Category Archives: Culture

The State of the Warfighter Mentality in the SWO Community

By Lieutenant Judith Hee Rooney, USN


As the United States shifts focus from the Global War on Terror to peer competitors, senior naval leaders have increased messaging to the fleet that focuses on preparing for war at sea. Considering this shift, I investigated the state of the warfighter mentality in the Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) community to gauge how the community felt about its own readiness as part of my program at the Naval Postgraduate School. Although the Navy gauges readiness in many ways, my goal was to go directly to the source by interviewing members of the SWO community – while avoiding the constraints and endemic fatigue so common in survey methodology. I used semi-structured interviews to identify attitudes, opinions, and trends related to the warfighter mentality across the ranks of O-2 to O-6. I conducted 23 interviews with volunteer subjects, each lasting one to three hours. Participants in this research study came from different commands and their tactical and operational experiences varied widely.

Given the current maritime stakes, understanding the fleet’s mental, tactical, and realistic state of readiness, and identifying the strengths and weaknesses in how we are preparing our warfighters is of utmost importance and was expressed passionately in every single interview conducted. Seven common themes about the warfighter mentality emerged from these interviews.

What Does the Term “Warfighter” Mean?

The survey participants shared a common framework and understanding of the characteristics of an ideal “warfighter.” Traits such as “tactical proficiency,” “sound and timely decision making,” “calm under pressure,” “physically and mentally fit,” “confident,” “competent,” and “leader” were all used to describe and define a good warfighter. However, my research suggests that the culture of the SWO community works against developing these characteristics more than it develops them. The approach to developing the warfighter mentality in the community was described as overly passive, with little to no direct or active efforts outside of entry-level indoctrination and training. As a result, rather than focusing on warfighter development, interviewees described how a “workaholic” mentality that was prioritized instead. Officers who are afraid to fail or make mistakes, micromanage, are erosively competitive, perpetuate the “zero-defect” mentality, and/or play wardroom politics were identified as the major hinderances to community warfighter development.

Another important indicator of the state of the warfighter mentality is the level of trust that SWOs have for one another. My research suggests that there is much more distrust and cynicism in the lower ranking officers than among senior officers. The majority of junior officers (O-2 to O-4) said that they, if given the option, would only follow about 5-10% of all the SWOs they knew into combat with no reservations. Several of them could only think of one or two officers total, who they would follow without reservation. Trust improved significantly with seniority, especially at the O-6 level, where the majority said that they would follow 60–90% of all the SWOs they knew.

On the other hand, the level of dedication SWOs have to their work was identified as a positive aspect of the community and seen to bolster warfighter development. As one SWO put it, “there is a lot of goodness on the waterfront.” SWOs are dedicated to their work and want to ensure that their ships and sailors succeed. Homing in, exploiting the best parts of the community, and shifting focus to operational readiness, as the system was intended, can create confident, competent, and able crews to deploy and achieve mission success in combat. “SWOs are driven, they are proven, they understand endurance, perseverance. They are multitaskers, they can prioritize. They are leaders.” One O-6 believed that “SWOs are the hardest on SWOs. We are very hard on ourselves. There are a lot of great people in the community. If we took the time to recognize the good work that we do, we’d be a lot better off.”

Difference in Perception of Fleet Ability

My research revealed a positive link between rank and optimism regarding the Navy’s readiness to fight and win a war at sea. Senior officers in the grades of O-5 and O-6 were more optimistic about the fleet’s readiness and had more confidence that their ships, shipmates, and selves would endure combat and be successful. Conversely, junior officers had little faith in the same. At the junior levels, most admitted to not seriously thinking about preparing for a kinetic fight. For example, they reasoned that “the surface fleet had not seen real combat in a very long time,” while others were more worried about the day-to-day functions of their jobs that were unrelated to preparing for the realities of combat. However, several officers displayed a conscious and active interest in developing their warfighter mentality, warrior toughness, capabilities, or edge, attributing it to be a product of an internal drive.

It is important to note that the strongest of these convictions came from SWOs who were originally interested in serving in a different community (particularly the Naval Special Warfare community), had seen or experienced life-threatening situations, or were O-5s. In general, however, SWOs do not believe that the fleet is ready for a kinetic fight at sea. Most believed that, in the event of kinetic action, it would be an occasion to rise to; with some stepping up and leading the charge, some needing leadership and direction, and some being rendered completely useless. “The exception [wouldn’t] be those who are extremely willing, able, and capable. The exception [would] be those who aren’t.” Much of this stemmed from the way SWOs feel they are preparing themselves and being prepared by “Big Navy.” One O-6 stated that “at the O-5/O-6 level, SWOs are working hard to ready their ships and crews for battle. However, we are working under a structure that is not supportive of the end goal.” Most interviewees did not believe they were trained for the realities of combat, whether in tactics, guile, versatile skills, or bloodshed. It should also be noted that very few SWOs have ever seen combat, and even fewer have seen combat at sea.

Every SWO interviewed experienced at least one mishap or near-mishap while serving on a ship; most of them being near-miss, close quarters situations due to negligence, complacency, training deficiencies, or confusion. While some SWOs expressed that they remained calm and controlled throughout their situations, others admitted to feeling flustered or panicked alongside their watch teams, some instances to include the CO or XO. Several officers also expressed that the pressure of performing sometimes led to putting the ship and crew in precarious situations, even when it was not mission critical or time sensitive.

Not All SWOs Are Created Equal

The professional development of SWOs seems to largely depend on a few random factors. A lack of mentorship was identified as one of the biggest challenges they face, as it seems to be dependent on being in the “right place” at the “right time.” Mentorship was also described to have to be individually sought out up and down the chain of command, suggesting that commands do little to foster mentor-mentee relationships.

Another major challenge identified was the varied standards of qualifications. According to interviewees, there is no real standardization when it comes to training or major qualifications, such as OOD, SWO, EOOW, or TAO. While the PQS system exists, the rigor and standards of qualifications are set at the command level, meaning that the quality of qualifications and professional development are fully dependent on the standards set by the ship’s CO. As a result, officers are developing differently across the fleet, sometimes even within the same wardrooms. Several interviewees expressed concern about “give me” qualifications awarded by their previous COs despite them not being proficient, capable, or knowledgeable enough to “sit the seat.” This approach to professional development helped to “degrad[e] warfighting because it makes being a SWO mean less.”

Lastly, onboard training and drills were seen to differ by experience and priorities. Some interviewees described trainings and drills to be taken seriously and felt that they were effective. However, the majority had contrary views on how their ships conducted trainings and drills, even if that meant sending ships on deployment ill prepared after cutting corners. In their experiences, training and drills were done more so to be able to say a requirement was met (e.g., “check in the box”) rather than to prepare crews for operational employment; some went as far as to describe them as “rehearsals” for inspections and assessments. Most training scenarios were described to be “unrealistic, poorly constructed, and a series of people going through the motions.” One officer believed that “people don’t take it seriously because they don’t truly think that something like this is going to happen.” Another stated that “it’s better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war, and right now, we are just a bunch of gardeners.”

When questioned why the fleet’s approach to training lacked focus, interviewees across the board believed that there were too many aspects of the job that took away or distracted from effective warfighter development. Administrative requirements, a “zero-defect” mentality, flaws in the maintenance system, unforgiving ship schedules, and deployment rotations were just a few examples. The combination of these distractions was seen to result in ships and crews deploying without the necessary skills to win in a kinetic fight. Many SWOs, including ship captains, expressed that ships are being sent out “administratively ready” but that deployments were the ideal time to conduct actual “effective and realistic training” as there is no pressure from outside entities or competing priorities. Conceptually, however, the ship and crew should already be at their peak capability prior to going on deployment.

