Basic Economic Truths, Part I ~ The Umbrella Fiasco

The umbrella is a simple, inexpensive but very useful implement. It’s been around for thousands of years. It is not, however, something that male U.S. Army soldiers are permitted to carry while in uniform. Why? One word: Tradition.

opaGood parents teach their kids to tell the truth, that honesty is the best policy. Regardless of parents’ faith persuasions, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, even Atheist, good parents teach their children to obey some version of the Golden Rule – that, if they want to be treated fairly, they must treat others fairly. But we all learn something quite different as we grow up. Because there are so many different versions of the truth out there, the real world teaches us that truth is relative. It is relative in business as well as in academics, religion, government, and social communities. This is a basic economic truth. A related truth that is not relative is this:  that people are human; they are flawed. Accordingly, people can only be expected to act in their own best interests. They will lie, often to themselves, and this is another basic economic truth. Adam Smith, the father of modern economic theory, espoused this truth in his 1776 watershed book, “The Wealth of Nations.” Consistent with this truth, promises are made only if both parties benefit in the near term, a truth established by another famous 18th Century economist, David Ricardo. According to Ricardo, promises are kept so long as both parties continue to benefit. Exceptions to this are rare, as is long-term thinking – a third basic economic truth.

Another real world truth no economist has yet addressed, so far as I can determine, is that some of the rungs on the ladders to success are those of compromise and deceit. It takes extra effort to lift ourselves over these occasional rungs to the more substantial ones, the rungs of talent, hard work, diligence and perseverance. A corollary to this is the well-known consumer adage, “Let the buyer beware.” The following story illustrates this truth. The names of story players have been withheld to protect the innocent as well as the guilty.

As a junior Army Reserve lieutenant colonel assigned to Fort Sill’s Field Artillery School, I was given a challenge one day, a challenge to do the right thing or to do the smart thing. The challenge came one Monday morning after first sitting down behind the pile of paperwork in my office on the third floor of Knox Hall, the Field Artillery Combat Developments Directorate (DCD). By a strange set of circumstances, I had been selected by the Director to be his deputy while I was yet just a major. By TDA (Table of Distribution and Allowances), the job called for a “full” colonel, but there were so many new, major Field Artillery systems under development at the time that full colonels at the school were all either the heads of directorates or TRADOC (Training and Doctrine Command) System Managers (TSMs). My promotion to lieutenant colonel came a few weeks later.

The Director’s secretary greeted me that morning, reminding me that my boss would be gone all week, as would all the other colonels, directors and TSMs. In fact, almost all “school house” senior officers, to include our commanding general and brigade commanders of tenant FORSCOM (Forces Command) units, would be gone the whole week – gone to Washington D.C. for the Army’s annual Land Forces Symposium. Lieutenant colonels like me had been left behind to keep things running, but not to make any important decisions.

How I came to be the Deputy Director of DCD is important to this story as it illustrates the truth that talent, hard work, diligence, perseverance and a little bit of luck now and then do pay off. I had expected to be assigned to the Tactics Department, the Gunnery Department, or perhaps to the Logistics Department of the school. But the then Deputy Director of DCD had requested the next Field Artillery officer reporting for duty to the school who also happened to be an aviator. As it turned out, I was he. This was perhaps two years before the Army finally recognized aviation as a separate, independent branch. He, the then deputy, had a materiel performance issue needing resolution and he needed his own aviator to resolve it, someone on his team. The issue was whether the new Army Field Artillery “towed” howitzer, the M198, was going to be too heavy for air mobile operations. It was a simple weight-and-balance problem that took me all of ten minutes to work after being assigned to the Systems Branch of the Materiel Division – another twenty or so minutes to document my findings and draft a recommendation. Luck and a modicum of talent had got me in and earned me some immediate recognition. Another few weeks of harder work and diligence earned me a quick promotion to head a new, separate branch in the Materiel Division, the Logistics Branch.

After attending a two-week crash course at Fort Eustis, VA on recent regulation changes involving logistics considerations in the design and fielding of new weapons systems, I would have three other officers, a DA civilian and an intern working for me. Having been the Honor Graduate of the first class to take this course, the director himself called me to his office to congratulate me — more talent, hard work, and diligence. He tasked me to put together a briefing for our general on logistics considerations and require- ments. The briefing went well, but the general wasn’t particularly pleased with the new requirements. Nobody likes change when it is imposed and when it means more work and more restrictions.

After several weeks had passed, my little branch developed into a good team. Most of what we did went unnoticed by the rest of the directorate, however. The Army’s materiel acquisition tradition was more focused on performance than supportability. The modus operandi was, and I suspect still is to some extent, to put development money mostly into making a bigger boom. The rationale being that after going to war, Congress would have to find more money to maintain the new equipment. It became my personal ambition as the Logistics Branch Chief to do my small part to change this line of thinking.

Of little interest to me at the time was that our director had been given a huge project by the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) — to conduct a complete “Mission Area Analysis (MAA),” a front to rear look at Field Artillery mission require- ments and priorities for developments: materiel, personnel, training, and tactics. But I became deeply involved after responding to a solicitation from his DA civilian analyst assistant for the project on how to prioritize new weapons systems with considerations of cost and contribution to battlefield success reconciled. My suggestion was simple ratio analysis (dividing cost into values determined for relative performance contributions then comparing the quotients to assess the cost effectiveness of competing systems). The Director loved the idea. It was a simple, direct solution. After briefing him on my suggestion, he assigned me the task of “fleshing-out” the idea and developing a computer driven model to automate the analysis.

