Dennis McGurk, Dave I Cotting, Thomas W Britt, and Amy B Adler

The following article is from Amy Adler, Charles Castro, Thomas Britt, ‘Military Life: The psychology of serving in peace and combat (Vol. 2)’, 2013.

The authors describe basic military training with approval as a process of intense indoctrination. By stripping the recruit of their identity, applying stressors and punishments, conditioning obedience to all orders, and dehumanising the enemy, the military replaces the recruit’s former identity with another identity. By the end of basic military training, a young person will obey all orders, including the order to kill another person without hesitation.

The authors are senior US military officers (except Amy Adler, a civilian), and all have doctorates and long research records in social and applied psychology.

“Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare to attack a lion. Four less brave men who know each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely” (Ardant du Picq, 1870, p. 48). Taking “less brave” men and women and training them to know and trust each other in order to attack the enemy is what military indoctrination is all about.

Military indoctrination is a process by which civilians are transformed into military service members. To indoctrinate is to instruct in a doctrine, principle, or ideology; to imbue with a specific partisan or biased belief or point of view (Nichols, 2001). Military indoctrination in U.S. forces goes far beyond this; it is the process of turning civilian men and women into service members—soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. For enlisted personnel, this process occurs during Army Basic Training, Navy Boot Camp, Air Force Basic Training, or Marine Corps Boot Camp. Indoctrination for military officers takes place during Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) training, at one of the service academies (U.S. Military Academy [West Point], the Naval Academy [Annapolis], or the Air Force Academy [Colorado Springs]), or in officer candidate school (OCS). Enlisted training varies in length from 6 to 12 weeks, depending on the branch of service, while officer training is generally conducted during the four years cadets are in ROTC and the service academies or 13 weeks for OCS.

However, all indoctrination has the same overarching goal, to train recruits/cadets physically and mentally and instill in them an understanding of, and willingness to accept values that service members already believe are reasonable, moral, and desirable (e.g., integrity, honesty, commitment).

However, intense indoctrination will be necessary to enable service members to engage in behaviors that represent a more radical departure from their prior experiences and worldview. What types of behaviors require more intense persuasion? Two classes of behaviors in a military context represent (1) killing someone else in the service of a mission to protect one’s country, and (2) the willingness to subordinate self-interests, including survival, in the service of group goals. The leaders of traditional religious, political, and terrorist “cults” employ the process of indoctrination for similar reasons. The more extreme of these groups may require group members to kill other people in the service of their organizations goals, and the group members need to be willing to sacrifice (even by giving up their own life or the life of their child) for the group.

Military Versus Cult Indoctrination

How does military indoctrination differ from indoctrination into a cult-like organization? Unlike cult-like indoctrination, the process of military indoctrination simultaneously prepares individuals to kill and/or potentially sacrifice one’s life while developing more traditionally accepted standards of conduct and socially acceptable values. These latter values, such as integrity and honor, along with adherence to standards, such as killing only enemy combatants, are designed to prevent the service member from becoming an automaton that simply follows any order regardless of its moral consequences.

Service members are not trained for the sole purpose of killing and sacrificing their lives when necessary. Although these behaviors represent a critical aspect of their training and may be necessary during military operations, service members must also be prepared to invoke more complex decision-making strategies to ensure mission success. Current and future operational environments will require service members to operate relatively independently, take on multiple responsibilities, and demonstrate a diversity of skills. For example, in the same operation, a soldier may be required to attack an enemy combatant, negotiate with civilians the war zone, and help rebuild and provide security for a school devoted to the education of local children. To accomplish these diverse tasks, service members will need to demonstrate success at complex decision making that takes place within the context of a detailed professional and ethical framework.

Despite the increased reliance on technology to accomplish military missions, individual service members are still the ‘ones ultimately responsible for mission execution. Thus, the focus on developing individual military values remains a necessary priority (Walsh, 2000). Recruits must learn the values of their organizations, and a good deal of their time is spent being inculcated into a culture with specific values (e.g., Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage). These kinds of values guide the military’s actions (Field Manual 7-21.13 The Soldier’s Guide) and are the cornerstone of each of the armed services. The values are intended to guide individual decision making well beyond basic training. It is this emphasis on that serves as a key mechanism by which civilians entering military service are indoctrinated into military culture.

