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Why I Got Out: That's Just the Way It Is

(On July 22nd, Michael C officially left active-duty U.S. Army service. In an attempt to explain why, he started a series about the Army’s culture, its successes and its failures. Read the rest of the “Why I Got Out” series here.

On a more positive note, if you want to know why Michael C joined the Army, read about it in “Why Do I Fight?”, “What Did You Do Out There”, “Did You Accomplish Anything Out There?”, “Why I Served”, and finally, “Hasta La Vista...Baby”.)

Starbuck/Crispin Burke wrote a great post a few weeks back on “Toxic Leadership”, explaining that truly toxic leadership isn’t nearly as pernicious as a lot of subordinates believe. I agree, and would add that subordinates also tend to exaggerate how often they really are “micro-managed”. (I’ve made this mistake too, and Eric C complained about it here.)

In that post, though, Starbuck unconsciously mentioned a different issue. He brought up wearing PT belts, banning Vibram Five Finger, and running in formation as examples of embarrassing Army habits, but not examples of toxic leadership. I agree they aren’t toxic leadership, but they are examples of another significant cultural disease: institutional inertia.

How do you diagnose institutional inertia? Simply find a moronic task, and ask this question, “Why does the Army do this?” If the response is, “That’s just the way it is,” then you have just experienced institutional inertia.

Is the U.S. Army the only bureaucracy in the world that explains itself by saying, “That’s just they way it is”? Obviously not, but the Army, unlike, say, private businesses--think Lehman Brothers, Blockbuster, Circuit City and now Borders--can’t go out of business. No one competes with the U.S. Army, so if they adopt a silly policy, it won’t go bankrupt. The only price could be lost wars or dead soldiers.

So here are a few of my favorite examples of questions that got the response, “That’s just the way it is.”

- When we returned from deployment, I learned that my company had everyone show up at six in the morning. Our first formation didn’t start until six thirty though. We showed up half an hour to stand in the parking lot for the formation before the formation. Why?

- Since 9/11, every planning document in the Army is called a “CONOP”. CONOP, in doctrine, means “Concept of the Operations” but we use the term to mean “Operation” now. In fact, CONOP means both the planning for the operation, and the operation itself. (Check out this post by yours truly to see what I mean.) Why?

- Human Resources Command doesn’t count a Soldier as “off your books” until their leave ends. This means a soldier with 60 days of leave counts as one of your soldiers even though he isn’t present for duty. Even worse, HRC doesn’t start the process to replace the soldier until the end of those sixty days. Why? (I could add, the U.S. Army is allegedly at full strength with several years of strong recruiting numbers behind it, yet it still seems like every combat unit is short men. Why/How?)

- The average Army work day starts at 0600 and goes until 1700. Why? And how is that a nine hour work day?

I had a few too many examples to fit in one post, so I’ll continue my list of “that’s just the way it is” on Wednesday. If any readers have examples, I would love to hear them.

four comments

My question is whether these complaints about the Army apply to the entire military. My guess is yes.

I am also curious how much they apply to other branches of government as well. I am guessing, for example, that there is a fair amount of this at the VA.

But the military benefits from a huge amount of cash, and I think that exacerbates certain problems.

And here’s the counterargument.

1. Yes, most of the Regular Army is just as stupid as Michael C posited. That’s just the way it is because it is the largest bureaucracy in the world. I personally loathe it.

2. However, Michael C did not stay in for company command. In command, you become “the man” with the ability to influence and affect change within your organization.

I would argue that Battalion command you can really make a difference. At that level you can influence the staff to eliminate numerous inefficiencies and really focus on productivity. I don’t think the XO can do this because the BC will really give him his left and right limits.

For instance, a Company Commander can pitch to his boss that he believes his men can come into work at 0800, leave by 1700 and still accomplish as much as coming in at 0600 in the morning. If the BC says no, that’s that.

In my defense, I did the CCC, saw another year at that level and thought, I just don’t have the power to influence change. Just my thoughts. And again, I’m just saying why I decided to move on, I understand why many want to make the Army a career.