SWOs across the board would like to see better and more effective training onboard ships at all stages of the training cycle. They recognized deficiencies the system and believed that improvements in training would make the biggest difference in proper system execution and warfighter mentality development. They believed that the structure of the cycle, the “crawl, walk, run” approach to surface warfare, had a lot of potential to be effective and made sense. However, the execution of this system was widely criticized. SWOs want to see changes to reflect and support realistic, relevant, and serious training met with a motivated and bought-in crew. Departing from the “check in the box” approach could be the most influential shift for warfighter development in the fleet

The Ethics of Readiness

Several officers shared that they, or others close to them, acted unethically in response to external pressures when reporting readiness levels. Even for major certifications like COMPTUEX, both assessors and participants alike described that certain parts of scenarios were sometimes modified to give ships the “green light to deploy.” Due to the overwhelming and compressed training cycle, constant turnover, and undermanned crews, ships are being forced to complete integral training and development at faster rates, making it difficult for SWOs to manage every program simultaneously successfully and effectively. Additionally, the “get it done attitude” was described to be detrimental because “it doesn’t seem like ‘Big Navy’ cares about how we get it done. They just want it done and a green spreadsheet…this leads to people cutting corners and presenting a false state of readiness to higher ups just to make them happy and to make themselves look like good leaders.”

Interviewees expressed a sense that there was very little room to fail without creating more pain and suffering for the crew; some ships were unable to send their sailors home before deploying for seven to nine months as a result from failure. Therefore, meeting requirements, keeping up with the ship’s operational tempo, and doing it all “in the green” were all sources of stress felt by SWOs, contributing to the “zero-defect” mentality, and, in some cases, unethical behavior.

SWOs Endure Extreme Stress About the Same Things

SWOs across ranks believe that their job-induced stress comes from the same things. Almost every interviewee expressed that they put an immense amount of pressure on themselves to succeed. As many SWOs are described to have “type-A” personalities, having control over their work is comforting. Throughout the interviews, officers often referred to “the grind never stops” mentality and the perpetuated “get it done” attitude. These mindsets have existed in the SWO community through decades of experience, budget cuts, optimization plans, support for landlocked wars, maintenance backlogs, etc. They feel that this pressure, in addition to the tight deployment work up schedule, creates “high stakes” for ship captains and their crews to complete evolutions, drills, assessments, and certifications without fail. Many SWOs feel like they are constantly “burning the candle at both ends.”

Fear of failure seems to contribute to the risk averse culture in the SWO community, which was highlighted as an aspect that degrades the community overall. SWOs expressed a fear of making mistakes as they believed it would negatively affect their career projection. Whether it was a junior officer with aspirations of commanding a warship, a department head close to retirement, or a ship captain eyeing major command or a star, they believe that one mistake or a single bad fitness report could derail their entire careers. According to the officers interviewed, this fear results in the timidity, hesitancy, and micromanagement seen across the community. Not only did they feel that their careers were on the line by their own actions, decisions, and judgments, but by those of their subordinates as well. This kind of pressure was seen to keep SWOs on edge, toxically competitive, and risk averse. While taking the slow, smooth, methodical, and careful approach to operations have kept most SWOs out of shallow waters, it has also left many wondering if they would be able to exercise the grit, toughness, and quick thinking required in times of extremis and threat.

Attraction to the SWO Community

The majority of SWOs interviewed did not originally want to be SWOs, although there were a few distinguishable factors about being a SWO most believed to be favorable. Because SWOs start their service obligation almost immediately, they “hit the fleet” faster than any other community. Unlike pilots, submariners, special warfare operators, and Marines, who go through lengthy training pipelines before entering the fleet, the SWO community traditionally sends their officers straight to ships to begin on-the-job training. Almost every interviewee liked the idea of getting to the fleet sooner. Whether they wanted to start repaying their service obligation right away, set the conditions to laterally transfer to a different community, or bypass lengthy and rigorous training commands, the notion of apprenticing in a job coupled with working with sailors was appreciated by all. Being given the opportunity to lead sailors sooner was particularly appealing and there was a significant theme of servant leadership across ranks. Specifically, a common motivation within the SWO community is to serve and work for the betterment of their subordinates, even when times are tough. This approach to leadership is extremely apparent at the junior officer level.

Mental Fitness is a Priority, Physical Fitness is Not

Physical fitness was seen to be one of the easiest things to ignore when other requirements emerged. Other aspects of the job were often seen to prioritize above physical health, although most officers interviewed believed it to be an integral aspect of warfighting. Not only does physical fitness give one the strength and stamina to run up and down ladder wells, drag shipmates to safety, hold one’s breath under water, fight fires, or stand a watch at General Quarters for hours on end, it also gives you mental clarity, a relief in stressful times, and an opportunity to push yourself past your comfort zone. Yet, outside of “PRT season” when the Navy conducts physical fitness assessments, physical fitness is not a priority for SWOs. One officer stated that “the state of the fleet in physical fitness shows how much we prioritize the warfare part of surface warfare.” However, some commands were described to have tried to prioritize physical fitness when they could. Those command were subsequently described to have had leadership who were physically fit themselves and who prioritized physical fitness on a personal level.

Conversely, mental fitness was seen to have made strides. The stigma associated with seeking help for mental health has lessened in recent years. With that, the message of taking care of yourself, along with the availability of programs and resources, have become more prevalent. Mental health was generally taken seriously at all levels of the chain of command. However, the attention on mental fitness was believed to be very reactionary. Interviewees believed that there was little to no emphasis put on preventative maintenance or proactively developing mental toughness, fitness, or health. Actively working on mental toughness and cognitive development was identified as another way to bolster the warfighter mentality.


My research indicated that the SWO community could benefit from putting more emphasis on actively developing the warfighter mentality among both junior and senior officers. In my thesis, I make several recommendations for how the community can do this. One of them is to publish doctrine that includes SWO warfighter behavioral and cognitive characteristics. Neither I, nor anyone I interviewed, could recall or locate official Navy doctrine, publication, or manual that explicitly describes the values and characteristics of a warfighter as it pertains to the SWO community, nor how to nurture and develop them.

It is important to standardize the vision for who the Navy wants the average SWO to be as far as leadership and warfighting. Publishing and disseminating the key warfighting tenants that the community values can help directing SWOs in the same direction and focusing commanders and wardrooms in cultivating the SWO warfighter as well as the warfighter mentality as the community intends. Another recommendation is to standardize the qualification process in the SWO community. This would ensure that each SWO is being trained and assessed by the same rigorous standards across the fleet at all levels. While on the job training is an integral part of experience and practical knowledge, the difference in the quality of training throughout the fleet was apparent, particularly when considering one’s duty stations, coasts, or countries.

The SWO community has historically been seen as a “catch all” community as it seemingly does not require great skill or aptitude to join the community. There does not seem to be as much prestige or allure in comparison to other communities. Those who fail out of other programs like flight school or nuclear school end up redesignating as SWOs, creating the perception of “those who can’t… become SWOs.” As much as the Navy has tried to revitalize the community’s reputation, it is not as desirable as other communities with higher standards. Creating a rigorous training pipeline to include shipboard watch station qualifications would not only help rehabilitate the community’s reputation, but it would also raise the baseline level of knowledge of the SWO community, delivering ready and capable officers who are ready to contribute to the team the moment they step on their ships.

The divide between the perception and the assessment of readiness amongst the different ranks of the SWO community is particularly interesting as they all serve in the same Navy, on the same ships, and, when the time comes, will inevitably go into battle together. The mentality of wanting to do good work, doing it right the first time, every time, and having high expectations speaks highly to the thoroughness and dedication of SWOs in general. These are qualities, if shaped and aimed in the right direction, can do more help than harm in the community. Focusing on operational development, quality training, and incorporating the “why” in everything that they do can bring SWOs that much closer to the fight and ultimately closer to triumphantly demonstrating naval superiority against any threat across the globe.

LT Judith Hee Rooney is a Human Resources officer currently serving as the Enlisted Programs Officer for Naval Talent Acquisitions Group New England. Previously, LT Rooney served as a SWO onboard USS KEARSARGE (LHD-3) as the Damage Control Division Officer and the Internal Communications Officer and onboard USS WINSTON S. CHURCHILL (DDG-81) as the Assistant Chief Engineer. She got her Master of Science in Manpower Systems Analysis from the Naval Postgraduate School where she won the Surface Navy Association’s Award for Excellence in Surface Warfare Research for her thesis: The State of the Warfighter Mentality in the SWO Community.

