Which Way Lies Salvation?

A Discussion on Dishonesty in the Military Profession

Recently two U.S. Army War College professors published an incisive, well-researched study entitled “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession.” The title instantly conjures images of an Army immersed in sin, where a soldier cannot be trusted to speak the truth. The study itself generated attention grabbing headlines from widely read publications such as the Washington PostCNN, as well as Army Times, which bemoaned the corruption of the Army officer corps, on which the study is based. This in turn led to a flurry of internet activity as currently serving and retired service members of all branches and ranks (all having read the study no doubt) lined up to comment on the depravity of the Army’s officers, the Army in general, and that the study’s conclusions should surprise no one. Largely absent have been calls for moderation or an official statement regarding the conclusions drawn by the authors. For a formal study by one of the military’s premiere institutions, the lack of a response is perhaps the most alarming reaction of all.

Foremost it is necessary to point out that this is a study meant for the consideration of the entire military. As stated by the authors:

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 (as professors at the [U.S. Army War College]). 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. [1]

This study is not an indictment of the Army officer corps. It is a clarion call to the military and its overseers that a fundamental value of the service, honor, has eroded and change is needed for it to be revitalized.

In this study, the Army officer corps serves as a focus group for the entire Department of Defense — though several U.S. Marine Corps officers were also interviewed for the study, as mentioned on page six. The authors acknowledge on page one that the study comes at time when ethical failings are occurring across the uniformed military, throughout the ranks of both officer and enlisted. This study is not an indictment of the Army officer corps. It is a clarion call to the military and its overseers that a fundamental value of the service, honor, has eroded and change is needed for it to be revitalized.

If you have ever sat through a block of mandatory training or death by power point style briefs, filled out a story board, signed a unit finance report, wrote and evaluation, sat through a training meeting or command and staff, assessed the end of a campaign for your superiors, etc. this study will resonate. While you may not be guilty of any sort of dishonesty per se, certainly you can see where it is possible or even likely for others to get lost in the deluge of requirements and expectations. Furthermore, you must appreciate the immense pressure to report information that keeps with higher headquarter’s expectations. It maybe that you have seen the consequences of someone reporting the “wrong” but correct information and found them unfair but not unexpected. Considering all that, you can perhaps understand,though not condone, a soldier, sailor, airman, marine, non-commissioned officer, or officer’s propensity to “pencil whip,” “hand wave,” or “fudge” the numbers.

So the phrase “…officers (leaders), 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” (Gerras and Wong 2015, ix) among all the quotable passages, hits like a thunderbolt. It should cause a moment of reflection in anyone who reads it. Why are satirical news sources like The Duffel Blog, comic strips like Terminal Lance, or humorists like Doctrine Manso popular and their messages so poignant and relatable? Why are service members so eager to speak out on forums and blogs across the internet (sometimes with less than desired results) or to flock to organizations like theDefense Entrepreneurs Forum? Is the force ethically numb? Has a leader’s signature or their word become commodities to be traded for favor and advancement? Have I been part of the problem? How can this problem be fixed?

To claim there is no problem is to espouse willful ignorance and ignore the gathering storm.

Fair questions all, but the last two are the questions that should be getting asked throughout the Department of Defense. To claim there is no problem is to espouse willful ignorance and ignore the gathering storm. Drs. Gerras and Wong end their study with several recommendations and acknowledge at the beginning that even discussing the issue will be awkward and uncomfortable. Whose burden is most heavy for implementing the study’s recommendations, or finding other, better solutions? Clearly change needs to happen, but what direction will it come from — which way lies salvation, up or down?

“Brutus Falling on His Sword” imprint by Geoffrey Whitney, Emblema CXIX via A Choice of Emblems.(1586)

“Brutus Falling on His Sword” imprint by Geoffrey Whitney, Emblema CXIX via A Choice of Emblems.(1586)

For the change to be driven from the bottom up, it requires the simple choice from a critical mass of leaders within the operational military who decide to be absolutely truthful on every report, evaluation, or requirement. A sudden drop in Unit Status Report numbers, a sharp rise in unfulfilled deployment requirements, or unexpected flat-line of promotion rates could not help but be noticed by the powers that be. The requirements will not go away overnight, so it would be necessary to consciously prioritize training tasks, disregard redundant requirements, and exhibit the personal courage to write a truthful evaluation supported by astute counselings. Such a trend would need to be sustained until it caused change. Those who implement this plan however would have to be prepared to answer some very tough questions, and suffer the consequences of being honest. In essence, a generation of junior leaders would have to refuse any distortion of the truth and possibly put their careers in jeopardy to keep their honor intact and revitalize the reputation of the military, as oxymoronic as it sounds.

For change to come from the top down first requires senior leaders to acknowledge the problem(s) and make fixing them a public priority. Next they must question and be skeptical of the information that is reported to them — if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. The culture of how information is received must change— rejecting information one wants to hear versus accepting information one needs to hear. The Department of Defense would have to initiate a review of its requirements to determine what is superfluous, outdated, or unnecessary for a military of the 21st Century and then change the doctrine and testify for changes to laws. This may directly affect the legacy, or even reason for existence of some senior individuals. In essence, senior leaders of today would have to make some tough decisions, and commit to addressing the issues and concerns throughout the force with scant regard for outside interests, institutional bias, or even hallowed traditions.

The problem is vast, but it is not insurmountable. Drs. Gerras and Wong’s study is not a shroud meant to cover the force in darkness. It is a beacon, like a lighthouse in a storm — one which we ignore at our peril. Though it maybe difficult to face, the issues identified compromise the fundamental values on which the military is built. Change can either be grassroots or in a stepwise fashion, driven from the bottom or the top, but change must come. It should not require a certain demographic to selflessly sacrifice themselves to bring honor back to the force when it never should have been abandoned. It is time for leaders of every rank, from every branch of service to aggressively lead the military to a more practical, honorable future and truly embody the values that are held so dear.

Nathan Wike is an officer in the U.S. Army, and an associate member of the Military Writer’s Guild. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] Gerras, Stephen J, and Leonard Wong. Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession. Strategic Studies Institute, United States Army War College, Carlisle Barracks: U.S. Army War College Press, 2015.