The Army should take a "holistic view" of its training requirements, the service's top civilian said Wednesday, responding to questions about a recent Army War College report that suggested the pressure to fulfill too many requirements in too little time contributes to the prevalence of lying in the officer corps.
Army Secretary John McHugh, speaking to reporters at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, didn't offer specifics, but said he previously raised the issue independent of the study, written by Leonard Wong and Stephan J. Gerras, and that there were "some gains to be done" when it came to soldier workload.
McHugh also discussed how the study dovetailed with the ongoing look at the Army as a profession, "because we need an open discussion about what it means to be an Army officer, what values do you need to display and how do you display them, which brings us into some of the findings about dishonesty."
Those findings — namely, that "in the routine performance of their duties as leaders and commanders, U.S. Army officers lie." — didn't surprise leaders within the Army's ethics branch, who hoped the study would allow a wider discussion of morality and professionalism within the service.
And they certainly didn't surprise commenters on Army Times' Facebook page.
"In related news, the sun rises in the east," wrote one commenter.
It's not behavior encouraged by those at the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic, which has a stated goal of creating "[a]n Army culture that reinforces Trust within the Army Profession and with the American people." But CAPE officials said some of their training techniques can help address the issue, and that the report shines a light on some areas where overwhelming requirements and red tape can push soldiers to, or past, their ethical limit.
"The recommendation that the monograph makes ... realizing that we might have to have a candid discussion between leaders, saying, 'Hey, we can only achieve 85 percent of this,' we think that's absolutely true," said Col. John Vermeesch, CAPE's deputy director. "What we hope for is, at the end of the day, profession trumps bureaucracy."
Checking too many boxes
Many readers agreed with that stance, saying pressure to fully comply with training and other directives puts officers in untenable positions. Some examples:
- "How about the [A]rmy stop making officers lie by [eliminating] silly, redundant online classes that everybody hates doing!"
- "A higher command will not leave you alone until you report the requirement is complete. You tell them you did it and get back to things that matter."
- "No one wants to tell the boss no."
CAPE officials, along with the study's authors, stressed that what may appear to be minor moral slips could have major consequences — a soldier who benefits from a fudged evaluation or fitness test could prove disastrous to his unit on a future deployment, for example.
Beyond the specifics, the mindset itself can pose a threat to the service's core values.
"We can tell you that we value integrity, we value honesty, but how can I, as an individual, believe that, if I know that evaluations aren't as honest as they can be?" said Sgt. Maj. David Stewart, CAPE's top enlisted leader, citing one of the examples of common dishonesty in the study.
He was also quick to note that despite the report's focus, lying isn't an officers-only issue.
"If I did this [study] at the Sergeants Major Academy or any of the other noncommissioned officer education facilities, you would find very similar answers," Stewart said.
The nature of the subject matter also eliminates a key weapon from any leader's arsenal, Vermeesch explained: Few officers or NCOs will be willing to use their own ethical lapses as teachable moments.
He pointed to CAPE's online library of case studies as a way leaders may be able to bring up the subject of truthfulness, complete with examples, without delving into their own past.
While such training may seem to add to the coursework overload that the study points to as the cause of some institutional dishonesty, Vermeesch said CAPE tries to limit the burden by making its ethical discussions part of other mandatory training efforts. Sex-assault prevention training, for instance, might lend itself to the discussion of the importance of trust in the Army as an institution, he said.
When such trust falls short and a young officer or NCO finds himself asked to cut a corner, or worse, Vermeesch offered simple advice that he said could be difficult to employ.
"Tell the truth. And I stand by that adamantly," he said. "And if it seems like your use of the truth is being questioned, approach for clarification. Go to your boss.
"I understand all the pressures. I'm not trying to be naive. I understand being the person who doesn't have 100 percent of something done. But at the end of the day, I believe the United States Army will not punish someone for being candid and telling the truth."
Staff writer Matthew L. Schehl contributed to this report
Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.