Military Culture and Transformation

By Siegl, Michael B. | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Military Culture and Transformation

Siegl, Michael B., Joint Force Quarterly

Innovation is a complex process that is neither linear nor always apparent. The interactions among intellectual, institutional, and political-economic forces are intricate and obscure. The historical and strategic context within which militaries transform compounds this complexity. Nevertheless, factors such as military culture, technological modernization, doctrinal development, and organizational and tactical innovation have influenced the ability to transform. Indeed, the inextricable confluence of these factors determines the success of transformation.

The period between 1914 and 1945 shows the dynamic nature of military innovation and the difficulty military organizations face in adapting to the changing global strategic environment and evolving threats. This article highlights three case studies from this period and considers both successful and unsuccessful transformational efforts. These studies can clarify current problems and provide possible solutions for the U.S. military's own transformation.

Primacy of Culture

Military culture is the linchpin that helps determine the ability to transform because it influences how innovation and change are dealt with. Its implications for U.S. military transformation are thus profound. The ability to harness and integrate technological advances with complementary developments in doctrine, organization, and tactics is dependent on the propensity of military culture to accept and experiment with new ideas. Therefore, focusing on developing and shaping a military culture amiable to innovation and continuous change will help create the conditions for current transformation efforts to be effective and successful.


Military culture comprises the attitudes, values, goals, beliefs, and behaviors characteristic of the institution that are rooted in traditions, customs, and practices and influenced by leadership. (1) Every organization has a culture. It is "a persistent, patterned way of thinking about the central tasks of and human relationships within an organization. Culture is to an organization what personality is to an individual." (2) Culture will dictate how an organization responds to different situational challenges. It also consistently shapes how the military views the environment and adapts to meet current and future challenges.


Some may view organizational behavior as the sum of all individuals' behaviors within the organization. However, organizational culture will also dictate the behavior of those individuals. As Robert Keohane states, "Institutions do not merely reflect the preferences and power of the units constituting them; the institutions themselves shape those preferences and that power." (3) In this way, organizations and individuals affect each other's behaviors. The differences in the military Services--in both the behaviors of the organizations as a whole and the behaviors of the individuals within those organizations--are readily apparent. Each Service develops solutions to problems defined through the lens of its historical and cultural experiences. Moreover, as James Wilson notes, an organization "will be poorly adapted to perform tasks that are not defined as part of that culture." (4) Therefore, for the military to be fully competent in the tasks of joint (let alone interagency) operations, leaders need to ensure that all the tasks are embraced as part of the organizational culture.

The military is based on core missions that standard operating procedures and routine tasks reinforce, providing stability and reducing uncertainty. The military strives for these conditions, so it is natural for it to resist change or adopt technologies that enhance existing missions rather than create new ones, especially if it perceives change as detrimental to core missions. Transformation in the military will take time if only because of the time it takes to change cultures. …

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