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  • Grace Whitken

Narcissism in and Around the Military

General William Westmoreland (second from the left), a notable figure in the Vietnam

War. Gen. Westmoreland showed narcissistic characteristics.

The United States Military has a historically visible tendency to insert itself in the dealings of nations around the world. On nearly every occasion, the Armed Forces claim to be heroes to rationalize their forceful involvement in conflicts around the globe. These attitudes are reflective of narcissism and a manifest destiny ideology. Manifest destiny is a concept that arose during the 19th century when American settlers began to spread westward. It was argued that it was settlers’ “destiny” to “manifest” control and establish new settlements in the western part of North America, ignoring Native American’s right to the land and justifying their displacement.

These impositions are motivated by a will to assert power and control, and by the theory of “doing good” by “protecting those who cannot protect themselves.” This trait–exaggerated self-importance– is characteristic of narcissism. It is important to note that the US military has indeed successfully contributed to objectively heroic interventions in global conflicts, where the lives of innocents were protected. However, this truth does not excuse the narcissistic behaviors and manifest destiny mindset, driving several conflicts unnecessarily involving the United States.

Narcissism is defined as displaying traits of inflated egotism, as well as becoming obsessive about how others perceive oneself paired with efforts to regulate these perceptions. Narcissists behave in manipulative and Machiavellian ways, and have a deficient capacity for empathy. Narcissists are also exploitative and entitled, egotistical or self-centered, and authoritative; these markers have been used in studies which observe the leadership behaviors of military leaders and their correlation to narcissism. Narcissists who lack self-esteem (and as a result demand supplementary reaffirming deference from those around them) can have particularly harmful effects in situations where they are given legitimate power and authority over others. The US Armed Forces is a perfect example.

Research demonstrates a marked prevalence of narcissism in military leadership. Commanding officers with toxic behaviors are not outliers. The importance of loyalty and respect for a recognized leader may be obvious, yet narcissistic military leaders consistently behave in ways which only jeopardize the bonds they are meant to creating with those they lead. By extension, they also jeopardize the lives and mental health of both their subordinates and others involved in or near armed conflicts. The bonds that soldiers have with each other and the trust and respect they have for the person leading them are integral to their success in any scenario. Narcissistic leaders cannot effectively gain or keep the respect and loyalty of their subordinates which they so desperately desire to inflate their self-image and require to be successful in their command.

The ability of military leaders to create the “positive” command environment for which they are responsible has a strong impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the subordinates who inhabit that environment. If the leader creates a capricious, toxic, or abusive climate, soldiers' mental health and morale will be negatively affected. Their self-esteem and willingness to offer respect and loyalty to a narcissistic leader will decline. The less respect soldiers have for their leader, the less organized they are and the more danger each of them will be in.

Narcissistic leaders are often referred to as having a “dark side” which has had some amount of recorded deadly effects internally, or within the military itself, as well as externally, or on the field of battle. For example, research demonstrates that there is a correlation between deficient command environments due to narcissistic and toxic behaviors and the suicides of soldiers under that command. Soldiers are already under a great deal of stress due to the nature of their occupation. Added stress, whether it be from humiliation, lack of empathy or consideration from leaders, or the exhausting task of walking on eggshells on top of landmines is an obvious disadvantage to soldiers’ ability to maintain morale or ensure personal safety or the safety of those around them. The performance of one soldier is dependent not only on their personal skills, but also the behaviors and expectations of those leading them. If a soldier’s mental health is compromised, their actions are more likely to become unpredictable, especially in the event that they are losing respect for a toxic leader. Though there hasn’t been extensive research done into this specific correlation, it can be said with some reliability that there is an apparent relationship between narcissistic leadership and an increase in the amount of war crimes recorded.

The prevalence of narcissistic leaders in the military is unsurprising considering the intense need for dominance that the US armed forces maintains. It is predictable that a narcissist would be drawn to an organization built around a chain of command with increasing levels of control, dominance, obedience, and submission. The chain of command not only gives those in command access a heightened ability to affect the lives of whoever sits below them, but also gives them a substantial amount of power over the outcomes on the battlefield. The military provides such a perfect situation for a narcissist to exercise control over others and be afforded respect and submission at the expense of those they are in charge of. The unchecked influence of narcissistic military leaders could spell the downfall of the military itself. How ironic that the narcissist’s utopia is made dysfunctional by the narcissist’s presence.


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