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The Dementor Layer: Military Identity and the Death of Retention.

What I’m talking about is a Winning Army. A Winning Army founded on comradeship, self-respect and self-discipline; a Winning Army imbued with initiative and daring, with originality and self-confidence, with professional knowledge and infectious energy in all its commanders at every level. I’m talking about an inextinguishable will to win; a relentless pursuit of professional excellence and a determination not to be thwarted by the inevitable setbacks. And that’s to be matched by an entrepreneurial spirit that encourages and rewards an open, collaborative and challenging culture1.

General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, KCB, CBE, ADC. Chief of the General Staff.  

Something’s the matter. Something sinister and something grotesque. And what’s worse is that it’s going on right here under my very nose.

General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett, VC, KCB, DSO, Blackadder Goes Forth, as portrayed by Stephen Fry.

CGS and Melchett may have the same problem – and I’m not talking about a moustache. If we’re going to be empowered by the clarity and positivity of CGS’s words, we need to stare down a serious issue.  Not from enemy action or future threats.  From inside our own community and growing now in our military culture. We must face the uncomfortable truth that the military is giving refuge to individuals who through their actions and decisions, willfully sabotage operational effectiveness and gleefully erode morale.  I wanted to understand why these personnel go beyond active disengagement and enter into a nexus of willful sabotage to cruel stupidity, seemingly for little more than their own perverse delight.

They go beyond well-trodden tropes and caricatures.  This is a cultural plague, as deadly to retention as a horde of White Walkers and we lack an institutional Arya Stark protocol. 2  My friend, 3 calls it ‘The Dementor layer’, referencing the Harry Potter ghouls that hoover the soul and joy from unwilling victims that can only be banished by a powerful ‘patronus’ spell. It’s a great name for them. If only countering them were so simple as for their fictional namesakes.

Their procedural, pedantic shadows are cast in climate indicators like frustration, satisfaction, morale and retention. Even the gritty memes, comments and posts on Facebook sites like ‘Fill Your Boots’ or ARRSE tell an atmospheric, if slightly agitprop story. I’m not talking about undisciplined, maverick attitudes to procedure and policy. I believe somehow, there has been the incrementally normalised acceptance that a ‘work up from no’ culture has some sort of unspoken desirable benefit, either fiscally or otherwise – a grim accepted and unchallenged wisdom. To leave it such is a catastrophic error. I argue we must re-imagine these accepted norms to break this toxic cycle choosing to follow the example of CGS 4 To do that we have to study the problem which means taking a hard stare inwards. I want to understand what creates and drives them so we can begin a process to either cure the cancer, or cut it away.

Before I begin, I want to offer an inoculation to what could be perceived as a sustained wintering on the negative. I accept that by the very nature of resource starved, hierarchical and deeply culturally tribal military structures, we can’t exactly expect an interpersonal land of milk and honey. Equally, one might contrast the negative examples I discuss below by observing an engaged, caring and emotionally intelligent wave of thought, often championed through senior personnel (who may not be so senior in age) mitigating social distance by using social media. Examples like the RE Corps Sergeant Major’s focus on the frustrations that make service unhappy are particularly impressive. Whilst unapologetically combative to catalyse debate, this paper is to further sunlit progress, rather than fester in the dark.

Whilst the phenomena of active disengagement is perhaps common enough, we are different.  When a veteran supermarket supervisor becomes obstructively disengaged, there isn’t enough manpower or will to order replen, stack shelves or oversee those who do – but nobody dies 5.  I think there are aspects of military service that place this institutional necrosis on the radar, bleeding out from dead centre:

  • The seriousness of our business amplified given the relative darkness and lurch to the hard right populism of current world affairs.
  • A generational shift in culture that is stumbled over, badly characterised and too often vociferously derided, although the recent ‘Snowflake’ Army Recruitment campaign was a case study in it’s clever weaponisation.
  • Perhaps righteous challenge by younger personnel of accepted norms whilst not losing sight of tradition and core values – and the heat and light this inevitably generates.
  • The hierarchical, paternalistic, conservative nature of military service (arguably magnified in the Army).
  • The inherent power imbued within certain roles that have unlimited potential for frustration over unit populations.  
  • Our gradual dependence on regular retention, precariously balanced on reserve forces mass.
  • The speed and 365/24/7 penetration of modern communication systems.    


