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Self-criticism for self-improvement isn't a 'screw-up'

One of the Army's signal achievements in the post-Vietnam War institutional resurrection that began in the late 1970s was the establishment of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, in California's Mohave Desert.

Occupying more than 1,000 square miles of rugged desert and mountain terrain, and equipped with electronically instrumented maneuver areas and ranges, NTC furnished an unmatched venue for joint and combined arms training. But more than these advantages, what really made NTC the world's premier training facility were two human innovations.

One was the establishment of a permanently assigned and rigorously trained Opposing Force. Patterned after Soviet army formations, the OPFOR regiment was so formidable an adversary that units trained at NTC later claimed that real enemies such as the Iraqis in the 1991 Gulf War were easy foes by comparison.

The second innovation was more subtle. After every training exercise, unit personnel and NTC umpires came together to review the completed evolution in a lengthy, no-holds-barred after-action review (AAR), during which the unit's errors were dissected in minute detail. 

In a sort of benign version of communist self-criticism sessions, unit leaders themselves were expected to do most of the dissecting, admitting their mistakes and identifying ways to avoid them. AARs were brutally honest. To insure that they stayed that way, Army leaders made it clear that mistakes frankly acknowledged and corrected would not inflict career damage on the commander responsible.

That history came to mind this week when ABC News reported the results of a leaked State Department inspector general investigation of the July 2014 evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, under the lurid headline, "State Department Screwed Up Tripoli Escape, Won't Say How."

The article acknowledged that the evacuation itself, a 250-mile overland convoy to Tunisia, accompanied by Marines and protected by airborne assets including high-altitude surveillance platforms and two F-16s, was completed successfully. As with all such exercises, however, some things apparently failed to go as planned.

Like an NTC AAR, State's post-evacuation investigation presumably sought to identify those errors with a view to correcting them. To that end, however, sensationalist stories like ABC's aren't helpful, implying as they do some sort of culpable negligence on the part of those managing the evacuation. 

The ABC story doubtless reflected the politicized aftermath of the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. But whatever one's opinion of that event and the State Department's leadership at the time, treating every internal review intended to improve organizational performance as fodder for press criticism is a gilt-edged guarantee that lessons won't be learned nor needed improvement occur.

For that very reason, in the civilian world, most courts follow a rule of evidence ó Rule 407 ñ that deliberately precludes citing corrective measures taken to reduce the future chance of harm or injury as evidence of culpability for a prior condition. In effect, that privileges internal reviews leading to those measures. 

Similarly, in the world of medicine, most states, including Oklahoma, treat the so-called morbidity and mortality reviews routinely conducted after a patient death as privileged. As with Rule 407, that encourages hospitals to perform honest after-action reviews with a view to improving the quality of care.

Governmental agencies, of course, including the State Department and the armed forces, are taxpayer funded organizations with the political accountability that attaches to any public trust. For that reason, they're legitimately subject to greater scrutiny from the press and public.

Nevertheless, there's a world of difference between the potentially punitive investigations prompted by bureaucratic failures allegedly resulting from incompetence, negligence, and/or peculation, and the AAR-like self-scrutiny conducted by an agency to learn from its own mistakes. Treating the one like the other may increase audience share and excite politicians, but it's also an invitation to dishonest reporting and CYA.

In the case of the Tripoli evacuation, there's no dispute that, whatever errors of omission or commission might have occurred, none was sufficiently damaging to prevent a successful evacuation, nor is there any suggestion of malfeasance by those responsible for its planning and execution. 

Complaining that the State Department "screwed up" may make for an eye-catching headline. But absent evidence of culpable failure, it conveys no real meaning beyond the simple and ineluctable reality that, in the words of a familiar military adage, no plan survives unscathed its encounter with the enemy (that's why he's called the enemy). 

There are already enough of those in today's world without the press adding to their number. As taxpayers and citizens, we should desperately desire those who manage our defense and foreign affairs to be as self-critical as time and resources permit. If that is to happen, they must be insulated to some degree at least from public criticism for the very recognition and acknowledgment of error that alone guarantees learning.

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