The Process of Indoctrination

Baron (2000) provides an excellent review of the dynamics and stages of intense indoctrination. His description helps to illustrate the ways in which military indoctrination both conforms to and deviates from his global indoctrination model. Ultimately, successful indoctrination results in a dramatic change in the individual’s self-concept, which is both maintained and reinforced by the individual’s social environment. The change in self-concept, which involves internalization of the group’s values, ultimately leads the individual co seek the fulfillment of not only personal goals but also group goals. The goal of military indoctrination is to produce service members who have internalized the values of the armed services so as to drive individuals to behaviors in defense of the nation that may involve killing or sacrificing oneself, while thinking and problem solving in the presence of complex contingencies.

Stages of Indoctrination

Various authors have described different stages that make up the indoctrination process (Baron, 2000; Lifton, 1961; Schein, Schneier, & Barker, 1961; Stahelski, 2004). Despite some diversity in how these stages are conceptualized, these authors construe indoctrination as following roughly the same sequence of stages. Because of its focus on the process of indoctrination across a variety of situations, we use Baron’s (2000) stage model as a basis to illustrate military indoctrination, although we integrate other approaches as well. The fundamental stages of intense indoctrination consists of the “softening-up stage, compliance stage, internalization stage, and consolidation stage” (Baron, 2000, p. 240). A brief summary of each stage and its military application is provided in Table 2.1.

Softening-up Stage

Baron argues that the first stage involves laying the groundwork for the individual to adopt the new values and behaviors of the group by separating the individual from prior contacts and by exposing the individual to a variety of stressors. This initial stage also involves an attempt to decrease an emphasis on the unique aspects of an individual’s identity and, instead, to expose and reinforce the key tenets of the group. It is generally believed that an initial period of stress and some disorientation ultimately provide more fertile ground for engaging in social psychological processes that will cause an individual to de-emphasize his or her: personal identity and embrace the identity of the group. Stahelski (2004) (see Figure 2.1) refers to this stage of indoctrination as “depluralization,” which consists of removing all other group identities from the individual’s self-concept. When individuals encounter stressors such as lack of sleep and intense physical activity on a continuous basis, their attention resources are depleted, making them less resistant to persuasion attempts (Baron, 2000; Easterbrook. 1959; Wine, 1971).

In the context of indoctrination the U.S. Army, recruits are told they have left their family, friends, and all else behind them and are now part of the military family. Recruits work continuously from early in the morning until bedtime, with little time for reflection about how their experiences are consistent or inconsistent with their prior life. In most Army indoctrination settings, new members are allowed minimal or no contact with outsiders, including their immediate families. In addition, military training is very often conducted in isolated environments, away from outside influence. Recruits are generally restricted to the post during the initial phases of indoctrination. Cadences, the songs that are sung when marching or running in formation, are rich with references to things that are “back on the block,” referring to the civilian world as if it is another world. In addition, no tattoos or other group markings are allowed to be seen when in uniform. Taken together, this facilitates what Ward (1999) referred to as the social incubator and enables the indoctrination process to occur.

The softening-up stage also includes Stahelski’s (2004) stage of self-deindividuation, where personal identity is de-emphasized and croup identity is emphasized in its place. This is commonly referred to in the military as “breaking down” recruits before they are rebuilt in the military organization’s image. One striking example of this is when new recruits are no longer referred to by their first name. New enlisted soldiers are called Private Smith or Private Jones, while officer recruits are referred to as Cadet Smith or Cadet Jones. The extreme case of deindividuation is the Marine Corps requiring recruits to refer to themselves in the third person. When recruits want to talk to the drill instructor, they must state “the private requests to speak.” To further stress the formation of a group identity, all recruits wear identical uniforms and have identical haircuts so that everyone looks as similar as possible. Prior research suggests that these types of activities promote a sense of anonymity and loss of self-awareness, leading to a greater likelihood of immersion in the social role or group (Diener, 1975). This stage sets the groundwork for what Goffman (cited in Bourne 1967) termed the “mortification process,” during which the recruit is stripped of his or her previous self. Previous achievement, family, and individuality are ignored, and the institutions’ own indicators of achievements, reference group, and status are demanded in their place. For example, high school sports jackets with uniform numbers on the sleeve are replaced by battle dress uniforms (BDUs), with name tapes that spell out “U.S. Army” sewn over the heart and an Army unit patch sewn on the sleeve.

Stahelski’s Five Phases of Social Psychological Conditioning.