Featured Image: The U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John Finn (DDG-113) arrives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii (USA), on 10 July 2017, in preparation for its commissioning ceremony. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Binary Submarine Culture? How the Loss of the USS Thresher Hastened the End of Diesel Submarine Culture

By Ryan C. Walker

During my short tenure as a submariner in the U.S. Navy, from 2014-2019, I observed the friendly rivalry between sailors who serve on SSN (fast-attack boats), SSGN (frequently shortened to GN boats), and SSBN (Trident boats). Fast-attack sailors like to brag about port calls and joke that sailors on the other vessels are part-time sailors due to the Gold/Blue crew system. For their part, Trident and GN sailors generally have a higher quality of life. They rarely hot-rack, have a more predictable schedule and have more space for crew morale. As much as fast-attack sailors envy these benefits, they know, even if they don’t want to admit, our Trident and GN brethren earn their pay. They do spend extended periods on patrol, have fewer opportunities for port calls, and their time at sea is monotonous. Despite the variations between these subcultures within the submarine fleet, the nuclear culture that stresses safety through rigorous engineering, procedural compliance, and training is still the common bedrock of identity on all platforms.

Previously, two separate cultures existed within the submarine fleet, diesel and nuclear. This article will discuss how the USS Thresher tragedy on April 10, 1963 hastened the end of the binary approach and eventually led to the single bedrock foundation that submarine culture now rests on. The United States Navy’s Submarine Safety (SUBSAFE) Program is written in the blood of the 129 souls who died on the USS Thresher and remain on eternal patrol. Diesel submarine culture, epitomized by the slogan “Diesel Boats Forever,” would be replaced by the cold, calculating, and rigorous nuclear culture design by Hyman G. Rickover. Current proposals to reintroduce diesel submarines in the Navy’s fleet focus on fiscal and operational factors, but the potential risks to its submarine culture should also be considered. This article will examine how the two communities previously interacted as diesel submariners were forced to take on the extra burden of supporting a new technology while that same technology was replacing them. It will further offer that this is not inevitable, but should reintroduction proposals ever gain currency, the conversation on submarine culture should be a major topic by political and military leaders.

Documenting the Tragedy

The Thresher has an enduring effect on the mentality of the present-day submarine force, forming the basis for many training sessions and case studies. Publications, many from the past decade, reflect the memory of the Thresher is well. Many of these have a general focus, examining how and why the Thresher was lost,1 and how the Thresher disaster can serve as case studies for public affairs, oceanography and naval professionals.2 However, the publications examining how the Thresher disaster inspired changes in submarine culture, shipbuilding design, and SUBSAFE are of particular interest.3 James Geurts’ article in USNI Proceedings discusses how the loss profoundly impacted naval officer’s training, arguing procedures to fully employ the capabilities of nuclear-powered submarines only accelerated in the aftermath, stating the “Navy was still locked into training officers for duty on diesel-electric boats, even though the boats quickly were becoming obsolete.”4 Synthesizing these articles and connecting their arguments shows that the end of the binary submarine culture was a positive change overall.

Rickover, Nuclear Power and SUBSAFE

It is generally accepted that Hyman G. Rickover was the architect of nuclear submarine culture and the driving force for the quicker transition to nuclear culture by promulgating the practices, procedures, mentality and culture of as the standard for all submariners. As Geurts would summarize:

“Despite these demonstrations of superiority, the Navy’s operational thinking carried over from diesel-electric boats to the nuclear submarines. The distinction… was not yet recognized or emphasized during submarine school training. This fundamental failure in thinking contributed to the Thresher disaster, after which the Navy finally met the new reality of nuclear-powered submarines with fresh operational thinking.”5

How the evolution occurred still requires research. A common misperception of the ship’s status at its loss was that it was conducting its first deep dive. Following its commissioning the Thresher had undergone extensive testing, befitting its status as the first of her class. Built in Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, ME, the ship completed all its acceptance trials, shakedown availability, and even participated in some fleet exercises.

It came as a complete surprise to all involved when it was lost with all hands, the ship’s former medical officer Arthur L. Rehme shared his experience onboard and that he felt confident in the crew, even sharing the first time they reached a record depth the ship cheered.6 The loss was truly unexpected, it is a testament to contemporary submarines that they were willing to persevere despite the loss. Crew member Ira Goldman, who narrowly avoided death by attending a training school, continued to serve in the submarine fleet, retiring as a Master Chief.7 Rehme did not continue as a submariner, but decided if the men on the Thresher could give their lives in service of their country, he too could continue to serve.8 Their loss served as an inspiration for change, but also an iron determination for those who faced the same risks.

Almost immediately, a Court of Inquiry was organized to discern why the Thresher sank, which canvassed a wide variety of persons. Obvious candidates such as the recently relieved commanding officer (CO), Dean L. Axene and watch standers on the Skylark were involved, but so too were people with only a passing military, technical or familial background. The Court concluded that the Thresher was lost due to flooding casualty from piping in the Engine Room that shorted out vital electrical equipment, a decision that would have consequence for construction, maintenance, and repair of new submarines. This recommendation was influenced by Rickover, who insisted on being interviewed by the Court of Inquiry. Instead of defending the nuclear program, he displayed his shrewd ability to identify problems in a now famous quote:

“I believe the loss of the THRESHER should not be viewed solely as the result of failure of a specific braze, weld, system or component, but rather should be considered a consequence of the philosophy of design, construction and inspection, that has been permitted in our naval shipbuilding programs. I think it is important that we re-evaluate our present practices where, in the desire to make advancements, we may have forsaken the fundamentals of good engineering.”9

It was no accident that he had insisted to be a witness. According to his biographer, Francis Duncan, he thought the testimony “could be an opportunity to show how the technical standards that he had insisted upon should be applied to other work.”10 Rickover came with the intent to promulgate what would become SUBSAFE, offering an immediate solution in the form of nuclear culture.

The shift may have happened over time as nuclear-trained officers with no experience on diesel submarines became the norm. The influence of the Rickover-designed training program is still evident from the admirals he trained down to junior officers learning the principles for the first time. The expectations established for nuclear trained enlisted personnel would also be expected in the forward compartment, or “cone.” While there is still a strong divide between “nukes” and “coners,” both groups have the mindset of engineering indoctrinated through training and qualifications. The disaster itself acted as a catalyst for change, alongside the Scorpion, to implement Rickoverian philosophy in the submarine fleet.

SUBSAFE is among the crowning administrative and engineering achievements of the USN. It became such a successful quality assurance program that other organizations looked to it for inspiration on their own programs. In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, NASA was recommended to look “to two Navy submarine programs that have “strived for accident-free performance and have, by and large, achieved it – the Submarine Flooding Prevention and Recovery (SUBSAFE) and Naval Nuclear Propulsion (Naval Reactors) programs.”11 SUBSAFE is a body of practices that became a mindset and an essential building block of culture for the present submarine culture. It was no longer, as Geurts had stated succinctly, a diesel dominated fleet, but a nuclear fleet first and foremost, as reflected by Navy recruitment and informational topics by the period.12

The Origin of Diesel Boat Forever Culture: Diesels Boats Perform an Essential Transitional Duty

The delays in nuclear submarine construction and their lengthier overhaul periods, relative to diesel boats, would prove to have long-term consequences that are still present today. The immediate effect was to increase the costs and time periods construction and overhaul would consume. As a result, operational commitments often fell to diesel submarines as they took on the missions of the nuclear submarines stuck in overhaul. Even in the present day, overruns in cost and time are frequent and accounted for but are merited in the name of safety. Diesel boats would serve an important purpose during the early implementation of SUBSAFE in new construction, holding the line, but frequently forgotten in the public Cold War narrative of nuclear boats that seemed to get the attention as the future.

