Hasan and the Military Evaluation System

The investigations into the Fort Hood massacre are increasingly highlighting the less-than-optimal military evaluation system.  They ask a simple question: how can a person with identified deficiencies be rated as satisfactory or outstanding rather than having those faults documented?  One reporter (at both the LA Times and Baltimore Sun) caught on to this indicator of a wide-spread problem with the military rating system (key points highlighted):

As widely practiced in Army culture, few performance reviews contain negative comments, and almost all seem outwardly positive. However, at senior levels and in competitive fields, where only a few officers are promoted, an evaluation that is less than effusive in its praise can derail an officer’s promotion.

In less competitive fields and at junior levels, the Army has promoted the vast majority of its officers.

As noted here in 2006 and in Christian Fighter Pilot is Not an Oxymoron, these criticisms of the evaluation system apply outside of the Army, and likely apply to the military as a whole.  Embellishment and overly positive reviews–with “less effusive” reviews being the discriminator–are common.  Many in the military have long complained of a system that rates its people “outstanding, excellent, or great” rather than a more honest system that reports negative information.

Especially now, the culture that encourages issuance of mainly positive evaluations has undercut the usefulness of the system for evaluating officers’ strengths and weaknesses, according to some military officials. Some argue for a system that better alerts others to potential problems with officers’ past performance.

There is a long-running joke that the person whose evaluation report (OER in the Army, OPR in the Air Force) makes it look like he ‘walks on water’ isn’t competitive with the report that makes an officer look like he makes the water that others walk on.  Such is the state of military evaluations, where the fantastic is overcome only by the more fantastic.

Being subject to these evaluations, as well as being in a position to write them, can be an ethical challenge for a Christian in the military.  In particular, a supervisor wants to reward his people and ensure their success, but he wants to do so forthrightly.  As noted in the “Paperwork and Reality” chapter of Christian Fighter Pilot,

From OPRs to awards packages and every other form of paperwork, official documentation reigns supreme in the [military].  Supervisors want their subordinates to succeed and will try to write an evaluation to guarantee that…”Doing right by your people” is not wrong, nor is accepting what is deserved and earned.  As pilots and officers Christians must use discretion and wisdom in what amount of praise they are willing to accept.  As supervisors, Christian [in the military] must strive to take care of their subordinates by writing competitive OPRs and medal packages.  In no case, though, should they stretch, slant, or sacrifice the truth.  Paperwork may be supreme in the [military], but One is Supreme over all.

The ongoing investigations into the Fort Hood massacre may impact the military evaluation systems, with CNN saying that they may suggest the novel concept of holding officers accountable for less-than-glowing reviews:

The investigation also recommend [sic] ways to overhaul the military performance evaluation system.  The review suggests holding officers accountable for their poor performance reviews, preventing them from moving up the ranks. It also finds supervisors “don’t want to rock the boat” and prevent junior officers from getting promoted, the official said.

A US Representative has called for “something to be done” to makes sure officer evaluations are an “honest assessment.”  US House Rep. Ike Skelton says the problem is “a natural tendency not to want to say unpleasant things,” which mischaracterizes the situation.  As noted above, evaluators realize that if they are not effusive in their praise, their subordinates will not be promoted or rewarded.  Despite the potential existence of “imperfections,” few evaluators would think their subordinates’ careers needed to be ended by the inclusion of a negative comment.

The perception of a lack of accountability with regard to poor performance is an ongoing problem, as shown in a recent example in the Navy.  A ship Captain was relieved for “cruelty and maltreatment,” but permitted to continue on to an otherwise desirable new assignment at the Pentagon.

It remains to be seen if the evaluation system, which has years of institutional inertia behind it, will be meaningfully addressed in the wake of a massacre which, some say, may have been preventable had the evaluation reports been more honest.