Lying to Ourselves, Part One

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.

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

Summary

While it has been fairly well established that the Army is quick to pass down requirements to individuals and units regardless of their ability to actually comply with the totality of the requirements, there has been very little discussion about how the Army culture has accommodated the deluge of demands on the force. This study found that many Army officers, after repeated exposure to the overwhelming demands and the associated need to put their honor on the line to verify compliance, have become ethically numb. As a result, an officer’s signature and word have become tools to maneuver through the Army bureaucracy rather than being symbols of integrity and honesty. Sadly, much of the deception that occurs in the profession of arms is encouraged and sanctioned by the military institution as subordinates are forced to prioritize which requirements will actually be done to standard and which will only be reported as done to standard. As a result, untruthfulness is surprisingly common in the U.S. military even though members of the profession are loath to admit it.

To address this problem, the authors point out that the first step toward changing this culture of dishonesty is acknowledging organizational and individual fallibilities. Until a candid exchange begins within the Army that includes recognition of the rampant duplicity, the current culture will not improve. The second recommendation calls for restraint in the propagation of requirements and compliance checks. Policies and directives from every level of headquarters should be analyzed in regard to their impact on the cumulative load on the force. Finally, the authors recommend that leaders at all levels must lead truthfully. At the highest levels, leading truthfully includes convincing uniformed and civilian senior leadership of the need to accept a degree of political risk in reducing requirements. At other levels, leading truthfully may include striving for 100 percent compliance in all areas, but being satisfied when only 85 percent is reported in some. The Army profession rests upon a bedrock of trust. This monograph attempts to bolster that trust by calling attention to the deleterious culture the Army has inadvertently created.

Lying To Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently stated that he was “deeply troubled” by the latest spate of ethical scandals across the military. His spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, told a news conference, “I think he’s generally concerned that there could be, at least at some level, a breakdown in ethical behavior and in the demonstration of moral courage.” He added, “He’s concerned about the health of the force and the health of the strong culture of accountability and responsibility that Americans have come to expect from their military.”1

Indeed, troubling indicators point to ethical and moral transgressions occurring across all levels of the military. In the Air Force, for example, nearly half of the nuclear missile launch officers at one base were involved with or knew about widespread cheating on an exam testing knowledge of the missile launch systems.2 In the Navy, 30 senior enlisted instructors responsible for training sailors in the operation of nuclear reactors were suspended after a sailor alerted superiors that he had been offered answers to a written test.3 In the Army, a recent promotion board looking through the evaluations of senior noncommissioned officers (NCOs) found that raters were recording deceptively taller heights in order to keep any NCO weight gain within Army height/weight standards.4 Additionally, the constant drumbeat of senior officer misconduct and ethical failings have included violations ranging from lavish personal trips at government expense to hypocritical sexual transgressions.

On one hand, scandals such as these are beneficial in that they raise visibility of the critical necessity and clear expectation of honesty and integrity in the military profession. On the other hand, such scandals are detrimental not only because they erode the internal and external trust critical to the institution of the military, but also because they encourage many in the profession to sit in judgment of a few bad apples, while firmly believing that they themselves would never lie, cheat, or steal. After all, as Secretary Hagel pointed out, “the overwhelming majority of our service members are brave, upright and honest people.”5 Dishonesty in the military, however, lies not just with the misdeeds of a few, but with the potential for deception throughout the entire military. This monograph examines how untruthfulness is surprisingly common in the military even though members of the profession are loath to admit it.

We begin by analyzing the flood of requirements experienced by military leaders and show that the military as an institution has created an environment where it is literally impossible to execute to standard all that is required. At the same time, reporting noncompliance with the requirements is seldom a viable option. As a result, the conditions are set where subordinates and units are often forced to determine which requirements will actually be done to standard and which will only be reported as done to standard. We continue by examining the effect on individuals and analyze how ethical fading and rationalizing allow individuals to convince themselves that their honor and integrity are intact despite ethical compromise. We conclude by recommending open professional dialogue on the phenomenon, institutional restraint in the proliferation of requirements, and the acceptance of risk in leading truthfully at all levels.

