Copyright John T. Reed
“Qui male agit odit lucem.” (“He who behaves badly hates the light.” John 3:20)
On June 5, 1968, I woke up as a member of the most honest organization I was ever associated with. By the time I went to bed that day, I was in the most dishonest organization I have ever been part of. What happened in between?
Around midday, I and my 705 classmates graduated from West Point and 704 of us were commissioned as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army (plus a handful in the Air Force and Marines). (The two who were not commissioned were tennis players who had disqualifying medical problems.)
Cadet Honor Code
In the mid 1960s, the West Point Cadet Honor Code was one of the wonders of the world. It said,
A cadet does not lie, cheat, or steal.
(Since I graduated, West Point ripped off the Air Force Academy’s Code which said, “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do.” Since Air Force originally ripped their honor code off from West Point, and hardly has an exemplary record in the area, I am mystified that we would copy their code. The toleration deal was implicit in the code when I was a cadet.)
The wonder stemmed from the fact that the Corps of Cadet, the West Point student body, really did adhere to it religiously. I was amazed and remain amazed that the media never did a story about it. They only wrote about it when a group of cadets, usually dominated by athletes, violated it.
I never saw anyone violate it. We were required to turn them in if we did and we would because failure to do so was itself considered a violation of the Honor Code. The thinking was the guy who violated it and let us witness it was taking away our West Point education if we did not turn him in.
I heard about one graduate bragging about having gotten married before graduation. Since they made us sign a statement that we were not married on graduation day, that was an honor violation. He graduated because no one knew until afterward.
And there were occasional guys thrown out for violations here and there while I was a cadet. But in general, neither I nor my classmates saw or heard of any violations.
I limit my description of the respect the Corps of Cadets had for the Honor Code to the mid-1960s, when I was there, because I have heard since then in media reports, letters to the graduates from the Superintendent (commander) of West Point, and classmates who were stationed there as professors that the later cadets have had a lesser regard for the Code. Those more recent graduates will have to vouch for the compliance rate among more recent cadets.
Why the Cadet Honor Code?
As plebes (freshmen) we had to memorize the Mission of the United States Military Academy (official name of West Point). It said in pertinent part:
...to instruct and train the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate will have the qualities and attributes essential to his progressive and continued development throughout a lifetime career as an officer in the Regular Army.
2. Moral—To develop in the cadet a high sense of duty and the attributes of character, with emphasis on integrity... essential to the profession of arms.
We were given a small, hard-bound book called Bugle Notes when we entered West Point on July 1, 1964. It contained the above mission and the other stuff we had to memorize as plebes. It also elaborated on various aspects including the Honor Code. For example, page 88 said,
From the earliest days of recorded history it has been recognized that unquestioned integrity is an essential trait of the military leader.
So there you have the ostensible reason for the West Point Cadet Honor Code: Army officers have to have unquestioned integrity.
‘Don’t try to take the Cadet Honor Code into the Army’
But while we were cadets, and officially getting frequent instruction on the Cadet Honor Code, our professors, themselves recent graduates of West Point, would unofficially warn us,
Don’t try to take the Cadet Honor Code into the Army with you.
They would elaborate that their advice had two prongs:
1. You cannot trust fellow soldiers, including officers, as much as you can trust fellow cadets.
2. You cannot comply with the Cadet Honor Code yourself as an officer.
One of our recent graduate professors back then illustrated this advice by telling us that the very first thing he had to do on his first day at his first assignment was to sign a false official document. When he balked, his sergeant threatened to beat the lieutenant up if he did not sign it. The lieutenant, impressed by the sergeant’s determination if not by his prowess as a thug, signed the false document, and many more thereafter. He told us this story to make sure we knew we were going to have to do the same as officers.
A group of students at my other alma mater, Harvard Business School, created an MBA oath that is about integrity and such. You may wonder what I think of it. It’s a piece of crap. See my article about it here.
The Borman Commission Report
I invite anyone who disputes what I just said to read the Borman Commission report. Frank Borman was a West Point graduate who commanded the Apollo 8 astronaut mission that was the first to go around the moon. He was asked to chair a commission that looked into the state of honor education and compliance at West Point in the wake of the 1976 cheating scandal. Here are two pertinent sentences from that report:
The standards of the Academy have appropriately been set at a level much higher than the lowest common denominator of society at large and, for that matter, of the "real Army." While the so-called "double standard" can be disillusioning, its existence must be acknowledged.
Borman was pussy-footing around. What he is saying is that cadets are honest, supposedly to prepare them to be officers, but officers have to lie. We ought to do something more about it than merely acknowledging it. How about getting rid of the double standard and making Army officers behave honestly? Is that too much to ask? Apparently so.