The Submarine Force Library and Museum archives carry the development of this culture epitomized by the Diesel Boat Forever (DBF) pin. The DBF pin was created by the crew of the USS Barbel, with an enlisted sailor Leon Figurido drawing it for a contest and adopted by the command, conflicting accounts offer 1967-1971 as the period they were made.13 The pin was explicitly designed as the answer to the Polaris Patrol Pin and inspired by the Submarine Combat Patrol Pin. Two bare chested mermaids clasping hands while laying over a submarine silhouette with the immortal acronym, “DBF” surrounded by holes for stars. According to Meagher, the former commanding officer (CO) who approved the project, John Renard, confirmed instead of receiving a star for each patrol, DBF pins would receive a star “each time a diesel boat you served on had to get underway for a broke-down nuke.”14 There was still a surprising amount of buy-in from diesel sailors in higher chains of command. The pin was unofficially condoned to the point that the CO of the Tigrone held a ceremony awarding RADM Oliver H. Perry jr., who had previously served on diesel boats.15 Smith in his interview with Adams also remarked other memorabilia, such as Red DBF Jackets were a part of the culture and sold out as soon as they were back from their deployment, reflecting an appeal for a new identity formed in the shadow of the new nuclear submarine culture.16

Unsurprisingly, this was greeted coolly by nuclear submariners. The animosity was shared, where Smith recalled fights that broke out “between the ‘nukes and the reds’ when they wore their jackets ashore.”17 This further indicates the budding nuclear culture was prideful enough to take offence at the “other” fleet. To fully illustrate the diesel culture of the submarine fleet, look no further than the 1996 film, Down Periscope. The film follows an unconventional Submarine Officer LCDR Dodge taking command of the decrepit diesel submarine, the USS Stingray. Manned by what can only be politely described as the dregs of the Navy, the Stingray crew embraces this mentality, performing unorthodox tactics and techniques throughout the film. The director elected to utilize a retired enginemen named Stanton, as the chief engineer. It is from him we hear the clear signaling of intent of the film when he yells at the climax of the film, “This is what I live for! DBF!”18

While never in doubt due to the subject of this film, the true intent of the film was illuminated in this moment. This pithy aphorism epitomizes the romanticized diesel sailor; a mythos that has not disappeared in the nuclear navy. The final, romanticized aspect of the film is fleshed out when Dodge rejects his promotion to command a new, nuclear powered Seawolf class submarine, opting instead to stay with the barely seaworthy, antiquated, hopelessly outmatched Stingray.19 In many respects, its origins lie in the hero worship of WWII submariners who did not need procedures and the high attention to safety paid in the modern Navy yet still brought the fight to the enemy and performed admirably. It is spoken in the same vein spoken by resentful sailors from the age of sail who viewed their younger generations in the age of steam as soft, jibing them comments such as “once the navy had wooden ships and men of iron; now it has iron ships and wooden men.”20 There is no doubt in anyone’s mind who has read the accounts from diesel sailors that it was an undoubtedly difficult life.21 Nuclear submarine crews are lucky by comparison, but submarine duty is rightfully still considered to be difficult in the present day.

For all intents and purposes, there were two distinct cultures within the submarine fleet, but principally from 1963-73, as diesel submarines were replaced. Throughout the 1970s Meagher recalled “scores of career electricians and engineman were forced to “surface” as there was no room for them on Rickover’s boats.”22 Smith agrees they knew that they were a “dying breed,” but also adds “we’re damn proud to be diesel boat sailors.”23 Eventually, the unofficial pin was banned, and midshipmen were kept from diesel boats from 1973 onward, with some rumors stating it was due to concerns midshipman were being indoctrinated into diesel culture.24 This was part of the transition to a nuclear dominant force as the tragedies of the Thresher and Scorpion helped accelerate it. Diesel submarines are an important part of submarine heritage that is talked about today. The last combat ready diesel submarines, Barbel, Blueback and Bonefish, were decommissioned between 1988-90, meaning the operational capacity of the submarine force has been exclusively nuclear for over thirty years and had been dominated by nuclear trained officers for decades before.25

Proposals to Adopt Diesel Boats in the Present Day

Thus, the expectations for all sailors, both in engineering and non-engineering realms, are dictated by the principles instilled in them by Rickover’s nuclear program. The USS Thresher disaster was the defining moment for both the submarine fleet and the U.S. Navy itself. It was decided in the immediate aftermath to pursue an ambitious program that would touch all aspects of submarine culture, in construction, maintenance, overhaul, training, and operations. It would make the trends set forth by Hyman G. Rickover the norm, not the exception. The Thresher disaster was the moment the US Navy reinvented itself to embrace the mentality to become the force it is today.

Despite the success of the nuclear force, discussions on adopting the diesel submarine have resurfaced. Proposals such as the award-winning essay written for USNI Proceedings by Ensigns Michael Walker and Austin Krusz are frequently published. “The U.S. Navy would do well to consider augmenting its current submarine force with quiet, inexpensive, and highly capable diesel-electric submarine.”26 The argument is based on the increasing capability of the diesel submarines, the high cost of maintaining nuclear submarines, and the merit of increased operational flexibility. These proposals have merit and are popular outside of naval professionals, the citations of Walker and Krusz reflect the wide scope of popular interest.27

A discussion not mentioned is a potential return to the binary culture separating diesel submarine crews and nuclear submarine crews. DBF culture formed as a resentful reaction to the nuclear submarine crews for simultaneously giving them a greater portion of work and threatening their role in the Cold War. SUBSAFE can be bedrock of identity for a potential diesel submarine culture in the USN, but the cultivation of such a culture must be carefully managed and planned. Diesel submariners require a different mindset, and it is likely they will create some of their own norms; the question must be asked: does the Navy want this outcome? Or does it value the ability of career submariners to move between platforms with similar cultures and mindsets without having to worry about what their previous hull had been?

Nor will there be any insight seen in foreign markets in terms of safety. There have been several high-profile diesel submarine disasters in recent years. The KRI Nanggala 402 in 2021, the ARA San Juan in 2017, and the PLAN Ming 361 in 2003 are among the most recent and well known. It would be a mistake to assume nuclear submarines in other nations are immune to this either. Conversely, no US submarines built using the rigorous requirements in SUBSAFE have been lost to any disaster. The safety record is impressive and is due to more than the processes and procedures, but the culture of the crews manning the boars. Submarine Officers, with the exception of the supply officer, are engineers first and the mindset instilled in them would be instilled in their crews and stands as the legacy of the Thresher disaster and SUBSAFE programs.

Ryan C. Walker served in the USN from 2014-2019, as an enlisted Fire Control Technician aboard the USS Springfield (SSN-761). Honorably discharged in December of 2019; he graduated Summa Cum Laude from Southern New Hampshire University with a BA in Military History. He is currently a MA Candidate at the University of Portsmouth, where he studies Naval History and hopes to pursue further studies after graduation. His current research focus is on early submarine culture (1900-1940), early development of Groton as a Naval-Capital Town, and British private men-of-war in the North Atlantic. He currently resides in lovely Groton, CT.


1. See: Norman Polmar, The death of the USS Thresher: The story behind history’s deadliest submarine disaster. (Guilford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004); James B. Bryant “Declassify the Thresher Data,” Proceedings, Vol. 144, (July 2018).; Jim Bryant, “What Did the Thresher Disaster Court of Inquiry Find?” Proceedings, Vol. 147, (August 2021),; Dan Rather, “The Legacy of the Thresher,” CBS Reports, Television Film Media digitized on YouTube, originally aired March 4, 1964. Accessed April 22, 2022,

2. See: Robert J. Hurley “Bathymetric Data from the Search for USS” Thresher”.” The International Hydrographic Review (1964); Frank A. Andrews “Search Operations in the Thresher Area 1964 Section I.” Naval Engineers Journal 77, no. 4 (1965): 549-561; Joseph William Stierman jr., “Public relations aspects of a major disaster: a case study of the loss of USS Thresher.” MA Dissertation, Boston University, 1964.

3. See: James R. Geurts, “Reflections on the Loss of the Thresher,” Proceedings, Vol. 146, (October 2020),; Michael Jabaley, “The Pillars of Submarine Safety,” Proceedings, Vol. 140, (June 2014),; Joseph F. Yurso, “Unraveling the Thresher’s Story,” Proceedings, Vol. 143, (October 2017),

4. James R. Geurts, “Reflections on the Loss of the Thresher,” Proceedings, Vol. 146, (October 2020),

5. Geurts, “Reflections,” Proceedings

6. Arthur L. Rehme Collection, (AFC/2001/001/37677), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, accessed April 24, 2022.

7. Jennifer McDermott, “50 years later, Thresher veteran still grieves loss of shipmates at sea,” The Day, Waterford, April 5, 2013, 12:52PM,

8. Arthur L. Rehme Collection, (AFC/2001/001/37677), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, accessed April, 24 2022.