As such this cultural gangrene should be granted severity light years beyond that faced by any civilian corporation.  And yet, it seems so often unnoticed, serially ignored, or timidly tolerated.  My best guess that at the heart of this cultural WMD is professional identity. That is to say, not who we may have wished to be when we joined, but who we have become now we are part of and molded by our experiences within the system. We must understand the trajectory of the ‘Dementor’ such that we can understand how to mitigate their actions – and expose them to the light.   

The Stakes

There’s a saying that when fascism comes to America it will be carrying a bible and draped in the stars and stripes.  It could equally be said that when our retention begins to die, it might be brought by our Dementors, clutching to selective and jaded interpretations of military values and standards,  sometimes on seemingly invulnerable contracts, or inhabiting positions insulated by long service or SME status, and who shudder in delight at hiding behind an impenetrable wall of ‘NO’.

Working Up From ‘No’

Trying to climb this wall of ‘No’ is a defining experience for many. Over the years I’ve discovered some truths with my teams who’ve faced it too. It is never about diplomacy, politics, deference, rank, power or persuasion. The determined Dementor is invulnerable to all these charms. No, the illness we face has long since taken root in the bone. Looking back, I wanted to understand why there is such variance in positivity.  Why is there such a feeling of obstructive, transactional frustration in many professional interactions that chew at our personnel, from a private to even the most senior officer? Worse, why is there the feeling of powerlessness or acceptance in regard to it?  As I took time to look back through the lens of my own failings and experiences, I wanted to know where the electrifying positivity of the Airborne Brigade at war was?  The bold Rifleman creed I’d aspired to of everything that matters and nothing that doesn’t? The glint of magic and mischief in the youngest and most unorthodox members of 77 Brigade?  At the core of this problem, I wanted to know where the basic sense of soldierly bond, which is utterly absent in some, had retreated to – and if it might ever be found. 

Weaponising Identity Theory

Bauman 6 tells us that identity is like moving lava, with identity the spots of crust hardening time and again on the top. He suggests that the concept of identity is a perpetual struggle ‘to deny or at least cover up the awesome fluidity just below the thin wrapping of the form’.  Identity is probably the single most powerful cognitive determinant framing our interactions and constructing of our social realities.

Professional identity is defined as one’s professional self-concept based on attributes, beliefs, values, motives, and experiences 7. Professor Anthony King (@antbruceking on Twitter), who conducted multiple MOD directed, embedded deep-dive studies for 3 Cdo Bde and 16X has mapped and applied this. These studies led to seismic positive changes at both well established institutions of British daring and positivity. His concepts in regard to understanding military ethos and identity distilled and shown in diagram 1 below, noting that the bedrock of true ethos, always starts in the singular objective/mission which then leads the group to a dominant self conception. 8

Ethos Building Blocks

From our genesis as military personnel the organisation rightfully seeks to imbue new individual goals, ethos, standards 9, values and beliefs 10, into the prospective team member.  This initial and continued training investment in the transformation of, or addition to individual identity is arguably to enable the recruit to become an agent of their own transition into the ‘collective’ identity of the ‘team’, in our case, into their respective commands, units and sub-units. This is the critical factor because it’s one of the entry points at which the Dementor DNA is perhaps unwillingly injected into an otherwise happy and positive member of our military family. 

Identity Crisis

All this effort from the Services we join, placed in us, is formative of a professional identity. This manifests within the varying social realities of the ‘clan-based’, but totemic Service we join 11 and its even more sub-unit focused Reserves.  The new member of personnel faces transition through the continuum of individual-relational-collective–material development of identity (see diagram below). The seemingly constant cyclical nature of this is fascinating in the military. 

The concept is perhaps better articulated by the Royal Navy advertisement ‘THE TEAM WORKS’ or ‘MADE IN THE RN’, where from the outset although becoming a Naval recruit is shown as being fundamentally individually transformational, it is paradoxically achieved through the vehicle of assimilation into a team.  The same is so for #THISISBELONGING.  But I get the feeling not everyone feels they #Belong at all. 

Breaking Point

It is possible that this military identity transformation, growth and sequential internalisation as professional identity, whilst evidenced throughout or at intervals in careers, is not consistent, or may become corrupted for a number of environmental or developmental factors.  Hypothetically, it’s possible that at critical, formative junctures for certain personnel and the units they serve within, development of the military identity fails catastrophically, or is mutated into something far less wholesome. This may be the derivation of malicious traits owing to perceived abandonment, mistreatment, damage or pain – or just a character flaw.  The resultant growing mindset, informed by formative stage but fractured identity development, may be toxicity, petulance, pedantry and obstruction by way of exacting some aggregational revenge. 