Borman would probably say that was beyond his authority as head of the commission. Typical bureaucratic answer if it is indeed what he would say. But certainly there are some people who have the integrity of the Army officer corps within their authority, namely, the Commander In Chief, the Secretaries of Defense and the Army, and the top Army officers. The current Secretary of Defense—Robert Gates—has paid lip service to integrity, indeed in a speech at West Point, but then he promoted a known liar, Stanley A. McChrystal—to 4-star general and head of Afghanistan. That sent a great “do as I say but not as I do” message to the cadets at West Point and the Army in general.
Business as usual in the “nobody here but us leaders of great integrity” U.S. military.
When I was a cadet, I did a one-month internship in July of 1966 with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, KY. All cadets did such an internship somewhere in the real Army back then.
One Friday at Fort Campbell, they told me I was assigned to take the weekly arms inventory. This was a shit job given to the lowest ranking officer. I was not yet an officer, but close enough. The battery I was in had an M-16 rifle for each of its soldiers. They were in an M-14 rifle rack in the arms room.
The paper I was supposed to sign said above my signature line that I not only counted the rifles, but that I also verified that each had the serial number on the written arms inventory.
The M-14 rifle rack was diabolically designed so that when you put an M-16 into it, a steel bar running the length of the rack was pressed up against the serial number on the M-16 preventing you from seeing it. To read the serial number, you had to unlock the heavy rack, remove the M-16, and turn it over.
This was extremely time-consuming. The arms sergeant told me that all the other officers just counted the rifles and signed the inventory. That was, of course, illegal, immoral, and dishonorable. I said I could not do that because I was a West Point cadet and to do so would violate the Cadet Honor Code.
We then spent hours, on Friday night after everyone else had gone for the weekend, checking the serial numbers. It turned out that we had the correct number of rifles, but one had a serial number that was not on the written inventory and one of the serial numbers that was on the written inventory was not in the arms room.
I figured we were done, but the arms sergeant informed me that this was a really big deal. An M-16 is a machine gun and the Army did not want any machine guns unaccounted for. He was going to have to call the battery commander. I said we’d better double check before we did that. So we went through the whole thing again. Same result.
Now it was relatively late Friday night. We called the battery commander. He called the battalion commander who called the brigade commander. Within a half hour, all these guys were standing in the arms room with me and the division commander—a two-star general—had been called and was on the way. They were talking about gathering the men not on leave and going out into the woods to the last location where the battery had trained to look for the M-16 in the dark that night with flashlights.
Turned out the missing M-16 had been sent to maintenance. The arms sergeant was supposed to have put a card to that effect in the rifle-rack slot for that rifle. He failed to and may have put an illegal extra rifle there instead. It is standard but prohibited practice for NCOs in the Army to hoard equipment secretly so they have extras if they lose equipment they are supposed to have. They generally get away with it because most equipment either has no serial number or because almost all officers falsely sign documents asserting they verified the serial numbers when, in fact, they did not take the time to do so.
The battery commander was a West Point graduate. He made no effort whatsoever to get me to sign the false document. Unfortunately, he was the only West Point graduate I ever served directly under in my entire time in the Army.
That month at Fort Campbell was when I changed from being a committed career officer to deciding to get out of the Army as soon as possible after I graduated from West Point. The arms-inventory incident was one reason for that and was sufficient reason by itself in my mind.
Here is an email I got from retired Colonel Chris Gershel:
On Sep 16, 2011, at 1:32 AM, CHRIS GERSHEL wrote:
I had a false document issue while I was there [in the 101st Airborne Division]. It damn near cost me my career. I worked as a G3 aviation opns officer for the 101st. The 101st was an airmobile division that had 435 aircraft assigned to it. Each week I had to send an aviation readiness report to USARV. All of the CH47D aircraft had been grounded for retrofit to -D models because they had engines that were exploding. I reported the aircraft as non operationally ready for maintenance. About two weeks later my boss, a LTC roared into the TOC and informed me that the CG wanted the report changed to show the aircraft were operationally ready. I told the LTC if he wanted the report changed to go ahead and do it, but he would sign it not me. You can imagine what my OER looked like. So much for integrity.
Daily training schedules
When I was a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC in 1969, I noticed there was a daily training schedule on the company bulletin board every day. It was signed by the company commander and it was almost totally false. It was mainly a list of the things we should have been doing.
It said we did calisthenics at 6AM on weekday mornings, which was true. But the rest of it was total bull. The rest showed us maintaining our vehicles, getting continuing education classes on topical stuff that was coming down from the Pentagon, practicing our military mission with our troops, and so on. In fact, that summer, we spent all day every day out in the woods at the site of a V.I.P. demonstration that was to happen at the end of the summer. See my article on military personnel dying unnecessarily in V.I.P. demonstrations.