This monograph is not intended to be an indictment of the military profession. Instead, the subsequent pages merely argue that the military needs to introspectively examine how it might be inadvertently abetting the very behavior it deems unacceptable. We realize, though, that engaging in such a dialogue may be awkward and uncomfortable. Because the U.S. military is simultaneously a functioning organization and a practicing profession, it takes remarkable courage for a senior leader to acknowledge the gritty shortcomings and embarrassing frailties of the military as an organization in order to better the military as a profession. Such a discussion, however, is both essential and necessary for the health of the military profession.

While the phenomenon we are addressing afflicts the entire U.S. military, we focus on the U.S. Army because it is the institution with which we are most familiar. While the military profession can be broadly conceptualized to include anyone who serves in the Department of Defense (DoD), we give particular attention to the experiences of the Army officer corps. The officer corps is a bellwether for the military because, as the Armed Forces Officer points out:

“The nation expects more from the military officer: It expects a living portrayal of the highest standards of moral and ethical behavior. The expectation is neither fair nor unfair; it is a simple fact of the profession. The future of the services and the well-being of its people depend on the public perception and fact of the honor, virtue and trustworthiness of the officer corps.”6

The Deluge of Requirements

This analysis began with an exploration into the avalanche of mandatory training requirements levied throughout the Army. It has been fairly well established that the Army as an institution is quick to pass down requirements to individuals and units regardless of their ability to actually comply with the totality of the requirements. In 2001, the Army Training and Leader Development Panel noted this disturbing trend:

“Much of the Army, from the most senior levels on down, no longer follows or cannot follow the Army’s training management doctrine. The doctrine, when applied to support mission focus, prioritizes tasks and locks in training far enough out to provide predictability and allocate resources. It acknowledges that units cannot do everything because there are not enough resources, especially time. Today’s Army ignores the training doctrine.”7

In 2002, a U.S. Army War College study tallied all the training directed at company commanders and compared that total to the available number of training days. The analysis concluded that:

“In the rush by higher headquarters to incorporate every good idea into training, the total number of training days required by all mandatory training directives literally exceeds the number of training days available to company commanders. Company commanders somehow have to fit 297 days of mandatory requirements into 256 available training days.”8

More recently, in 2012 the Department of the Army Inspector General (IG) examined how units were coping with the deluge of mandatory requirements involved in the Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN) process. The IG report noted:

“At none (0 of 16) of the locations inspected were companies in the ARFORGEN process able to complete all mandatory training and administrative tasks during ARFORGEN which impacts their ability to lead effectively and take care of Soldiers.”9

Those three reports focus on the detrimental effects on training management due to the suffocating amount of mandatory requirements imposed upon units and commanders. Commanders were said to be harried and stifled as they were inundated by directives from above. Yet these reports only obliquely address a more pernicious phenomenon emerging from a culture that demands more from the profession’s members than is possible. If units and individuals are literally unable to complete the tasks placed upon them, then reports submitted upward by leaders must be either admitting noncompliance, or they must be intentionally inaccurate. Units, however, rarely have the option to report that they have not completed the ARFORGEN pre-deployment checklist. Likewise, it is not an option for individuals to decide that they will forego sexual assault prevention training this quarter because they are too busy with other tasks. If reporting noncompliance is not an acceptable alternative because of the Army’s tendency toward zero defects, then it is important to examine the resultant institutional implications.

To examine the intersection of the Army’s unbending requirements with the force’s widespread inability to comply with every directive, we looked into the experiences of officers (and some civilians) throughout the Army. We conducted discussions with scores of officers, including captains (including some from the U.S. Marine Corps) at Fort Benning, GA, and Fort Lee, VA; staff officers on the Department of Army staff in the Pentagon, Washington, DC; majors at Fort Leavenworth, KS; and former battalion and brigade commanders at Carlisle Barracks, PA.