Over time, behaviours divergent from core values and standards, are cleverly cloaked beneath a veneer of vivid apparent professional, procedural stringency. In truth this may manifest simply as loosely concealed obstinacy.  This ultimately leads to willful, at times gleeful sabotage of progress.  Often, I’ve observed personnel blatantly deviate from commander’s direction or ignore a clearly stated risk appetite in favour of an ‘I know best’ mentality. This is not how wars are won.  It seems almost always based on a near seditious, phantom risk calculus, secretly, quietly concocted, then weaponised against those who challenge it, effectively taking the commander’s name in vain and leeching away desired progress, with depressingly frequent impunity or even simply beneath command radar.  But what makes someone cause such harm?     

Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am?

Before tackling the transition into collective identity, it’s important to consider the effects of relational identity in the military transformation that occurs from civilian recruit to military personnel. The relational notion of identity is defined through spaces and social proximity.  It is prevalent in the military from training, through accession into acceptance within a unit, 12.  

Humans cope poorly in uncertainty. Our minds are programmed to sift out dissonance and head for stability. As such Relational Identity is critical to understand in deducing the motivations of the Dementor. Relational identity is fundamentally dialogical – for an individual to be ascribed an identity they must first have narrative associated with them, or ‘a social audience’ 13.  Perception in the military is hard to shake once applied, further giving rise to the possibility of a toxic character being tolerated through weary stereotyping, poor manning all whilst coupled to that individual abandoning a positive aspirational character.  They embrace the monster they are becoming both to protect and establish themselves, because ultimately this behaviour creates cognitive certainty, that if unchallenged becomes a powerful prism to observe a reality that makes sense to them.

Relational identity is also about how an individual acts when performing set roles, a notion highly structured and enforced in the military 14 and linked to professional identity construction and core outputs. Formative experiences good or bad, or notable relational exclusions that allow for transition to the ‘in group’ in this period are key to understanding the trajectory of an individual’s likelihood to become toxic.   

Collective identity is about identification with a group, the ascription of group acceptance and values and the intensification of those attitudes that are born of that identification 15.  Considering the Dementor, it is observable that relational identity has forced them to accept a core narrative of themselves that places them into a cyclical, seemingly unbreakable negative mindset – an Eeyore 16 Complex – for them, existence itself is hellish.  To make matters worse, it’s possible that their ascription of a collective identity has been equally fractured and they feel themselves either outcast, unloved or unwanted.

Only the lonely. For those Dementors that willfully sabotage, collective identity has become an alien and more revealingly, perhaps a deeply painful concept, mired in loss and abandonment.  The world around them is lonely, bleak and full of terrors to ‘defend’ against whilst silently knowing their sometimes fanatical decisions and actions do great harm to the organisation, their fellow personnel and only magnify their own self loathing.  It is as close to psychological self harm as it gets.

Whilst there is significant literature on Gender 17, nationality 18 and ethnicity 19, it could be argued that military identity transcends these sociological labels.  There is also research suggesting that material identity may be prevalent in that, ‘people view and treat as part of their identities not only social entities beyond their individual selves, but also material artifacts’ 20.  Material artifact is a key aspect of military life in terms of uniform or ‘certificates of presence’ 21 such as photos, qualification badges, the peculiarities of unit specific military ‘couture’ and even how we configure our equipment and can be a significant contributor to harmonic installment in a collective identity, for example passing P Coy as a Corps-based soldier at 16X.  But material identity simply isn’t enough to compel happiness or authentic, internalised behavioural change alone. 


The confluence of identity, adapted from Schwartz, Luyckx and Vignoles, 2011.

So What?

Identity in the military is crucial when considering every strata of sociological identity theory, be that individual, relational, material or collective, unitary or multiple.  Studies have shown that understanding military identity is an aid to recruitment, retention and readiness, including adaptability to deployment and civilian-military relations 22.  

Woodward, Winter and Jenkings propose ‘that military identities, in terms of the meanings that Soldiers and Marines ascribe to specific cultural attributes, are constructed with reference to three dominant ideas.  The first is the centrality of professional skill and expertise as a trained military operative.  The second idea is about the significance of fictive kinship(relations identified as familial despite the lack of biological connection) 23.  The third idea that emerged was the way in which soldiers, as participants in (often) global events, maintained their own narratives about what those events were about’ 24.  

