I’ll never forget my first reaction to group punishment. I immediately thought, “This is bullshit.” It was 1:30 a.m. and the rain was driving sideways. I was in Army issued PT shorts and T Shirt, laying prone in a mud puddle outside my barracks at Ft. Benning, Georgia. My second thought was, “I think there is ice forming at the edge of this puddle.” The only consolation was to be in front leaning rest position, with my body suspended out of the water. It was freezing. We were getting smoked at 1:30 a.m. because another soldier had stolen a box of Nutri-grain bars and hid them in the ceiling tiles. He finally confessed that night after some other brouhaha – and so there we found ourselves, 61 soldiers in our PTs, getting smoked (smoked = group exercise rendered as punishment) in the rain at 1:30 a.m. I was pissed. The idea of being punished for someone else’s offense is anathema to anyone who grew up in a free society. It is fundamentally unfair. Now, lets be clear, the Army knows this. But the Army is not a free society. As a soldier you are, for lack of any comparable modern term, an indentured servant. Not quite a slave, but definitely not free. So, while the Army is also still kind of aware that group punishment is bullshit, you know what they think is more bullshit? Some cock sure soldier outside the wire doing his own thing in a way that gets other soldiers killed. So, they permit group punishment, sanction it, and even use it, in the hopes that they train out of you any inclination to think of anything other than the good of the unit.
This group punishment dynamic got me thinking in the wake of this post-Harvey-Weinstein-world. As a guy, you’d be lying if you said you did not feel a little bit personally blamed for the actions of other stupid guys. I closely followed the #metoo hash tags feeds and I believe those women who endured bad behavior by my fellow blokes – some of it petty, some of it misdemeanor, and some of it downright felonious. My wife and I routinely have conversations about this where I balk at being painted with the brush of high profile misconduct by bad actors – just by virtue of my plumbing. I expect my wife to push back on me about that, and she does a good job at it. I usually learn a few new things after those back-and-forths.
Now, it being Veterans Day tomorrow, I’ve started to see some photos in my news feed of my battle buddies who suffered through smoke sessions right next to me. And I started to recall the things we began to recognize over the course of our training. First, the more we got smoked, the more we were ripped. Some dudes lost 30 pounds over 4 months. So, after a while, smoke sessions were very nearly welcomed. The second was our group cohesion. Our unit welded together in a way that never could have otherwise happened in a non stress environment. TRADOC training is engineered to mimic combat – increase stress levels, mitigate sleep, ration food. Anyone can make a decision when they’re well-fed, well-rested, warm, and comfortable. They take those things away from you and separate the wheat from the chaff. By the end of training, we were a lot more wheat than chaff. We were cohesive, combat effective, and enjoyed unparalleled esprit de corps – in short, a crack unit able to execute the mission with maximum efficiency.
Now, back to individual members of a group who bring us all down with bad behavior. Yeah, my fellow guys, you’re kind-of being group punished for their antics. AND some guys who are guilty of misdemeanors are being grouped with dudes who are clearly guilty of felonies. This is the essence of group punishment. It feels like shit when it’s foisted on you as a cherry private just off the bus from mama’s house. But if you receive it correctly, and you stay focused on the mission, then our group can be much more effective in accomplishing what we came here to do anyway, right? Also, keep in mind the perspectives of accusers who endured this kind of thing for years – and yes, you know know who they are – it really does not matter to them if your comment, or action was far less offensive than what you’ve seen her endure before, or what she has done, or what you’ve endured, or what you’ve seen other women receive (perhaps, in your mind, playfully and engagingly). Sometimes your petty offense was the last one in a long line of gross misdemeanors she just endured. Sometimes your wise crack was the straw that broke the camels back. I am not excluding myself from this critique. My mama raised me to be respectful, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that I mistook a woman’s playful/crass banter for an invitation to respond in kind with a joke that turned out not to have been welcome around her. I like to think that I caught these cues, learned from them, and corrected myself going forward. But maybe I didn’t. And with that possibility, I think I’m ok with a dose of group punishment for the good of the group. Let’s suck it up, move forward, and execute the mission.
Happy Veterans Day.