The Question of Values (II) Why Awarding Medals is Like
Cog Maintenance in a Fredrick Taylor Production Line

November 15, 1999

Comment: #333

Discussion Thread:  #s 332

Fredrick Winslow Taylor, one of the great philosophers and systematizers of the 19th Century industrial revolution, saw the worker as an unthinking interchangeable cog in a machine (Editor's note:  "scientific management"). In his view, workers could be controlled and regulated precisely by a system of scripted procedures, production quotas, and primitive rewards and punishments, much like Dr. Pavlov's dogs.

Taylor subordinated the man to the dictates of the machine and the production process. His ideas were very important to the material enrichment of society and helped to rationalize the early industrial system, but their dehumanizing assumptions became oppressive, led to labor strife, and are now considered obsolete in most developed countries.

While respect for the individual is a hallmark of progressive industrial management, Taylor's view of humanity lives on subliminally in the politicized American military industrial congressional complex. This can be seen most clearly in the high-cost robotic theories of techno-revolutions that de-humanize the conduct of war by viewing it as an inanimate mechanical interaction that can be carefully managed. Star Wars, which is a great vehicle for spending money, but has provided no capability to date, is perhaps the most absurd inversions of Boyd's law, "Machines don't fight wars, People do and they use their Minds.".

When people are viewed contemptuously as mindless interchangeable cogs in a machine, mechanistic personnel policies based on the principle of efficient cog replacement as opposed to overall organizational effectiveness are sure to follow. This view, for example, is clearly evident in the Defense Department's predilection for individual replacement rather than unit rotation, notwithstanding mounds of contrary experience proving that (1) unit cohesion is essential to combat effectiveness and (2) that assigning a stranger to a front line combat team (i.e., a group held together by bonds of trust and shared experience) engaged in heavy fighting is tantamount to giving that individual a death sentence.

In Comment #332, I argued that the wild inflation in combat medals was another indication of the contempt for soldierly values held by senior decision makers, comparable to the attitude that produced four years of Armed Forces Day Posters that celebrated weapons and forgot to remember people.

That message elicited three responses that are well worth reading. They show that I only skimmed the surface of the "Cog Maintenance Policies" held by the "Taylorized" military personnel system. These emails reveal how the production-line process of awarding medals has become "Taylored" to the interests of the bureaucratic machinery.

The first is an email from a senior fighter pilot and squadron-level department head in the Navy/Marine Corps. He flew off the Enterprise during Operation Desert Fox (the bombing of Iraq) last winter. He angrily describes how the Navy PRE-PLANNED its combat awards with a quota system based on ranks and positions in the hierarchy. Note how he compares this corruption to the corrupt budgeting process

The second email is from an Army Staff Sergeant. Note how similar his comments on quotas are to those of the Navy flyer. The Sergeant wants to do away with all medals except for those awarded for bravery in peacetime or in combat. He would replace other medals with less ostentatious letters of commendation that would go into personnel folders, which might, he thinks, also help to stem the parallel process of inflation in efficiency reports.

Offsetting the Sergeant's inherent optimism is the third email: a pessimistic prognostication from a retired AF officer, with enlisted experience, who also graduated from West Point. He seems to say that the low regard for people may be a sign that the military's humanity is in the process of being mechanized (a vision which certainly is consistent with the Pavolovian values that believe people are motivated to uncommon achievement by a pre-planned awards production line).

-----[1st Email: A Combat Pilot on USS Enterprise CVN-65]---

Date: Sun, 14 Nov


This strikes a raw nerve. I will pass along the trash that was handed out during my cruise aboard ENTERPRISE.

Three weeks after we left Norfolk we were told to have all end of tour awards into the Battle Group staff by 1 Jan (the deployment didn't end until 6 May) to allow time for processing. Each unit was allowed to award 10% of the unit's strength. The following criteria was set: The highest award allowed for E-5 and below were Navy Marine Corps Achievement medals, E-6 and officers, Navy Marine Corps Commendations. No limit set on letters of commendation, (which help for promotion points in the Navy). Standard end of tour award for an outgoing officer giving up command was a Meritorious Commendation Medal.