Perhaps most importantly they assert that any military identity is collective and shared.  The idea of the collective military identity being predominant is a potential area of contention for a soldier who is not fully ‘part’ of a unit be that literally for some reason, or by self-imposition, given that Hart and Dick assert that ‘the part-time employee has traditionally occupied a marginal position in organisations’ 25 or feels themselves to be part of an outsider group be that self imposed, material or relational.

The culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is prepared to accept.  Willful sabotage is an observable phenomenon, but one that is cleverly shielded from too much senior scrutiny by either concealment, ambivalent or inhibited leadership, or reliance on the protected, veteran or expert status of the Dementor.  It feels like the behavioural driver at the centre of the Dementor, is a lust to control or transactionally redress after a protracted or chronic period of unwillingly imposed injustice, either perceived or real.  This is a base craving and bright red emotional area. It’s therefore extremely powerful, in that it’s both an addictive and hedonistic driver of behavioural choices. Or it could be delicate egos or deep personality dysfunction, but my guess is long standing perception of loss for which retribution and reparation is sought.  

Torturing Retention

In retention terms, the urgent need is to understand why our professional military environments can become so frustrating and difficult.  Part of the reason remains as clear as it is damaging:  willful sabotage and underhand divergence from command direction.  Accepting Professor King’s dictum that a galvanising mission and clear self conception will ultimately result in strong ethos, it becomes starkly apparent that these ink-spots of willful sabotage will ultimately compromise operational effectiveness through slow and certain degradation of the moral component of fighting power. The mission will never be optimally realised with Dementors in key roles, support, command or core.  Retention will corrode because of their actions, particularly in Reseve units where commitment and priority may be tertiary at best.  Based on the analysis above, and as a guide, the characteristics of a Dementor might be one, or a combination of: 

–  Lack of ficive kinship.  A fractured ego that drives the individual to consider themselves outside of the family and therefore outside of the need to follow a mission.  This may involve a sense of fatigue, ambivalence or the implication that they ‘know best’.

–  Lack of vision.  Unwillingness to accept any galvanising purpose or work to empowered intent rather than simplistic, safe absolutes or their own interpretation of reality.

–  Lack of empathy.  A regressive, potentially psychopathic lack of empathy or view that emotional intelligence demonstrates weakness.

–  Fanaticism.  Selective, expansionist or slavish fanaticism toward the imposition of policy, regulation or precedent, which when weighed against the demands of agility or the risk calculus of their superiors becomes obstruction of progress.

–  Experience.  Inability to conceptualise the impact of their actions on the fights being carried out by other soldiers with other priorities and demands made of them.

–  Stubbornness.  Exhibition of an immunity to change when faced with the demand of an organisation that requires constant flux and agility.   This will always be coupled to outright denial of wrongdoing and cult like belief in their ‘professionalism’.

–  Negative Upbringing.  A possible career trajectory that has included formative experiences that drive toxic behaviour, including early evidence of punishments for infraction, perceived marginalisation, sustained frustration, a sense of prolonged powerlessness, prolonged sense of being outside the soldierly family, or even being the victims of outright abuse, that then intensifies the ferocity of their actions when fragments of power are made available to them over other soldiers.  Or just a pre-existing character flaw that drives vexatious behaviour.  

–  Intelligence and comms.  Unable to communicate and conceptualise easily.  Unwilling to challenge the ‘ways we’ve always done it’, even when empowered to do so.

–  Uncertainty.  High stress and anxiety leading to near constant professional or personal uncertainty.  Desperate to move the ‘black cloud’ from over themselves to almost anyone else.  Almost always defensive and ‘reaching for the knives’.

–  Loner or ‘outgroup’.  Operate outside of mutual bonds of soldierly obligation.  Little sense of family or togetherness.  

–  Lost core identity.  Lack of empathy, unwillingness to commit to or ambivalence toward the shared traditions that form core strength of a unit.

