“Losing my Leadership,” Gregory Larkin (2012) — Inquiry 3

Persuasive, Research-Based Argument Award 2012

Writer’s Reflection

This persuasive essay was written at the end of a semester that focused heavily on utilizing rhetoric. This invaluable skill will be beat to death in nearly all of your intro-level classes for good reason. It’s easy to tune out a condescending business teacher talking about the importance of knowing your audience until you knock down the classroom walls and apply it to your daily life. When you walk uptown this weekend, you can witness rhetoric going on all around you. Guys, through rhetoric you can get the girl across the sticky, sweaty dance floor. Girls, through rhetoric you can get the same guy to text you back.

In this essay, rhetoric helped me effectively voice my dissatisfaction with the Air Force ROTC program to the people who wanted me in it, my parents. Nothing I was saying was taken seriously because they saw it as laziness and whining. After hours of getting nowhere through heated texts and phone calls, it finally clicked. This paper finally helped me reach them. Through a frame of “eloquent” language and “credible” research, I was finally able to show them my perspective. Finding something you feel strongly about can be conveyed to any audience in the right combination of reason and emotion. Bringing your audience to an understanding through examples they believe and relate to can equate to incredible success. At least, it did for me. There is no such thing as a “perfect” paper, but it accomplished its goal. I am now an incredibly happy civilian student.




If you peer deeply into the morning fog, you can vaguely see the dark silhouettes of future officers running across campus. While most college students lie deep in slumber at the break of dawn, these young men and women are transforming themselves from civilians to soldiers. Throughout the day, ROTC members stick out like sore thumbs in pressed dress pants and freshly ironed button downs, with nametags and pins identifying their rank and branch. This uniform is completed by a narrow hat that covers their shaved heads. Civilian students stare quizzically at these kids whose pace is a little quicker and posture slightly straighter than most. These future officers have various reasons for joining the military. Many of them come from families with a strong sense of tradition and discipline, so it was inevitable that their careers would ultimately be crafted through one of the military branches. Then there are the young idealists who simply feel called to serve their country. Others, like myself, look to the military Reserve Officer Training Corp as a last option to finance college. Regardless of these diverse backgrounds or motives, we are all investing in the same strictly regimented system that we trust to provide us with the tools to become successful leaders in the military and in the “real world.”

Now that I have been immersed within this program for approximately two months, I am wrestling with the paradoxical nature of leadership within the military. The military is consistently criticized for dehumanizing soldiers, and I question how you can teach someone to lead others when they are merely obeying the orders of others. It seems like the military has used its strict, regimented image to create a facade of building leaders, who are actually all just followers to one degree or another. Can you truly train someone to think outside the box as a leader within the narrow confines of the military system? Through my own experience in the ROTC program, it seems contradictory that one can become a true leader in a system that dehumanizes the individual into conforming. Other people who have been involved in the US military share very similar concerns and criticisms towards the development of military leadership.

Before we can adequately analyze the military’s approach to leadership, we must reach a general consensus on the definition of the word leadership. The ability to assemble a group of people together and accomplish tasks is certainly at the root of leading, but to add perspective on leadership in the eyes of the US military, we look to our 34th president, Dwight Eisenhower. He was a seasoned military man and five star general, who left his presidency warning the American public about the dangers of the military-industrial complex and misplaced leadership. Eisenhower said leadership is “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Emphasizing that masterful rhetoric as the key to leadership, he clearly spoke from experience as a leader who convinced others to follow because they wanted to.

With an established understanding on the definition of leadership, we can delve into the mission and operation of the Reserve Officer Training Corp. While each branch has its own focus and purpose, I will use the Air Force ROTC program, since I have the firsthand privilege of witnessing how it operates. The AFROTC mission, “To develop quality leaders in the Air Force,” is clear and concise. The entire program is built around transforming civilian students into officers in the military. They accomplish this by having all members take a Leadership Laboratory (a class to develop leadership skills), at least one class related to the Air Force, a job within the detachment, and mandatory physical training sessions throughout each week. The program also strongly encourages candidates to participate in events that are not necessarily required, whether it is memorial services, fundraisers, or marching sessions.

After approximately a month of being in the Air Force ROTC program, I observed that the detachment leaders must be failing, because I did every required task in complete and utter disgust. Abhorring every second of marching or writing memos and making sure my uniform was in order, I began to slip into serious depression. Feeling completely estranged to civilian students and fellow ROTC members, I was trapped within a uniform and shaved head. To the rest of campus, I was another ROTC kid, and to my fellow airmen, I was the odd exception that did not embrace standardization, discipline, or extreme sense of nationalism. How was I training to become a leader by following the person marching in front of me and merely copying what somebody told me to tell someone else to do? It was time to sincerely reflect on myself and the system I was considering a career in.

One defining characteristic of the military is the utilization of warfare to obtain objectives, whether they be natural resources, security, or intel. War is undoubtedly brutal and requires a fierce warrior to fight, survive, and win. One example regarding war’s viciousness comes from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front when the protagonist, Paul Bäumer, says, “We became hard, suspicious, pitiless, vicious, tough … and that was good; for these attributes were just what we lacked” (29). This is just one example in literature that reminds us of the necessity to develop the primitive survive-and-conquer persona. Practicing it and training people for it is another thing.

