Leadership: September 25, 2000

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The Zero Approach; "Zero Tolerance" has become the military mantra for dealing with embarrassing publicity. But by taking a "no mistakes allowed" approach, much damage has been done to combat readiness and troop morale. Getting ready for combat means taking chances with people and making mistakes. You can't do that anymore. It wasn't always that way. In fact, it's only in the last century that the military has gradually come to operate in a glass bowl. All this media attention has created a lot of embarrassment for the troops. Men who prepare themselves for combat do some strange things. For thousands of years, this odd behavior was ignored. 

The generals noticed the growth of mass media and the increasing attention the military was getting. In the 1920s, when radio came into use, Douglas MacArthur was appointed the Army's first media liaison officer. MacArthur was an inspired choice for the job, as he had a talent for publicity and sufficient ambition to make the most of it. And the military did well with the media up until the late 1960s, when public dissatisfaction with the progress of the Vietnam war showed the brass that media scrutiny could also be very painful. Moreover, the electronic media turned out to be even more casual with the truth than it's print colleagues. Facts were not allowed to get in the way of a good story, and since TV news moved faster than newspapers, there was even less time to double check things. We had entered the era of Urban Legends; plausible sounding events that, while widely believed and repeated, were revealed as false when examined closely. A lot of unflattering Urban Legends came out of the Vietnam era. The media was no longer content to leave the military alone. The troops were now fair game and all those odd customs and practices were great television. 

The military was also changing from within, reacting to cultural changes. Early in the century, the military went high tech, with expensive, and complicated warships and equally complex new weapons for the army. By 1920, air power was a major force. Recruiting standards went up. Being a good warrior was no longer enough for most jobs, you had to have some education. It wasn't until World War II that the old style (dutiful but a little dim) soldiers disappeared. One nasty side effect of this change was the segregation of the navy in 1914. Since it's beginning, the navy had been integrated. But in the late 19th century, the southern states regained their self-rule and imposed segregation to maintain whites in power. Service in the new high tech navy became attractive to more southerners. Naturally, it would not do to have white southern lads serving alongside blacks, so pressure was applied and the navy was segregated. Integration did not return until the 1950s. 

Women in the military became an issue after Vietnam, when slogans replaced common sense. For thousands of years, women had served among the mass of civilians that followed the army to take care of the camp, tend to the wounded and otherwise keep the troops alive when they weren't fighting. This fell out of fashion in the last two centuries. as armies became more professional, and a largely men only operation. That began to change a century ago, when World War I and a manpower shortage put women into uniform for the first time. No longer civilian camp followers, women now did the increasing number of military jobs that did not require a lot of muscle and murderous intent. 

For the last thirty years it has become fashionable to believe that soldiers are just another bunch of civil servants and that the troops should behave like civilians. For the last century, more and more people in uniform were doing civilian type jobs, so it seemed reasonable to expect civilian type behavior. But there were still a lot of trained killers in the ranks, men (and a few women) who had gone through the ancient drills that turn an ordinary person into someone who will murder on command. These lads were always difficult to control when they weren't in combat. But it got worse, as the late 20th century brought with it a lot of sensitivities. Gender, sexual preference and ethnicity were the big taboos when it came to loose talk and physical harassment. The generals knew they had a problem with all these new demands, so they decided to cop out and insist on zero tolerance. Anyone who got out of line was severely punished. One strike and you're out. This got the brass off the hook, but it changed the atmosphere in the ranks. Millions of hours a year were now devoted to sensitivity training. The troops were made to understand that any misbehavior would get you in big trouble, perhaps even booted out of the service. The new atmosphere did discourage a lot of young men from joining, and encouraged many more to use the new easy out option (tell your commander that you are homosexual, even it you aren't, and most let out of the service this way are not.) Career officers and NCOs under pressure to keep people in uniform and out of trouble had only one option, cover up transgressions. Zero Tolerance soon became a game. If someone got out of line and it made it into the media, than you hung him out to dry. But otherwise, you played the game and pretended Zero Tolerance was working. Training, morale, leadership development, retention and a lot of other things took a back seat to playing the game. No one in politics or the media wants to look at what's really happening in the ranks, for that would be an admission of failure.

It was a truly Zero Approach.


 


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