“Personal integrity also means moral integrity. Regardless of what appears to be some superficial ideas of present day conduct, fundamentally, today as always, the [individual] who is genuinely respected is the [one] who keeps [his or her] integrity sound and is trustworthy in every respect.”
~ General of the Air Force H.H. “Hap” Arnold, quoted in The Armed Forces Officer.
Do I have to say it again? Oh, all right: “Now this is no shit.” Remember, you guys asked for it.
Once upon a time, when I was a lieutenant in Panama, the Chief of Staff of the Army, General John A. Wickham visited us and gave a – if I recall correctly – pretty fair talk to the officers of my battalion. I didn’t know Wickham well or anything; he’d been the commander of the 101st during my time as a (very) lowly Spec-4 there. And, as far as that went, he was okay or rather better than okay, those years being a bad time for the Army across the board.
I remember the first thing he said to us; indeed, I can still hear him say it: “The United States Army is the only institution in the world that can overthrow the United States Government.”
Don’t get the wrong idea, Wickham wasn’t telling us to do it; he was telling us, “Don’t even think about it.” I don’t think any of us ever did, at least then; our oaths and integrity would have prevented it, at least up until the point where that “all enemies foreign and domestic” clause kicked in, at which point all bets are off. Integrity can be a funny thing, that way.
In that battalion1 there was an officer – we can call him, “Reilly” – who was, it must be said, something of a self-righteous prig. He was, however, not without his virtues. For example, I read an Officer Evaluation Report, OER, on him once where his then commander wrote, “I would take this officer’s word under any circumstances.” I asked that commander what he meant and he answered, “If Reilly told me it was going to rain soup, I’d be sure to have my bowl and spoon handy.”
That might have been something of an exaggeration, but it was fair to say that Reilly would never hesitate so much as a millisecond in speaking the exact truth, as best he understood it, about anyone or anything, of any rank, to any rank, no matter how unpleasant. There were those who thought that, from Reilly’s point of view, the more unpleasant that truth was, the better. Those people, however, may have been prejudiced. Reilly especially enjoyed lecturing general officers, which is not something lieutenants are generally encouraged to do. He had been known to throw screaming shit fits at field grade officers. Somehow, he got away with it without being court-martialed. No one was quite sure how. Maybe he just picked his fights carefully. Or maybe not.
In any case, if Reilly had any innate respect for rank, qua rank, military or civilian, it was tolerably difficult to see. He did seem to respect ability, integrity, and courage. He would also obey legitimate orders, even if he didn’t like them.
In that context, let me paint a situation for you. The battalion is at the Jungle School2, at Fort Sherman, over on the Atlantic side of the Canal Zone, taking a truncated course. Half the reason the course is truncated is because, for God’s sake, we lived out there in the jungle. Sherman really didn’t have a whole bunch to teach us about the jungle, qua jungle, though it did have a number of useful techniques. The other half is that we were being fit into a gap between units coming in for jungle training, mostly from the States. It was, in general, harder than Hell for one of the three infantry battalions in the Panama Canal Zone to get a rotation at the Jungle School. That was true for both my tours in Panama and, though I have the “Jungle Expert” patch, I sneer at it. If I or anyone was a “Jungle Expert,” the Jungle Operations Training Center had nothing to do with it.
Still, there were useful techniques to be learned even for units which were quite jungle experienced. In the course of taking the truncated course, the battalion had just done what we’ll call, “E, F, G, and H” training events for the four combat and combat support companies, each doing those things in one day, in rotation, a few hours each. It was evening, and the next day the battalion was supposed to do W, X, Y, and Z, still in rotation.
And then word came down that the then Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, was coming for a visit. Caspar Weinberger – “Cap” – was, by the way, a veteran of the Pacific Campaign in the Second World War, a former enlisted man and later graduate of Fort Benning’s Officer Candidate School, who served with the 41st Infantry Division and then on MacArthur’s staff. An obituary for Weinberger reads: “When it came to first principles and speaking the truth, Cap was always straight-forward and direct.”