The US military promotes whatever characteristics the individual soldier needs to emerge victorious against any adversity. The means by which the military goes about doing this are constantly admonished as dehumanization. One local example is when the Marines in the ROTC program scream “KILL!” after every exercise. A more dramatic version is in the interview with Josh Steiber, former US Army specialist, who left the military as a conscientious objector after his unit killed Iraqi civilians in cold blood. Evidence of this was eventually leaked onto the Internet. Fortunately for Steiber, he was not in active duty at the time of this horrific incident. But once he was discharged from the military, he admitted publicly that this heartless behavior began in training when he and his unit sang songs like, “I went down to the market where all the women shop, I took out my machete and I began to chop; I went down to the park where all the children play, I pulled out my machine gun and I began to spray” (Steiber). This type of conditioning is disturbing to say the least but shows that dehumanization starts well before a soldier experiences true combat.

When this type of behavior is leaked to the public, jaws drop, and the military receives quite a bit of negative press. The sad truth is that this brand of leadership is a regular occurrence within the military, whether the public is aware of it or not. One article, “Toxic Leadership in the US Army,” offers some explanations for the various types of virulent personality traits that plague military leadership. Denise F. Williams explains the paradoxical nature of leadership in the military. She writes, “The more severe traits and types, such as busy, rigid, in control, enforcing, confident, and street fighter, may be characteristics the Army values in a leader. It is the extent to which these characteristics are applied that represents a problem. In moderation these features may be seen as good and acceptable. In the extreme they are toxic.” It is a struggle to promote ferocious behavior and simultaneously mold a person into a moral leader. The degree to which a system embraces these cruel attitudes certainly dictates how the individual will develop as a leader in and out of military combat.

Just because the United States military emphasizes brutality and obedience over individual development does not mean all military systems are subjected to the same approach. One that stands out in particular is the current German military system. The two concepts called Innere Führung and Auftragstaktik offer a revolutionary approach to running a military. “The German Army’s common image of man is that the soldier is a free person. His individual dignity is respected just as well as his basic rights and rights of liberty” (Widder). The direct translation of Innere Führung is leadership and civic education. “Innere Führung is the commitment of German soldiers to moral-ethical standards,” an idea focused around the individual who should act “out of his own free will,” with an emphasis on “the responsibility he feels to his community” (Widder). This is interconnected with the concept Auftragstaktik, a claim that “[i]t is the superior’s duty to specify the objective within which the subordinate has to accomplish a mission. The commander provides all of the resources required to carry out the mission. This in turn means that execution itself becomes the executor’s responsibility.” Auftragstaktik is “a type of leadership that is inextricably linked to a certain image of men as soldiers” (Widder). These two systematic approaches to the military offer a refreshing contrast to the United States’ system. There is evidence that you can respect the individual and embrace his free will and still operate a large-scale military. While it took the extreme atrocities and abuses of power evidenced in the Holocaust, the German people were able to learn from their mistakes and turn military leadership on its head. The German military puts the individual at the center of this system and trusts that this respect of individuality will carry over into a call to serve the very community. Completing certain assignments give subordinates room to be innovative and to accomplish the tasks at hand as they wish. This trust and respect carries out through the entire German military.

My own struggle with Air Force ROTC stems from a difficulty to conform to the regimented military lifestyle, but it goes much deeper than that. Feeling lost without a niche, I cannot help but acknowledge the paradox of leadership in a system that strips you of your humanity and individuality so you can operate as the most efficient lethal weapon possible. The emphasis is on the greater good in a system that justifies the means and demonizes the enemy. The undercurrent of nationalism and racism I have witnessed in fellow cadets does not inspire me to fall in line with them and take orders. Being marched around for hours in uniform is just the tip of the iceberg of my dissatisfaction with this program. My uncertainty with the military lifestyle was heightened by issues at the macro level including: two wars fought against the ambiguous term of terror, research revealing the psychological trauma of veterans, and constant violence fueling our military-industrial complex. The contradiction regarding positive leadership qualities that demand depersonalizing human interaction and following authority do not sit well with me. I cannot justify why I would fight or how I would fight. My thirst for understanding is drowned out by cheers about avenging the victims of 9/11. My own awareness of the United States’ fallibility throughout history leaves me much more humble about our current foreign policy movements. At the beginning of the second semester, I might walk a little faster and wake up slightly earlier than most college kids, but you will not see me in any type of military uniform. Some wish to lead through discipline; I prefer to lead by example.


Works Cited

Remarque, Erich M. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Buccaneer Books, 1983. Print.

Williams, Denise F. “Toxic Leadership.” Military Review 84.4 (2004): 67-71. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 31 Oct. 2010.

Widder, Werner. “Auftragstaktik and Innere Führung: Trademarks of German Leadership.” Military Review 82.5 (2002): 3. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 31 Oct. 2010.

Stieber, Josh. Interview with Glenn Greenwald. Salon.com. Salon Radio, 9 April 2010. Web. 28 October 2010.


Editorial Team’s Note

Gregory Larkin’s persuasive essay stands out because the author is taking a real risk here, in the sense that he is questioning military practices from within the military. To do this, the author uses his insider status as an advantage, blending his experiences in AFROTC with his research. This can be a useful technique when taking on an argument that requires academic research. By choosing to begin and end his paper with an image of how he inhabits campus spaces, first as an AFROTC member and thereafter as a student who has left the program, Larkin is able to illustrate the relationship between scholarly arguments and everyday lives. Consider the author’s admission that he wrote this paper to voice his dissatisfaction with the AFROTC program to his parents. How do you imagine this paper would have been different had he been voicing his dissatisfaction with the program to AFROTC leadership? To the Miami student population in general?