Almost two years ago, the Strategic Studies Institute published an incredibly accurate depiction of the culture of lying that is so pervasive throughout the U.S. Army, specifically amongst the Officer corps and senior leadership, but also throughout the NCO ranks.
In surprising detail, the authors of the study pick apart all of the little examples of dishonesty that occur on a daily basis, and show how it correlates to the ostensibly ‘shocking’ lapses of integrity when senior officers are caught red handed using a GPC to pay for strippers, as just one (recent) example.
I’m certainly not so naïve to think that there was ever a time when there wasn’t lying throughout the army or military. Supply Sergeants have had to make shit happen since Valley Forge, and often times we really don’t want to know how they did it. But those instances should rightly be reserved for times in extremis, not as the foundation for how we conduct operations and reporting, which is sadly the case now.
When I was a cadet at West Point, we were brought up from day one with the Academy’s mantra: Duty, Honor, Country. The concept of integrity and honor was woven into every aspect of our daily lives. There was an honor code, and it wasn’t just some passing thing we paid lip service to. If you popped off and said you did 72 pushups instead of your actual 70 on the PT test, you could be ‘found’ as an honor violator and expelled. If you borrowed a friend’s homework and copied his work because you didn’t have time to do it yourself, and neglected to cite that you had copied it, you could be expelled.
But the key to the honor code as it related to the lifestyle there wasn’t just that it was a rule to follow. If you got found for honor and expelled, there was shame involved. You had proven yourself unworthy to lead soldiers, because you didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to own up to your mistakes and just not lie.
I firmly believed in that system because I thought it held us accountable, and watching the officers at the Academy so ruthlessly enforce the tenets of the honor code on those cadets deemed dishonorable made me really believe that the Army cared about it.
The first time I sat in on a Battalion training meeting, it became blindingly obvious that not only were officers comfortable with lying about just about everything, it was impossible to get around it.
Ask anyone who has dealt with DTMS (Digital Training Management System) or done USR (Unit Status Report) reporting. Numbers matter to senior leaders in the military. If the slide shows red, instead of green, questions will start getting asked. OERs (Officer Evaluation Reports) will reflect. Your chances at a key position will disappear.
What’s worse about the issue of reporting, is that Honor is one of the Army values, the bedrock of our profession. When officers and leaders are placed into positions of increasingly complex and numerous requirements, meeting those demands and reporting their successful completion becomes tied up in an officer’s honor. Your signature is your word, your word is your bond.
There’s something particularly unsettling in assigning a guy to do an impossible task, say that its mission essential and key in maintaining readiness, and then forcing him to put his name on the line to say he’s completed it.
Ultimately the military is meant to fight and win our nation’s wars. That is predicated on our ability to train, equip, and sustain the force. When I was a company executive officer, I had the responsibility to maintain the company’s weapons and vehicles. It was a Stryker unit, and our unit decided that reporting the readiness of our vehicles would be done along three metrics: shoot, move, and communicate. If the vehicle was unable to do any one of those, it was ‘deadlined,’ meaning it was unable to perform its military mission. It would thereby be reported as ‘red’ at the battalion maintenance meeting to the commander, and on it went up the chain.
Following the sequester in 2013, money for maintenance parts and contractors to fix the Strykers dried up. Not surprisingly, our ability to keep the Strykers running fell off, dramatically. Yet the reporting requirements remained the same. The goal of over 90% operational readiness did not adjust to accommodate the changing conditions on the ground. Every Monday afternoon, I’d collect the maintenance reports and give it to the commander. Every Monday, we would stand at less than 30% of our vehicles capable to move, shoot, and communicate.
I remember thinking that surely when an entire battalion, and consequently the brigade, indicates dangerously low levels of operational vehicles, the balloon would go up and we’d get down to business to come up with a real solution.
Of course, I would be wrong. At the battalion training meetings, my commander told the truth, and reported our 30% OR rate. The other three companies all sat in the green, at above 90%. I’d like to think that my soldiers and our mechanics weren’t three times as inept as the other companies. Clearly, we were dealing with a situation of bogus reporting to keep the slides green.
Rather than hard questions getting asked about the state of maintenance and our ability to actually deploy and fight as a combat unit, my company commander was instead admonished for the poor readiness rating.
My own anecdotal experience with maintaining my Strykers aside, the problem of dishonest reporting is widespread. Anyone who has dealt with 350-1 training (compulsory common-sense and safety training requirements) can attest to how it is literally impossible to accomplish what is being asked, to standard, within the amount of time a unit has in a calendar year. With no other option, to keep the unit functioning and moving forward to meet its real-world mission, things like ‘bicycle safety’ and ‘environmental awareness’ get hand-waved as completed. What gets lost in the white noise of constant requirements is that the signature on the line is, for all intents and purposes, a lie. They have been forced into a situation where they must use deception in order to prevent everything grinding to a halt.
But the failure does not reside with the lowest levels, where the rubber meets the road in getting the mission done. It lies in the senior levels of leadership that treat everything as a priority. It is cliché to say it, but it bears repeating: when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
Despite proclamations to the contrary, the Army behaves as a zero-defect environment. There is no room for accepting risk, in anything. If some unavoidable accident or catastrophe occurs, inevitably the investigation will reveal that someone, somewhere could have prevented it with just a little more readiness. That translates to an additional license, qualification, or training requirement.
In the pursuit of universal risk mitigation, and to contend with the dizzying array of shifting requirements, a culture of cover-your-ass “blame management” has emerged. In a cynical move, the army leadership has coopted one of the most sacred aspects of someone’s reputation and sense of self, their honor and integrity, and used that against them to encourage the layers of ‘accountability’ that will protect senior leaders in the event of a catastrophe.
However, I don’t necessarily blame the current leadership for the issue. I understand why this system has developed. The army does an extremely difficult and dangerous job. When mistakes are made, they can likely have deadly consequences. That is absolutely a reality in military operations, and part of the solemn duty we have volunteered for. We are charged with doing absolutely everything we can in our power to ensure that we have prepared our subordinates to execute their mission. Accountability is critical, and to do any less is a failure in leadership.
But where I do fault them is conflating that ‘check the block’ style of reporting with actual readiness, and for not asking the tough questions about where we stand in our ability to fight and win wars. Every senior leader in the army was at one point a junior one. There is no way they got to their current position without navigating the system of lies and deception to meet a requirement and move on.
If you have the time and inclination to read the report on lying in the Army, give it a whirl. When it circulated in 2015, it seemed that everyone I talked to agreed with its findings. Despite everyone acknowledging it, I remain skeptical anything of consequence will result. What was most concerning to me was that despite everyone recognizing that lying is pervasive and widespread, no one is willing to openly question whether or not that has infected how we interact with Congress or the American people. If we so readily lie to ourselves, is it not possible that we are also lying to those who we are sworn to protect?
Image courtesy of the U.S. Army