Decades ago, I was invited to a meeting of senior officers at one of the military academies. The officer in charge talked at length about the moral decay in society. There seemed to be no focus to this discussion, and I could not figure out what problem was actually concerning these men. Eventually it was revealed that some of the students at the academy were cheating on their exams. The cadets were not following the academy’s honor system. The officer’s explanation for the cadet’s behavior was corruption in society. They felt that by the time an eighteen-year-old arrived at the academy it was too late; the cadet was irredeemable.
After a long discussion about the corruption in society, I attempted to turn the topic around. I asked if anyone in the room had served in Vietnam. Most had. I asked if any of them had participated in the phenomenon known as the body count. (This was a measurement system used to determine how American forces were performing in the war. At the end of each battle, the number of enemy dead were counted, and the number was reported. As this process unfolded, vastly exaggerated numbers were routinely reported.)
From the atmosphere of discomfort in the room, it was clear that some had participated. Why, I asked, would an officer and a gentleman (as opposed to an uncommissioned cadet) engage in such behavior? Answering my own question, I suggested that when an impossible objective is given to people in a large hierarchy and when it is accompanied by immense pressure to produce, the people in the organization will also experience growing pressure to engage in unethical behavior. An invisible form of corruption at the top, the exercise of authority without concern or demand without support, results in a very visible form of corruption at the bottom.
I then suggested that perhaps the problem with the cadets did not take root “out there” in society. Maybe large numbers of students were cheating because the system demanded and taught them to cheat. Were the arrangement of classes, the design of assignments and workloads, and traditional military values like ‘cooperate and graduate’ combining to teach, require, and reward cheating? Was the problem in the cadets alone, or was it in the relationship between the cadets and the authority figures who were condemning and externalizing the problem?
There was a long silence. Finally, the man in charge spoke. He turned to the man next to him and, as if I had never said a word, resumed the old discussion about the moral decay in society. For the rest of the day they ignored me – I simply did not exist.
Deep Change, pp. 51-52