I’m not sure what the campaign-hat-wearing donkey (or ass, if you prefer) has to do with energy conservation, but I’m sure it’s a metaphor for something in this place.
By this place, of course I’m referring to the Signal Center of Excellence, that Army installation that we all love to hate, our telecommunications Valhalla and electronic purgatory, Fort Gordon.
I was last here in 2009-2010 for ALC (which I’m pretty sure stands for Advanced Lawn Care), which was by far the dumbest thing I’ve had to do in the Army. The pure, distilled stupidity of those fourteen weeks exceeded anything I encountered in two overseas deployments – it truly represented the low point in my Army career.
Driving through the gate last week, I realized that despite how much I hated ALC, it made an indelible impression on my psyche, like a photo negative etched by my hateful feelings for the event. For the first couple of days, I had to make a conscious effort to stop myself from saying things like, “when I was here for ALC…” when I realized that a considerable portion of my spoken communication began with that phrase. I started to sound like an obsessive.
Two trips to the Middle East didn’t break my mind, but one stint at the Regimental NCO Academy sure did.
Luckily, being here as a warrant officer bears little resemblance to that experience – by and large, we’re treated like human beings, if not almost like adults. But there’s another flavor to the experience here, one that I somehow didn’t expect: it’s like being on active duty.
For a Guardsman, it’s a cultural shift, maybe more so than the usual shift into an Army school environment. In the Guard, time is always at a premium; there are never enough hours or days or weeks to accomplish everything, since we’re expected to perform in an equivalent manner to the active component with only “one weekend a month and two weeks a year” to do it. This seems to have two second-order effects: one, it creates a culture of short, intense periods of work, followed by downtime, since you never know if you’ll get the task done in time. Two, some of the finer points of military life – formations, military courtesies, etc. – tend to take on less importance. The protocol overhead becomes excessive, and is dropped as a result.
Here, it seems exactly the opposite: we have nothing but time (or so they say), and it’s all about the niceties and sideband activities of military life. Things like briefings, paperwork for four-day passes, fall cleanup, “volunteer” activity, and so on seem to consume an inordinate amount of time when we’re supposed to be worrying about our technical training.
There’s also an incredible emphasis on risk avoidance and consequences for various types of bad behavior. Apparently, the most important things we do here are expressed as negatives: don’t drink and drive, don’t fraternize, don’t speed on post, don’t jaywalk, don’t hit any pedestrians, don’t let privates not salute you, don’t fail any tests. Those topics were covered by no fewer than four people on our main day of inprocessing briefings, and again on the next day by yet another Fort Gordon luminary. The battalion commander is briefing us next week, and I don’t think anyone would bet against him hitting those highlights yet again.
All of these proscriptions add up to create this strange fearful atmosphere, where it seems that any wrongdoing, no matter how minor, will result in swift and fierce retribution, spelling a rapid and spectacular demise for our budding warrant officer careers. The post commander evidently reinforces this atmosphere: the briefers last week regaled us with stories of his ride-alongs with MPs, working the front gate in his PT uniform, excoriating people who don’t pick up litter alongside the road, and more.
I understand that the Army is, by its nature, a rules-based organization, and punishing soldiers for small, weird offenses in the name of “good order and discipline” is nothing new. But this new culture seems unsettling, and – dare I say – vaguely tyrannical. In prohibiting various behaviors for ostensibly well-intentioned ends, it brews a zero-tolerance mindset for any mistakes or infractions, and defines success as watching for rule-breakers rather than accomplishing the mission. This sounds more like a stereotypical corporate bureaucracy rather than a fighting force, but as the mandated force reductions scythe through the active component (a reduction of 80,000 soldiers by FY2015), these tendencies will only become more intense.
I guess that’s what they mean by a “peacetime Army,” but the peacetime Army always becomes a wartime Army again, and we learn the hard lessons anew each time…