After the V.I.P. demonstration, we spent all day every day in the motor pool frantically and belatedly trying to get ready for a Command Maintenance Management Inspection. That is done by inspectors from the Pentagon who go over all the vehicles in the Division to see if they are maintained properly.
Why would the Pentagon do such a thing? Because they know the daily maintenance reports they get from every U.S. military unit in the world are a pack of lies—they used to sign them themselves, or order their lieutenants to do so, when they were younger—and they are covering their asses because they know the atrocious maintenance of U.S. military vehicles inevitably comes to public light from time to time.
Motor vehicle reports
I believe that virtually every U.S. military unit worldwide turns in a signed false motor vehicle status report every weekday. I was never in the Navy, Marines, or Air Force, but I don’t know why they would be different. If the military disputes it, it would be relatively easy to check. Just go to a U.S. military motor pool at any base, without them knowing you’re coming, pull out the status report that was sent in that day, and compare it to the reality of the vehicles.
For example, I was the battalion motor officer for one half day in one unit in Vietnam. Why for just one half day?
First thing on the first morning, the motor sergeant handed me a status report to sign. It said that 95% of our vehicles were in perfect working order. “Really!?” I said. “I always heard that about 85% of them were deadlined [undrivable].” “They are, sir,” the motor sergeant said. “But we can’t put that in the report. This report goes all the way to the Pentagon. There would be hell to pay if we put that in the report.”
As you can probably anticipate, I refused to sign it. I was by then an officer, not a cadet. The Cadet Honor Code no longer applied to me technically, but I decided it applied to me morally. I was also determined to live up to another thing we had to memorize from Bugle Notes: the Cadet Prayer which said in pertinent part,
Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing...Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole can be won. Endow us with courage that...knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy. Help us to maintain the honor of the Corps untarnished and unsullied and to show forth in our lives the ideals of West Point...
The motor sergeant assumed I did understand how the “game was played” and patiently explained to me that signing false documents was routine in the Army and that it had to be done every day and that I was not going to change the Army.
I still refused. He excused himself and disappeared. A little while later, the phone rang. It was the battalion commander telling me I was no longer motor officer. I had been relieved after about 12 hours in the job, a period which primarily involved my spending the night sleeping and in which my only motor officer act was to refuse to sign a false report. In addition to being immoral, signing that report would have been illegal. I could have been court martialed if I had signed it. Had anyone relied on it—remember this was in a combat zone in a war—men might have died as a result of it.
Shortly thereafter, I was transferred to a more forward, more dangerous assignment which I always felt was to show the other lieutenants what happens to a junior officer who refuses to “play the game.” The new unit was the one where I drove through a North Vietnamese ambush near the Cambodian border. (I described that at my military home page.)
Vietnam arms inventory
I encountered the false arms inventory problem again in Vietnam. I was assigned the duty of pay officer. The troops, for unknown reasons, wanted to be paid in cash. This was true even in Vietnam where they were paid in scrip, a U.S. military currency that was useless anywhere but on a U.S. military base in Vietnam. The reason was that the corrupt South Vietnamese government could not have a real currency like U.S. dollars floating around.
Anyway, I had to visit our company’s soldiers who, because they were in communications, were scattered all over III Corps. That is, we had about three guys at every significant Army base including Cu Chi, Tay Ninh, Phuoc Vinh, Lai Khe, Bunard, etc.
My battalion commander was a helicopter pilot and had to fly so many hours per month to continue to get flight pay. He got his flight time in Vietnam by flying the pay officer around.
The message was sent out that each soldier was to bring his rifle to where I paid him so I could check the serial number. That worked fine all day until the last stop which I believe was Phuoc Vinh. Those three guys did not get the word to bring their rifles. Furthermore, their rifles were about a mile and a half away from the chopper pad so there was not time for them to go get them because the battalion commander had to get the helicopter back to Long Binh by a certain time.
When I returned to our base camp, the company commander had prepared a company arms inventory for my signature. As at Fort Campbell, it said that I had verified all the rifle serial numbers. I added by hand that I had not seen three of them and listed those numbers, then signed it. The company commander was outraged. He had it retyped in front of a room full of clerks and ordered me to sign it without any modification. I again added the exceptions and signed it. I said to the CO that he had several choices:
• Court martial me for not seeing the three rifles
• Send me back out there to see them
• Have another officer from another unit who is stationed out there inventory just those three rifles and send us that three-rifle inventory with his signature for us to attach it to my signed inventory of the other rifles
• The one thing we were NOT going to do I told him was have me sign a false inventory. He had it typed with the false information a third time, still with the CO ranting and raving at me in front of a room full of amused Army clerks. Once again, I modified it before signing. He did not try a fourth time—with me anyway.
I later heard through the grape vine that there was a fourth version on which they forged my signature.