9. Francis Duncan. Rickover: The struggle for excellence. (Lexington: Plunkett Lake Press, 2001). 85

10. Francis Duncan, Rickover, 81

11. Malina Brown. “Navy group to observe NASA’s return-to-flight activity: COLUMBIA ACCIDENT REPORT CITES SUB PROGRAMS AS MODEL FOR NASA.” Inside the Navy 16, no. 35 (2003): 12-13. Accessed December 8, 2020.

12. Periscope Films, “1965 U.S. NAVY NUCLEAR SUBMARINE RECRUITING FILM ‘ADVENTURE IN INNER SPACE’ 82444.” Accessed June 26, 2022,; Periscope Films, “U.S. NAVY NUCLEAR SUBMARINES MISSIONS, CHARACTERISTICS AND BACKGROUND 74802,” Accessed June 26, 2022,

13. Cindy Adams. “Barracks COB favors fossil fuels: ‘Diesel boats are forever,” The Day, November 14, 1980, Newspaper Clipping, Submarine Force Library and Museum, Submarine Archives, Uniforms & Insignia Collection; Stu Taylor, “The following story is about the origin of the DIESEL BOATS FOREVER emblem.” Submarine Force Library and Museum, Submarine Archives, Uniforms & Insignia Collection; Patrick Meagher. “THE DBF PIN.” Accessed May 22, 2022,

14. Patrick Meagher. “THE DBF PIN.” Accessed May 22, 2022,

15. Meagher, “DBF PIN,” Website

16. Cindy Adams. “Barracks COB favors fossil fuels: ‘Diesel boats are forever,” The Day, November 14, 1980, Newspaper Clipping, Submarine Force Library and Museum, Submarine Archives, Uniforms & Insignia Collection

17. Adams, “Barracks COB,” Newspaper Clipping.

18. Down Periscope, Directed by David S. Ward, (20th Century Fox, 1996), 1:19:00.

19. Down Periscope, 1:24:00 to 1:26:00

20. Baynham, H. W. F. “A SEAMAN IN HMS LEANDER, 1863–66.” The Mariner’s Mirror 51, no. 4 (1965),, 343

21. Mark K. Roberts, SUB: an oral history of US Navy submarines. (New York: Berkley Caliber, 2007); Paul Stillwell. Submarine Stories: Recollections from the Diesel Boats. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013); Claude C. Conner, Nothing Friendly in the Vicinity: My Patrols on the submarine USS Guardfish during WWII. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999).

22. Meagher, “DBF PIN,” Website

23. Adams, “Barracks COB,” Newspaper Clipping.

24. Meagher, “DBF PIN,” Website

25. Honorable mention to the Darter and the Dolphin, both used for auxiliary purposes as well, decommissioned in 1990 and 2007 respectively.

26. Ensigns Walker & Krusz. “There’s a Case for Diesels.” Proceedings, Vol 144, (June 2018). Accessed August 25, 2021.

27. See: James Holmes, Doug Bandow, and Robert E. Kelly, “One Way the U.S. Navy Could Take on China: Diesel Submarines,” The National Interest, 17 March 2017; Jonathan O’Callaghan, “Death of the Nuclear Submarine? Huge Diesel-Electric Vessel Could Replace Other Subs Thanks to Its Stealth and Efficiency,” Daily Mail Online, 4 November 2014; Sebastien Roblin, James Holmes, Doug Bandow, and Robert E. Kelly, “Did Sweden Make America’s Nuclear Submarines Obsolete?” The National Interest, 30 December 2016; Vego Milan, “The Right Submarine for Lurking in the Littorals,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 137, no. 6, June 2010,

Featured Image: Port bow aerial view of USS Thresher, taken while the submarine was underway on 30 April 1961. (Photographed by J.L. Snell. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command)

Lying to Ourselves, Part Three

This monograph was originally published by the Army War College under the title Lying To Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here. It deserves to be noted that the described themes and dynamics are not solely limited to the specific military service being examined.

Read Part One, Part Two.

By Dr. Leonard Wong and Dr. Stephen J. Gerras

Lying to Ourselves

It may be that this monograph has merely identified a phenomenon that has existed quietly in the Army (and in most large bureaucracies) since time immemorial. It may be that lying to the “little old lady in tennis shoes” in order to clear post, fudging a trusted NCO’s weight on an NCOER, or writing off a CONEX of surplus Oakleys is emblematic of actions that the Army will seldom discuss, but will always tolerate. Perhaps the stereotypical supply sergeant’s response of “You don’t want to know” will always be the proper response to the question of “Where did this stuff come from?” It could be that as long as dishonesty and deceit are restricted to the trivial and bothersome aspects of the Army, the status quo represents the best way to deal with an out of control, overbearing Army bureaucracy. After all, dishonesty in the Army is not new. For example, in the summer of 1970, researchers at the U.S. Army War College published the Study on Military Professionalism which found that, “Inaccurate reporting—rampant throughout the Army and perceived by every grade level sampled from O-2 through O-7—is significant.”18 The report quoted a captain who, at the height of the Vietnam War, stated that, “It’s necessary today, to lie, cheat, and steal to meet the impossible demands of higher officers or continue to meet the statistical requirements.”19

Acquiescence to the status quo because the Army has been dogged by the same problems in the past, however, ignores several potentially destructive implications of the current culture. First, while discussions revealed that nearly all officers were confident in their ability to correctly determine which requirements were trivial or nonsensical, those judgments can vary widely across individuals and groups. For example, some officers offered that not reporting a negligent discharge (ND) was a common example of acceptable lying, especially when it was a simple mistake and easily remedied without getting higher headquarters involved. Other officers, particularly those in the combat arms, insisted that an ND was a serious breach of discipline and leaders were duty bound to send a report upward. Similarly, some officers were aghast that anyone would submit inaccurate or incomplete storyboards, while others were much more accepting of less-than-precise submissions. Confusion and inconsistency across the force result from allowing individual interpretations to determine where to delineate the bounds of acceptable dishonesty. As one captain astutely noted:

“I think a real danger—since it’s unsaid and it’s not out there— is [that] we’re requiring every single person at every single level to make their own determination on what they want to lie about. Because we’re all setting a different standard and because we can’t talk about it, we’re obviously going to have the potential for the guys who take it too far.”

Tolerating a level of dishonesty in areas deemed trivial or unimportant also results in the degradation of the trust that is vital to the military profession. Once the bar of ethical standards is lowered, the malleability of those standards becomes a rationale for other unethical decisions. For example, one officer explained why CERP money was easily misused:

“I think the reason why we have an easier time accepting that CERP money might be used by people falsely is because you look at the institutional Army and see all the fraud, waste, and abuse that happens at every level.”

The slippery slope of ethical compromise is a real and legitimate danger to the assumption of truth in the profession. Noted ethicist Sissella Bok explains this threat in more detail:

“Of course, we know that many lies are trivial. But since we, when lied to, have no way to judge which lies are the trivial ones, and since we have no confidence that liars will restrict themselves to just such trivial lies, the perspective of the deceived leads us to be wary of all deception.”20

Just as it is imprudent to expect absolute impeccability from the officer corps, it is also foolhardy to condone a casual view of deceit and duplicity in the ranks. Disregarding the pervasive dishonesty throughout the Army leads to the eventual conclusion that nothing and no one can be trusted. As Saint Augustine wisely noted, “When regard for truth has been broken down or even slightly weakened, all things remain doubtful.”21

Making excuses for an acceptable level of dishonesty also provides cover for deception that is less nobly motivated. While difficult to admit, many officers acutely feel the pressure of peer competition influencing their ethical decisions. As one officer pointed out:

“You’re a bad leader and you failed if you didn’t get everyone through the hour-long human trafficking thing. All the other company commanders in the United States Army somehow managed to do it and you’re gonna be the only guy that didn’t do it because you [truthfully] reported 85%.”

Careerism is a potent force that serves as a catalyst for dishonesty. The current downsizing intensifies the competition in the ranks with very few officers desiring to be “alone on the island.” In the words of one candid officer:

“We’re all kind of vultures. The one guy [who told the truth] – get him. He exposed himself. And no one wants to stand out. We all see reductions are being made. If you’re looking to do this [stay in the Army] for a long period of time, your intent is to appease the person above you. Just like the person you’re appeasing made that decision a long time ago.”

