Nefariousness, narcissism, or both? The FBI still does not know precisely what motivated Jack Teixeira to betray his oath of office and his nation. But the 21-year-old has placed U.S. national security and our allies in a vulnerable position. Teixeira’s leaks jeopardized human assets, exposed sensitive intel-gathering methods, and undermined U.S. trust among allies. Foolhardy or foul, Teixeira’s treachery presents another significant problem for our nation – tribal loyalty.
Teixeira was part of a small online gaming community called Thug Shaker Central. The group comprises 20-30 teenagers who play video-based war games. According to reports, Teixeira apparently leaked information to impress his online friends and win their approval. The young guardsman regarded the adulation from a small group of peers more than he valued his national security duties. But this is not the first time we have seen group loyalty supersede national interests.
The U.S. military has long recognized the benefits and challenges of belonging to a small group of peers. The U.S. Marine Corps emphasizes the benefits of “belonging” and “meaning” that is available among the “few good men and women.” The Marine Corps’ focus on meaning and purpose has helped them consistently meet their recruiting goals. One’s participation within a small group of peers provides security, purpose, and feelings of reassurance. Thus, the U.S. military understands that small-group cohesion is essential for combat troops.
But smaller group values must correspond with larger organizational beliefs. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Rielly, U.S. Army, notes, “Leaders assume that every soldier in the organization believes in and practices the Army Values and that new recruits will embrace these values during basic training. Leaders also assume that because their soldier’s values are correct, their beliefs, attitudes, and small-unit norms will also be consistent with what the Army considers desirable and acceptable.” Thus, the U.S. military works to curate a delicate balance between smaller groups values and larger organizational beliefs.
Nevertheless, The U.S military is painfully aware of the challenges in maintaining large organizational values while encouraging small group cohesion. During World War II, 13 percent of infantrymen admitted observing atrocities committed by fellow soldiers. Yet, soldiers admitted they failed to stop the unethical behavior because they did not want to violate group loyalty. The Army’s investigation of the 1968 My Lai Massacre found similar group dynamics at play. Also, an investigation of The Abu Ghraib incident in 2004 discovered that soldiers did not stop the abuse because they did not want to go against the group’s beliefs and attitudes. Consequently, we see egregious ethics violations seem to occur when smaller group values diverge from larger organizational beliefs, and this makes our current cultural moment one of grave concern.
Historically, the United States preserved social cohesion through a modicum of shared values. This is not to say that every U.S. citizen believed the same or shared the same American experience — a pluralistic society will never achieve 100% uniformity. But with the exception of the Civil War era, the United States largely maintained enough civic agreement to temper the conflicts that arise from smaller group divergence. Simply put, Americans held enough commonality to protect against outright social collapse which is why the current state of national polarization is so dangerous.
Political polarization inevitably collapses into tribalization. And tribalization intensifies group loyalty to the point where one will fight to obtain and retain the respect of their peers. Military officials maintain that soldiers will offer their own life before risking the loss of honor or reputation among their peers.
We are not entirely clear what motivated Jack Teixeira to leak sensitive military intelligence. But it seems clear that Teixeira’s ethic of loyalty was shaped more by his online gaming community than his employer. And I suspect this will continue to be a persistent problem for the U.S. military until we find ways to re-establish common values. Consequently, the problem of polarization is eroding more than neighbor-to-neighbor relations; it is also putting our national security at risk.