I also heard that they had forged my signature on the motor vehicle status report I refused to sign in that same unit. Apparently my name had been on the Day Report as motor officer that day so my signature had to be on the motor vehicle status report for that day as well, regardless of my refusal to sign it.
This is not the world’s biggest deal. I just tell the story to illustrate that false documents are signed routinely and daily throughout the U.S. military officer corps and refusing to sign a false document because it is false is considered nutty by lifers.
In other words, that statement “that unquestioned integrity is an essential trait of the military leader” on page 88 of my Bugle Notes is total bullshit. Unquestioned obedience, including when ordered to sign false documents, is the true version of what the de facto “essential trait” of a U.S. military officer is. “Unquestioned integrity” is only what ought to be “an essential trait of the military leader.”
Fort Monmouth fire drills
When I arrived at Fort Monmouth in 1970, They made me executive officer (2nd in command) of Bravo Company of the school brigade.
One day, a sergeant brought me a fire drill report. It wanted the date we had a fire dill for that month and how much time it took us to empty the building and my signature. The date was already filled in. I was to add how much time it took. I said,
I don’t remember any fire drill that day.
We don’t actually do any drill, sir. We just make up the date and time.
I refused to sign it. They had to redo it with the company commander’s signature block. He made up a phony date and duration and signed it. Two months later, in early 1971, the company commander got out of the Army and I became the CO. The sergeant brought me the monthly fire drill report. I gathered my new XO and several sergeants and, perhaps for the first time in the history of Fort Monmouth, a barracks fire drill was held.
I timed it. Then, also perhaps for the first time in the history of Fort Monmouth, I filled out, signed, and submitted an honest company fire drill report. After a couple of months, a sergeant in the ante room of my office yells in the door,
Lieutenant Reed, Post Fire Marshal on line 2.
You can probably guess where this is going. And you are correct. He chewed my ass for having the slowest fire drills in the history of Fort Monmouth and took pains to point out that even my immediate predecessor got the building evacuated far faster than I did. We’re talking about evacuating a four-story barracks building in a fire drill that necessarily came as a surprise to all the occupants thereof, many of whom were in their underwear or in the shower.
With my XO, who shared my office, stifling his laughter, I adopted an Eddie Haskell personality and earnestly promised to try to do better in the future.
The U.S. military officer corps is the most corrupt, SNAFU, FUBAR organization I ever had the misfortune to be associated with in my life. They are also the organization that used the word “honor” to describe themselves more than any other I was ever associated with.
24-carat phonies and hypocrites to boot.
They probably still have my fire drill reports in their files. And until they read this, they probably still hadn’t figured out that all the company commanders and XOs at Fort Monmouth, other than yours truly, lied on those reports for generations.
Notwithstanding the routine daily signing of false documents throughout the U.S. military officer corps, the typical reaction of a U.S. officer to even the slightest suggestion that such officers are not paragons of integrity is stiffed-necked, self-righteous indignation and outrage.
Here’s an example. I once overheard a captain bragging about a conversation he had with a prospective landlord. He was in uniform when he applied for an apartment near Fort Monmouth, NJ. The landlord told him what the security deposit would be and the captain angrily and indignantly responded, pointing to his captain’s bars, “There’s your security deposit right there!”
I was also a landlord at the time, although not his. Had a U.S. military officer ever tried that line with me, I would have laughed in his face. Indeed, I would probably seek additional security from such a tenant on the grounds that they tend to move to a different continent or at least a different state when they move out. That makes it harder to collect money owed. I am a nationally-known expert on rental property and the author of many books on the subject.
The officer who demanded that I sign the false arms inventory in Vietnam was a captain. The company commander who signed the false training schedules at Fort Bragg was a captain. Ernest Medina, the company commander whose men committed the My Lai massacre and who lied about it afterward, was also a captain.
Matthew Lee, SVP, Lehman Brothers
Investment bank Lehman Brothers went bust in 2008, almost taking down the entire world financial system. Matthew Lee was an SVP there before that happened. He wrote a letter to the CFinancialO and CRiskO of Lehman warning of the ethics problems that led to the bankruptcy. He was fired days later. (Wall Street Journal 3/20/10)
Two Matthew Lees have graduated from my alma mater—West Point—but neither is old enough to have worked at Lehman for 14 years as the SVP did.
The problem is where are West Point’s Matthew Lees? Where are the Army’s Matthew Lees? Where are the U.S. military’s Matthew Lees? The history of all three institutions is almost devoid of the sort of moral courage exhibited by Lee. Shame on West Point, the Army, and the U.S. military for that. And more shame on them for their stiff-necked self-righteous protestations of supreme honor whenever anyone questions their integrity or moral courage. The only thing worse than a moral coward is a moral coward who hypocritically swears he is morally courageous.
