The following is a repost of a previously written blog dated September 1, 2010:
I'm quickly realizing that the reason soldiers get the stereotype of being dumb is because many times they're denied the opportunity to be anything else.
Too many times, I've heard the phrase "If you don't know something, just ask." That question should be followed quickly with "Just don't ask me a question that begins with 'why'. The job I do in the Army presents a HUGE learning curve for me. Not only am I new to the Army, but I'm working mainly with people who are much, much more familiar with the tasks, processes, and knowledge associated with years of experience. While there are good days and bad days, most of my frustration stems from a lack of understanding of the reasons WHY things are the way they are.
You can give a soldier an M16, tell him to aim at a target, and he'll pull the trigger. But what happens when his weapon jams? If he doesn't know why the weapon works the way it does or what's causing the issue, he's not going to know how to fix the problem!
There are two approaches to this situation from the trainer's perspective: 1) Tell the soldier what to do next, or 2) teach the soldier how the weapon works in the first place (essentially telling him WHY the weapon works). Now, which approach do you think would work best? I submit that a deeper understanding will always foster creative thinking, faster arrival at solutions, more reliable retention of those solutions, and in the case of the Army, very possibly prevent unnecessary loss of life.
In BCT, I was quickly taught how to perform remedial action on a malfunctioning M16. What I was not taught until much later was WHY I was doing it. I actually remember having to ask WHY I had to drop the magazine before recycling the chamber!
Today, in my job, I am very interested in what I do. I like working in communications. However, many times, when I try to gain a deeper understanding of WHY the communications network is the way it is, I am very often met with replies similar to "Oh, don't worry about that. All you need to know is this..." And yet, I am hypocritically encouraged that "If you don't know something, just ask!"
It is the "why" questions that often separate intellects from troglodytes. And this is why many soldiers (who may or may not have already been the dumb brutes that some people think they are) inevitably turn into the stereotypical know-nothings that I fear I will someday become, should I remain in the Army; the ones that actually want to know WHY things are the way they are, are shut down, ridiculed, and shunned from the "high speed" soldier cliques.
Now, in an extreme sense, of course I can't expect to know EVERYTHING about the Army. Even the President doesn't know everything about what and WHY the Army's doing everything it's doing. There's an unavoidable need for security with much of the Army's overall objectives. To quote Presidential Candidate John McCain in the Presidential Debates: "Maybe, but you don't say that out loud!"
But I don't ask questions to which I know I'm not entitled the answer, or at least I try not to.
I'm not talking about those situations though. I'm referring to the underlying denial of the opportunity to pursue a deeper understanding of one's own job in the Army. I spoke with an NCO who recently told me that if he doesn't know the answer to a question, he'd find out and let me know. Unfortunately, he's subscribed to the idea that if it doesn't help you complete the task at hand, it's not worth asking or investigating.
There's a reason that every time I've written the word WHY in this essay I've done so in all CAPS. It's to emphasize my frustration, petition, and I dare say, demand that other soldiers in the Army require a better reason why their superiors deny them the expansion of their own knowledge.
In closing, I have four suspicions as to why this problem exists:
First, there's the cop-out reason that the inquiring soldier is on a need-to-know basis and doesn't need to know. This is a cheap, cowardly response that should not be shared or propagated by anyone who calls him/herself a leader of soldiers.
Second, the reason some supervisors don't answer these questions from their inferiors is because THEY DON'T EVEN KNOW THE ANSWER. This is probably due to the fact that THEIR superiors didn't know either, and never taught them. This is self-evident proof that this problem is self-sustaining and self-propagating. All I have to say to that is danger Will Robinson, danger.
Third, because some leaders are afraid that if someone appears to be questioning the way things are done, that they might actually come under review and (Allah help us,) THINGS MIGHT CHANGE!!!!!!
Lastly, the reason these questions are not answered might be because the ultimate end to the path of asking WHY questions will lead the inquirer to discover that (yes, I'm going to say it), the Army does not have the answers to everything. No, the Army is not the end-all source of knowledge and truth in the universe.
For your own sake and that of your sanity and intelligence, please assist me in producing an unrelenting intolerance of the refusal to answer your WHY questions. Otherwise, you're just a replaceable asset to the war machine, and you, the inquirer will have to live with your decisions.
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