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Report: Army officers admit to (and defend) their lying

February 19, 2015 (Photo Credit: John Harman/Staff illustration)

A study released Tuesday by two Army War College professors explains how some officers maintain compliance with ever-increasing training requirements, requests for information and reams of mandatory paperwork.

They lie about it.

The service's "foundation of trust is slowly being eroded by the corrupting influences of duplicity and deceit," wrote Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras in "Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession." Wong and Gerras, both former Army officers, spoke with "scores of officers" from multiple locations, compiling anonymous anecdotes about dishonest training practices, incomplete inventories, even falsified medical reports.

The authors offered multiple explanations for this behavior, but focused on the increase in required training, forms, directives other administrative layers that comes without the removal of other duties, but with the expectation of 100 percent compliance.

"When it comes to requirements for units and individuals, the Army resembles a compulsive hoarder," they wrote in the report, first featured by The Washington Post. "It is excessively permissive in allowing the creation of new requirements, but it is also amazingly reluctant to discard old demands."

This contributes to "ethical fading," according to the report — cutting corners and checking boxes in an effort to satisfy requirements becomes a common enough practice that moral objections to it eventually disappear.

The 53-page report isn't short on examples:

  • A captain described how his unit complied with quarterly Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program requirements: "We needed to get SHARP training done and reported to higher headquarters, so we called the platoons and told them to gather the boys around the radio and we said, 'Don't touch girls.'"
  • A nine-man squad pressed for time to complete a mandatory online course "would pick the smartest dude, and he would go in and take it nine times for the other members ... and then that way they had a certificate to prove that they had completed it."
  • Enemy contacts in Afghanistan and Iraq would go unreported because they required a PowerPoint description after the fact, something some officers felt "was useless ... they didn't want to go through the hassle."
  • A captain recalled lying on a traumatic brain injury report — increasing the distance between a valued junior officer and an explosion — to avoid the possibility of a required medical evacuation. "If I do that," the captain said of the evac, "I'm going to put my boys in bags because they don't have any leadership. That ain't happening."

Dishonesty in the name of the greater good was a frequent theme of the report, offered by many officers as an explanation for their actions. Others cited the seemingly unimportant nature of the requirements being fudged, the need to keep up with other officers or units that may have inflated their performance or readiness rates, or a belief that senior leaders were aware the information being submitted was inaccurate.

"Everyone does the best they can, but we know the data is wrong," one officer told the authors.

Former battalion commanders lent some support to that theory, including one who outlined a reporting process with deadlines that required companies to "describe events that had not even occurred yet."

The authors highlighted the mandatory counseling sessions included in officer and noncommissioned officer evaluations as a frequent source of misrepresentation. The individual being rated, the rater and the senior rater must sign a support form saying these meetings take place, but the authors say meeting such a requirement "is the exception, not the rule."

"Yet each year, tens of thousands of support forms are submitted with untruthful information," the report continues. "To the average officer, it is the way business is done in the Army."

The authors, who noted that the military continues to be "filled with competent and committed servants of the nation," offered three suggestions in defeating this dishonest mindset: More open discussion of the problem and its causes, a more measured and prioritized approach to additional mandatory training, and "[a] focused emphasis on leading truthfully" that would stress morality in decision-making.

Leaders practicing dishonest behavior while preaching proper ethics create "a corrosive ethical culture that few acknowledge and even fewer discuss or work to correct," the report states. "The Army urgently needs to address the corrupting influence of dishonesty in the Army profession."

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