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SecDef Austin’s Safety Stand Down

The new Pentagon chief offers tired non-solutions to a vague, supposed "extremism" problem in the ranks of America's military.

Newly installed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin addressed veteran participation in the Capitol riots of January 6 in remarks late last week. Citing a report of an Air Force veteran in possession of zip-ties with which to allegedly restrain or capture members of Congress, as well as other mentions of veteran involvement in the riots, Austin ordered something active and former military members have become all too familiar with: a “stand down.” 

Over the next 60 days the military will address “extremism” in the ranks. Austin had also touched on the issue during his confirmation hearings, saying he would “rid our ranks of racists and extremists” and create a “working environment free of hate, discrimination, and harassment.” Calling the problem “not insignificant,” the then nominee failed to quantify any further or give specifics on just how he would address the problem. 

The problem with this approach, mandating a stand down with vague specifics, is that it has become the knee-jerk reaction model for any problem or incident in the ranks, with only varying degrees of success. While some required programs and safety training have saved lives, the stand down has become a “one size fits all” tool that highlights a dangerous trend now common in the military: accepting mission failure as long as the required boxes are checked. The frequency of these training events squanders incredible amounts of time, the military’s most valuable resource.

A stand down is, generally speaking, a tactical pause in current training operations or exercises in response to an accident or a spike in misconduct, either on or off base. The format of the stand down is fairly straightforward. Members of the unit or outside civilian experts present material on the particular issue in a classroom-type setting. The day-to-day military operations of the unit cease and all focus is re-directed toward the stand down. Rather than fly their aircraft or go to the rifle range, service members jam into on-base theaters or auditoriums for the day. 

Secretary Austin’s stand down hasn’t been the only effort to address the alleged “extremism problem.” The Marine Corps issued a MARADMIN on January 12 to “restate the law and regulations governing prohibited protest activities.” The Inspector General’s office wasn’t far behind, releasing its own memorandum on January 14 that sought to evaluate the DoD’s efforts to identify and address “ideological extremism within the U.S. Armed Forces.”

Stand-down orders can be prompted by any number of things. Last October, following two naval aviation mishaps, one of which resulted in fatalities, the Navy ordered a one-day stand down to “improve operational risk management and risk mitigation.” Sometimes these pauses are planned months in advance to coincide with summer outdoor activities or travel during the holiday season. Prior to Memorial Day each year the “101 Days of Summer” briefs are held covering topics like heat related injuries, boating safety, swimming safety, firework and grill precautions, and sunburn. 

These planned and unplanned stand downs are in addition to yearly training requirements that have accumulated over the last few decades. A non-exhaustive list includes the Sexual Assault Prevention Program, cyber awareness training, suicide prevention, risk management, Anti-Terrorism training, and the violence prevention program. The amount of time invested in these monotonous programs year in and year out finally garnered the attention of the brass when then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis ordered a review of mandatory training in 2017 in response to complaints from the troops. Unfortunately, nothing changed. 

The rationale for this training is understandable: to increase safety and effectiveness of the force, both on and off duty. Take motorcycle accidents for example. In 2008, motorcycle accidents were killing more Marines than enemy fire in Iraq. Young veterans, fresh from surviving combat in the Middle East, were coming home feeling invincible. Paired with a lack of training and an aggressive attitude, the results were all too predictable. The service then instituted mandatory basic and advanced rider courses as well as safety gear for any Marine to be legally allowed to ride. The accident rate dropped dramatically. This was a success story. One great thing the aviation community does is have “lessons learned” training sessions, reviewing in detail the causal factors in mishaps and close calls to better educate aircrew.

However, after many years this response method has degenerated into a blunt tool that serves no purpose other than good, old-fashioned “CYA.” Take for instance the above-mentioned Violence Prevention Program. This training was instituted in response to the mass shooting at Fort Hood in 2009. Thing is, that shooting was a terrorist attack, not someone “going postal.” (The shooter, Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan shouted “Allahu akbar” as he opened fire). Somehow this led to an hour-long, yearly training computer module that defined the extreme risk category for violence as those who “exhibit a fascination with weapons or destructive power that is out of the ordinary.” Hopefully those who volunteered to fire machine guns and Hellfire missiles exhibit this tendency. After all, the military is supposed to be about applying violence.

This type of training doesn’t stop bad apples from doing bad things. In 2013 there was a murder-suicide at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. Several generals who were part of the investigation disagreed about culpability and whether any more measures could have been taken to prevent the tragedy. Nevertheless, the commanding officer of the base, Col. Kris Stillings, a highly respected leader, was relieved of his post. In a written statement Stillings was blunt, and completely correct. “For once, why don’t we call it what it is,” he wrote. “A young Marine murdered two people and killed himself. He is responsible.”

Sometimes this training, like the stand down ordered by Secretary Austin, comes from Congress or DoD leadership. In 2017, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) publicly flogged then-Marine Commandant General Robert Neller over a nude photo sharing scandal. Within a few days, military lawyers were giving briefs about what punishments Uncle Sam could throw at you for engaging in such behavior, Marines had to sign a form acknowledging their understanding, and the beaten commandant went on a speaking tour with all units across the Corps.

Veterans will attest that the most important feature of this training and the stand down is the roster. Some Marines would even joke that once you signed the roster you could duck out of the training and no one would care. Logging and recording these exercises has become the most important step in the process. This documentation then becomes the de facto legal evidence to exonerate command when transgressions occur. The executive officer of this writer’s last unit once joked that when a Marine is injured in a motorcycle accident the first thing higher command asks is not “Is he okay?”, but instead, “Was he current on his required motorcycle training and certifications?” Comedy aside, his point wasn’t exactly sarcastic; it was honest.

Part of the reason the military fell so in love with these methods is its mission-driven ethos. It sounds so great on paper to quantify progress and maintain a repeatable training schedule. But as noted above, if the process has devolved into just pencil-whipping rosters while basic military readiness lags or trends fail to improve, does it really matter if all the boxes are checked? This has become a serious issue across all the branches: acceptance of failure despite “mission success” on paper.

Since Secretary Austin left goals and execution up to his subordinates, this latest stand down will almost certainly follow the same script as every other one. Overpaid civilian contractors and experts will present fancy Powerpoint slides supplied by the ADL’s hate symbol encyclopedia. The troops will mindlessly click through some computer-based training as quickly as possible. Unit leadership will create 100 percent accountability participation rosters that will be promptly forwarded to higher command. And Austin will receive them and nod approvingly while maybe giving a press conference on the issue. The corporate media will gush with praise for these efforts to end white supremacy, etc., all the while ignoring American missiles and bombs that continue to incinerate non-white people all across the world.

Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.