Phase 1: Depluralization: stripping away all other group member identities.

Phase 2: Self-deindividuation: stripping away each member’s personal identity.

Phase 3: Other-deindividuation: stripping away the personal identities of enemies.

Phase 4: Dehumanization: identifying enemies as subhuman or nonhuman.

Phase 5: Demonization: identifying enemies as evil.

Source: Stahelski, 2004.

The process of military indoctrination certainly contains essential features of the softening-up’ stage of general intense indoctrination, but it is also worth considering the ways in which military indoctrination is unique. Although the initial training of service members provides a heavy dose of workload and stressors to ultimately enhance resiliency under the severe conditions of combat, even at an early stage recruits are also trained to recognize morally suspect actions and to take personal responsibility for actions that may have life-and-death consequences for others. A more complex code of values guiding the behavior of service members is introduced during basic training and then is expanded throughout the rest of a service member’s military training. (See Grojean & Thomas, this set, Volume 4.) In this way, the softening up, or deindividuation, plays a role in the adoption of the behaviors necessary to excel and thrive in combat situations, but service members are also trained to be decision makers who are aware of the values guiding their behaviors.

Compliance Stage

According to Baron (2000), the second stage of intense indoctrination involves the individual beginning to experiment with newly learned behaviors: “The recruit tentatively ‘tries out’ some of the behaviors requested by the group, more or less going through the motions or paying lip service to many the demands made by the group” (p. 241). At this stage, individuals are basically modeling what they believe is expected of them to avoid punishment and reprimands, not conforming because of an intrinsic interest in supporting the group.

It is almost certainly the case that military recruits go through this compliance phase or period of engagement in the early stages of training (Bourne, 1967). Behaviors such as singing cadences and group exercises may at first be done out of an extrinsic desire to avoid disapproval or punishment. Even learning and advocating the values espoused by a service member’s branch of the military may ac first be done with a relatively superficial commitment. However, research has shown that behaviors initially performed for extrinsic reasons have a higher likelihood of being internalized by the individual when repeatedly performed and reinforced (Cialdini, 1993). Desired behaviors, such as using proper military courtesies when addressing the drill instructor, are required numerous times each day, and compliance is strongly supported by the group. In addition, group reinforcement of positive actions is encouraged by drill instructors.

Internalization Phase

The third phase of indoctrination represents a more active incorporation of the group’s actions, values, and standards into the individual’s worldview, which is facilitated through constant social confirmation and continued emphasis on group and activities (Baron, 2000). At this stage, the individual has come to privately believe the central tenets of the group and begins to seek inclusion within the group. The private acceptance of group norms and influence represents a critical step in the indoctrination process, as the individual comes to personally adopt the group’s belief system. It is during this stage that the individual starts to change his or her self-conception to one in which membership of the group takes on central importance (Schein et al., 1961).

From the perspective of military indoctrination, internalization will likely take place at different times for different service members, with some service members failing to reach this stage. Service members who are motivated to join the military for relatively extrinsic reasons (e.g., financial rewards, parental approval) may fail to progress from compliance to internalization, and instead may continue to “go through the motions” throughout training. However, service members who internalize the central values of the armed services will be changed as individuals and will be more internally motivated to behave in ways consistent with those values (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Consolidation Stage

The final stage of intense indoctrination involves individuals solidifying their identity as a group member and expressing an unwavering commitment to the group’s goals and activities (Baron, 2000). To simplify their lives, individuals in this consolidation stage, like many individuals, generally categorise people as those similar to them (in-group) versus those different from them (out-groups). In examples of intense indoctrination, the individual may unquestioningly respond to group requests and may even distort reality in the service of maintaining a positive perception of the group.

In discussing this stage as part of terrorist indoctrination processes, Stahelski (2004) notes how this final phase contains a number of processes relevant to how so-called out-groups are treated by terrorist organizations. Terrorist groups de-emphasize the prospective enemy as unique individuals, a process referred to as other-deindividuation. Beyond other-deindividuation is the process of dehumanization, in which the enemy is portrayed as not merely lacking in individuality but as nonhuman. The enemy is perceived to have negative characteristics such as low intelligence, lack of compassion, and/or a corrupt nature. Often the enemy is likened to a rat or other vermin (Stahelski, 2004).