Upon completion of DESERT FOX [the bombing of Iraq in last December], the Battle Group staff asked what 5th fleet would accept for a typical combat award, BEFORE THE AWARDS RECOMMENDATIONS WERE EVEN WRITTEN UP! (this was to save administrative burden on the units). After 5th fleet made the decision on what 'he' would approve, this is the guidance used for writhing up awards: Commander/Deputy Commander Air Group; Bronze Star / Distinguished Flying Cross; Squadron Commanding Officers who led a strike on the first night, BS/DFC; All strike leads, Air Medal W/ Combat distinguishing device; All other aircrew who flew into Iraqi air space, Navy Commendation w/ Combat distinguishing device; All support aircrew who flew in support of mission going into Iraqi airspace, Navy commendation medal w/ combat distinguishing device. Plus there were two single mission air medals allowed to be awarded per squadron to recognize superior performance in combat. OBTW, Bronze Stars were awarded to commanders because it is now 'accepted' that they are 'combat leadership awards' not awarded for individual acts of valor.

As you can tell by the criteria passed down from 5th Fleet, it was a quota system which did not recognize individual achievement, precisely what the individual awards process was supposed to do. What made matters worse, was the fact that being the only Marine unit aboard the ship we (except the CO) thought of all the services we used the awards process with closer scrutiny. We were disgusted with the process and did not want to participate. However we were told to write them up any way and to write up the pilots to match the numbers allocated for our fair share. So that is just what me and my fellow department head did. In the case of the two single mission air medals to be awarded per squadron, we became very creative (lied) in the awards write up to make the individual's performance commensurate with the award (the CO was not going to give up two quotas of air medals just because we didn't have anyone who didn't deserve his words 'what do you want me to do, turn them in?')

Another 10% of unit strength quota was allowed for Desert Fox for all of the units within the battle group.

When the two FA-18D squadrons were preparing to deploy to Hungary in support of Allied Force [bombing campaign against Yugoslavia], the awards officer came to our squadron to get copies of our award write ups so they can 'lead turn' the process. As a result, they passed out so many awards they became meaningless.

The single mission air medal w/combat V has become the "me too medal" among aviators. Whenever I see a DFC or bronze star on someone's chest, I instantly think what unit did you command in combat?

Andrea Stone hit the nail on the head.

But it is just like the budget process, everybody admits its broken, but nobody will fix it, for fear of short changing their constituents. The awards are not worth more than the $2.50 it cost to make them.

-----[end email from Combat Pilot]------

-----[2nd Email from SSGT XXX]-------

Date: Sat, 13 Nov 1999

I read this in USA Today. One of the reasons the achievement medals were created was because not enough people were getting commendation medals. Or perhaps too many low ranking people were getting commendation medals, which devalued them. After all, why should a private, who went 7 days with 14 hours, alternating between his guard duty and repairing trucks get the same award as a captain who gave good staff briefings to the Brigade Commander?

I have also seen policies where certain awards are reserved for certain ranks. Usually E-4 and below get Army Achievement Medals, E-5 to E-7 get Army Commendation Medals, and E-8 and above get Meritorious Service Medals. And all recommendations for awards must be submitted unrealistically in advance so that every one in the approving chain can get their 2 cents worth in so the command won't be embarrassed when the approving authority sees it.

The most abused instance of award inflation that I have ever seen was a Trial Defense Counsel (an Army Criminal Defense Lawyer) received a Bronze Star because she won an acquittal for her client during a Courts-martial during Desert Storm. "Meritorious Service in a Combat Zone." She should have received an outstanding OER, and other appropriate accolades, but I compare that to the Bronze Star one of my college professors received in Vietnam, who as an infantryman, exposed himself to enemy fire, just doesn't make sense.

My suggestion, get rid of all medals that are not awarded for bravery (peacetime and combat). Replace them with letters of commendation that are placed in the individuals' permanent personnel file. Have those letters, and the individual's evaluations be seen by promotion boards. They may serve as an effective checks and balance against the inflation of evaluation reports, which is a continuing problem.

----[End 2nd Email]----------

You're totally correct in assessing the Death Spiral as a question of values and it seems that your synopsis (distillation) boils down to PEOPLE VS TECHNOLOGY. As a background for competing ideas, we have COMMUNISM VS DEMOCRACY and it should have been patently clear that Communism would eventually lose.

But, I'm not certain that a REGARD for PEOPLE will win out over TECHNOLOGY. It seems that Technology has an inevitability which we can't defeat. As soon as the Computer gets smart, I expect to become merely an expendable bit/byte (I don't really know the difference). To my comfort, I will have much company which includes all the grunts and mucks in the U.S. Military.

----[End 3rd Email]-----

On the other hand, what to cogs know about the hall of mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac?

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]