Knowing nothing about computer programming at the time, I was relieved when a young lieutenant with experience in basic computer language programming was detailed from one of the TSMs to assist me. This simple idea led to the adoption of an expanded model for linear programming by the directorate called “goals programming,” or Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA). Things quickly got too big for my little branch to handle, so the project was moved to the Analysis Division where it rightfully belonged in the first place. But, after the MAA was published, my involvement in all this resulted in the award of my second ARCOM (Army Accommodation Medal). It was also why the Director, at least in part, chose me to be his deputy after my predecessor was reassigned to a new weapons system’s TSM slot.

Okay… so what’s all this got to do with umbrellas? Cost-effectiveness, that’s what. Think about it – we spend tens of billions of dollars on new weapons systems, many of them never fielded and many of those that are fielded are never used. But our soldiers are denied the use of a simple two-and-a-half-dollar umbrella which is very useful. The umbrella is a simple, inexpensive but very practical implement. It’s been around for thousands of years. It is not, however, something that male U.S. Army soldiers are permitted to carry while in uniform. Why? One word: Tradition.

The Director’s secretary, briefing me on actions left for me to handle, made mention of the Command Sergeant Major’s annual uniform survey. The survey is conducted every year through TRADOC schools representing all branches of the Army to provide input for decisions on changes to uniform policy. The Army’s regulation on uniform policy is AR 670-1. To meet the suspense established by the Department of the Army, Field Artillery votes by enlisted personnel on the survey’s questions would have to be collated today, and a summary letter would have to be drafted then approved and signed by the School’s adjutant, an officer who was junior to me but the only one presently on post authorized to sign correspondence for the commanding general.

Okay – no important decision here, I thought. I can’t go wrong. WRONG. One of the questions was whether, since the Air Force then allowed it, enlisted Army personnel should not also be allowed to carry umbrellas when in uniform. But, hey… my job here would not be to second guess the survey or the answers submitted to the questions. My job would be to simply add-up the numbers and write a short cover letter. WRONG again. Notwithstanding, that’s how I saw it then. I gave the adjutant a call to let him know that I would personally handle the action and have it to him by noon so that the Field Artillery wouldn’t be late on a DA suspense action.

After collating the numbers, it turned out that over ninety percent of the enlisted personnel responding to the survey said that soldiers should be allowed to carry umbrellas, especially during inclement weather conditions. I included this fact and summary votes on the other uniform issues included in the survey in a brief cover letter saying only that the data were being provided for consideration on the issues. The adjutant expressed some concern about the umbrella issue when I gave him the correspondence to approve, and we discussed the significance of the umbrella question in light of over a hundred years of Army tradition.

 “But why would DA even ask the question if they didn’t want to know what our soldiers thought,” I said. “Besides, what are we to do, ‘magic’ the results (magic is an old officer basic/officer candidate school euphemism for cheating).” He signed the letter.

Fast forward two days… the adjutant called me to say that we had “f . . . . . -up” royally. At a reception for TRADOC and FORCOM commanders, the Army’s Chief of Staff had said to our commanding general with others in earshot, “So… the Field Artillery thinks that soldiers should be allowed to carry umbrellas, eh?”

By the end of the next day, everyone on post knew about the umbrella fiasco. By telling the truth, I had done the right thing rather than the smart thing. Many, however, judged that I had done the dumb thing. My reward would be a third ARCOM on completion of my tour of duty with the Field Artillery School rather than the usual, higher Meritorious Service Medal (MSM) award for a job well-done as a senior officer. I was also given a career-ending follow-on assignment to an agency in Washington, D.C. that guaranteed I would never wear the silver eagles of a “full” Army colonel. Not to be deterred, I made lemonade of these sour lemons in my next assignment. But that is another story.

The moral of this story is this:  Be on the lookout for the rungs of compromise and deceit. Sometimes they are unavoidable. But knowing that they will present themselves from time to time, we can avoid being surprised by them — perchance to avoid them altogether. But, given the choice of doing the right thing or the smart thing, in the long-run, it is always better to do the right thing. If nothing else, at least we will be able to sleep better. But, never ever embarrass a superior if you can avoid it, or unless you are ready to move on and your choice serves a higher good.

Your comments in response to this story are most welcome.

Published on June 17, 2009 at 7:43 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Opa, what a great narrative and I so enjoyed it. I simply could not stop reading it through. Now if we could all adhere to those truths, life would be somewhat simpler eh!

  2. Kent:

    My perspective of Army life is that of an E-4 with a three-year enlistment (1963-66). I never as much as thought of a career in the military, much less one culminating in flag rank, thus I cannot hope to imagine the storm of emotions which you experienced at seeing well-pursued goals laid waste by such a ridiculous turn of events. My instinctive dislike of military life, not well understood by the twenty-year-old me, I later came to see as a reaction to a set of rules for which I was not well suited by temperament. The Army, the military, is a fraternity – run similarly to its collegiate counterparts – in which the feelings and reputation of a frat brother (of higher rank or status)is paramount above all other consideration. Is the nation better served by my particular action? Are the enlisted men and junior officers better equipped and protected? Are the fighting capabilities of my command expanded? Answer yes to all these, but run afoul of your commanding officer’s less noble priorities, and you will be summarily assigned to some dead-end job. And for every George Marshall, Eisenhower or Collin Powell that kept intact their values as they strove for, and achieved, the prize, how many hundreds, nay, thousands of David Hackworths and Opas have been thrown on the military’s scrap heap, that colossal (and shameful) monument to mediocrity and misplaced priorities? The wonder of it all is that, out of this frat-boy culture that characterizes the peace-time military, when war threatens our security, there miraculously emerge the war time leaders that have served the nation so well. Perhaps it is because in combat, virtues – as well as vices – are clearly displayed for all to see. When there are life and death decisions to be made, no one can hide cowardice or incompetence for long, nor can one sit pat on past accomplishments and rank. Thank God for that.

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