In my landlord days, I did have one experience with a U.S. military officer showing how important integrity was to him. He was a Navy lieutenant assigned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. He lived in one of my employer’s apartments. He gave notice he was breaking the lease. It had a job-transfer clause that said you could get out of the lease if you were being transferred more than 40 miles away from the complex.
I told him he was not eligible to invoke that clause. He yelled at me angrily and showed me “orders” that he claimed indicated he was being transferred to Kansas City, MO. The papers did, indeed, have the word “orders” printed on them. I looked at them and said,
Lieutenant, you’re a liar. Those are separation-from-the-service orders. You are voluntarily getting out of the Navy. And when you get out you are authorized travel pay from the Philadelphia Navy Yard to Kansas City—because Kansas City is either your current “home of record” in military files or because you entered the Navy in Kansas City. No one is ordering you to go to Kansas City. Do you think you are the only person here who was ever in the military?
Turned out he was actually buying a home in our area from the same company that I managed apartment complexes for. Oh, also, a Navy lieutenant is the rank equivalent of an Army captain, the rank that is so honest that they claim they should not have to put up tenant security deposits.
General Stanley A. McChrystal gives lie to the Army’s claims to be an honorable organization
I chronicled McChrystal’s misbehavior in two articles about the cover-up of the friendly fire death in Afghanistan of Army Ranger and former NFL player Pat Tillman:
You can read more brief versions at various Web sites including McChrystal’s Wikipedia bio.
Basically, McChrystal was the main liar in the Pat Tillman case. It was he who wrote the Silver Star citation saying falsely that Tillman was brave “in the line of devastating enemy fire.” In fact, Tillman was shot in the forehead by his own fellow Army Rangers when he relaxed and stood up thinking they had finally figured out that they were firing at an American.
It was also he who wrote the infamous cable to General Abizaid urging him to warn President Bush not to praise Tillman’s heroism because it might later come out that it was friendly fire.
Both of those are described in more detail at the above two articles of mine. But the greater issue is how the United States Army responded to McChrystal’s dishonesty in the Tillman case.
The point I make here is that the problem is the whole Army. The Army simply does not tolerate honest officers. On the contrary, they demand that officers comply with what I call O.P.U.M. That means Officially Prohibited but Unofficially Mandatory. I write about it elsewhere in this article.
In the Tillman case, officers were expected to cover up and put a positive spin on Tillman’s death. That violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice, not to mention morality, the Cadet Honor Code, the Cadet Prayer, the Boy Scout Oath, and any other perinent code that addresses integrity. In other words, officially, what McChrystal did in the Tillman case is prohibited. But I say that it’s really mandatory. To see if I am right, look at subsequent events.
There were five separate inquiries into the Tillman cover-up. None could get to the truth. All the officers including McChrystal stonewalled. They could not recall. General Kensinger retired and literally hid from Federal Marshals trying to serve a Congressional subpoena on him.
One of the inquiries recommended that eight officers be disciplined, including McChrystal. Not only was he not disciplined at all, on 5/11/09, he was promoted to the highest rank in the U.S. military—four-star general—and to the current most sought-after post in the entire U.S. military: Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), that is, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan.
To any who say I unfairly tar the whole U.S. Army because of the dishonesty of a few “bad apples,” I have two words:
McChrystal is what the Army wants you to be. The three guys who promoted McChrystal were General David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Commander In Chief Barack Obama. The Senate confirmed McChrystal’s appointment.
One of my West Point classmates told me he saw a poll in Army Times or some similar periodical in which 67% or some such of career Army officers admitted that they had signed false documents during their careers. I laughed and said, “And 33% are so corrupt they even lie on anonymous polls.”
On page 15 of Colonel David Hackworth’s book About Face, journalist Ward Just quotes Hackworth as saying about the post-World War II Army
In this new Army, no one could afford to tell the truth, make an error, or admit ignorance.
That “new Army” is the only one I was ever in.
General Billy Mitchell was court martialed by the Army for speaking out in an act of moral courage, one very few acts of moral courage in the entire history of the U.S. military. Here are some of the charges Mitchell made in the 1925 written statement that got him court martialed:
[The Army and Navy have formed “a sort of union to perpetuate their own existence, [maintained] “propaganda agencies” [to sway public opinion. Senior officers who testified before Congress] “almost always” [gave] “incomplete, misleading or false information about aeronautics” [while] “the airmen themselves are bluffed and bulldozed so that they dare not tell the truth.”
I agree that officers dare not tell the truth. That’s what I saw from 1968 to 1972 when I was in. It’s what guys like Mitchell and Hackworth saw before I was in and it is what I have seen in the media since I got out.
Mitchell depicts “airmen,” which was apparently a 1920s word for pilots, as innocent victims who were bullied into lying. I agree that they were bullied into lying, but that’s no excuse for lying.