Convincing ourselves that deceitfulness in the Army is mostly well-intentioned altruism serves to mask the caustic effects of lying, cheating, or stealing for self-advancement. As a very perceptive captain observed:

“In our own eyes and our perspective, we do things for the right reasons. When you really come down to it [though], the big question is that while you may be saying you did it for the good of your men, or you did it for the right reasons, how is that different at the end of the day from someone who didn’t?”

The gravest peril of the tacit acceptance of dishonesty, however, is the facilitation of hypocrisy in Army leaders. The Army as a profession speaks of values, integrity, and honor. The Army as an organization practices zero defects, pencil-whipping, and checking the box. Army leaders are situated between the two identities—parroting the talking points of the latest Army Profession Campaign while placating the Army bureaucracy or civilian overseers by telling them what they want to hear. As a result, Army leaders learn to talk of one world while living in another. A major described the current trend:

“It’s getting to the point where you’re almost rewarded for being somebody you’re not. That’s a dangerous situation especially now as we downsize. We’re creating an environment where everything is too rosy because everyone is afraid to paint the true picture. You just wonder where it will break, when it will fall apart.”

At the strategic level, it is this hypocrisy that allows senior Army leaders to unconcernedly shift a billion dollars to overseas contingency operations funding to minimize the base budget or to brief as fact the number of sexual assault response coordinators when the data are obviously suspect. At the operational level, it is this self-deception that makes it easy for leaders to dismiss equivocation and false reports to “bad” units and attribute pencil-whipping and fudging to “weak” leaders. At the tactical level, it is this duplicity that allows leaders to “feed the beast” bogus information while maintaining a self-identity of someone who does not lie, cheat, or steal.

Confronting the Truth

While the preceding pages paint a somewhat dire picture, there is still much to be celebrated in the military profession. The military remains a noble profession filled with competent and committed servants of the nation. And yet the profession’s foundation of trust is slowly being eroded by the corrupting influence of duplicity and deceit. Ignoring dishonesty as a minor shortcoming or writing it off as an inevitable aspect of bureaucracy accomplishes nothing. Instead, the Army must take some rather drastic measures in order to correct the current deleterious culture. Three broad recommendations are offered here. Each will be difficult to implement because of the entrenched culture, but each is critical to restoring trust in the Army profession.

Acknowledge the Problem.

Dishonesty is a topic that many in the Army are extremely uncomfortable discussing openly. While junior officers tend to freely describe their struggles in maintaining their integrity in a culture that breeds dishonesty, senior officers are often reluctant to admit their personal failings in front of subordinates (or in the case of very senior officers, their peers). The need to preserve a “professional” appearance is just too strong for many senior officers to personalize their dealings with the Army culture. They can easily lecture about the ideals of integrity and honor, but many find it extremely difficult to admit that they too have encountered (and currently live with) a culture that condones dishonesty. The result is that dishonesty in the Army can be a topic for DFAC lunch table gripe sessions, but seldom for LPDs or addresses by senior leaders. In the meantime, the requirements passed down from higher become more numerous and the slow slide down the ethical slope continues. Until a candid exchange concerning dishonesty begins, the current culture will not improve.

Openly dealing with deception in the Army formation also serves to prevent a subtle hazard of the current situation—hubris. In the past two decades, the Army has dramatically revitalized its status as a profession. There has been a resurgence in analyzing the Army as a profession and examining all the attendant implications. Additionally, polls show that public confidence in the military remains the highest of all American institutions, and it is still common for those in uniform to hear, “Thank you for your service” from complete strangers. Indeed, the professional all-volunteer force has served the nation well in a difficult time of war and conflict.

The effusive public adulation and constant professional self-talk, however, can also lead to excessive pride and self-exaltation. Overconfidence can leave officers—especially those at the senior level—vulnerable to the belief that they are unimperiled by the temptations and snares found at the common level of life. The ease of fudging on a TDY voucher, the enticement of improper gifts, and the allure of an illicit relationship are minimized and discounted as concerns faced by lesser mortals.

Tradition has it that in ancient Rome, a triumphant general would ride in a celebratory procession through the city after a key battlefield victory. Always standing in the chariot behind the general, however, was a slave who whispered into the ear of the general, “Respice post te! Hominem te memento!” meaning “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man!”22 Acknowledging organizational and individual fallibilities is the first step toward changing the culture of dishonesty plaguing the Army.

Exercise Restraint.

It is no secret that units and individuals are overwhelmed by the amount of requirements and directives placed upon them. Therefore, restraint must be established in the amount of mandatory training passed down to the force. Instead of making lower level leaders decide which mandatory training or directive they will ignore (but still report 100 percent compliance), leaders at the strategic level must shoulder the burden of prioritizing which directives are truly required. Abdicating that responsibility at the senior level understandably avoids the unpleasant task of informing a proponent, stakeholder, or constituent that his or her particular concern is not a top priority in the Army. Additionally, it gives the Army plausible deniability if something does go wrong. But it also leaves leaders at the lowest levels with no choice but to sacrifice their integrity in order to prop up the façade that all is well.

Of course, exercising restraint is difficult in an organization as large as the Army. Each staff, each level of headquarters, and each senior leader that adds a requirement earnestly believes in the importance and necessity of that requirement. Therefore restraint cannot be achieved merely by announcing it and expecting everyone to curb their propensity for new ideas. Instead, restraint will be exercised when a central authority, armed with a clear understanding of the time and resource constrained environment of the Army, examines and vets the entirety of requirements. While AR 350-1, Army Training and Leader Development, is the obvious candidate for this added scrutiny, ALARACTS, policies from major commands, and directives from all headquarters should also be analyzed in regard to their impact on the cumulative load.

Restraint also needs to be introduced into the rampant use of an officer’s integrity for frivolous purposes. Too often, the Army turns to an officer’s integrity to verify compliance of minor concerns instead of other means such as sampling or auditing. For example, requiring all officers to attest on their OERs that they have initiated a multi-source assessment and feedback (MSAF) in the last 3 years probably has the well-intended purpose of socializing the force to 360° feedback. But the unanticipated outcome has been the diminution of the gravitas of an officer’s signature as rated officers, raters, and senior raters dismiss the requirement as an administrative nuisance rather than an ethical choice. (That the MSAF requirement could be easily verified through automation compounds the problem). The Army must restore the dignity and seriousness of an officer’s word by requiring it for consequential issues rather than incidental administrative requirements.

Lead Truthfully. 

As the institution acknowledges the current situation and begins exercising restraint, leaders at all levels must focus on leading truthfully. Leading truthfully dismantles the façade of mutually agreed deception by putting considerations of the integrity of the profession back into the decision-making process. Thus, at the senior level, leading truthfully may include informing a political appointee that while bath salts are a scourge to American teens, the problem may not merit Army-wide mandatory training until some other topic is removed. Leading truthfully may also include tolerating risk by striving for 100 percent compliance in all areas, but being satisfied when only 85 percent is reported in some. Leading truthfully may also involve brutally honest reporting from subordinates who risk being labeled malcontents or slackers because of their candor.

A focused emphasis on leading truthfully goes beyond inserting an online block of instruction on ethics, scheduling an ethics stand down, or creating an ethics center of excellence. Instead, leading truthfully attempts to preempt ethical fading by examining the moral implications of a leader’s decision first instead of rationalizing them away after the fact. Finally, leading truthfully changes the culture gradually and will only be effective if embraced by all leaders, not just a token few.

The Army profession rests upon a bedrock of trust. That trust continues to be treasured and guarded, but an alternative ethical reality has emerged where junior officers are socialized into believing that pencil-whipping the stats and feeding the beast are not only routine, but expected. This alternative reality is a place where senior officers romanticize the past and convince themselves that they somehow managed to achieve their station in life without tarnishing their own integrity.

Unfortunately, the boundaries of this parallel ethical universe are slowly expanding into more and more of the profession. Ethical fading and rampant rationalizations have allowed leaders to espouse lofty professional values while slogging through the mire of dishonesty and deceit. The end result is a corrosive ethical culture that few acknowledge and even fewer discuss or work to correct. The Army urgently needs to address the corrupting influence of dishonesty in the Army profession. This monograph is but one small step toward initiating that conversation and perhaps stimulating a modicum of action.