I confess, I find remarkable irony in that last line. Why? Why because my battalion, instead of actually training in this rare day of opportunity at Fort Sherman, decided that we would repeat – uselessly repeat – what we had done the previous day, to make a favorable impression on the Secretary of Defense. Worse, we wouldn’t even rotate as we had the day prior, but each company would stay at one station, A or B or C or D, to help ensure that most favorable impression. W-X-Y-Z? Forget it; those mattered little when matched against putting on a show. Learning? Training? What are those?
This goes way past making a favorable impression, however. What that battalion was doing was presenting an entirely false front to the Secretary of Defense. The battalion was lying. It was engaged in fraud. The officers and men were having their integrity prostituted in the interests of somebody or other’s next OER.
And then there was Reilly, who, as soon as he heard the news, began busily and publicly throwing one of the ranting, raving shit fits for which he was justifiably famous – or infamous – concerning the whole deal. He never said so, at least that I heard, but I am fairly sure everyone from the battalion XO on down realized that, given half a chance – given any chance at all – Reilly was going to maneuver himself next to Weinberger and inform him of the fraud being perpetrated.
“What to do, what to do?” Reilly’s commander was clearly in a quandary. He wasn’t personally a bad sort,3 that commander, but really didn’t see the problem with pulling the wool over some political eyes. He did see the problem of what was going to happen to his career if this out of control lieutenant couldn’t be stopped. I don’t know what that commander was thinking, but I surmise it went something like this:
“If I order him not to talk to the SecDef he will simply disobey me, as having given an unethical and immoral order. And he’ll get away with it, too, on those grounds. No, no; that will never do. I need to get him off of Fort Sherman entirely, for an entire day.”
And that’s what he did; he gave Reilly an order to do something that actually mattered and needed doing, fifty miles away as the crow flies, on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal Zone, where there was essentially no chance that Reilly would be able to corner the SecDef and tell him what was going on. By such a mechanism the careers were saved of a number of officers and maybe even a few senior non-coms, all of whom should probably have been relieved.
That said, I cannot pin the blame on a person. The battalion commander had, along with one or two members of the staff, survived an officially non-survivable helicopter crash, when the OH-58 helicopter carrying them spontaneously decided to create its own landing zone in virgin jungle. When the rescue party got to him, he was leaking spinal fluid from his nose and had the tip of a tree branch in his mouth, said tip having entered from under his jaw.
It reminds me of the line from the Watergate Scandal: “No one ever considered that there would not be a cover-up.” No one in that unit, barring Reilly and maybe a couple of others, and no one in the higher unit, ever considered that there would not be an effort to fool the Secretary of Defense. It was automatic, mechanical. However, by such mechanisms does an armed force inculcate in its leadership an ethos of dishonesty, of fraud, and of integrity taking a back seat to career advancement. By such mechanisms does shit float to the top. By such mechanisms does gold sink. By such mechanisms are wars lost and nations destroyed.
And this sort of thing is not only still going on, if anything it has gotten worse.
1 Third Battalion, Fifth Infantry, 44 medals of honor, 42 winners, two members of the regiment having gotten the award twice. Most of that was for killing Indians, Moros, and Filipinos, with a later helping of Chinese.
2 The real Jungle School, in the real jungle, not that travesty in Hawaii.
3 Though there was a day when Reilly threw his helmet at said commander, and I believe hit him with it, in front of their battalion commander, then proceeded to chew said commander out, publicly, viciously, beginning with the phrase, “You f**king incompetent moron!” It was something about a range Reilly was running, where he had ordered some machine guns to cease fire on safety grounds, and the commander then ordered them to open up again, right where Reilly was walking. He spent a half an hour or so pinned by some pretty heavy machine gun fire in a muddy scraping that was not really deep enough for the purpose. Reilly got away with that, too.
Don’t miss last week’s column: The Samson Option: Would Israel Really Use Their Nukes?.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.