One final aspect of views of the enemy within indoctrination is demonization, when the enemy is identified as evil or of the devil. Differences in religion are often evoked, and enemy soldiers are described as godless. This creates a view of the enemy as less than human and, like dehumanization, makes it much easier to kill them. The former Soviet Union was labeled “the evil empire” by President Ronald Reagan. In some foreign countries, the United States is referred to as the “Great Satan,” and Americans are called infidels. Similarly, some cultures instruct their soldiers that killing the enemy will earn them eternity in Valhalla, 72 virgins in heaven with Mohammed, or other “heavenly” rewards. While these kinds of rewards are not promised during United States military indoctrination, being part of the righteous side of a conflict is emphasized, and “dying with your boots on” is considered an honorable way to die.

Consistent with this emphasis on killing, indoctrination is used to train individuals in the attitudes and behaviors required to kill. It is typically assumed that civilians enter the military with an inherent reluctance to kill, and so the task of indoctrination is to shape attitudes toward killing and to train individuals in the behaviors necessary to kill. The processes used to shape attitudes toward killing include depluralization, other-deindividuation, and dehumanization; the process of desensitization to discharging weapons is used to shape behavior. Whether or not service members remain reluctant to fire their weapons despite this indoctrination has been the subject of some debate (see Grossman, 1996; Marshall, 1947; Spiller, 1988), but this particular goal of military indoctrination has remained consistent. Interestingly, Stahelski (2004) posits that democratic militaries use these methods but are careful to apply these techniques only to enemy soldiers, not noncombatants or civilians. Democratic militaries regard this distinction as critical and pride themselves on limiting collateral damage, injuries, or deaths of innocent civilians.

Overall, whether developing an identity that incorporates che organization’s values or developing attitudes that meet the organization s needs, indoctrination involves a series of systematic stages. stages of indoctrination lay out the pattern that individuals entering the organization follow. The mechanisms underlying these indoctrination stages encompass active methods of persuasion as well as the influence of the group and changes in individual identity.

Mechanisms of Indoctrination

The indoctrination process follows a number of steps. Individuals are removed from their former selves, a new self is formed, and group goals and values are internalized. The mechanisms of such a process involve techniques that have been frequently studied in social psychological research. Many of these techniques, despite their deceivingly mild nature, have powerful effects. While many social psychological theories can be used to understand the indoctrination process, three key theories are described here: persuasion, group dynamics, and identity development.

Persuasion-related Processes

In a sense, indoctrination represents an extreme form of persuasion, in which the goal is to persuade an individual to perform some behaviors that before the indoctrination experience would have been considered ludicrous. Baron (2000) describes in detail the social psychological research on persuasion critical to understanding how an individual progresses through the various stages of indoctrination, the persuasion principle most relevant to the process of indoctrination is related to the diversity of negative emotional states capable of undermining the cognitive elaboration of a persuasive message. The individual is left relying on persuasive cues such as the degree of expertise and/or the authority of the source (Baron, 1986; Gleicher & Petty, 1992; Sanbonmatsu & Kardes, 1988).

The intense workload and sleep restriction experienced by military recruits leaves them little attention capacity for processing the messages they receive about new norms and guidelines that should govern their conduct (Easterbrook, 1959; Kahneman, 1973). Therefore, recruits should be less likely to devote their remaining cognitive effort to judging the quality of persuasive messages and will be more likely to be persuaded by the messages because the messages come from a military authority or expert. Some controversy currently exists about: the extent of attitude and identity change that results from such peripheral route processing (see Petty & Wegener, 1998). However, it is possible that changed beliefs and attitudes as a result of superficial processing may later be consolidated through more thoughtful analysis in later military training programs that do not tax the resources of trainees. (See Grojean & Thomas, this set, Volume 4.)

Group Dynamics and Conformity

Intense indoctrination always occurs in a powerful social context for the recruit (Baron, 2000; Lifton, 1961; Schein et al., 1961). New recruits face immense social pressure to conform to the values of the group or risk psychological (e.g., group exclusion) and possibly physical consequences. Individuals have a basic need to belong to meaningful groups (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), and the feeling that one has been excluded from important and meaningful reference groups can lead to anxiety and a loss of self-esteem (Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995).