Leonard Wong is a research professor in the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. He focuses on the human and organizational dimensions of the military. He is a retired Army officer whose career includes teaching leadership at West Point and serving as an analyst for the Chief of Staff of the Army. His research has led him to locations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Vietnam. He has testified before Congress. Dr. Wong’s work has been highlighted in news media such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Yorker, CNN, NPR, PBS, and 60 Minutes. Dr. Wong is a professional engineer and holds a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy and an M.S. and Ph.D. from Texas Tech University.

Stephen J. Gerras is a Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College. He served in the Army for over 25 years, including commanding a light infantry company and a transportation battalion, teaching leadership at West Point, and serving as the Chief of Operations and Agreements for the Office of Defense Cooperation in Ankara, Turkey. Colonel (Ret.) Gerras holds a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy and an M.S. and Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology from Penn State University.


18. Study on Military Professionalism, Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, 1970, p. 20.

19. Ibid., p. B-1-28.

20. Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, New York: Random House, 1999, 21, (emphasis in the original).

21. Saint Augustine, “On Lying,” Philip Schaff, ed., A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887, available from

22. Tertullian, Apologeticus, Chapter 33, available from eticum_07translation.htm.

Featured Image: EAST CHINA SEA (July 16, 2020) A sailor stands watch as a phone talker on the bridge of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown (LSD 42). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Taylor DiMartino)

Lying to Ourselves, Part Two

This monograph was originally published by the Army War College under the title Lying To Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here. It deserves to be noted that the described themes and dynamics are not solely limited to the specific military service being examined.

Read Part One here.

By Dr. Leonard Wong and Dr. Stephen J. Gerras


One might expect that ethical boundaries are more plainly delineated in a combat environment—the stakes are higher, and the mission is more clearly focused. Discussions with officers, however, revealed that many of the same issues in the garrison environment also emerge in combat. For example, a senior officer described how the combat mission can lead to putting the right “spin” on reports: “We got so focused on getting bodies to combat that we overlooked a lot of issues like weight control, alcohol, or PT.” Not surprisingly, directed training is also often sidestepped in theater. One captain spoke of trying to complete mandatory Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program (SHARP) training:

“We needed to get SHARP training done and reported to higher headquarters, so we called the platoons and told them to gather the boys around the radio and we said, ‘Don’t touch girls.’ That was our quarterly SHARP training.”

But stretching the truth downrange often extends beyond compliance with mandatory training. A major described how Green 2 sensitive item reports were submitted early every morning. Despite the usual 100 percent accountability, however, it was obvious that it could not have been conducted to standard since nobody ever knocked on their doors to check weapon serial numbers. Another officer related how supply accountability in a combat zone could be manipulated by misrepresenting the truth:

“We found ways to beat the system. You show up in country and you get a layout and immediately what do you do? You do a shortage annex for everything. So that way the Army—with an infinite budget in country—would replenish your product [even though] the unit never really lost the equipment in the beginning.”

Discussions with senior officers revealed other examples of bending the truth. One colonel stated that, “The cost of investigating a lost widget isn’t worth the cost of the item; they write it off and later say it was lost to the Pakistanis.” Another colonel stated:

“We were required to inspect 150 polling sites in Iraq (which nobody could possibly ever do) and fill out an elaborate spreadsheet. The spreadsheet was to get validation for higher that you did what they told you to. We gave them what they wanted.”

One frequently provided example of deception at the senior level concerned readiness assessments of partner forces. It was not uncommon for readiness ratings to vary in conjunction with deployment cycles. In other words, the commander’s assessments were not based so much on the counterpart unit capabilities as they were on the American unit stage of deployment. As one colonel explained:

“I show up and [the readiness assessments] go yellow or green to red. I’m ready to leave – they go from yellow to green. We went through the reports with the CG every ninety days. Everyone wanted to believe what they wanted to believe.”

One widespread recurring requirement for junior leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq was the storyboard—a PowerPoint narrative describing unit events and occurrences. One senior officer pointed out, however, that:

“Every contact with the enemy required a storyboard. People did not report enemy contact because they knew the storyboard was useless and they didn’t want to go through the hassle.”

A captain gave his perspective and his eventual approach to providing incomplete and inaccurate storyboards to higher headquarters:

“I understand there is a higher reporting requirement of which I reported verbally, and I did a proper debrief—I wrote it down and then I sent it to them. [But now] I have to combine a bunch of pictures onto a PowerPoint slide. Now I’m doing this storyboard because there’s an IED, because a donkey fell off the mountain, because some dude’s dog came in and I had to shoot it on the COP and now this dude is mad. It became an absolute burden. So what ended up happening was [that] after about the first couple of months, you’re saving your storyboards, and as soon as you had an incident that [was] somewhat similar to what you already had, it became a cut and paste gig. And the quality of the information that you are giving them wasn’t painting the picture for higher as to what was going on. And you can say, “Yes, Lieutenant, you should have done better.” You’re absolutely right. But when I only had 4 hours between this mission and the next, what’s better – spending 15 minutes to make this beautiful storyboard or planning my next operation?”

The attitude of “I don’t need to tell anyone what happened” was also found in other areas where it was perceived that the reporting requirements were too onerous. For example, one officer discussed his unit’s failure to ask permission to respond to indirect fire (IDF):

“Counterfire became a big issue in terms of [the] ability to counterfire when you were receiving IDF. Some companies in our battalion were returning fire without an accurate grid. They got shot at so they shot back. Of course, they were out in the middle of nowhere with a low chance of collateral damage. [But] people in our battalion knew, and just didn’t say anything. I’m not sure how high up people knew, but it was accepted. That was the norm. We’ll just not say anything about it.”

Another area that reflected the malleability of ethical standards was the distribution of cash through the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP). As one senior officer noted, “CERP is not tracked in detail and everyone knows it.” Another colonel observed:

“CERP money is an area where we probably fudge. We gave company commanders a lot of money that we powered down to people who weren’t trained. We probably submitted reports that weren’t accurate.” 

Ethical Fading

At the outset of this monograph, it was brashly declared that most U.S. Army officers routinely lie. It would not be surprising if many uniformed readers raised a skeptical eyebrow at that claim. Indeed, it would not be unusual for nearly all military readers to maintain a self-identity that takes offense with notions of dishonesty or deception. Ironically, though, many of the same people who flinched at that initial accusation of deceit probably yawned with each new example of untruthfulness offered in the preceding pages. “White” lies and “innocent” mistruths have become so commonplace in the U.S. Army that there is often no ethical angst, no deep soul-searching, and no righteous outrage when examples of routine dishonesty are encountered. Mutually agreed deception exists in the Army because many decisions to lie, cheat, or steal are simply no longer viewed as ethical choices.

Behavioral ethics experts point out that people often fail to recognize the moral components of an ethical decision because of ethical fading. Ethical fading occurs when the “moral colors of an ethical decision fade into bleached hues that are void of moral implications.”13 Ethical fading allows us to convince ourselves that considerations of right or wrong are not applicable to decisions that in any other circumstances would be ethical dilemmas. This is not so much because we lack a moral foundation or adequate ethics training, but because psychological processes and influencing factors subtly neutralize the “ethics” from an ethical dilemma. Ethical fading allows Army officers to transform morally wrong behavior into socially acceptable conduct by dimming the glare and guilt of the ethical spotlight.

One factor that encourages ethical fading in the Army is the use of euphemisms and obscure phrases to disguise the ethical principles involved in decisions.14 Phrases such as checking the box and giving them what they want abound and focus attention on the Army’s annoying administrative demands rather than dwelling on the implications of dishonesty in official reports. Indeed, many officers even go as far as to insist that lying to the system can better be described as prioritizing, accepting prudent risk, or simply good leadership.

A more recent and significant development concerning ethical fading is the exponential growth in the number of occasions that an officer is obliged to confirm or verify compliance with requirements. When it comes to requirements for units and individuals, the Army resembles a compulsive hoarder. It is excessively permissive in allowing the creation of new requirements, but it is also amazingly reluctant to discard old demands. The result is a rapid accumulation of directives passed down, data calls sent out, and new requirements generated by the Army. Importantly, the Army relies on leaders to enforce compliance of the increasing amount of requirements and to certify the accuracy of the expanding number of reports sent upward.

