“Sir, Roll Up Your Sleeves”

Today I went to the bookstore immediately after work (I was still in uniform) to find a book for my lover and as I got to the sidewalk from the parking lot, a man in civilian clothes with his wife and kids accosted me and when he approached me he said “Sir, you need to roll down your sleeves and tighten them.” Since I didn’t want to argue or get into a discussion with him in front of his family, I simply said “Okay, thanks,” and continued on inside, doing as he said, lest he harass me about it.

For those who don’t understand what happened: it is against Army regulation to wear the sleeves of your outer shirt unvelcroed/unbuttoned and/or rolled up. The practical reason for such a regulation is the protection of the wearer’s limbs from cuts, burns and debris from entering the wearer’s clothing and causing discomfort or injury.

Why did he do this? Because I was in the wrong, and it was his duty as a NCO and Soldier to enforce, blindly I think, even the minutest non-conformity amongst one of his own. Why was I wrong? Because I was not in accordance with Army Regulation 670-1. He didn’t correct me because I was putting myself in danger; there was no danger. If he was simple-minded, it was just obedience; if he was smart, it was to instill the proper discipline in a leader, to train the muscle-memory to always do the right thing. Is that discipline practical as well as proper? Is it guided by commonsense? His actions bespeak a culture of conformity that is so overwhelmingly powerful that even off duty, off post and towards someone who outranked him a Soldier was internally compelled to act.

If the military had a culture of innovation, adaptation and personal freedom then he would not have seen anything wrong. He would have seen it was a hot day and, in light of my circumstances on a hot day (and without fear of cuts, burns or debris, in which case I would probably have determined it unwise to roll my sleeves), I used my own judgment to adapt myself and my uniform to my environment, allowing me to more comfortably and quickly act, even if that only meant walking across a parking lot.

What else could this culture of conformity be doing to an organization whose survival depends on outthinking and outmaneuvering an enemy that knows no conformity except the mission of evicting us from their territory and killing us? The Army talks a great deal about Mission Command: empowering junior leaders to act on their own, quickly and practically, given only general guidance from higher; but are we training ourselves to be the smartest military in the world, or the one who looks the same on every level that we look so perfect we don’t realize a few men on the other side of the mountain with minimum equipment and hierarchy can defeat us?

It is more complicated than this question would directly imply, but it is the idea that is most important. What ideas is the military instilling in its soldiers and leaders? Are we teaching them how to be blind, obedient followers or bold, creative and adaptive leaders who can carry out the doctrine of Mission Command in deed as well as word, not just as an idea that lets people brainstorm on a whiteboard?