Discussions across the force confirm, as previous reports have noted, that the requirements passed down from above far exceed the ability of units and individuals to accomplish them. A former brigade commander bluntly described the annual training requirement situation: “It’s more than you can do in one year.”10 Another officer gave more detail: “The amount of requirements, if you laid [them] down on a calendar—all the external stuff you have to do—and then how much time you have to complete [them]— it’s physically impossible!” Another officer added his perspective:

“It’s a systemic problem throughout the entire Army . . . We can probably do two or three things in a day, but if you give us 20, we’re gonna half-ass 15 and hope you ignore the other five.”

Given that it is impossible to comply with every requirement, how do units and individuals reconcile the impossible task of accomplishing all directed training with a bureaucracy that demands confirmation that every requirement was accomplished? Do they admit noncompliance? Do they submit false reports?

Before addressing these questions, it should be noted that U.S. Army officers, and members of the military profession in general, tend to have a self-image that bristles at any hint of dishonesty. Consider that according to a recent survey completed by over 20,000 members of the Army, 93 percent of respondents believed that the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage line up well with their own personal values.11 This apparent self-confidence in the trustworthiness of America’s warriors is also mirrored externally by American society. Each year, the Harris Poll assesses the confidence that the U.S. public has in the leaders of major American institutions. For the past decade, military leaders have been at the top of the list, with 55 percent of Americans reporting that they have a great deal of confidence in the leaders of the military. For comparison, leaders in Congress and Wall Street garnered societal confidence of only 6 percent and 7 percent, respectively, and thus occupied positions at the other end of the spectrum.12

With such a strong self-image and the reinforcing perspective of a mostly adoring American society, it is not surprising that leaders in the military profession respond with indignation at any whiff of deceit concerning directed training compliance. So, it was not unexpected for discussions with officers to begin with bold declarations such as the colonel who pointed out, “Nobody was ever asked to report something as true that was not,” or the captain who emphatically stated, “I have never given a false report. Never intentionally have I said, ‘Yes, we’re 100% on this,’ when I knew we weren’t.”

After a few minutes into the discussion (usually about 20), however, hints would inevitably emerge that there was something deeper involved in the situation. For example, one senior officer reflected upon the pressures of complying with every training directive and stated, “You find ways to qualify your answer. It’s not quibbling—it’s assuming risk.” When pressed for specifics on how they managed, officers tended to dodge the issue with statements such as, “You gotta make priorities, we met the intent, or we got creative.” Eventually words and phrases such as “hand waving, fudging, massaging, or checking the box” would surface to sugarcoat the hard reality that, in order to satisfy compliance with the surfeit of directed requirements from above, officers resort to evasion and deception. In other words, in the routine performance of their duties as leaders and commanders, U.S. Army officers lie.

Once officers conceded that they did, indeed, occasionally misrepresent the truth concerning compliance with directives, admissions tended to flow more freely. One former battalion commander commented, “We’ve always pencil-whipped training.” A captain recalled a specific example of dealing with the overwhelming requirements:

“For us, it was those little tasks that had to get done when we got returned from predeployment block leave—the number of taskings went through the roof. None [by] themselves were extremely extensive—like a 15-minute online course. The problem was getting your formation to do it with the availability of computers and then the ability to print and prove that you had taken it. So I think that some of the training got lost in translation. For a nine-man squad, they would pick the smartest dude, and he would go and take it nine times for the other members of his squad and then that way they had a certificate to prove that they had completed it.”

Another captain had a similar experience:

“I had a platoon sergeant when I first became a platoon leader, and I walked into the office and he was printing out certificates with people’s names on them. I was like, “What are you doing?” He says, “Mandatory training!” It was so accepted. It’s almost like corruption. 

Honestly Confronting Dishonesty

Dishonesty, however, is not restricted just to reports of mandatory training. While the truth is often sidestepped in reporting compliance with directed requirements, dishonesty and deception are also prevalent in many other realms of the Army. Deceit can also appear in maintenance, supply, or other official reporting. For example, one captain spoke of the deception in vehicle readiness reporting:

“I sat in a log synch and they’re like, “What’s your vehicle percentage?” I said, “I’m at 90%.” [But] if [anyone] told me to move them tomorrow, [I knew] they would all break. For months and months and months we reported up “90%, Good-to-go on vehicles!”–knowing that it didn’t matter because it carried no weight. It literally was just filling a box on a slide.”

