Last week the Army War College released a study about military officers lying on a regular basis . These lies include everything from misreporting training status to inflating performance reports. But, how much of this is blatant lying versus simply providing the “correct” answer?
Providing the “correct answer” is something that begins the first day of basic training, and it becomes an institutional norm. For instance, how many times has an entire squad of basic trainees replied, “YES DRILL SERGEANT,” to a question posed by their drill sergeant? This is the “correct” answer. The correct answer isn’t “No,” or “Yeah,” or “I don’t remember.”
In my own experience, I found that basic training reinforces particular behavior and norms. For instance, new (basic) cadets at the Air Force Academy are given a survey after their first or second meal at the school. Officially, its an Air Force Form O-96, and contains six simple questions about the meal. The cadre instructs the basic cadets to fill out this survey. How was the food service? How was the attitude of the waiters? How was the waiter service? How were the beverages? What size were the portions? And finally, how was the meal? Not knowing the cadet system, as a young basic cadet, I answered the questions truthfully and honestly. How was the service? I thought it was slow! What was the portion size? I thought it was oversized. How was the meal? I thought it was unsatisfactory. I found out very quickly that these were not the “correct” answers. The correct answers (in order of the questions) were: fast, neat, average, friendly, good, good. Every cadet learned that these were the answers to the six questions on the form. It had to be filled out in this way. No other way was acceptable. This simple list of six answers is an institutional norm, a meme, which transcends every Air Force Academy class. But, this sort of correct behavior goes beyond basic training and tradition-building exercises, it can be found in most facets of military life. The “correct answer” is not so much the answer to the question, as it is a way of teaching conformity, uniformity, and mental discipline. Despite being deceptive, these are all characteristics of a well-trained military.
…the lessons of basic training don’t clearly elucidate the dichotomy between the truthful answer, and the “correct” answer, which may instill a culture that finds it acceptable to provide the “correct” answer all of the time.
Now, the lessons of basic training don’t clearly elucidate the dichotomy between the truthful answer, and the “correct” answer, which may instill a culture that finds it acceptable to provide the “correct” answer all of the time. But, this issue isn’t confined to the military alone. Large, complex, institutions are beset with internal systems, procedures, and layers of bureaucracy. Because of this, often the “correct” answer trumps the “truth.” How many times in my life have I given the “correct” answers versus the truth? It goes beyond procedure and formalities; we actually see this inconsistency all the time in our daily lives. For instance, I was on the phone with my bank recently and they wanted to know the color of my car (my security question). Well, I thought, I have two cars — one is black and one is blue. But, after much discussion, I found out that this is not the “correct” answer. The correct answer is silver, which was the color of the car I had when I created that account. But, this answer is not the truth, hence, the contradiction. But, the very point of the question is not to find out the color of my car, just like the point of the survey was not to find out about Basic Cadet Maye’s opinion of the meal. The point of the security question was to validate my identity. The point of the survey was to indoctrinate and train.
Oftentimes the “correct” answer saves you time and energy, and oftentimes it’s a matter of priorities. Providing the “correct” answer helps you focus on the mission you deem to be the most important for your people. That is not to say that the “correct” answer is always the best answer. But, it in a culture that routinely trains people to provide the correct answer, it can be difficult to distinguish the difference between the two.
Diane Maye is a former Air Force officer, defense industry professional, and academic. She is a PhD candidate in Political Science at George Mason University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the US Government or the Department of Defense.
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 “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession,” by Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras, 2015, Strategic Studies Institute, Available from:http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=1250