What really sucks
“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
I’ve burned a lot of bridges these past two years, lost a lot of so-called “friends” as well. This is the result of the true human cost of any workplace abuse, such as harassment, discrimination, or reprisal: it makes people choose sides. There is no gray area, no sitting on the fence, there is really just your side and theirs. In the end, no one wins. I had a close colleague – he was your proverbial center-of-attention kind of guy, wanted everyone to like him, you surely know the type. For this chapter, we’ll call him Keyser. For the better part of his assignment, Keyser watched a lot of the abuses in the office transpire. He watched his buddies get railroaded out of town while caustic and inept leaders let it happen or, in some cases, carried the reprisals out themselves. Around summer of 2021, when I started looking for people to come forward with witness statements for the Congressional report, I thought Keyser would be one of the first in line. He wasn’t. Days went by, then weeks. When I was getting to the point of starting to finalize the report, I prodded Keyser for an input. What he replied with was some kludge of waffling and hand-wringing response to the tune of “yeah, I wasn’t a first-hand witness to most of this, per se, so whatever I say is really kind of hearsay.” I was shocked. Here’s a guy who literally watched his so-called brothers-in-arms get retaliated against by having assignments canceled, sent home early, their lives and families thrown into tumult and when it came to putting pen to paper, he became a vacillating blob of goo; another jello mold, if you will. I told him if he didn’t write a witness statement that he was complicit by allowing what had happened the years prior to continue unchecked. He was incensed. One less player on team Sweazey. And no matter who you are and no matter what your convictions are, that sucks. It sucks to have to pick which line in the sand you are on and see, when push comes to shove, how few people end up on your side. This is the very unfortunate and very real cost of whistleblowing in today’s government, and perhaps the nation at-large: a line is drawn and it forces people to choose sides, which is nearly always a zero-sum proposition.
In thinking about that exchange with Keyser, there’s not much I would change. Yes, my tone and verbiage was perhaps too off-putting, too aggressive, but I meant what I said. In fact, everyone who I spoke to who witnessed wrongdoing in DIA and didn’t speak up was, in my opinion even today, complicit. That’s not to say I don’t understand their decision, that’s not to say I think less of them as people. I do contend, however, that to not intervene is, by definition, to be complicit. Let’s think of it in a different scenario: you’re walking down the street, you see someone breaking into a car, you continue about your day thinking “not my car, not my problem!” Is that not complicity?
As an aside, Keyser, in the unlikely event you are reading this:
“A friend to all is a friend to none.”
There are two themes going on here that are worth delving into that I attribute to the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” approach:
1. A system that rewards people for doing the right thing far more than it rewards people for stopping the wrong thing from continuing,
2. A system in which the victim is the “bad guy.”
The military is very much oriented on ensuring people do the right thing. One of the most apropos quotes that comes to mind was one that was beaten into my head at the U.S. Air Force Academy as a freshman: “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” True. Can you rattle off a famous quote right now that has to do with stopping someone from doing the wrong thing? I can’t.
Every year, every person in the United States military receives a performance report. In 2021, there were about 1.2 million active duty personnel in the military, that’s over a million performance reports written. With each performance report containing about a dozen “bullets,” that’s well over 15 million lines of performance report fodder authored in one year alone. Law enforcement specialists aside, how many of those bullets do you think lauded an individual for reporting a wrongdoing? I’d be shocked if the DoD could even provide a dozen. And that’s a reflection of the true value system of the military and government at-large: do the right thing. If you catch someone doing the wrong thing and report that, well, you’re just a troublemaker then – stop rocking the boat! (and don’t forget also: YOYO!)
The second theme, which is seemingly indelibly ingrained in the military ethos is that the victim of a workplace transgression such as harassment or reprisal, is not only shouldered with the burden of representation and recompense, but is looked upon as the assailant. In the early 2000s, the military began to really grapple with this when it came to sexual assault and sexual harassment. Victims had, for years, reported that they were essentially the victims of two crimes – the first being the assault itself and the second being the hell they were put through after coming out and reporting it. Unfortunately, the military wasn’t savvy enough to transfer those lessons identified (I intentionally don’t say lessons learned here because they clearly were not internalized and learned) to other regimes such as someone who is a victim of reprisal. Evidence to that supposition: what counsel does a victim of reprisal receive from the U.S. government? You guessed it: nada. So, someone can roll in and arbitrarily end someone’s career, and potentially professional life, and guess who has to do all the legwork to prove it and seek out accountability and recompense? You guessed correctly again: the victim. For an organization that touts its ability to adapt, learn, and overcome, that’s not a whole hell of a lot of adapting, learning or overcoming, from what I see. And that really sucks.