Claiming to be an honest man who did lie, but only because he was “forced” to is akin to Bill Clinton saying he smoked marijuana but did not inhale. If you lie, you are a liar. The fact that you felt bad about it don’t mean nothing. The “airmen” who were bullied should have refused to lie and if they got retaliated against by their superiors, which is certain, so be it. That, after all, is precisely what Mitchell did. I was never in such a high position, but I also refused to lie. I got retaliated against big time, which is bullying, but I stuck to my principles.
Any military officer of any rank who lies ought to be court martialed, regardless of why he lied.
Whenever I refused to sign false documents or refused to go along with some OVUM (Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory) indignity like attendance at so-called “command-performance” parties held by superiors, I was sent to a high-ranking officer for “counseling.” Signing false documents is an example of what I call OPUM, that is, stuff that is Officially Prohibited but Unofficially Mandatory.
I found these “counseling” sessions to be comically uniform no matter where I was in the world—as if every career military officer had taken a course in how to rationalize abandoning one’s integrity and turning into a total boot licker. Here’s how they all rationalized it and tried to get me to rationalize it.
Lieutenant Reed, you can’t change the Army. It may surprise you to learn that I was unhappy about some of the same things that you are unhappy about when I was a young lieutenant. I remember the time I had tickets to an NBA playoff game and the colonel scheduled a party for the same night. I was really angry when my company commander told me I had to go to the party. I told him I wouldn’t. But I had a good CO and he counseled me like I’m counseling you and it saved my career. I went to the party. I figured I had made my point by complaining to the CO about it.
You have to bide your time, Lieutenant Reed. You can’t change things when you’re a lieutenant. You have to play the game until you reach high enough rank that you have the power to change things. You have to pick your battles. This one isn’t worth it.
Let me give you a prayer that’s helped me, Lieutenant Reed. God grant me the courage to change what I can change, the patience to accept what I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference. I have friends who got out of the Army. They say it’s the same in civilian corporations. It’s the way it is everywhere.
So what do you say, Lieutenant Reed? Can we count on you to become a team player? Everyone else can’t be out of step.
When none of that worked, they would threaten me with bad efficiency reports, not getting promoted, and “things not going so easy on you.”
Here is my point-by-point response to the Army officer corps’ standard “counseling”-rationalization session.
You can’t change the Army.
Irrelevant. The Army can’t change me, either. What’s right is right regardless of whether my superiors like it or not.
I once showed some backbone.
Yeah, briefly. Then you went along to get along.
I made my point.
No, you didn’t. You caved. Your superiors were the ones who made their point.
You have to bide your time. You have to play the game until you reach high enough rank that you have the power to change things.
Sir, you guys bide your time forever. You never reach the point where you change things. The longer you play the game, the harder it is for you to denounce the game or change the game.
You have to pick your battles.
Sir, that implies that you career officers choose to stand up to your superiors some times and not others. In fact, you never stand up to your superiors. And if you ever do, your career will be over, sir.
I recently heard another lifer Army officer tell me another rationalization these scum bags have for never exhibiting any moral courage or integrity: “You can only fall on your sword once.” Not true. I did it a dozen or more times.
God grant me the courage to change what I can change, the patience to accept what I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Once again, sir, you imply that sometimes you fight. In fact, sir, you guys never have the courage to change anything. You accept everything. The U.S. Army officer corps is the patience capital of the world and is totally devoid of any moral courage.
We had a prayer for moral courage, too, sir, at West Point. It makes no exceptions for “things I cannot change.” It says,
Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole can be won. Endow us with courage that...knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy. Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking, and suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretence ever to diminish.
I have friends who got out of the Army. They say it’s the same in civilian corporations. It’s the way it is everywhere.
It’s not as bad in civilian corporations, sir. They do not have so much power over their subordinates. And civilian corporations have to compete for customers and employees. Plus, I don’t plan to work for corporations, sir. I’m going to be self-employed.
Can we count on you to become a team player?
Sir, I have always been a team player. I was a team player in youth, high school, and college intramural sports. I am a team player in the Army. But if by being a team player you mean to join you in abandoning my ethics and dignity, no, sir. I will not be that kind of a ‘team player.’
Everyone else can’t be out of step.
Sir, they can be and they are.
If you don’t start playing the game, I will give you a bad efficiency report, stop you from being promoted, or give you an assignment you may not like as much as your current one.
In a 4/7/08 Newsweek story about Hillary’s sniper fire lie, Jonathan Alter says,
We know why politicians lie when they get in trouble: They think the consequences of telling the truth are too severe to bear.
Career military officers are politicians. At the lower ranks, they are like office politicians in civilian companies. As they move up, they become like the corporate politicians who maneuver and form alliances and play Machiavellian games to advance their careers. Refusing to lie when a superior wants you to ends the career of an officer. You may think that would not be allowed.
