Military Ethics and Measurement

I’m finally getting back to writing now that the first year is starting to wind down. To ease myself back into a routine I figured I would write a brief post about a recent episode of EconTalk, featuring Leonard Wong of the US Army War College. The episode’s title/description, “[O]n Honesty and Ethics in the Military”, didn’t immediately strike me as something that would be all that engrossing, but it turned out to be a worthwhile listen. So much so that I’ll likely assign it for at least a couple of the classes that I’ll be teaching next year as the episode touches on a wide variety of issues that are of interest to political scientists.

Here’s the short version: The podcast focuses on a paper written by Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras concerning how the Army as an organization, and the individuals within it, have responded to an ever-increasing number of requirements. These requirements encompass an enormous range of activities, such as filing the appropriate paperwork in the event of a negligent discharge (i.e. when a weapon is fired on accident), fulfilling physical fitness requirements, or taking the appropriate action in the event that a soldier is injured in combat. As time has progressed, the number of requirements that have been imposed on the Army has grown. As you might imagine, the increasing number of requirements takes up a larger and larger share of an individual soldier’s time—to the point where fulfilling all of the requirements becomes impossible.

Wong initially frames the discussion as an ethical issue. Specifically, everyone knows that fulfilling these obligations “to standard” 100% of the time is impossible, and yet military personnel will routinely sign off on various requirements that are not completed to standard. Wong notes that, in the course of informal discussions and interviews, many of the military officers he spoke did not want to acknowledge that they lie on a regular basis, but most did when explicitly confronted with the reality of the system. The deluge of requirements individual soldiers are expected to meet has created a worrying trend, wherein individual soldiers have to “prioritize” (a euphemism for lying) certain tasks over others, leading to inconsistency in which tasks are deemed important enough to be complied with, how much compliance is fulfilled, and which tasks are deemed less important and ignored. Individual officers are effectively put in a situation where they have to openly/explicitly admit noncompliance, or they have to indicate 100% compliance in areas where compliance was either below 100% or completely absent. What’s especially worrying is that these issues persist even in combat environments, and are not limited to more benign settings.

In the context of Wong and Gerras’ broader argument, this dynamic has the effect of eroding the value of the “word” (perhaps signature, more specifically) of a US Army officer. At best this behavior has no effect on anything substantive, but in some cases the incentives that these requirements create lead to potentially harmful outcomes in combat environments by adding additional pressures on individuals in the field, and also by leading to the reporting of incorrect or inaccurate information. Furthermore, Wong argues that this pattern of behavior compromises broader societal trust in the military as an institution. However, from an individual perspective there’s little to be gained by defecting and openly declaring non-compliance. Since everyone is doing it, such a unilateral move would likely only serve to hurt that individual’s own career. The emphasis on “lying” comes not from a desire to besmirch the military (Wong is himself a former Army officer), but to point to a systematic problem in the military and address how it has led to ethical fading, or the rationalization of behaviors that we know are wrong.

The discussion does move on to subjects other than the ethical implications of these organizational dynamics. At the most basic level, this podcast provides some good examples of how organizational and bureaucratic politics, and the best of intentions, can produce suboptimal outcomes. Importantly, Wong and Gerras note that the situation in which the Army finds itself is not really the result of corruption or ill intent. Rather, efforts to improve the Army’s ability to respond to a wide range of situations, and its desire to collect as much information as possible in order to improve its operations (both routine and in combat), have led to a situation in which civilian leaders and senior military officials have piled on requirement after requirement without ever subtracting from the work load. The desire to track performance and improve has, ironically, led to a situation in which individual officers are forced to compromise performance across a wide range of tasks. At the individual level, individual officers and soldiers are put into a situation that quite literally demands the impossible of them, and so they respond by trying their best, but also by rationalizing their reaction to systemic incentives and the ethical implications of the decisions they’re forced to make.

At one point in the discussion the subject turns to potential remedies. Of particular interest, Wong discusses the importance of measuring outcomes  and suggests that sampling (among other methods) may be a way to deal with the overwhelming reporting requirements. That is, rather than forcing universal reporting and compliance, random samples are taken from the broader population of officers and activities. Another suggested approach involved random auditing of units and reports. What I found particularly attractive about this discussion is that it helped to bridge the gap between things that I, as a quantitative political scientist, care about, but also things that the military and policymakers care about. In the fall I taught my first graduate seminar, which was offered to both Kansas State students and students at Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College. I held pretty strong pre-existing beliefs that what we as a discipline do matters, but this experience reinforced my belief that communicating why and how our work matters to non-academics is really important. For example, one thing that I really tried to convey to my students when talking about the importance of measurement is that, in all likelihood, they’re already engaged in these sorts of mental activities, even if they don’t realize it. For a final project, rather than writing a full research design, I had my seminar students submit multiple iterations of a measurement paper, wherein they would choose a specific variable, talk about why it mattered, how it had been used/measured before, what sorts of shortcomings were associated with that strategy, and asked them to come up with some alternative or improvement upon existing approaches. Invariably they chose variables that were closely related to their occupational backgrounds and experience, which I think helped to illustrate the relevance of thinking about measurement in a more rigorous way. They seemed to respond positively to the assignment, but I think this episode might be a useful primer to get them thinking about these issues earlier in the semester.

Overall, this episode serves as a useful tool in bridging the gap between quantitative political science and policymakers/practitioners in the military by providing a more direct example of how thinking about measurement issues relates to their day-to-day world. It also illustrates the problems that false reporting at the individual-level creates when we consider the efforts to turn data from those reports into generalizable information that can be used to better serve the organization as a whole, as well as individual units and soldiers. Depending on the issue we want to address, there is ample evidence that any indicators we might want to generate from these sorts of reports will be far from accurate. This obviously affects our ability to analyze the data and draw inferences from those analyses. This discussion can help non-academics (members of the military especially) to understand some of the value of social science by discussing some key social science issues/ideas in a more familiar context.

There’s sure to be more of interest in the podcast itself, so be sure to take a look.

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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