Dirty Rifle, Dead Soldier

Many years ago when I did my military service, one of the many nasty surprises we got during our initial weeks of basic training was the ludicrous level of pendantry that was applied to personal appearance and cleanliness of the self, kit, and barracks. Each morning we were required to stand beside our beds with every item of issued equipmment laid out in a prescribed manner on top of a bed block – blankets and sheets folded in a certain manner to create a “block” of precise dimensions – with the rest of our kit stowed in the open locker, also arranged as instructed. For our part, we stood stock-still, staring straight ahead, showered, shaved, and wearing a uniform which was clean and pressed and the boots shining like mirrors. Preparing for inspection was particularly difficult given we had normally been lying in mud for the preceding day and half the night, our kit was a complete mess, and we were dog-tired.

If the slightest item appeared unsatisfactory to the NCOs carrying out the inspection – a smudge of dust on a beret, a cup handle pointing slightly in the wrong direction, a bed block half an inch longer than prescribed – the whole lot would be flung around the barracks room (and a lot tossed outside as well) by an NCO who would bawl profanities in your ear and tell you that you were absolutely the very worst example of a male human being he’d ever seen.  During this onslaught you were to remain stony-faced and silent, and respond only in the affirmative.  Any deviation from this resulted in runs, press-ups, collecting large rocks from distant hillsides, and any number of other physical punishments.  Nobody passed the inspection: the NCOs would find something wrong with everybody’s turnout without exception, and by the end of the inspection we’d have two minutes to get all our kit back to our own areas before being told to fall out on the road outside – for a punishment run, for failing inspection.

This went on for a few weeks until we had gotten our standards up to the point that the NCOs couldn’t find any reason to fail anyone.  So they would point to an invisible smudge of dirt on the underside of a locker, fail the whole barrack room en masse, and fling kit everywhere.  I remember being told to run around the building barking “Woof! Woof! I’m a guard dog!” into my steel mug as a punishment for something or other.  Eventually the inspections slackened off and they had us doing more productive exercises, but the standards remained.

At the beginning nobody could see the point of it all.  We were supposed to be infantry soldiers, so who cared if our boots were not shiny and our bed blocks not the right size?  By the end of basic training we all knew why.  Standards are important in the army: if your rifle is not kept clean it will not fire when you need it.  If your mess kit is not kept clean you will get food poisoning and be out of service.  If your personal hygiene is not kept up to scratch, you will get foot rot and not be able to march.

The army instructors knew that if high standards are not applied everywhere, standards will drop in the areas that matter the most.  If a soldier looks scruffy then he is almost certainly ill-disciplined, will have a dirty rifle, and will likely be demoralised (unless he is actually in combat, and then he is expected to keep his rifle clean and himself as much as he can, which is usually not very much).  But it is the discipline he had drilled into him in basic training that will keep him functioning in combat.  This is why the army go bananas about things like shiny boots, creases in trousers, and punctuality.  It is not that these things matter per se, but that these things are indicators of standards that are less visible – such as morale and self-discipline. If well trained, a soldier will stay on top of the small things as he understands their importance to the big things.

A similar thing applies in civilian life.  If a sales rep looks like a bag of shit, chances are his product is as well.  If a brochure contains spelling mistakes, the product on offer is unlikely to be worth buying.  Moving closer to the oil business, if somebody hasn’t bothered making sure the font type or text justification is consistent in a report then he probably didn’t spend much time checking the important content either. A manager who doesn’t feel the need to use capitals or punctuation in his emails probably applies the same carefree attitude to things like budgets and deliverables.  And you sure as hell wouldn’t want somebody who can’t even manage to deliver a presentation within the allotted time to be responsible for delivering a complex project on schedule.

I say all this with reference to my last post, in which I told of an oil company representative who took 45 minutes to deliver a 30 minute presentation which itself started 10 minutes late and was full of spelling mistakes.  The central message of the presentation was that the financial performance of the company is looking bad in 2014 and worse in 2015.  Is anyone surprised?  The efficiency of an oil company is largely dependent on getting technical data accurately evaluated and projects delivered on time and within budget.  If a senior manager is happy to present in such a piss-poor manner, then what does that say about the standards in other areas?

Like a soldier’s dirty boots, it says everything.


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