Lying in the military is common, Army War College study says

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Adam Keith/Courtesy U.S. Army
Adam Keith/Courtesy U.S. Army

Lying in the military is common, Army War College study says

by: Dan Lamothe | .
The Washington Post | .
published: February 21, 2015

A new study by Army War College professors found that not only is lying common in the military, the armed forces themselves may be inadvertently encouraging it.

The study, released Tuesday, was conducted by retired Army officers and current War College professors Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras. They found that untruthfulness is “surprisingly common in the U.S. military even though members of the profession are loath to admit it.”

The paper’s release follows a series of high-profile incidents involving bad behavior across the services, including a still widening corruption case involving senior Navy officers and at least two incidents in which Army generals were accused of sexual assault.

The new study found that many Army officers have become “ethically numb” in the face of overwhelming demands and the need to put their reputations on the line to verify that all required standards and training requirements have been met.

The issue affects the whole military, but the professors focused their effort on the Army because they are the most familiar with it, they wrote. They interviewed scores of officers, from captains to colonels, at several bases on the East Coast, many of whom bristled initially at the notion they colored the truth, the report said.

“When pressed for specifics on how they managed, officers tended to dodge the issue with statements such as, ‘You gotta make priorities, we met the intent, or we got creative,’ ” the report said. “Eventually words and phrases such as ‘hand waving, fudging, massaging, or checking the box’ would surface to sugarcoat the hard reality that, in order to satisfy compliance with the surfeit of directed requirements from above, officers resort to evasion and deception.”

“In other words, in the routine performance of their duties as leaders and commanders, U.S. Army officers lie,” the paper concludes.

Similar issues occur when reporting the maintenance and accountability of equipment, the completion of evaluation reports for lower-ranking officers, and even combat situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the professors found. Junior leaders were required to develop a PowerPoint narrative of events in a unit while deployed, and avoided doing so, one senior officer told Wong and Gerras.

“Every contact with the enemy required a storyboard,” the senior officer said, according to the paper. “People did not report enemy contact because they knew the storyboard was useless and they didn’t want to go through the hassle.”

The study attributes the lies to “ethical fading,” in which outside factors subtly alter an ethical dilemma. The professors recommend reinforcing restraint and acknowledging ethical shortfalls in the military.

The issue has been addressed at high levels already. In one example, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno released an ethics “white paper” last year underscoring the need to uphold strong values like honesty.

“This White Paper identifies an omission in our doctrine – the absence of an articulated, accessible, and understandable expression of the Army Ethic,” Odierno said in the document, released last July. “The Army Ethic does exist and emanates from our foundational heritage, beliefs, traditions, and culture. The intent, therefore, is not to invent the Army Ethic, but rather to glean its fundamental nature. Doing so is of urgent importance and is worthy of our collective wisdom and judgment.”

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.