Expecto Patronum!26

Our phantom corps of Dementors demonstrate how we can become culturally primed to ‘work up from a no’. They bring nothing good – only the wheezing death of agility, of ‘can do’, of ‘getting after’. What truly enrages me is not the pitiable fact that they have lost their capacity for daring and all that requires; it is that they so determinedly try to sabotage that most excellent quality in everyone else. Toxic negativity and the fundamental fracture of professional identity infects our people and adds them to the lurking Dementor Corps. I have no cure to offer, no ‘Patronus Charm’, barring a hope that by trying to light a path in this piece, we might help guard our people from straying from it and falling victim to such bleakness. Being a leader is about deep belief in fellow humans and so, whilst perhaps naive, I can’t believe it’s who any of us truly want to be. As such, my view of the Dementors, whilst almost always inducing of voltage sufficient to prematurely grey the most youthful of hair, will always be bounded by a sense of failure and tragedy. That view is firmly balanced on the fact that pity and tolerance for the Dementors cannot continue to be misunderstood as an open invitation for them to feast upon morale.  

About the author

Squadron Leader Rob Pitt RAF

Rob is a RAF Training Officer, former Reserve Infantry Company Commander and led Tactical Information Warfare Team development at 77 Brigade.  Whilst on sabbatical from regular service, he's written novels represented by Sheil Land Literary Agents and is currently writing his first non-fiction book, The Mad Brigade: A tactical guide to military rogues, renegades and eccentrics. He has worked in conservation media, was a UK Defence Academy Consultant in IA&O/OA and FCO Stabilisation Unit Stratcom Deployable Expert.  He previously served with 3 RAF FP Wing, 2 PARA, led an award winning RAF Valley media ops team, as SO2 Leadership at the RAF College Cranwell, commanded The London Scottish and recently supported C-VEO STTT for 7 Infantry Brigade in Africa.  He is XO of Joint Warfare at JFC and is Wavell Room’s Information Warfare Associate Editor.

Footnotes


  1. https://rusi.org/annual-conference/rusi-land-warfare-conference/cgs-keynote-address-2018
  2. Seriously? Buy the box set and get back to me
  3. Suspend disbelief that I have, a friend.

  4. What I’m talking about is a Winning Army. A Winning Army founded on comradeship, self-respect and self-discipline; a Winning Army imbued with initiative and daring, with originality and self-confidence, with professional knowledge and infectious energy in all its commanders at every level. I’m talking about an inextinguishable will to win; a relentless pursuit of professional excellence and a determination not to be thwarted by the inevitable setbacks. And that’s to be matched by an entrepreneurial spirit that encourages and rewards an open, collaborative and challenging culture
  5. Apart from perhaps a little bit inside
  6. 2013, p. 82-3
  7. Slay, 2011; Ibarra, 1999; Schein, 1978
  8. Commando Brigade Ethos Study:
    https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10036/58653/RMethos4.pdf
  9. Atkins, Hart and Donnely, 2005, p.145-165
  10. Marcia, 1966, p.551-558; Waterman, 1999, p.591-621
  11. Again magnified in the Army owing to the cap-badge landscape by comparison with a relatively homogeneous RAF/RN
  12. Bamberg 2004, p. 366-369; Chen, Boucher and Tapias, 2006, p151-179; Kerpelman, Pittman and Lamke, 1997, p.325-346; Thatcher and Zhu, 2006, p. 1076-1088
  13. Markova, 1987, p65-80; Swann, 2005, p.69-83
  14. Jenkings, Woodward, Williams, Rech, Murphy and Bos, 2011, p37-47
  15. Ashmore, Deaux and McLaughlin-Volpe, 2004, p.80-114; DeFina, 2007, p371-392; Tajfel and Turner, 1986, p. 7-24
  16. serially depressed stuffed Donkey of the Winnie the Poo canon
  17. Bussey and Bandura, 1999, p676-713
  18. Schildkraut, 2005, 2007, p. 597-615
  19. Taylor, 1997, p.174-190
  20. Schwartz, Luyckx and Vignoles, 2011
  21. Woodward and Jenkings, 2011
  22. Griffith, 2011
  23. A Profession of Love: Cohesion in a British Platoon in Afghanistan
    https://purehost.bath.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/158421183/Chapter_9_Bury_Final_.pdf
  24. Woodward, Jenkings and Winter, 2011, p.260-263
  25. Hart and Dick, 2006
  26. the spell cast by Hogwartian Wizards/Witches to banish Dementors which takes the form of the animal most related to your personality. You can even discover yours here. Mine is a Unicorn. Not even lying.
    https://www.pottermore.com/news/discover-your-patronus-on-pottermore .

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