Military Sociology

Military Indoctrination


‘Indoctrination’ has a negative connotation in our age of independent thought. Usually associated with brainwashing, the concept provokes images of docile subjects uncritically following the orders of an authority figure such as a cult leader. Here, I argue that the military offers a very different perspective on what it means to be indoctrinated. Rather than creating mindless zombies, the military produces a form of altruistic communal integration that creates a sense of solidarity and significance amongst its members. I draw on the military doctrine of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to illustrate this point.

To indoctrinate means to bring individuals into alignment with a specific doctrine. In the Canadian Joint Forces Publication (2009), a document expanding on Canadian military doctrine, four core military values are listed: Duty, Loyalty, Integrity, and Courage (P. 44).

The CAF’s core value of duty is the most explicitly altruistic since it, “demands that CF members place the mission requirements above personal considerations” (P. 44). Regarding loyalty, it is “related to duty and reflects personal allegiance to Canada and Canadian values as well as faithfulness to comrades in arms” (P. 44). It also dictates loyalty to the chain of command and therefore respect for its hierarchical authority. Integrity solidifies the personal altruistic commitment of CF members to its “moral principles and obligations” (P. 44), and courage ensures these altruistic principals and obligations are carried out in practice, enabling the CF member to “disregard the potential risks of an action in the interests of the broader good” (P. 44).

These values are instilled in new recruits during basic training. A publication by the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School (2014) illustrates what incoming individuals can expect during this initial training. The core doctrinal values are referred to in this document:

During your training, you will be required to adhere to the fundamental military values such as loyalty, duty, courage and integrity. You will have to apply these values in a context where the discipline level will be very high and team work is essential to your success (P. 8).

In what is called the “indoctrination period,” new recruits are strictly regimented and their day is organized into the following itinerary:

5 :00 am: wake up
5 :10 am: morning physical training
6 :30 am: breakfast
7 :00 am: quarters’ inspection and beginning of instruction
11 :30 am: lunch
12 :30 pm: instruction
5 :00 pm: supper
6 :00 pm: common station jobs, personal hygiene, study period
11 :00 pm: lights out (P. 8)

The purpose of this tight regulation is to facilitate “integration to the military life and [develop] team spirit among the members” (P. 9). Throughout the Basic Military Qualification Course and the Basic Military Officer Qualification Course, new recruits quickly learn that what the person next to you does matters. As one interview participant stated: “In the army, everybody sinks or swims together.” Communal living in common quarters, group physical training, and group punishment characterize aspects of this training. In the classroom, recruits learn about the profession of arms.

The military is a unique modern profession since it is the only one that requires its members to abide by the principal of unlimited liability. In a military doctrinal publication entitled, Duty with Honour, The profession of Arms in Canada (2009), unlimited liability is described as the following:

…all members accept and understand that they are subject to being lawfully ordered into harm’s way under conditions that could lead to the loss of their lives…. It also modifies the notion of service before self, extending its meaning beyond merely enduring inconvenience or great hardship. It is an attitude associated with the military professional’s philosophy of service. The concept of unlimited liability is integral to the military ethos and lies at the heart of the military professional’s understanding of duty (P. 26).

Unlimited liability is unique to the military profession, requiring members to accept potentially giving up their lives in lawful duty to complete the mission and protect one’s fellow service members. This legal duty is a social fact indicating the extremely high degree of altruistic integration required by the military.

Whether or not the individual supported the politics of the war or the decisions of superiors, the altruistic concern for the immediate group primarily fueled the sense of solidarity. In regard to the experience of this solidarity on a combat deployment in Afghanistan, an interview participant states, “I did agree with why we were there, but that wasn’t necessarily the main thing; my main motivation was to keep my guys strong, get them home alive, and take care of my guys.” This concern puts a human face to the institutional imperative of unlimited liability. Going beyond “just following orders,” those who risk their lives in combat do so out of an intense familial bond with those they fight alongside. An interview participant states:

What ultimately matters to you most are the guys in your section. The thing that people forget when they watch World War II footage… you see these faceless soldiers in black and white and in uniform, but what you’ve got to remember is that these guys are friends, these guys know every detail about each other’s lives… what keeps you going is that you’re there to look after each other.