Who’s going to stop it? Your superior does not write “refused to sign false document” on your efficiency report. He just tosses in a little dig like “needs to work on loyalty” or even merely ranks you in the 97th percentile (what’s wrong with the 97th percentile?) knowing that the 97th percentile is really the 35th percentile to those in the know. (That’s the way it was done 35 years ago. No doubt the current method is different in its details, but the same in substance, that is, a seemingly innocuous compliment to the officer being rated is, in fact, the kiss of career death.)
At every new assignment, I got treated like a wild horse that needed to be broken. First a captain would try. Then I had to go see a major or colonel. Eventually they would send me to see a general.
Although I never had a fellow West Pointer as an immediate superior, there were some West Pointers two or more ranks above me. Once, In Vietnam, I was sent up to be “counseled” by a West Point full colonel who had already been announced as being promoted to general in the future. He had a reputation for being a “people person” so they thought maybe his nice guy approach would “straighten me out.” Call him the “lieutenant whisperer.”
When he asked for my side of the story, I generally told him what I described above. He became pensive, looked down at his lap, and quietly admitted that he had done some things that were wrong in his career, like sign false documents, because he felt he had no choice. I seemed to have reminded him of his idealistic youth at West Point. He spoke sheepishly about having sold out.
Then he caught himself and got back on message pursuing the goal of trying to impress the other officers by being the one who finally got me to “play the game.” I declined.
The problem wasn’t whether the approach to me was hard ass or nice guy. It was the underlying behavior of signing false documents and putting up with bullying regarding joining officers clubs I didn’t want to join, buying below-market-interest-rate savings bonds I didn’t want to buy, etc. The brass had a repertoire that included both good cop and bad cop and they repeatedly tried each with me. But they were utterly incapable of any deviation from the substance of lying and bullying. That is the description of a profoundly corrupt organization.
Beyond their comprehension
That West Point colonel was an exception. With all the others, non-West Pointers, concepts of integrity and right and wrong seemed beyond their comprehension. Partly it was because they were not very bright. Partly it was because people to whom such things were important got out of the military as soon as they could, leaving only those for whom integrity and right were foreign, trivial, or irrelevant notions. Or maybe they were inclined to be honest when they entered the military, but they had become numb to and fully rationalized the immorality of the daily lying. Whatever the cause, you cannot have an intelligent discussion about integrity with the vast majority of career military officers. I have also observed some civilian bureaucracies up close. All bureaucracies have certain lies they must tell routinely. And all the lifelong employees of such bureaucracies have disabled that portion of their consciences in order to live with themselves. There is no talking to them, no reasoning with them.
One major told me the U.S. courts were totally corrupt and the wealthy always got off and the poor were always convicted. I said quietly, “Well, I’m not that cynical, sir.” He went nuts. Basically, he was bright enough to know the word “cynical” was a bad thing, although I doubt he knew what it meant. He also knew he outranked me and felt that precluded all criticism of him utterly without regard to the merit of the criticism. My attitude was that it would be fun for him to try to court martial me for the statement, but he just blew himself out ranting and raving and it was forgotten.
As you can see in the above “counseling” script, the rest treated me as if I was just one of the two percent who had not yet gotten the word about the way it was in the Army. In the spirit of the Soviet Union that the U.S. military so closely resembles in many ways, they would sometimes suggest that my refusal to sign false documents or attend “command performance” parties indicated some sort of psychiatric defect.
If you tried to debate whether lying was wrong, they would dismiss the discussion as childlike, unrelated to the real world. But mainly, these men had spent their entire adult lives lying. They knew nothing else and believed everyone did it both inside the military and outside, notwithstanding the fact that they had never been outside. The Army was their way of life. The people outside the Army were regarded as enemies. They believed that routine lies like signing false documents were just another way we in the Army protected ourselves from the undisciplined, unworthy civilians who did not and could not understand our superior perspective.
Here is a quote from Adam Galinsky, a Northwestern Universiy business school professor who studies power and influence inside companies:
Once you’ve been in the water long enough you no longer perceive you’re in the water. Water is the norm. This is why newcomers are important. They can see the good and the bad of a culture for the first time.
I was a newcomer to the Army. The Army only promotes from within thereby maximizing their “inability to perceive the water” problem.
Readers may regard the anecdotes above as mildly interesting, but trivial because rifle serial numbers and vehicle status are not that important in the grand scheme of things. They would be more impressed if I had refused to sign a document covering up an atrocity or something like that.
In corrupt organizations, whether it be Enron, the NY Police Department during the time that Frank Serpico was an officer, the Mafia, or the U.S. military, newcomers are tested before they are “trusted.” As Al Pacino said over and over in The Recruit, “Everything’s a test.”
