Management

The American View: Rogue Squaddie

Resource scarcity requires oversight. Whoever gets stuck policing the limited-but-desired resource becomes the office ‘bad guy.’ It’s inevitable. It’s frustrating. It’s bad for morale. Why do we do this? Because the organisation that doesn’t gets ripped off by its own people. See previous, re: inevitable.

One of the most irritating aspects of working in IT is being forced to be the office ‘bad guy.’ Technology can be expensive. Budgets aren’t infinite. It’s common for companies to buy the absolute minimum of stuff, service, or access that they absolutely need for a given function. It’s then up to someone – almost always a junior member – to shepherd those resources. Which is to say, someone has to confront unauthorized users over unsanctioned use of the limited resource(s). Telling people that they can’t have something they want is a sure-fire way to tick them off.

As an example: on my first active duty assignment, I was a platoon leader in a new Army medical battalion. It was a great gig for a subaltern; I got to lead 35 troops in the field, practise delivering emergency care, design training … fulfilling and professionally-meaningful stuff. We spent most of the week preparing to go ‘to the field, training ‘in the field,’ or recovering in garrison from the field. A platoon leader’s life in between the Gulf War and the Forever War was pretty decent. We only worried about our soldiers and our mission. So, of course, it didn’t last long.

Normal practice in the peacetime U.S. Army saw lieutenants rotated swiftly between assignments for ‘career broadening.’ A junior second lieutenant served as a platoon leader for their first year, then as a junior staff office at battalion level for their second year. If they survived their retention boards, they’d be promoted to first lieutenant and assigned to a more senior staff position in their third year, and take a company executive officer (second-in-command) post in their fourth and final year (again, assuming they survived all attempts to cull the unworthy).

At the end of my first year I was moved up to be the Assistant Intelligence and Operations Officer (S-2/3) for my ‘broadening’ assignment. Shortly before my third year, I was made the battalion’s senior Intelligence Officer (S-2) so that a new 2LT could replace me as the Ops Officer’s flunky. Most of what I did had no relation to real intelligence work; 75% of my day was devoted to Unit Status Reporting. This was the monthly calculation of our units’ battle readiness statistics. Tons of paperwork to tell the Pentagon how ‘ready’ we were for an overseas adventure.

Army life isn’t as glamorous as recruiters and TV shows portray. Everyone who served can relate stories of being ‘deployed’ for some ‘grand adventure’ that consisted of 99% boredom and pointless chores.

If you’re thinking this process required tonnes of forms, calculations, and reports, you’d be right. Every monthly report couldn’t just be filed; before ‘The Numbers’ moved up the chain, every commander and staff officer was required to brief their function’s (or their unit’s) status and justify any shortfalls or weirdness. In the Army, ‘briefings’ meant ‘slides’ and lots of them.

We didn’t have PowerPoint back in those days. As the S-2, I had to translate seven units’ (i.e., one battalion, four companies, and two detachments) data into explanatory slides using a DOS paint program, then print slide masters on a dot-matrix printer, then copy those printouts onto transparent plastic sheets that could be shown on an overhead projector. Five briefing slides per unit times seven units meant a minimum of 35 slides per reporting cycle assuming the units got everything exactly right the first time and assuming I didn’t make any errors.

That never happened. Realistically, I’d make at/about 75-100 presentation slides each month on the battalion HQ’s photocopier. A leased photocopier. Which is to say, one that the Army rented at a fixed price with a maximum number of copies each month. Three hundred total copies. Any more than that, and we were subject to a penalty fee on a per-page basis. Scarce resources.

Since the copier was situated in the battalion personnel shop (think human resources, but with more forms and saluting), you’d think that the personnel officer (the S-1) would be responsible for regulating access to it. Nope! As the single largest consumer of the resource, my S-2 shop was assigned to safeguard the copier. I got dinged if we went over our monthly maximum, even though the copier was located in another part of the building. Typical Army thinking.

I’m amazed that there are so few anthropologists studying military culture. It’s the perfect intersection of bizarre cultural practices, insane logic, and unintentional comedy.

We put up signs on and above the copier prohibiting unauthorized use … and soldiers ignored them. We briefed the units to stop ‘stealing’ copies at battalion … and the unit First Sergeants still ordered their troops to sneak in after hours to make copy for a promotion or a transfer or a discharge on grounds of ‘administrative’ or ‘operational necessity.’ We somehow managed to stay just under our maximum, often by ‘saving’ low-priority jobs until the start of the new month.