In combat, the legal obligation to unlimited liability is more than just words written in military doctrine, it becomes an “unwritten rule” that is inscribed into the heart of those who are involved.

Military indoctrination into goes beyond learning to obey. Military indoctrination facilitates a feeling of community. Rather than erasing ones sense of identity, it gives members a collective identity. Rather than diminishing one’s sense of individual significance, the collective identity increases one’s sense of significance. As one interview participant stated: “There is a certain utopia to it… everyone’s focused on the same thing.” Focused on the same external goal, each individual has a specialized role whereby they contribute to organic functioning of the group. The Canadian Armed Forces is a social institution that facilitates a highly altruistic professional community, distinct from the professional landscape of civilian life where communal altruism is rarely seen and liability is always limited.

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  1. True Altruism would indoctrinate soldiers to selflessly serve ALL BRETHREN. What the military indoctrinates is an isolated altruism, a companionship within the forces of the group, along with hierarchy and chain of command. It is far closer akin to cultism than independent grooming of caring humans. Caring humans do not kill for profit…

  2. Have you considered using the “enculturation” vice “indoctrination” to view the “holistic entity” of the military and the process of total envelopment within a society? I am a veteran studied women’s transitions from the military using an interdisciplinary approach of anthropology and sociology. I am a student at University of South Carolina Aiken. I also spent 25 years in the Armed Forces, so am going through the perpetual effort to redefine my cultural place. I shall be looking at more of your work as I think you are right on with your efforts. Good for you!

  3. This bit jarred: “To indoctrinate means to bring individuals into alignment with a specific doctrine” so I looked it up.
    The definition I found (Mac’s onboard dictionary) was succinct and much in line with my own usage: “teach (a person or group) to accept a set of beliefs uncritically” with the keyword there being ‘uncritically’.

    Then that ‘altuistic’—selective altruism? Not good.

    Already we’ve set the stage for the cute little ex-village of My Lai in Vietnam, where that hero Calley and his fellow altruists rampaged and heroically (all US servicemen ‘serving’ in foreign climes are heroes, no?) slaughtered some five hundred innocents.

    Then there were the helo pilot (Thompson? Memory fails …) who put himself in harm’s way to defend the defenceless, and the coward who shot his own foot off rather than do the slaughtering his heroic bosses demanded — I think his indoctrination failed him, he was a wee bit too critical.

    Like I said elsewhere, it’s an immense can of worms.

    1. You are right. Individuals who are brought into line with the doctrine must be uncritical of it if we want an optimally functional military where in-group loyalty can be fostered.

      I don’t have a problem with indoctrination in the context of Canada’s military. Reading the documents I was struck by the high standard of virtues contained within the documents; duty, loyalty, integrity, and courage are among these. Aside from these ethical demands, military doctrine mainly contains legal regulations for specific roles and procedures. There is also a clause stating that members are obligated to follow all legal orders. This places responsibility on the serving member to maintain a reflexive mindset toward the legality of orders, reserving them the right to deny illegal orders.

      The problem is not indoctrination itself, but rather, indoctrination into groups that that advocate for inhumane beliefs and practices. I of course see the large can of worms and try to be vigilant. Some of the arguments I make are not common among contemporary social scientists.

      1. Documents filled with noble words make nice public relations.

        As for warfare, it’s a different world. Not many on the coalface are going to analyse orders for legality—and where the penalty for disobedience of a direct order is a bit stiff more will take the easy way out than be morally strong.

        I’ve never been challenged when I state that “to get your unwilling conscripts to fight all you have to do is abandon them (keep ’em well supplied though) at the front. They’ll fight like rabid dogs simply to survive, to live, to one day get the hell out of there”.

        I’ll post on this topic soon, in the meantime here’s a wee thought—

        —but it would reward critical reading rather than a snort and “So what?” (as in “it couldn’t happen now” — today we are better educated, more moral, decent, noble, etc etc ad nauseam).

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