« Why I Got Out: That's… | Home | Will Humans Ever Stop… »

More "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”.)

On Monday, I ran out of room for my list of “that’s just the way it is” thinking. Here are a few more examples:

- Countless support organizations, like the Finance or Tax centers, close their doors for lunch and promptly at 1700, making it horribly difficult for soldiers to use them during non-work hours. Why?

- Intelligence units in Iraq and Afghanistan started publishing daily “Intelligence Summaries”. Some of these summaries had readerships of maybe a dozen people, but required hours of work to put together each day. Why?

- Nothing can go in a Soldier’s pockets, including his hands on a cold day. Until 9/11 the pockets on BDUs, all eight of them, were strictly ceremonial. Why?

- The Marines haven’t conducted a beach landing since the Korean war. The Army hasn’t conducted a meaningful airborne operation since 1989. Yet we have a whole branch of the military and an entire Airborne division, with two more brigades and two special operations regiments devoted to those very expensive, ineffective and underused form of insertion. Why?

- Why do we use soooooo many acronyms? (Eric C forced me to stop using acronyms, and we have almost completely excised them from On Violence. Like an addict, I had to admit my problem and go cold turkey.) Why?

- Before brown boots, soldiers spent hours shining and polishing boots to perfection. Despite mastering this skill completely, it had virtually no effect on our warfighting capabilities. Why did we do it?

The answer to all these questions is always the same, “That just the way it is.” I’ve heard the answer to that question enough times to tear my hair out.

I understand I am simplifying a bit. My critics could argue that “that’s the way it is” counters the good idea fairy--though I’m actually a fan of the “good idea fairy”; the U.S. Army is probably the only organization in America that actively resists “good ideas”.

Or “that’s just the way it is” describes a perfectly logical action/plan, but the subordinate doesn’t know the reason why. For example, the Army conducts physical fitness training everyday. Why? Because fighting wars requires the ability to march long distances and conduct small arms combat with the enemy. Why do some old sergeants (major) believe that the ideal fitness program is running five miles five days in a row with some push ups and sit ups thrown in? Because “that’s just the way it is”. The difference between the answer to the first question and the second, is that the former suffers from a lack of institutional communication; the latter is inertia.

Above all, “that’s the way it is” means something. It means, “We do things because of tradition, not logic.” It means, in almost every case, that there is no purpose; most officers continue practices not because they work, but because that is how they first saw it, because of tradition.

As always, I am interested if current or former soldiers agree or disagree, and any other examples I might have missed.

eleven comments

Can I say, and this may be controversial, that the rest of the country has virtually no impact on how the military operates.

As much as “war is War”-iors believe the rest of the country puts pressure on them not to kill civilians, the truth is that the country “supports the troops”. Which means you don’t criticize them.

Don pointed out a few weeks ago this is why the Luttrell fiasco hasn’t gotten mainstream press. I don’t know about that. But I feel like, if I criticize the military, no one will listen to me.

Disagree. The answer to all these questions is not “that’s just the way it is.” You’re just complaining now and you’re coming off as bitter.

You’re a smart guy. You have the answers to these. You just don’t like the answers. Why not just admit that?

The issue isnt why people do something, it’s why they keep doing something. The reason is, “that’s jut they way it is.”

Also, this post was originally just one big post; we split it up because we try not to have posts run over 800 words. And mIchael c spent no time coming up with these examples.

Should we complain? Unlike other milblogs, we’ve gone over 300 posts without one like this. I think two are fine.

Yes, you can complain. That’s fair. And you are good about (usually) not. And I appreciate the effort to not pull a Carl Prine write 4000 word epics (although, I read those too).

There’s nothing wrong with getting out of the Army, though. Especially if the person is unhappy with the job and future, potential jobs.

But these posts are just listing pet-peeves. It is an Army, after all (which might be a variant of “that’s just the way it is” I admit).

Yes, all these things that are being listed suck. But are there not bigger reasons to deal with it and stay in? I suppose if the sum of the shitty things outweigh the sum of the good things, i.e., the reasons you joined in the first place, it makes sense to leave.