Relatively new NYPD officers like Serpico, also played by Al Pacino, were invited to accept small bribes to show they were “one of us” before they were permitted knowledge about bigger stuff. Mafia wannabes are required to commit crimes confirmed by Mafia guys before they are allowed into the inner circle.
This has two purposes:
• to identify and screen out any “boy scouts” or undercover agents who are squeamish about corruption
• to get something on everyone so no one can later change his mind and snitch
Signing false documents is a court martial offense. It violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If you sign a false document, you both gain entry to the “club” and you put yourself in a position where you cannot get out because if you ever go over to the media or authorities, they can trot out the false documents they know you signed to discredit and court martial you.
So after I was tested with signing less important documents and “failed,” I was generally assigned to be the assistant to some officer who was not authorized to have an assistant. I was also a platoon leader, XO, and company commander, but only in situations where that position was not required to sign false documents—like being XO and CO of a training company.
False documents are generally signed by the most junior officer (arms inventories), the battalion motor officer, and the company commander in line (fighting or potential fighting units) companies. I was the company commander of a 400-man, Advanced Individual Training company. I did not have to sign training schedules because my guys spent all day every day in formal Army schools. I was not responsible for training them, only for feeding, housing, and disciplining them. My company had no motor vehicles or motor pool.
Option to escape
In his 2008 book The Logic of Life, Tim Harford uses a slightly different phrase describing the uncorrupt in corrupt organizations with a similar meaning.
Your option to escape means you can’t be relied upon.
I have seen this phenomenon in a number of different organizational situations that I and my family members have experienced throughout our lives. Organizations like employees who are dependent upon the organization. Thy fear independent employees.
For example, I was rejected for the first civilian job I applied for: a real estate agent at a prestigious firm. They had an application that, to a large extent, was designed to determine how independent you were. The woman who interviewed me was unhappy, and said so, about my West Point education, significant savings account, the fact that I already owned rental property, and had no wife and kids to support. She frankly told me that the best salesmen were over a financial barrel, had nowhere else to turn, and had to hustle to pay their many bills. In other words, things I thought should be considered virtues were, instead, considered unattractive—simply because they put me in a position where I was able to resist the boss’s demands.
When I coached high school sports, the administrators often expressed a preference for teacher coaches. They were uncomfortable with so-called “off-campus” coaches like me because we were more inclined to stand up to them. Teachers had to behave or else they could be fired from their coaching job, but stuck in a tenured teacher position that was extremely hard to replicate at another school because schools prefer to hire new teachers out of college (they are cheaper). Teachers could also be assigned to teach less desirable courses if the administrators wanted to put pressure on them. With us off-campus coaches, the administrators had virtually no leverage. They want leverage over you. So do military colonels and higher ranks. If you refuse to join their practice of signing false documents, you have options that they no longer have, like turning them in and testifying against them.
All of which means the first time you refuse to sign a false document as a military officer, you are in really big trouble.
There is a similar mind set within the military officer’s corps. They have to go along to get along. They’re stuck in the military career. If you do not also have to go along to get along, either because you’re rich or because you simply have integrity and self confidence to survive as an honest man (once you get out of the military), your superiors will regard you as a potential threat and “untrustworthy.”
The only possible important atrocity I ever heard about was not something I was required to sign a document or take any other official action about. When I spent the night at a fire base 5 kilometers from the Cambodia border in Loc Ninh, the battery was blasting away with their cannons for much of the night.
Me: “What are you guys shooting at?”
Me: “Harassment and interdiction?”
Lt.: “Yeah. But we can’t call it that any more.”
Me: “Why not?”
Lt.: “Word came down from higher. No more H&I.”
Me: “So what do you call it now?”
Lt.: “Confirmed targets. We say they are confirmed bunkers and stuff like that. We make it up. We have to call the RVNs and get permission to make sure there’s no civilians in the area, but they don’t even check.”
Me: “How do you know that?”
Lt.: “They give instant approval of everything we ask. They don’t look at a map or ask anyone.”
Me: “Do you shoot fewer rounds now because of the new rule?”
Lt.: “God no! They keep charts of how many rounds each battalion shoots each night at corps headquarters. The battalion commander doesn’t want our line on the bar graph to be any lower than anyone else’s.”
I was just the communications platoon leader of that battalion so I had no occasion to be involved in target selection or reporting on what was being shot at. Were any civilians being hurt by those rounds? I don’t know. I was never shown a map or anything that indicated where they were firing or what was there. That was the base where I drove through the North Vietnamese ambush to get there once. It was “Indian country.” We did not wander around getting to know the neighborhood.
There is plenty of public evidence of the military lying about important stuff. Many of the other articles at this military Web site tell about various such incidents from My Lai to Pat Tillman to V.I.P. demo deaths, and so forth.
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