Military-American Culture

How can tolerance for diversity be customary in the most conservative of institutions?

April is the Month of the Military Child.  This month was created to give attention to the more than 2 million children who are currently a part of the U.S. Armed Forces community. In contrast to mainstream American culture, the military lifestyle can appear rigid and uniform. Many military members do not completely settle in the place they are stationed; and the children of military members often become accustomed to a dramatic move every few years. With the stress of deployments, military life is distinct from civilian life, and today’s military “brats” understand this quite well. Yet, there is another very important, and somewhat unexpected, difference between military culture and mainstream American culture: despite being ideologically conservative and bound to tradition, the U.S. military actively and enthusiastically promotes acceptance of diversity.

As a military brat, and now as an adult, I find I’m frequently reminded of my military heritage. At least once a month I am asked the much-dreaded question: 

“Where are you from?” 

Military children shun this question, as though the meaning of the word “from” cannot be interpreted.  According to the World Heritage Encyclopedia, military brats are part of a U.S. subculture; because of our military upbringing we tend to be nomadic, friendly, and resilient in the face of adversity. According to the Department of Defense, there are around 15 million of us in total; or 5% percent of the U.S. population. Culturally, I’m American, but the heritage I really identify with can only be described as “Military-American.”


There are many pros and many cons to military life, and as a child growing up on Army bases I didn’t know anything but this life. My joke later was that it was “Congressionally-Appropriated Socialism.” The state clearly owned the means of production, although nothing was produced in the commercial sense. Being a child didn’t excuse you from the rules and regulations. Living on the base meant obedience and submission to the command.  There was an absolute  hierarchy and the expectation of conformity. There were bland houses, commissaries, shopping exchanges, military hospitals, and social clubs for officers and enlisted.  Yet, in this very strict and closed environment, social relationships–especially amongst the military children–tended to exhibit a liberal and progressive “post-racial” atmosphere of acceptance. 


In 1948, nearly 20 years before the U.S. civil rights movement began in earnest, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 integrating the military and mandating “equality of treatment and opportunity.” Fifteen years later, in 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued Department of Defense Directive 5120.36, titled “Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces.” The Directive explicitly states that every military commander “has the responsibility to oppose discriminatory practices affecting his men and their dependents and to foster equal opportunity for them, not only in areas under his immediate control, but also in nearby communities where they may gather in off-duty hours.”

What did it mean for the military? 

While racism was not eliminated, Truman’s Executive Order and McNamara’s DOD directive had an enormous impact on the day-to-day lives of thousands of military personnel - not just in the workplace, but in every aspect of their social lives. Many military bases are in remote locations, forcing military families to live in a closed community. Generally speaking, military members living on base could not pick their neighbors or the schools their children attended. They couldn’t pick their colleagues or bosses, church, commissary, shopping center, or social club. They were forced by law to conduct their personal and professional lives together

The most recent generations of Military-Americans have been exposed to many people and many cultures. The patterns of people and behaviors military brats have in their mind are different than people who grew up in a homogenous environment or have had narrower life experiences. Anecdotally, I found in my experience that children of military personnel made friends with the other children based not on race but on shared interests. Even more telling, quite a few mixed-race families lived on base. According to several studies, military personnel are much more likely to marry outside of their primary race than their civilian counterparts. And, before Angelina Jolie and Madonna made it vogue, there were also many military children who had been adopted into families  not in the same racial category.[1]

Opening Shock

“Opening shock” is a term paratroopers use for the spike in force after their parachute deploys. The only way I can describe how I experienced the reality of race and gender relations in America is through the metaphor of opening shock. Once I left the military bases and lived in the civilian world, my preconceived reality was shattered. I was surprised that heritage months were not celebrated, and the repetitious drills of human relations training I took for granted in the military were not required by law. Likewise, I was stunned to find women doing the same jobs as men earned less than 80% of their male counterparts. A few of the people I encountered were blatantly racist or sexist — or both. Despite these jolts, I found my earlier experiences as a military brat and as a young woman in a male-dominated military environment better prepared me to become a leader in the civilian world. 


Now, I feel extraordinarily lucky to have grown up Military-American. I feel as though I have a glimpse, however fleeting and through a naïve worldview, at how a “post-racial” and “non-discriminatory” world could look. And, although, this is only my experience, I would venture to say that many other “Military-Americans” feel the same way.

It would be impossible and impractical to duplicate military culture across American society. And, this article is not suggesting that “Congressionally-appropriated socialism” or military service is the cure for racism, sexism, and other social maladies. But, I would like to propose what some may see as a provocative idea. Looking to the future, as the military grows to incorporate full benefits to same-sex couples on base and more inclusion of women in combat roles, could the next generation of Military-Americans actually become the country’s most accepting of diversity?

Dr. Diane Maye is a member of the Military Writers Guild and frequently writes about U.S. foreign policy, military affairs, Iraqi politics, and grand strategy. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: A sailor gets a homecoming hug from a boy during a celebration for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group at its homeport in Norfolk, Va., July 2, 2013. (DoD Photo)


[1] According to one study, two-parent families where one parent has served in the military are 50% more likely to adopt a child of another race.

Suggested References:

Burk, James, and Evelyn Espinoza. “Race relations within the US military.” Annual Review of Sociology 38 (2012): 401–422.

Dolman, Everett, The Warrior State, New York, NY: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2004.

Ender, Morten G. “Military Brats Film Representations of Children from Military Families.” Armed Forces & Society 32, no. 1 (2005): 24–43.

Hall, Lynn K. “The importance of understanding military culture.” Social Work in Health Care 50, no. 1 (2011): 4–18.

Höhn, Maria, Jeanne Holm, and Mary Edwards Wertsch. Military Brats and other Global Nomads. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Melles, Elizabeth A., and Jonathan Schwartz. “Does the third culture kid experience predict levels of prejudice?.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 37, no. 2 (2013): 260–267.

Murry, Velma McBride, Nancy E. Hill, Dawn Witherspoon, Cady Berkel, and Deborah Bartz. “Children in Diverse Social Contexts.” Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science (2015).

Social Work in Health Care Volume 50, Issue 1, 2011 Special Issue: Social Work With the Military: Current Practice Challenges and Approaches to Care