One obvious way to avoid the negative consequences of being excluded by a group is to conform to that group (Cialdini, 1993). Furthermore, researchers have found that individuals are more likely to conform to existing group norms when experiencing such stressors as time pressure, loud noise, or threat of physical pain from shock (Darley, 1966; Kruglanski & Webster, 1991). As already discussed, intense indoctrination settings are inherently stressful, and therefore the pressures to conform to group and authority norms for proper conduct will be great. Within a military context, conformity during indoctrination occurs on multiple levels: conformity to the actions of fellow unit members, conformity to the demands of authorities (e.g., drill sergeants), and conformity to the more abstract values emphasized by the particular branch of the armed service. In addition, conformity is more likely because all aspects of training are conducted with accompanying stressors (e.g., time limits, while drill instructors are yelling, and/or the threat of physical pain from performing push ups or other physical exercises).

Identity Processes

According to Tajfel, social identity is “that part of the individual’s self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership” (1981, p. 235). In addition, social identity distinguishes itself by calling attention to the competition, real or imagined, between the group with which one identifies (i.e., the in-group) and another group (i.e., the out-group). Social identity, in fact, suggests that identification both stems from and is being fed by a need for positive distinctiveness between the in-group and the out-group. This need is satisfied by intergroup downward comparisons that often heighten group differences (Oaker & Brown, 1986). The group in this approach is based on both perceived similarities between in-group members and differences between in-group and out-group members. We note, however, that although the distinction between the “we” and the “they” is fundamental, the “they” may not have any independent existence, and its members may not have anything in common other than not being a “we” from the definer’s perspective (Deaux, 1996). Social identification theory may capture an intrinsic element of military indoctrination: its emphasis on bettering the self. The process of military indoctrination presumably betters the self by making the individual part of a distinguished group (e.g., “the few, the proud, the Marines”). To both motivate for and maintain this “transformation,” a degree of downward comparison is required. Airborne school instructors, for example, emphasize that paratroopers are better than “regulars” (who are often referred to as “dirty, nasty legs,” implying that regular troops go to war on foot, while paratroopers jump from aircraft).

Each individual has a general orientation by which he/she views the self and others who can be captured by the concept of collectivism. Collectivism represents the general disposition to (a) define the self as part of groups, (b) subordinate personal goals to group goals, and (c) show strong emotional ties to the group. In contrast, individualism (most often construed as the opposite tendency on a single continuum with collectivism) represents an orientation toward self-reliance, independence, personal goals, and achievements. As a general dispositional variable, this concept has mostly been studied at a cultural level of analysis.

Although it is beyond the scope of this chapter to investigate cultural factors in military identification processes, we note that the work of Markus and Kitayama (1991, 1994) in Japan and the United States indicates that Asian cultures emphasize the interdependence of the self with others, using the self-in-relation-to-other as the basic unit of self-definition. In contrast, Western cultures emphasize the differences between the self and others and a self-as-distinct-from-others approach to self-definition. Whether collectivism results in quicker military indoctrination or whether collectivist cultures (or individuals) require different indoctrination strategies than do individualist cultures (or individuals) are questions that have not as yet been studied empirically. However, we cannot but wonder about the importance of this general orientation in an individual selecting a branch for service in the United States Armed Forces (“the few, the proud, the Marines” versus “the Army of one” may attract recruits from different cultural orientations). Indeed, if such self-selection is based on collectivism, we can speculate that molding specific military indoctrination strategies for individuals with collectivist and individualist orientation may result in more effective military indoctrination.

The Experience and Success/Failure of Indoctrination

While the processes of indoctrination may be operating on the recruits, the recruits themselves experience the process from their unique perspective. To study the phenomenology of indoctrination, we turned to where the majority of concentrated indoctrination occurs: initial training courses. We identified studies that specifically examined the experiences of incoming military recruits.

In Gold’s (2000) study of West Point cadets undergoing their first exposure to the military during the six-week cadet basic training session known as “beast,” interviews revealed three major stressors identified by the recruits. First, the novelty of the experience is profound. Being thrown into a completely new environment, with a new identity, and a new set of rules and expectations that are not yet clear create the basis from which the old identity can be shed and the new identity can be developed. This period of transition from civilian to cadet is a type of culture shock. The culture itself, the group of reference, has shifted to such a dramatic degree that the cadets are left dazed and confused, but motivated. The importance of the new peer group is critical for transitioning into this new military identity. As one cadet notes, feels like “a thousand of you who are nothings together” (Gold, 2000, p. 149). This camaraderie provides support for surviving this harsh but exhilarating transition.