The first time that officers sign an OER support form authenticating a counseling session that never happened or check a box saying, “I have read the above requirements” when they really only glanced at the 1,800-word IA acceptable use policy, they might feel a tinge of ethical concern. After repeated exposure to the burgeoning demands and the associated need to put their honor on the line, however, officers become ethically numb. Eventually, their signature and word become tools to maneuver through the Army bureaucracy rather than symbols of integrity and honesty.15 This desensitization dilutes the seriousness of an officer’s word and allows what should be an ethical decision to fade into just another way the Army does business. To make matters worse, technological advances and the cumulative effects of time have led to today’s officers facing a much larger amount of information to corroborate than their predecessors.

Ethical fading is also influenced by the psychological distance from an individual to the actual point of dishonesty or deception. Lying, cheating, and stealing become easier to choose when there are more steps between an officer and the dishonest act—the greater the distance, the greater the chance for ethical fading.16 Thus, most officers would be extremely uncomfortable telling their rater face-to-face that their unit completed ARFORGEN pre-deployment NBC training when they, in fact, did not. Those same officers, however, would probably be more comfortable conveying the same mistruth via a block checked on the ARFORGEN checklist. Likewise, a digital, instead of handwritten, signature on a sponsorship form attesting that an officer was briefed on the sponsorship program prior to PCSing—when they were not—broadens the separation between the officer and the dishonest act. Even the Army’s ubiquitous PowerPoint charts provide briefers the ability to focus on intricate color-coded metrics and thus distance themselves from the inaccurate or ambiguous information the metrics may be conveying.

The psychological distance between a person and the consequences of a dishonest act can also influence ethical fading. A moral decision can lose its ethical overtones if the eventual repercussions of such a choice are either unknown or minimized. For example, the explanation of an officer concerning inaccurate storyboards is illustrative of the common perception that much of the information submitted upward disappears into the ether of the Army bureaucracy:

“Where do the story boards go? They’re going to [a] magic storyboard heaven somewhere where there are billions of storyboards that are collected or logged somehow? After doing hundreds of storyboards, I honestly can’t tell you where any of them go. I send them to my battalion level element who does something with them who then sends them to some other element who eventually puts them on a screen in front of somebody who then prints them out and shreds them? I don’t know.”

Dismissing any potential damage that may result from a misleading or incomplete storyboard allows leaders to view the requirement as yet another petty bureaucratic obligation void of any ethical considerations.

Making Excuses

With ethical fading serving to bolster the self-deception that problematic moral decisions are ethics-neutral, any remaining ethical doubts can be overcome by justifications and rationalizations. While discussions with officers revealed a wide assortment of justifications for unethical behavior, one rationalization appears to underlie all other rationalizations— that dishonesty is often necessary because the directed task, the data requested, or the reporting requirement is unreasonable or “dumb.” When a demand is perceived as an irritation or annoyance, a person’s less than honest response almost becomes a compensatory act against the injustice.17 Officers convince themselves that instead of being unethical, they are really restoring a sense of balance and sanity to the Army. For example, one officer spoke of the distinction he made between useful and useless required reports:

“You can [ask] anybody in this room—the purpose of sending a SALTA or declaring a TIC, CASEVAC—not a MEDEVAC nine lines—we definitely know why we do that stuff and why we’re reporting. And people jump. They’re timely. They’re accurate. . .But some of this stuff is: You need this for why? Show me in the reports guide that we use or wherever [that] this is actually a required report. Because right now it seems like you’re just wasting a unit leader’s time.”

Another officer rationalized how ethical standards should be loosened for requirements perceived as unimportant:

“If it’s a green tab leader that’s asking me for information—the battalion commander, brigade commander, or something the division commander is going to see—then I would sit down and do it. That would be accurate reporting. If it was something that was going into a staff and wasn’t going to drive a critical decision the battalion made in terms of training or something I need to accomplish for a METL task . . . what goes up, goes up. Is it probably a little off? Yeah, there’s a margin of error.”

Finally, one officer, in euphemistic terms, summarized the Army’s tolerance for deception on seemingly meaningless requirements:

“I don’t think it’s that anyone expects you to lie. But I think there is an expectation of—I think the word is—equivocation…I don’t want to say it’s accepted, because that doesn’t sound good or it doesn’t sound right. But I think some expectation of equivocation is accepted on dumb things.”

Two other rationalizations are often used as justifications for dishonesty—mission accomplishment and supporting the troops. With these rationalizations, the use of deceit or submitting inaccurate information is viewed as an altruistic gesture carried out to benefit a unit or its soldiers. Officers reported that they sometimes needed to act as Robin Hood—going outside the ethical boundaries to assist others. As one officer nobly put it:

“I’m just going to “check this box” . . . and if I’m 70% accurate—that’s good enough to 1) keep my guys out of trouble and 2) keep my boss out of trouble so we can keep doing good things for the country.”

One captain recalled an instance where an IED injured a platoon leader and his replacement during a relief in place. The incident required an assessment of possible traumatic brain injury for both lieutenants. The captain explained:

“I falsified the [traumatic brain injury] report that changed a distance from the IED strike [to where] one person was standing. So that way someone didn’t come back down and stick a finger in my CO’s chest and say, “You need to evac that lieutenant right now!” Because in the middle of [a] RIP, that’s not going to happen. If I do that, I’m going to put my boys in bags because they don’t have any leadership. That ain’t happening. I owe the parents of this country more than that.”

Another officer rationalized how funds were deceptively obtained in theater on behalf of the troops:

“It’s odd that in situations that I’ve been in, it’s never been blatant self-interest. It’s never been, “I’m going to get this money so I can buy myself two couches for my office while I’m in Afghanistan.” [Instead], it’s always like—for us, it was hard as hell to get water heaters. For some reason we could not get hot showers for our soldiers. It wasn’t CERP money, but we had to finagle God-knows-how-many organizations to finally get these things and we had to say we’re using this for this, when in fact it was so our guys could have hot showers when they get back off patrol. The truth of the matter is that, at the level that we’re at, a lot of times we gotta get it done and we’re going to find a way to do it.”

Another officer accurately described how the rationalization process softens the sting of dishonesty:

“You feel more comfortable if it’s not for us—if it’s for what we think is the greater good. Like [lying about] all the 350-1 requirements prior to going on block leave. I want my soldiers to go on leave . . . It’s not for me. It’s for the greater good. [But] that doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Rationalizing allows officers to maintain their self-image as a person of integrity despite acts of dishonesty.

Read Part Three.

Leonard Wong is a research professor in the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. He focuses on the human and organizational dimensions of the military. He is a retired Army officer whose career includes teaching leadership at West Point and serving as an analyst for the Chief of Staff of the Army. His research has led him to locations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Vietnam. He has testified before Congress. Dr. Wong’s work has been highlighted in news media such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Yorker, CNN, NPR, PBS, and 60 Minutes. Dr. Wong is a professional engineer and holds a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy and an M.S. and Ph.D. from Texas Tech University.

Stephen J. Gerras is a Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College. He served in the Army for over 25 years, including commanding a light infantry company and a transportation battalion, teaching leadership at West Point, and serving as the Chief of Operations and Agreements for the Office of Defense Cooperation in Ankara, Turkey. Colonel (Ret.) Gerras holds a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy and an M.S. and Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology from Penn State University.


13, Ann Tenbrunsel and David M. Messick, “Ethical fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior,” Social Justice Research, Vol. 17, No. 2, June 2004, p. 224. Also see Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, Blind Spots, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011, pp. 30-31.

14. Tenbrunsel and Messick refer to such phrases as language euphemisms, 226.

15. See Albert Bandura, “Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency,” Journal of Moral Education, 31, No. 2, 2002, pp. 101-119, for how repeated exposure leads to moral disengagement.

16. Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, New York: HarperCollins, 2012, p. 59.

17. Ariely, pp. 177-178.

Featured Image: PHILIPPINE SEA (Sept. 24, 2020) Sailors from Naval Beach Unit 7 man a line alongside Sailors from the amphibious transport dock ship USS New Orleans (LPD 18) during an underway replenishment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kelby Sanders)