This is a transcript of an interview done in February, 2015. Here's the link to the podcast: The Military's Culture of Lying -- A Top-Down Problem? Intvw with Army War College Expert
Thanks to Tsara Shelton for help with transcript editing.
Rob: And welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom-Up Radio Show WNJC 1360 AM out of Washington Township New Jersey reaching metro Philly and south Jersey. My guest tonight is Leonard Wong. Doctor Leonard Wong is a research professor in a strategic studies institute at the US Army War College. He focuses on the human and organizational dimensions of the military. He's a retired army officer whose career includes teaching leadership at West Point and serving as an analyst for the chief of staff for the army. He's just done a report on lying in the military and I contacted him to talk about how - after reading the report, about how it seems to me that the extreme top down authoritarian nature of the military is part of the problem. So welcome to the show, thanks for being on.
LW: Thanks for inviting me.
Rob: It's a pleasure, so you've - the report is astonishing really in its brutal honesty and I'm amazed that you were able to get this, allowed to be made public.
LW: Actually you know, it's my job to conduct research on the military, on the army specifically and - so I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, I'm like an internal consultant and I have free reign.
Rob: Free reign, so the army didn't give you any trouble about publishing this?
LW: Not at all, it's - on their, you know, on their time on their dime.
Rob: And it's - well it's great that you - that this is able to come out - I've just excerpted some of the things that the report says, it says: army officers have become ethically numb. There's rampant duplicity. Chuck Hagel spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, told a news conference, I think he's generally concerned that there could be at least some level of breakdown in ethical behavior and in a demonstration of moral courage. I mean it's serious stuff.
LW: Right, and what - when I say officers have become ethically numb, what that comes from is an avalanche of requirements that come from the top, but they also come from every level because it's human nature to want to do things better for the people underneath you. And so a lot of times we create requirements or tell people how to do things because we think we know what's best. And - so it's well intentioned, the problem is, is that the person at the bottom is the recipient and they are forced to prioritize what they're going to report as being completed and what they're going to report as being completed that wasn't completed and so that's where the ethically numb comes in, is that when you're trying to talk to an organization and to an institution and constantly telling everything's fine, but I'm really overloaded down here and you're not letting me tell you that everything's not fine, then you start become ethically numb as you respond.
Rob: And you write in the report that there's a culture, this is a kind of a culture that has developed where the people above have come to expect lying in reports.
LW: Right, remember the people above in the army are people who used to be below and so they know what's going on because they used to be there and so they look for, well, I know they're answering me a hundred percent, but I know that's not true, but I - I'm sure they gave the good try just like I used to give it a good try so I'll just let it go. And so what we have is a facade starts being briefed and starts being accepted and then it goes to almost like a - it masks what's really going on, that everything is fine and everything briefs well, but if you really want to know what's going on we have to go underneath that and there are honest discussions underneath it. But during the briefings we have all this nice, pretty hundred percent.
Rob: So I guess my question is now, I called you because my impression is that what you have here is a situation where you've got all these people with good intentions the higher up you go and they're all putting requirements on each level beneath them until the requirements are virtually impossible to fulfill and yet there's no acceptance of that and so people have to lie and say yeah we did it, we covered it.
LW: Right, because nobody wants to be the person that says that requirement, that training that's required is not really worth it. So who wants to say - it's just like you know, how many of us have - when you go online and you're about to go onto a website it says read this you know, 1800 word statement from our lawyers and you have to say I agree, all of us go to the bottom we mark "I agree" and then we hit submit because we just want to keep going. That's the way a lot of things have become in the military, in the army, is that I just want to get through it. We view it as business and we forget that that was just your signature that was your initials, that was your word that just went through, and you purposely didn't say what was true.
Rob: What effect does this have on the culture? The fact that -