Another captain gave an example of the half-truths commonly found in property accountability:

“We had this antenna and it had a serial number, but it was a component of the antenna. . . . We would always joke that if the Army were ever audited, and you looked at everything the Army was supposed to have, it would likely have most of it. However, would it really be of value or use or would you have a piece of plastic with a serial number that counted as an antenna? . . . We weren’t lying. We met the requirement at its minimum and that’s what we sent up. We gave them what they wanted.”

Examples of deceit also emerged in a wide variety of other areas concerning compliance with directed actions. According to a senior officer, “A command inspection is required within 90 days of company command. People don’t do it. They make it up.” One colonel spoke of inaccurate reporting following an undesirable directive: “We were asked to go to off-post housing to check on soldier quality of life. Folks were uncomfortable going so they pencil-whipped it.” In the words of another senior officer, “We have levied [on us] so many information demands that we infer that if I’m not asked specifics, they really don’t care. So I’ll just report ambiguous info.”

An officer related his experience with the Travel Risk Planning System (TRiPS) form required for soldiers going on leave or pass:

“A soldier dying on vacation because of sleep deprivation is a horrible loss. So it is absolutely something we need to mitigate. However the focus for pretty much damn [near] every soldier is, ‘Hey, I just need to get this done so I can get my leave form in and get it approved.’ So what do you do? You know what answers the survey wants. You click those answers. And it’s sad, but it’s the way it works.”

Another common (and innocuous) form of deceit in the U.S. Army officer corps concerns the evaluation reporting system. The dishonesty occurs not in the actual prose of the Officer Evaluation Report (OER)/ NCO Evaluation Report (NCOER) (although an analysis of the over-the-top hyperbole in evaluations would make an interesting study), but rather with the associated OER/NCOER Support Form. Army Regulation 623-3, Evaluation Reporting System, states that a rater must conduct an initial counseling with the rated officer/NCO within the first 30 days of the rating period, followed by additional counseling sessions every quarter. To verify compliance with this directive, the rated officer/NCO, the rater, and the senior rater must initial—or on the newest version, digitally sign—the support form.

It is the exception, not the rule, that the face-to-face counseling mandated by the regulation and verified by three members of the chain of command ever occurs. While initial counseling sessions may have a chance of being accomplished, compliance with the quarterly counseling requirement is extremely rare. Yet each year, tens of thousands of support forms are submitted with untruthful information. Interestingly, fabricating dates that the directed counseling supposedly took place is both expected and unremarkable (as long as the contrived dates do not fall on a weekend). To the average officer, it is the way business is done in the Army. Admitting that the counseling did not take place is very seldom an option. In the words of a major, “The Army would rather us make up dates saying, ‘Yes, we did it’ as opposed to saying, ‘Hey, I messed up.’”

With such widespread evidence that Army individuals and units are surrounded by a culture where deceptive information is both accepted and commonplace, we sought to examine the situation from the perspective of those who receive the flawed information. Are the recipients of the data and reports aware that the information provided to them may not be accurate? We looked to the views of civilians and officers serving on the Department of the Army staff in the Pentagon for some insights. Discussions revealed that most Army staff officers recognize that much of the data provided to them is imprecise.

When asked if units are submitting inaccurate data, one staff officer bluntly replied, “Sure, I used to do it when I was down there.” Another staff officer added, “Nobody believes the data; [senior leaders] take it with a grain of salt . . . The data isn’t valued, probably because they know the data isn’t accurate.” Another clarified, “Everyone does the best they can, but we know the data is wrong.” One officer summed up the situation, “We don’t trust our compliance data. There’s no system to track it. If we frame something as compliance, people ‘check the block.’ They will quibble and the Army staff knows it.”

Likewise, most former battalion commanders admitted that, in their roles as data receivers, many of the slides briefed to them showing 100 percent compliance or the responses given them for information requests were probably too optimistic or inaccurate. For example, one colonel described how his brigade commander needed to turn in his situation report on Friday, forcing the battalions to do theirs on Thursday, and therefore the companies submitted their data on Wednesday—necessitating the companies to describe events that had not even occurred yet. The end result was that, while the companies gave it their best shot, everyone including the battalion commander knew that the company reports were not accurate.

