You know what makes me sick?
Bureaucrats! … you know, the kind with the flat top haircuts; the Aqua Velva aftershave; the little Dick Tracy mustaches crawling like a worm across their upper lip; and the pocket pencil protectors full of ball point pens that probably don’t even work? It seems like every day of my working life I’ve had at least one, hovering over me, watching every move, ready to pounce on the least mistake. On too many jobs, I have felt like Lucille Ball and her friend, Ethel, working on that candy assembly line on the “I Love Lucy” television show (1952), trying hard but failing to wrap those chocolate bonbons before they fell on the factory floor.
Not that I haven’t made my share of mistakes and needed someone to pull my chestnuts out of the fire. In fact, I had an Old Man on a ship one time who told me, “Benny, the Good Lord judges you on intent, but here in the Navy we judge you on fact!” I appreciated his guidance. On the other hand, I was once a writer for an admiral who would always change one little thing in what I’d written just to show me who was boss. For example, if I had written the word “puppy,” he would change it to “small dog.”
In sociology, the formal definition of bureaucracy would probably be that it is a hierarchy of officials of a government or organization who implement the rules, laws, and functions of their institutions. The term is usually applied to governments, corporations, and other large entities. The eminent German sociologist, Max Weber (1864-1920), famously said that bureaucracy has six main characteristics: “task specialization or division of labor; a hierarchical management structure; formal selection of rules; efficient and uniform requirements; an impersonal environment; and an achievement-based advancement.” In my experience, some of the best examples of these six tenets would be the military. I’ll share some examples of this institution, as well as five “pretty good rules” for survival in a hostile, bureaucratic world.
Being in the military for almost 40 years and then in public education for 20, I’ve seen bureaucracy from most every angle. I’ve also developed what you might call a “coping strategy” to deal with orders to do jobs that I knew were crazy: I simply think to myself – yes, sir; yes, sir; three bags full, sir; thank you, sir; this is a wonderful idea, sir; I will make you look good, sir.” Then, I will go and do the best job I can for the moron who sent me on the hopeless or useless mission. Many times, if I hadn’t had a family to support, I would have done my best Johnny Paycheck impression and told them to “take this job and shove it.” Rule #1: Never argue with an idiot.
To tell the truth, I was introduced early on to bureaucracy. My first job in high school was with the Mississippi Forestry Service, putting out forest fires. I drove the truck, and a guy a little older than me drove the caterpillar tractor that we used to plow suppression lanes around the fires. This was obviously the more prestigious job, and I was relegated to walking around the edge of the fire with a shovel, beating out the flames, ruining my shoes, and getting my eyebrows singed. But what really ticked me off was that he was nervous about loading and unloading the Cat from the truck, afraid that it would tip over and crush him, so he made me do that. Once I got it on the ground, he would jump on, ride off in a smoke full of macho glory, and I would pick up my shovel. This was Weber’s task specialization or division of labor at work on a very primary level. Rule #2: Where you sit determines what you see.
I hardly know where to start with government examples of bureaucracy related to the military, what President Bush II might call the “Mother of all Bureaucracies.” For example, I joined the Navy in 1959, and I was enrolled in a very demanding electronics school that required a “Top Secret” clearance because we were often exposed to top secret communications. This meant that the FBI had to send representatives to my hometown; find people who knew me; interview them about my character; and then determine whether I was eligible for the clearance. If I didn’t receive it, I would be disenrolled from the school and sent to the deck force on some obscure ship in Pago Pago. To my chagrin, the FBI reported back to the school that I was a “drunk;” and a threat to national security. I knew that I had never taken an alcoholic drink in my life. You see, my father, who had the same name as me, was an alcoholic, and the FBI got the two of us confused. Luckily, being on the side of the angels, I was able to get it straightened out and back in school. This, unfortunately, was an example of inefficient and un-uniform requirements.
I finally got to my ship a year later, and about two years after that, I got a letter from the Lamar County Draft Board informing me that my lucky number had been called and that I had been drafted. I was to report to Jackson for induction into the Army within 30 days or face federal charges. This would have been very hard to do as I had enlisted in the Navy at 17 and had been overseas on a ship in the Med since graduating electronic school. Obviously, I didn’t make it back to Jackson, nor did I have a way to officially communicate to those authorities back in Purvis that they had made a mistake. Consequently, today there is probably an active warrant out there for my arrest. Rule #3: Never try to fight with a bear in his own cave.
