Creating One Out of Many: The Military Way

An Essay by Colonel Miguel Howe, April and Jay Graham Fellow of the Military Service Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute

The military successfully assimilates immigrants through instilling every soldier with a shared purpose and set of values. America should follow its lead by defining a common purpose.

Recruits from Mike Company, 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Aug. 18, 2017. Annually, more than 17,000 males recruited from the Western Recruiting Region are trained at MCRD San Diego. (Department of Defense)

Southern California is one of the most diverse 40,000 square miles on the planet. The region’s five counties comprise deserts, mountains, plains, and coastal areas. Those counties include rural, suburban, and densely urban communities. And those communities are home to the poor, the middle class, and the economic elite, all with wide-ranging education levels and political beliefs.

The residents also include generations of families, new citizens, immigrants, and people seeking to become citizens. SoCal’s 10 million inhabitants are a rich racial and ethnic tapestry of white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and Middle Eastern peoples. You can find more than 200 ethnicities, cultures, and customs and literally hear hundreds of languages.

The military’s method of assimilation

Southern California also is the most fertile recruiting ground for the U.S. military.

The region is consistently one of the top recruiting areas in the nation for the Navy and the Marine Corps. In 2010, it was also the Army’s number one recruiting area for the soldiers of my recruiting battalion. From April of 2008 to June 2010, my battalion put almost 7,000 Americans  citizens and legal residents  from across the five counties of Southern California into the Army. That year, the Army alone enlisted over  70,000 soldiers.

SoCal’s 10 million inhabitants are a rich racial and ethnic tapestry of white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and Middle Eastern peoples…. Southern California also is the most fertile recruiting ground for the U.S. military.

More recently, the Army enlisted 63,000 soldiers in 2016. Fifty-three percent of those soldiers were white, 23 percent were black, 17 percent were Hispanic, and six percent were Asian.  From the many came one  one Army.

Upon enlistment, these young Americans and legal residents would leave Southern California, attend basic and advance training across the country, and then report to the Army installations and units where they would continue to become ready to deploy.

Captain Scott Horrigan from 2-87 INF discussing with elderly leaders what help they can get from the U.S. military to build a new school in their village in Afghanistan on May 6, 2007. (NBC Newswire)

After they went overseas, they would fight, survive, and win in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Through each phase of turning citizens and legal residents into soldiers, and soldiers into cohesive units, the Army assimilates them in a way that builds disciplined, unified teams.

At the heart of this work is a shared sense of purpose and belonging, which are predicated upon common values. That purpose, those values, and that sense of belonging ensure the integration of a diverse collection of citizens and legal residents from every corner of the United States and its territories.

At the heart of this work is a shared sense of purpose and belonging, which are predicated upon common values.

Purpose, values, and belonging

Of course, the military’s main mission is to protect our national security and way of life. But its insistence upon common purpose, shared values, and community shows how the nation can create one out of many.

All effective organizations and affiliations start with a clear purpose. The military’s common purpose is to fight and win our nation’s wars.

Since 2001 over five million Americans have served in the military. While most chose military service as a pathway to education, opportunity, and prosperity, all of them chose the military in order to defend their nation and the United States Constitution. Every member swears an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”

In battle, they also fight for one another, for the soldier to their left and right. They overcome horrific conditions and paralyzing fear because they don’t want to let their fellow soldiers down.

The willingness to risk your life for someone else, who is likely very different from you, stems from the trust that the military spends so much time creating. In a force as diverse as America’s, a core set of values plays an important role in forging that trust. Every day, recruiters, drill sergeants, first-line supervisors, and the entire military chain of command reinforce loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, courage, and commitment. The result is a common bond that transcends race, ethnicity, education, economic status, blood, and soil.

The willingness to risk your life for someone else, who is likely very different from you, stems from the trust that the military spends so much time creating.

Creating community

The military’s success with assimilation and integration also rests in its sense of community. The spirit of community that compels soldiers to risk their lives for one another is grounded in shared experience and personal responsibility.

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Charles W. Duke from 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, interacts with the crowd while participating in the Marine Air Ground Task Force demonstration in Miramar, Calif., Sept. 23, 2016. (Department of Defense)

True, the military creates bonds in ways the larger society cannot replicate, such as through uniformity, discipline, common language, and a hierarchical chain of command. But any institution or even nation can emulate some of these factors and create common bonds. For example, anyone who has participated in team sports knows how community is created through sacrifice and adversity, both of which are fundamental in military service.

Many of America’s immigrants are particularly aware of the sacrifice and adversity they went through to reach the United States. I was proud to serve with soldiers like Chief Warrant Officer Joel Ornelas. Joel was the Junior Weapons Sergeant on my Special Forces team.

During quiet moments on operational deployments to Colombia and Ecuador, I learned Joel was brought to America by his parents from Sonora, Mexico in search of a better life. He became a U.S. citizen in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan signed a comprehensive immigration act. Joel joined the Army and served over 27 years. His service included 16 operational deployments and five combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I saw his commitment, and that of other soldiers who immigrated to the United States, during my two-and-a-half decades of military service. And from installations across America and the globe, to Latin America, on the decks of the USS Enterprise, to the streets of Baghdad and the provinces of Afghanistan, I have been awestruck at the ability of incredibly diverse teams of all sizes and backgrounds to come together to accomplish whatever task assigned.

Sure, the best equipment, budget, training, and resources are essential to the military’s success. But what really ensures our military’s success is the quality of its people, and the ability of those people to come together as one. 

As America once again grapples with the challenges and opportunities of immigration, we can learn lessons from the military. Most of all, we can learn how to rediscover our common American identity. Through shared purpose, common values, and community, we can create one from the many.

As America once again grapples with the challenges and opportunities of immigration, we can learn lessons from the military.
Leave your feedback with The Catalyst editors