Whenever I caught soldiers making unauthorized copies, I admonished them and sent them back to their unit by way of the battalion Sergeant Major. The junior soldiers down at company level resented me for ‘blocking’ their access since there were no copiers below battalion level. Most company-level troopers thought of battalion as their natural enemy anyway, so there was no love lost. Still, we were all able to maintain our professional bearing. Up until one afternoon …

I’d just finished printing my master copies on the month’s USR slides when I found a queue at the copier in S-1. Two personnelists were fuming, waiting on a young field medic to finish duplicating individual pages out of a thick, stapled master (itself, a photocopy of what appeared to be a book or magazine). At first, I was alarmed because the private already had two dozen pages in the output tray (~10% of our monthly allocation!) and showed no signs of slowing. Suspicious, I plucked the top page off of his completed stack and found a drawing … of an X-Wing fighter from the first Star Wars movie. My blood boiled.

I turned the copier off and snatched the kid’s master document off the scanner glass. The private turned to argue, recognized my rank pins and quickly clammed up. Facing the evidence, he quickly admitted that he’d pirated a copy of Star Wars: X-Wing. As an anti-piracy measure, LucasArts had made it so their game wouldn’t run unless the player ‘authenticated’ a symbol in the game’s manual with a prompt shown on screen. To get around the anti-piracy measure, the private was illegally copying a buddy’s copy of the manual … to the tune of one-third of our entire month’s copier budget. It cost us more to copy that manual that it would have cost the kid to buy the video game new … but he was spending the government’s money, not his own.

It’s the same immature logic that compelled some young soldiers to steal office supplies from other units’ orderly rooms. If you have a pen and I need a pen, it’s somehow better for me to steal your pen than to borrow it and put it back so others can also make use of it.

I chewed the kid out and kicked him out of the headquarters.  To add insult to injury, I confiscated both his unauthorized copies and his buddy’s pirated manual and pitched them both in the shred bin. He got away lightly, given that the punishment for piracy using government equipment back then would have been a stripe and possibly a month of punishment labour. He should have accepted the loss, learned from it, and shut the heck up. But, no.

A few hours later, the kid’s platoon leader came storming into the S-2 office demanding satisfaction for me having ‘bullied’ his ‘innocent’ soldier. A poor righteous lad who had ‘just been doing his duty.’ The new 2LT was flush with righteousness because he’d been led down the garden path by his all-too-clever little software thief. The kid had resented his butt-chewing and wanted some indirect revenge for having his fun spoiled. So he complained to his lieutenant and … conveniently … left out the critical parts of the story.

I let the new lieutenant bluster for a spell, then gave it right back to him with both barrels. That is, I filled in the blanks the private had neglected to mention: fraud, theft, piracy of intellectual property, and singlehandedly blowing the entire battalion’s photocopy budget such that we’d be unable to brief our USR stats that month. I promised the lieutenant that we’d be thrilled to tell our brigadier that he had prioritised his private’s after-hours video game needs above the Pentagon’s standing orders. That was his position, right? That’s why he was making a scene?

I’d had enough. I’d been willing to let the kid off with a severe verbal reprimand because he was eighteen, inexperienced, and dumb … just like we’d all been when we first enlisted. Making dumb mistakes and getting your hand slapped for them was how we all learned and grew up. What changed my mind was this twerp using his platoon leader as a meat-based guided missile. The kid hadn’t learned anything from getting caught red-handed. Instead, the private had doubled down on stupid. That, I felt, deserved some memorable counterbattery fire. [1]

It should come as no surprise that military culture leans heavily on aggressive, confrontational interpersonal exchanges. It might surprise you to learn that this overly-direct style leads to fewer hurt feelings and personal drama. The cultural imperatives in play focus on establishing and maintaining domain boundaries.

The chastised (and now incandescently embarrassed) young lieutenant regained his professional composure, apologised for the misunderstanding, pivoted for the exit, and went on the hunt. Somewhere, some too-clever-for-his-own-good private was going to have a very bad year. Most likely, the kid’s next platoon leaders would be fully informed of the kid’s bad habits and would keep him on the straight-and-narrow for quite some time.

Still, the smug squaddie did inflict some damage that I never managed to clear during the rest of my time on battalion staff. As the ‘copier cop,’ I got stuck with a reputation for being mean and miserly monitor when it came to office supplies. Even after I left the staff and took an XO job, that reputation followed me for the rest of my time on Fort Hood.

Small wonder, then, that people hate being forced to police scarce resources. Confronting people over mis-use – for whatever reason – runs the risk of conflict, resentment, and revenge even when the thwarted use is improper. People hate being told that they can’t have what they want. No one wants to be ostracised, especially when the policy they’re forced to enforce was someone else’s idea. That’s why I urge you to remember Pirate X-Wing’s story and consider ways to automate scarce resource management rather than assigning some poor functionary to police use manually. Putting people in that position is bad for everyone.

 

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