I loved to keep up with the news, and the only way to do it overseas in 1960 was via shortwave radio. There was a beautiful one for sale in the ship’s store, a Zenith Transoceanic portable, and the only problem was that it cost around $250, and I only made around $150 per month; and I sent ¾ of that back to my mama in Lumberton each month. But the radio never sold; I saved my money for months; often stopping by the store window to “visit” it; and I finally had enough to buy it. That payday, I stood in the long line with other sailors, awaiting my turn to get to the store sales window; and to my dismay, a young Ensign, newly reported onboard, jumped the line and bought my radio. This, of course, would illustrate Weber’s principle of a hierarchical management environment; however, all was not lost because, years later on another ship, I was able to finally buy an even newer model of the same radio. Rule #4: Things are never as good or as bad as first reported.
My final example of bureaucracy in the military comes from when I was finishing up the course of study at Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. I had also been stationed aboard two ships there when I was an enlisted man. On one of those ship. there was a senior petty officer who delighted in giving me a hard time. Nothing I did was right. If I repaired a piece of electronic gear in an hour, he complained that I didn’t do it in thirty minutes. If I saved the government thousands of dollars by recycling a broken electronic component, he complained because I didn’t use a new one. As far as I was concerned, he had a heart as black as a jug of midnights, but since he was my senior, all I could do was grin and bear it. I put up with this for three years: in the Caribbean, in the Med, on the DEW Line in the North Atlantic, etc.
A few weeks before graduation and my commissioning as an officer, my class took a tour of a ship down at the piers, and it turned out to be one of my old ships. The Petty Officer of the Watch who took our salutes as we crossed the quarterdeck turned out to be no other than the first-class petty officer who had been my nemesis for all those years. He immediately recognized me, although I was dressed in officer khakis, and blurted out: “Hornsby! What commissioning program did YOU get into?” A lot of responses came into my mind, mostly unprintable, but I remember thinking: “the one that could make me YOUR boss in about three weeks,” but I just smiled and moved on. Luckily for us both, I was assigned to a ship on the west coast. To me, this illustrates Weber’s principle of “achievement-based advancement.” Rule #5: Never wrestle with a pig; you both get dirty, but the pig likes it.
I’m writing this column on 11 June, and I’m sitting at the base of the Little Big Horn National Monument on the Custer Battlefield at Little Big Horn, Montana. My wife taught school just up the road at Kalispell right out of college 58 years ago, and I’ve been promising to bring her back for a long time. This is the exact spot, many of you will remember, where General Armstrong Custer and 268 horse soldiers of the Army’s 7th Calvary Regiment were killed by Native Americans on 25 June 1876 (Known to Natives as the Battle of the Greasy Grass). This battle had far reaching consequences for the Natives. It was the beginning of the end of the “Indian Wars,” and has even been referred to as the “Indians’ last stand.” In just a few years, the majority of the warriors who participated in the battle were either on reservations, hiding in Canada, or dead. The ancient Greeks would have considered their victory over Custer as “Pyrrhic,” or as a victory that comes at the expense of great losses or costs, an allusion to King Pyrrhus whose Greek army suffered so many casualties in defeating the Romans in battle that he supposedly said: “If we win another such battle against the Romans, we will be completely lost.”
As I sit here on this historic, windswept hill, among the tombstones of the dead troopers, surrounded by “Big Sky Country,” it occurs to me that General Custer (actually a Lieutenant Colonel at the time who was breveted as a brigadier general during the Civil War at the age of 23), was the anthesis of a military bureaucrat – what with his shoulder-length blonde hair which he scented with cinnamon oil; his unauthorized black velvet uniform with coils of gold lace; a large red scarf around his neck; a large broad-brimmed sombrero; and his unorthodox ways befitting a “goat” who finished last in his class at West Point.
However, the massacre at Little Big Horn does remind us that military bureaucracy actually has its benefits. If Custer had listened to his subordinates; if he had been willing to delegate responsibility; if he followed Army protocol and not underestimated the enemy, his soldiers, including four members of his own family, would probably have lived to fight again another day. The disaster and subsequent events following that day remind me of the sequence in which I have seen so many projects in the military play out: wild enthusiasm; disenchantment; total confusion; search for the guilty; punishment of the innocent; and rewards and promotions for the non-participants.
Be that as it may, in my next life, I think I’ll be a Montana cowboy: lean, taciturn, wise and weather-beaten; much like the Marlboro man, except I won’t smoke cigarettes.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: email@example.com.