and left, liberal and conservative, rural and urban, proletariat and bourgeois, and haves and have nots. Since its founding, the Army has aspired to build a meritocratic system. Although no ethical framework is beyond reproach, the Army and its values provide opportunity based on merit. In a meritocracy, a person’s merit drives outcomes. A merit-based organization rewards and empowers its members with the potential to succeed based on shared values, a shared identity, and the goal of improving the organization by exalting the sanctity of the individual.
The Army is a profession consisting of a group of people who share distinct attributes including expertise, values, and identity. Scholar James Burk (2002) considers a profession “a relatively prestigious occupation whose members apply abstract knowledge to solve problems in a particular field of endeavor” (p. 41). Burk suggests that three pillars make up a profession: legitimacy, expertise, and jurisdiction (p. 48). A profession asserts a special jurisdiction from which its members exercise technical expertise. As such, professionals are considered technical experts in their career field; and this explains why universities include military science courses in their curriculum. Finally, the public views a profession as legitimate. In other words, the Army has a valid purpose.
The Army defends the nation’s ideals, enforces ethical standards, and embodies its values, which enable it to “to deploy, fight, and win our Nation’s wars” (2019, 3-1). The Army ethic “is the set of enduring moral principles, values, beliefs, and laws that guide the Army profession and create the culture of trust essential to Army professionals in the conduct of missions, performance of duty, and all aspects of life” (1-5). The Army has benefited from a special relationship with the American people since its founding. A strong cultural and ethical foundation is important to preserve the trust between the Army and the people it serves. Trust is essential for maintaining public confidence. The people provide the moral and material support for the Army to defend the nation and ensure its survival no matter the cost.
The Army Values guide the U.S. Soldier and provide a moral compass from which we may steer a righteous course. All Soldiers aspire to live the Army Values both professionally and personally; and they serve as a reminder to all who serve—enlisted, warrant, or officer—of the oath they made to “to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Similarly, Soldiers selflessly accept the call to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty” (Kennedy, 1961).
The Army Values form the ethical bedrock of the Army profession.
Loyalty. Bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, the Army, your unit, and other Soldiers.
Duty. Duty aligns values with actions, which when applied, fulfill your obligations.
Respect. Treat people as they should be treated.
Selfless Service. Put the welfare of the nation, the Army, and your subordinates before your own.
Honor. Live up to the Army Values.
Integrity. Do what is right, legally and morally.
Personal Courage. Face fear, danger, or adversity.
Further analysis suggests that the Army Values are clearly pragmatic rather than ideological. There is a humanistic quality about the values and what they convey. Most reasonable people will agree that regardless of any cultural fault lines, the Army Values are representative of timeless principles which have a broad appeal and near universal applicability.
I believe that people can learn much from the Army (and the military as a whole). During troubled times, we should make every effort to become more conscious, particularly as it relates to the innumerable ideas that populate the unconscious and assail the kingdom of consciousness. Viewed in Jungian terms, these ideas form a vast network of emotionally charged action potentials or complexes. Thus, we accept that each of us have our own ideas and viewpoints, however, we rarely acknowledge that those same ideas also have us. At an unconscious level, ideas may try to fulfil a purpose of their own and when not checked can overcome consciousness. So, it is important that our culture honors individuality and safeguards the person from groupthink. People should feel free to speak with their own authentic voice and we should in turn listen regardless of whether we agree with the core tenets of their argument. On the other hand, when that same voice succumbs to groupthink we should pause and question whether it is the person speaking or the ideology.
In retrospect, the Army has taught me that “I am not a victim” and I cannot blame others for my own inadequacies. The best way to address the problems I face is to directly confront them and if I lack the means of doing so, I should seek help from my friends, peers, or superiors. The Army has taught me to never underestimate the ability of the individual to make a difference. Yet, individuals still acquire their social identity as discrete members of a greater collective. For example, as a Soldier I belong to a unit, which supports a task and purpose to promote the general health, welfare, and readiness of the whole organization. Therefore, there is an obvious interdependent relationship between the individual and the organization to which he or she belongs.
The Army ethos may enable the transcendent function through symbol formation. The Army, with its emphasis on tradition and symbolism, presents an alternative way, a third way, to approach the so-called culture wars. Contrary to popular opinion, we need not combat each other with words or empty ideological platitudes but work together to make peace with the opposing and dividing forces within. A figurative bridge helps cross the middle ground which transcends and goes beyond two contradictory positions that no longer promote psychological growth. Genuine healing can proceed through their reconciliation and the birth of a new symbolic attitude. The pragmatic values of the Army prescribe an archetypal model to bridge the cultural gulf between the unconscious below and the conscious mind beyond.
“Believe in the future.”
A culture war reveals a splintered psyche by which things fall apart and eventually disintegrate. Two alternative outcomes are greater social integrity or a gradual but inevitable descent into chaos. However, a third option may arise which occurs somewhere between the idea and the reality. This shadow land appears near the boundary zones of chaos (i.e., the unknown, possibilities) and order (i.e., explored territory, accepted knowledge). Consequently, a liminal space may result from these conditions enabling real soul-making to take place. Conflict releases the energy necessary to create a new symbol that can close the ideological divide. Therefore, as we ride out the remainder of 2020, the culture at large can reflect on the Army Values and perchance reconcile the two competing ideologies that wrestle for cultural dominance. The Army and its values—loyalty duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and courage—present a way we can overcome our differences and successfully quell the cultural warfare by focusing on what unites rather than divides. It’s going to be okay America.
Burk, J. (2002) Expertise, jurisdiction, and legitimacy. (L.J. Matthews, Ed.). In The future of the army profession (2nd ed. pp. 39-60). Boston, MA: McGraw Custom Publishing.
Jung, C. G. (1972). The Transcendent Function. (R. F.C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 8, pp. 67-91). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1916)
Hunter, J.D. (1992) Culture wars: The struggle to control the family, art, education, law, and politics in America. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Kennedy, J. (1961). President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. Our Documents Initiative. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php/print_friendly.php?lash=false&page=&doc=91&title=President+John+F.+Kennedys+Inaugural+Address+%281961%29
U.S. Army. (2019). ADP 1-0: The army. Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This opinion blog is intended to provoke open dialogue and critical thinking about what the author views as the complexities of civil-military relations and the depth psychological implications contained therein.