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Become All That You Can Become

America's oldest military academy is getting enlightened about human development

“The right men or women, no matter how few, will find the right hinge in a given situation to change history.” Journalist Robert Kaplan penned those words in the Atlantic Monthly soon after 9/11, calling on the American military to focus on developing a particular kind of officer—one who could thrive not just on clear orders and simple directives but on the ambiguities and complexities of foreign cultures and far-flung command posts. Kaplan's lesson seems all the more clear after two years in Iraq: Uncle Sam desperately needs individuals who can think on their feet, be both forceful and diplomatic as necessary, and respond to the local environment—be it the Sunni Triangle, southern Kabul, or southwest Colombia—with some measure of real autonomy. And today, a year after soldiers “following orders” in a Baghdad prison managed to dramatically lower America's reputation in the Arab world, the need for officers who can handle themselves amid the contradictions of a complex global society is more urgent than ever.

Enter Colonel George B. Forsythe, West Point Military Academy's Vice Dean of Education. As the nation's oldest military college, West Point has long groomed the future leaders—generals, diplomats, and even presidents—of the United States. (“Much of the history we teach is made by the people we taught” is a favorite expression at the school.) And Forsythe is the primary officer in charge of making sure that the thousands of dollars that go into developing each one of those leaders is money well spent. He knows that the character of the soldiers who filter out of the school after four rigorous years will go a long way toward determining the fundamental character of this nation's army. And he has some novel insights into why some soldiers do the right thing in tough situations and why others, as in Abu Ghraib, do such terrible wrongs.

“The tendency is always to say, 'Well, they are bad people,' or 'They have no character,'” he explains. “But it may simply be that developmentally, these soldiers found themselves in a situation in which they were in over their heads.” That may not sound like the kind of tough, no-excuses talk we're used to hearing from army brass, but then again, Forsythe is not your usual officer. Working within a culture that prizes regimen and conformity, he's thinking outside the box. He has introduced into this venerable institution a cutting-edge theory of human evolution: the psychological development theory of Harvard professor Robert Kegan, author of The Evolving Self. Inspired by such psychological luminaries as Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, and others, Kegan has been working for years on what still amounts to a controversial proposition in the halls of academia, much less the military: that human beings go through established hierarchical stages of psychological development; that each stage transcends and includes the lower ones; that this evolution continues throughout human life; and perhaps most radical of all, that as a culture, we are still evolving into higher and higher stages of development.

So, what do stages of development have to do with soldiers fighting the good fight in the sands of Iraq? The answer to that, Forsythe explains cryptically, lies in two sets of numbers: two-three and three-four. These are numerical references to the stages in Kegan's model and to the transitions between them. For example, did you ever know someone who went off to join the army and came back a more respectable, more honorable, and more socialized young man or woman? Likely, what you were seeing was the result of a stage transition, from stage two to stage three. What that means is that your friend left behind the impulses of a more adolescent phase and began to identify with and internalize the values of their chosen tribe, society, or culture, subordinating their own desires and needs to the values and ideals of a larger group. This is often what we mean when we say that an individual has “grown up.”

“Our data suggests,” says Forsythe, “that the story of four years at West Point is the story of the two-to-three transition. [It's about] subordinating your needs to the larger good, becoming a team player.”

While those are admirable goals, the nation today may simply need more than that from those who walk out of West Point's hallowed halls ready to fight the war on terror. “Professional officers who find themselves in ambiguous situations where the guidance and the external answers are not clear,” explains Forsythe, “need to be able to adjudicate those conflicts with an internalized set of values and standards that helps them to regulate themselves.” Simply put, they need to be able to think for themselves and come to their own independent conclusions, to follow orders perhaps, but for the right reasons. And that's where the transition from stage three to stage four becomes very attractive, because stage four in Kegan's model is all about personal autonomy. It is in this transition, developmental experts tell us, that individuals begin to acquire their own deeply rooted values, values that give them the moral and psychological footing to dynamically interpret and respond to the world around them. Stage four is the land not of the rebel or loner but of the true individual, and Kegan has found that most adults are in fact struggling to negotiate the transition from stage three to stage four.

To respond to this developmental need, Forsythe and his colleagues at West Point have created the Cadet Leadership Development Program. Its goals are simple and practical, even as they are revolutionary. He is trying to encourage this esteemed institution, built on camaraderie, collectivity, and teamwork, to cross that great Rubicon of personal autonomy: to make the delicate transition beyond the values of the group, the team, the nation, and the tribe into the difficult and dangerous psychological territory of what Kegan calls stage four, or the “self-authoring mind.”

“The argument is that a stage-four perspective is more adaptive to the kinds of operational circumstances we're finding ourselves in—different cultures and multiple ways of thinking about military expertise and what the role of the military is,” Forsythe says. “So the development of a stage-four perspective is increasingly critical.” But how do you change a culture as deeply rooted as the nation's military, where subordinating personal values to the larger cause is almost a religion? And how do you encourage such a change without undermining the very important and effective work done at West Point to inculcate self-sacrifice and crucial team-oriented values in young officers? Forsythe doesn't have all the answers yet, but after twenty years of research, he is more confident than ever that he is on the right track. And he has the ear of high-ranking people in our military, who are trusting him to do the right thing by our would-be officers so that when the time comes, they will, in turn, be prepared to do the right thing by all of us.

So the next time you shake your head at some senseless, unfortunate act by a soldier halfway around the world who has fallen prey to his own worst impulses amid the moral chaos of a confusing and complex global society, take heart. Somewhere in our nation's vast military complex, a few good men are pushing soldiers further up the evolutionary ladder of human consciousness—trying, in their own small way, to change the world one officer at a time.

–Carter Phipps


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This article is from
Our Consciousness Issue


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