Interestingly, in a study conducted 30 years earlier with enlisted soldiers drafted into the military, Bourne (1967) reported similar findings. The soldiers experienced what he termed environmental shock, similar to Gold’s concept of culture shock. The worst of this stress is experienced during the phase before the actual training begins, because the individual has lost his identity but has not yet been provided with a new one and also has not yet been able to test himself on the much-anticipated challenges of the training course itself. Self-doubt and lack of confidence place the individual in a stressful no-man’s-land.

The second stressor identified by the West Point cadets was the stress of not being able to anticipate what will happen next. The shifting expectations and demands are a component of stressors (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Again, Bourne also notes that this inability to anticipate demands is a major source of stress for the basic trainees. By focusing on the unknown, individuals are left in an unstable condition that prepares them for accepting a new certainty, the certainty of the group and the groups goals.

The third and final stressor reported by the West Point cadets was the stress of sheer workload in the form of time management pressures. Bourne’s study did not reveal the same stressor but did mention that the draftees worked 20 hours a day, so much that there was little time to contemplate the changes that were occurring (consistent with the softening-up phase described by Baron, 2000).

Despite the externally applied pressure of indoctrination, individuals being indoctrinated, at least in the case of the military, are quite aware that they are being subjected to an active change process. This self-awareness may not be typical of other kinds of indoctrination. In the studies cited here, both the cadets and the basic trainees were conscious that they were in the midst of a life-changing experience. They were quite aware that they were going to be subjected to stressful events designed to turn them into members of the organization. They were motivated participants in that transition. They also contemplated the process itself. In the case of the cadets, Gold reported that even incidental training-related demands were perceived by the cadets as part of the overall training process, as part of some overall plan to prepare them as military leaders. In the case of the basic trainees, Bourne reported that upon reflection, many wished that the training had been harder. They were hoping to see themselves transformed into men by the experience.

Other components of military indoctrination that play an important role in the life of the trainee and that are not typically described in theories of indoctrination are the physical demands of the training. One physical demand is sleep restriction or deprivation. A consequence of sleep restriction may well be reduced resistance, which may reduce the ability of recruits to critically analyze cognitive information regarding attempts at persuasion. Another physical demand is intense physical training. Despite the exhaustion that such a demand places on individuals, a paradoxical effect may, in fact, be to increase an individual’s resistance to stress. Research has shown that physically fit soldiers are better able to cope with stressful experiences (e.g., Brown, 1991; King, Taylor, Haskell, & DeBusk, 1989). Physical training may keep the trainees busy and tired, but it is also a kind of coping strategy that can aid the trainees in dealing with other training stressors. Additional coping techniques Gold identified included relying on social support and the emerging cohesiveness of the cadets. The very dynamic that supports the indoctrination process is perceived by the cadets as a useful tool for handling the stress of “beast.” Other coping strategies identified by Gold included using humor, rationalization, and distraction. While these coping strategies assisted the self-selected and motivated cadets, each cadet also had his or her own unique experience and response.

While the emphasis in the Gold and Bourne papers was on those who completed the training process, not all trainees succeed. Those who are unable to complete the challenge of indoctrination (the military’s perspective) or basic training (the recruit’s perspective) may have encountered a level of expectation and challenge beyond their resources. One of the most difficult aspects of the indoctrination process is that following the period of environmental shock, the self is redefined. The redefinition may be voluntary (in a time of an all-volunteer force), but the process is still externally applied – individual trainees must respect the authority of those in command, they must subordinate their own needs and desires, and they must be able to tolerate the “mortification process” of the loss of identity and the anger chat such a loss engenders (Bourne, 1967) and to meet these challenges consistently. It may be that chose without strong internal defenses do not succeed in making this kind of psychological transition.

Indeed, the research suggests that those who are unable to complete the basic training process are likely to have had a difficult early home life when such defenses and a fundamentally stable self could be developed (e.g., Carbone, Cigrang, Todd, & Fiedler, 1999; Shulman, Levy-Shiff, & Sharf, 2000). Specifically, one of the many common reasons for failing basic training is psychiatric. Those who fail have had less support at home, as demonstrated in a study of Israeli recruits (Shulman, et al., 2000). These recruits have also experienced more abuse as children. In their study of Air Force basic trainees, Carbone and colleagues (1999) found those more likely to be referred for psychiatric exam were more likely to have a history of physical abuse. They also are more likely to have a history of psychological problems (Williams, 2004). In fact, stable temperament is also associated with completing the basic training course, suggesting the need for a stable response to the demands on identity and the self (Elsass, Fiedler, Skip, & Hill, 2001; Lubin, Fiedler, & Van Whitlock, 1996). Good coping strategies are also helpful for those entering basic training. Such strategies include optimism (Carbone et al., 1999) and physical fitness (Pope, Herbert, Kirwan, & Graham, 1999).

