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)

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