Saturday, January 18, 2014

You get what you value

The Air Force is struggling with it's nuclear missile team.  Besides low morale and a question of whether what they do is important, now there is a cheating scandal:

We might be inclined to say "Well, just a bunch of bad apples. The military will clean that up and fire a bunch of folks."  But let's stop there for a second and put some thought towards this: what person suffers through 4 years of ROTC/Academy or a couple of weeks at OCS and joins the military with the intention of cheating?

Probably none.

So, how does this happen?  I think we need to look at the decline of morale.  We're all too often reading about these "turn-around" stories of great commanding officers taking a crappy situation and turning it around, and we forget to look at why it got there in the first place.

A great old book to read is When Soldiers Quit: A Study In Military Disintegration by Bruce Watson.  I found it on a shelf at the local library.  Bruce studies a few situations, including My Lai, where military authority broke down and soldiers were essentially running a muck.

What Bruce notes about all the cases is that the decline started long before the actual day of the massacre.  In the case of My Lai, there were lots of warning signs:

- The unit had on multiple previous days been shot at but unable to return fire.  Not only that, they had taken casualties without returning them to the enemy.
- The unit commander was prior enlisted and harbored a hatred for non-prior enlisted officers.  He went out of his way on multiple occasions to berate his subordinate officers.  This contributed to his subordinate O-1s to make extra efforts to appease him.
- The unit commander assumed only Viet Cong would be in the village, and briefed his men as such.

Given all the above, why are we surprised when a little bit of friction set off a massacre of Vietnamese civilians?

Decline happens slowly.  Division Officers need to have an eye open for decline in their divisions:

- Routine operations take longer than normal to accomplish
- Watch reliefs don't happen on time
- Unprofessional behavior on watch becomes more tolerated
- A bad attitude about putting in a normal day's labor becomes tolerated

When you see those signs of decline, you have to address them quickly.  Always insist on the standard, whether it's properly formatted paperwork, timely EVALs and watch reliefs, or professional behavior on watch.  What may seem like a small thing now can eventually steam roll into something large.

I'm willing to bet that over time, the lack of morale in the Air Force missile crews led to a drop in professionalism, until after a while routine operations became a joke.  Once that happened, it wasn't a big step to decide that monthly exams didn't matter, and soon cheating would be OK.  Had leadership attacked the morale and professionalism early, they likely could have prevented it.