Given the high rate of attrition among those entering basic training (a finding reported across many of the services; Carbone et al., 1999; Hoge et al., 2002; Hoge et al., 2005; Talcott, Haddock, Klesges, Lando, & Fiedler, 1999; Williams, 2004), early intervention programs designed to shore up the coping strategies of these recruits should be able to help them confront the psychological challenge of basic training indoctrination. In a study with Air Force recruits, two-session stress-management training did not make a difference in the attrition of at-risk trainees (Cigrang, Todd, & Carbone, 2000), However, in a study of Navy recruits, Williams (2004) describes an intervention designed to reduce emotional reactivity and improve cognitive-behavioral coping strategies in at-risk recruits. Those completing weekly cognitive behavioral skills training were more likely to complete basic training than were at-risk recruits who did not receive such training. This result suggests that recruits provided with ongoing support and new evidence-based skills can cope better with the tough demands of basic training. This kind of proactive support is another way in which basic training differs from cult-like indoctrination. Those who are psychologically strong and stable to start with actually make better candidates for the military’s indoctrination program, which is quite a contrast to the profile of cult recruits (see Lifton, 1961; Schein et al., 1961).

Thus, from the perspective of the recruit who successfully adapts to the beginning phases of military training, the demands of military indoctrination are exhilarating, seen in a context of achievement and life transition. The recruits are well aware that the process is something powerful, and they are eager to embrace it, despite its demands. The indoctrination, while attempting to be a redefining of self, may in fact be, from the perspective of the recruit, a reshaping of their already-strong sense of self. Such an interpretation of the indoctrination process is based not only on the accounts of recruits, but also on the fact that those who do not start with a fundamentally sound self are less likely to succeed in reshaping it. If there was a completely new self, then the lack of a stable pre-indoctrination self would not be a particular disadvantage. The fact that it is suggests that the reshaping is a dual process in which the basic trainee plays an active role.

Future Directions

Indoctrination is believed to be a vital part of successfully incorporating individuals into strongly defined organizations to promote that organization’s agenda and values. The process of indoctrination involves many interrelated steps and procedures that guide the individual’s journey from outsider status to status as a member of the organization who not only understands the organization but also identifies with it. While there are many similarities in indoctrination across a range of organizations, from cults to the military, we have outlined the fundamental ways in which these processes differ.

Much of the research on indoctrination up to this point has focused primarily on case studies and broad questions of social psychological processes that are believed to underlie the indoctrination process. Little systematic research has examined the extent to which thorough indoctrination is indeed necessary for an organization like the military. For example, how can the success of indoctrination be measured? Do individuals perform better if they are more indoctrinated? Does the group function more effectively? Does the individual, once integrated into an existing unit, have less conflict than one who isn’t indoctrinated? Does indoctrination affect intention to remain in the organization? These outcomes are the assumed results of indoctrination but have not yet been studied. Similarly, what aspects of indoctrination would be measured to determine the degree of indoctrination? A valid measure of indoctrination needs to be identified, whether it be duration, intensity, or some other characteristic of indoctrination.

Another area that requires investigation is the most effective way to indoctrinate individuals within the military context. In many countries with strong democratic traditions, the military must balance between having its individuals adapt to a specific worldview that includes following orders and killing when necessary with the need to question unlawful orders and consider the ethics of particular situations.

Facilitating the development of the individual within the military structure as a service member capable of simultaneously following orders, thinking independently, and evaluating the legality of the order is a difficult task. Whether the objective of developing individuals who follow orders and question them is internally inconsistent, or whether the two parts of the objective can be reconciled is unclear. How these goals can be optimally reflected in the indoctrination process is also an area of indoctrination that has not yet been systematically examined. For example, can the recruit learn simultaneously to follow orders while questioning them, or should this be a two-step process? Research into this question could lead to recommendations regarding how best to develop basic training strategies so that individuals are ready to both follow and question orders simultaneously.