Meanwhile, officers at all levels admit to occasionally feeding the Army institution information that— although it is “what they want to hear”—is not totally honest. As a result, it appears that a peculiar situation emerges where both those requesting information and those supplying it know that the information is questionable. Despite the existence of this mutually agreed deception, all concerned are content to sanction and support the illusion that all is well. In the words of one Department of the Army staff officer, “The façade goes all the way up.” The façade allows the Army to continue functioning—slides are briefed as green, compliance is shown to be almost always 100 percent, and queries from Congress, DoD, or higher headquarters are answered on time.

Read Part Two.

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.

Endnotes

1. Rear Admiral John Kirby, Department of Defense Press Briefing, February 5, 2014, available from defense.gov/ transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=5367.

2. Helene Cooper, “Air Force Fires 9 Officers in Scandal Over Cheating on Proficiency Tests,” The New York Times, March 27, 2014, available from nytimes.com/2014/03/28/us/air-force-fires- 9-officers-accused-in-cheating-scandal.html?_r=0. (Correction: February 20, 2015. A previous version mistakenly stated that half of the missile crews in the Air Force were involved in the cheating scandal. The scandal involved half of the missile crews at one base.)

3. David S. Cloud, “Navy Investigating a Cheating Scandal of Its Own,” Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2014, available from latimes.com/nation/la-na-military-problems-20140205,0,441554. story#axzz2seN1PiPZ.

4. Jim Tice, “Too many overweight soldiers,” Army Times, August 25, 2014, pp. 18-19.

5. Kirby

6. Departments of Defense, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, Department of the Army Pamphlet 600-2, The Armed Forces Officer, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1988, p. 2, available from apd.army.mil/pdffiles/p600_2.pdf.

7. Headquarters, Department of the Army, “The Army Training and Leader Development Panel Officer Study Report to the Army,” Washington, DC: Department of the Army, June 2001, 2-9.

8. Leonard Wong, Stifling Innovation: Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders Today, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2002.

9. Department of the Army Inspector General Report, Disciplined Leadership and Company Administrative Requirements Inspection, Washington, DC: Department of the Army, Office of the Inspector General,

10. Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from discussions held by the authors with officers and civilians.

11. Department of the Army, Army Profession Campaign CY11 Report, Volume II, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, January 20, 2012, p.

12. “Confidence in Congress Stays at Lowest Point in Almost Fifty Years,” Harris Interactive, May 21, 2012, available from harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/mid/1508/ articleId/1068/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/Default.aspx.

Featured Image: (Feb. 14, 2022) Sailors man the rails aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) as the ship returns to San Diego, Feb. 14, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Leon Vonguyen)

2 thoughts on “Lying to Ourselves, Part One”

  1. This article is so true! I’ve been seeing the same things with the US Navy for many years now. From my perspective (Enlisted 90’s to Officer 2000’s), I saw this sort of stuff begin in the 90’s, and it has only accelerated. “We’re the best! Can’t be beat!” (But if you REALLY dig into those “Readiness” numbers, what you find might surprise you!).

  2. As CAG LSO on an East Coast CVN heading for the IO the pressure was on to have a high full systems capable rate.
    But the planes broke and we didn’t have the parts. I submitted the true stats but blowback from AIRLANT caused our Admiral to cave and report what they wanted to hear. I threatened to resign but was talked out of it.

    During my department head tour I found that the maintenance department operated on the basis of the maintenance chief’s wheel book but then gun decked the proper paperwork just before an inspection. The CO was fine with this, so I could not change it.

    As a squadron CO I adopted the policy of not preparing for inspection to avoid the incentive to gun deck, but then found myself having to report a higher C rating than was the case to not screw other squadrons that were closer to deployment. There were not enough spares in the system and reporting C4 would have caused parts to be funneled to us, who were in post-cruise doldrums.

    There were other instances, most of which were generated by the Navy trying to do too much with too little.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.