You have my full sympathy for serving in US Army Europe your entire career. While Europe itself is, of course, amazing, US Army Europe absolutely blows.

I secretly suspect a number of commanders have spent years justifying their jobs (and, of course, their bases) despite the fact there’s little reason to have 50,000 troops in Europe. The end result are a number of small bases which practice what I refer to as “C2 by home boy”…the lines of communication are absurdly backwards and nebulous. We’re at the point where a number of these garrisons are little more than self-licking ice cream cones. Get rid of the majority of them.

By the way, only in US Army Europe could a brigade commander easily disappear for a few days to see his Dutch mistress. The practice of spreading battalions all across Europe is so grossly dysfunctional, it’s not even funny.

Okay, ton of things to go over here.

First, Don, is this a Don I served with before, or different person?

Then to Starbuck, well I did a few years in TRADOC for training, which I am sure you will agree can rival US Army Europe. Then I did a year at Fort Campbell, but that was more in SOCOM than Fort Campbell. SOCOM’s issues tend to be having way too much and no restraint. And the Brigade Commander in question was my former BDE commander, but I left before that deployment. (I still love the detail in the Army Times that he tried to TDY trips to Belgium. Just classic.)

Now back to Don, you are addressing an issue that has boggled me since I planned to write about getting out. How do I address what I perceive as serious structural/cultural issues without coming across as simply complaining?

Could I find reasons for all the things listed above? Sure:
INTSUMs provide everyone on the battlefield situational awareness. Again, why are they daily not weekly reports? Most intelligence work is done for the sake of intelligence, that’s a fact.

Why does Finance close at lunch? To eat lunch. Why does WALMART not close at lunch? Because it cares about customer service. Most Army units with a customer service role don’t really care about customer service, and that’s a symptom of “thats the way it is”.

It looks better to not put things in pockets. The BDU looked better with two pockets sewn on the front but with nothing in them. Now, those are reasons, they are just sucky reasons.
Shining boots- I’ll have a post in two weeks with numbers.
Airborne- To be elite.
Marines- Same
Acronyms- Laziness.

I have a feeling like Doctrine Man, whoever he may be, is essentially identifying “that’s just the way it is” thinking. When this topic went out on twitter, two people who got out too instantly said, yep! That’s it. So that’s my thoughts.

Not sure if we served together. I spent all my time in the 82nd.

Many of these issues you are addressing, I have seen ‘fixed’ by leaders like yourself who thought they were stupid. I remember good leaders ensuring that service officer (S1, etc). would stay open a little during lunch and a little past 1700 to make sure soldiers could use them. When those leaders left, they usually reverted back.

My point is, good, thoughtful leadership can sometimes overcome stupidity. Not always. But sometimes.

Plus, all of this sounds very close to complaining about the ‘garrison’ mentality, as opposed to the ‘field mentality,’ a subject I recently wrote about.

When I took over our S1 shop, as an example, creating a “customer service” mindset was one of my goals. Largely we succeeded, but like you said, you can only control so much.

I read the post on garrison versus field mentalities, and I do believe there is a difference. In fact, the field/deployment, goes a long way towards getting rid of a lot of the inconsequential/traditional ways of thinking.

That post, the one you wrote, brings up the issue of dress in garrison. I think that is just one of the most visible examples of vast wastes of time in the US Army. One of the cultural problems with the Army is it isn’t a business. So words like productivity, time management, profits, effectiveness, aren’t used on a regular basis. That post will be up in about two weeks.

Looking forward to the post. But I’m a bit worried. A business-centered approach brought us wonderful things, like net-centric warfare and FCS.

I would argue businesses brought us net-centric warfare and FCS. Those businesses love selling expensive tech to senior officers, who love to buy expensive tech with other people’s money, then retire, and sell that tech back to their former subordinates. (And consult at the same time, with the main recommendations as consultants, “Buy expensive tech”.)