As mentioned previously, different methods of indoctrination may be more effective for collectivist and individualistic groups and/or individuals. This may be especially important within the United States because of the diversity of Americans’ ethnic background ranging from strongly collectivist (e.g., Japanese-Americans) to strongly individualistic (e.g., Western European-Americans). An evaluation of whether collectivism results in quicker military indoctrination or whether collectivist cultures (or individuals) require different indoctrination strategies than do individualist cultures (or individuals) could prove beneficial to the military.

While we have discussed indoctrination, assuming it is a prerequisite for successful functioning and survival of the organization, it is not clear to what extent indoctrination is a requirement for organizational sustainment. For example, there is great diversity in the degree of commitment to the organization on the part of service members. Some decide to leave the service after their initial obligation, while others remain until retirement. Yet, each has undergone similar types of indoctrination experiences. Clearly, early indoctrination is not the cause of deep organizational commitment, which leads to the question of whether additional indoctrination continues to influence members of the military beyond that found in basic training. Another possibility is that there are personality differences that affect how the indoctrination process influences individuals or that individuals arrive at basic training in different stages of indoctrination readiness. Some may be highly skeptical and some may be quite ready to assume the values of the organization (see Grojean and Thomas for a discussion of the importance of the individual x experience interaction, volume 4), or perhaps indoctrination is not the driving force behind organizational commitment.

Indoctrination into the military is epitomized by the experience of basic training. Reflected in film and novels, the world of basic training is portrayed as a harsh, intense, and unforgiving experience in which individuals are turned into killing machines. This portrayal contrasts sharply with the reports of basic training from the recruits themselves. While psychological processes evidently are at work that influence individual identity, individuals are not passive participants in the process. Recruits make a conscious decision to join the ranks of the military. The trainees are as much a guide in their developmental journey as is the external process itself. The future of research examining the dynamics, components, and effectiveness of indoctrination would do well to remember that turning civilians into service members is a multi-determined, iterative, and interactional process.


  1. JAY BUTLER says:


    I am in the process of considering writing a book for veterans compensation and disability claim and the role of boot camp indoctrination affects how the veteran see a claim for compensation. Can I site you and your sources.

  2. Neecie PARKER says:

    Great Research gathering on: indoctrination into the U.S. armed forces! Your research helped me tremendously in adding much-needed clarity of information for PsyD dissertation on incivility and bullying in the U.S. military. As you know, there is limited published information available on U.S. military toxic leadership and abuse. However, maybe, just maybe the term socialization processes might be added to this paper? Overall, OUTSTANDING research!

  3. Justin J McKay says:

    You may have left out shock, sleep deprivation and conformity as steps of indoctrination. I went through basic training in the Army at Ft Mcllelan AL in Nov 1990.

  4. Davy Stephenson says:

    After reading this short story the mental picture of isolation starvation came flooding back like a ghost in the night.
    My military indoctrination began at Strensall near York in early 83 and the whole camp was bustling with new recruits fresh from the dole cue of the recession now well under way. Having already served my time as an engineer and mechanic I was looking for adventure. Little did I realise that my life was suddenly about to change and I was to become a lowly figure in the eyes of those who only momentarily themselves reported to the gaurd room as interns before me.
    Here was a mixture of many different walks of life, some from the larger towns and cities and some farming stock and country bumpkins.
    The pecking order was well and truly in place the whole four years I was there but I had designs to learn as many new skills as possible in such a mundane peacfull setting away from conflict is sunny Catterick, until that was we reached Northern Ireland where very shortly after I lost a much lov3d native from my own area, who passed from this world abbruptly leaving behind a new baby and a wife without any future together. From this moment onwards I had seen enough to last me a life time and volunteered for self release, having recently got married myself and had a baby son of our own.
    Here was as parsimonious less a place if there every was one and not one I wanted to put my own budding family through at any cost. My main aim was to do the job I had been assigned in the medical centre and leave as soon as the opportunity arose after this active military role.
    That moment of joy came in June 87 at Colchester two years later and driving out of camp with our now two year old son and another son at five weeks old fast asleep on my wifes knee in his moses basket we left the confines of the camp gates and a whole new world free from the thoughts of death and mystery suddenly left my consciousness behind.
    Now knowing that those who follow in my footsteps all those years ago,I would strongly recommend that nobody goes down the same path to insanity, to learn to kill for a living. It’s simply not worth it at any cost like my friend who walked into no man’s land and Divvies Flats Belfast so many years ago.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s