When Beating Someone Up Saves Him

Bottom Line Up Front: As men, we must understand justice; how to deal it out, but equally important, how to accept it. Whether a physical beating of our body or a professional beating of our pride, justice deserves our attention. Understanding justice requires clarity. Administering justice requires appreciation for the human element.

“You need not be afraid, you’ll get justice here.”

In Ken Burns’ excellent series, “The Civil War”, we’re told about Confederate General Robert E. Lee. A young man brought before Lee for some infraction of the rules was trembling. Lee said, "You need not be afraid, you'll get justice here," The young man said, "I know it, General, that's what I'm scared of." Justice is tricky; we need it and it scares us.

Breakfast with the Colonel, 1983: “When is it ok to beat up soldiers?”

Upon assignment in Germany to the 2d Armored Division in 1983, I was invited to attend breakfast with the Assistant Division Commander (ADC). I thought I was the only one invited, but was relieved to learn the ADC’s breakfast was his monthly chance to meet with his subordinate leaders. One month it was Lieutenants, another it was Staff Sergeants, another it was Majors.

This time it was breakfast with Lieutenants like me. The ADC was a likeable Colonel from the Midwest with a great sense of humor, but he was a tough, no-nonsense veteran. Our topic of discussion was, “When is it OK to beat up soldiers?”

Imagine the scene. An Army mess hall on a German kaserne at the beginning of the Reagan build-up. Idealistic, confident Lieutenants meeting with a Colonel asking us when to beat up soldiers.

Formal versus informal operations in any organization.

In all large organizations there are formal and informal operations. Formal information flow is the meeting. Informal information flow is before and after the meeting. Formal discipline is the HR action. If a situation has reached the point where you’re being formally notified in writing, it’s most likely irreversible. Formal discipline is tough and rigid. Informal discipline is the more intricate interaction between subordinate and senior on a day to day basis. More powerful, more effective, more flexible.

In the Army in 1983 formal discipline was written counseling statements and the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice). Informal discipline was what the ADC was telling us about. In almost all cases informal operations are better for everyone. Formal operations—discipline, security, information flow—are skewed toward the institution, but the real way to get things done is informal.

This may sound like oriental philosophy, but in most companies you want to rise above it even while within it, work around it even while within it and work within it without compromising your integrity as a man. It’s tough to do but very gratifying and effective. Paradoxically, both you and it will be strengthened if you master the informal processes because they rely on the human element, not the bureaucratic.

Informal operations in large organizations can be high risk and are usually deniable because they’re hard to define and have the benefit of being ambiguous. They’re not for the faint of heart or the stupid, are more art than science and are the tool of masterful leaders. They can go bad in a big way as in the classic movie, “A Few Good Men.” However, they are the lifeblood of human relations. If we master them we triumph and the institution benefits, too.

So, the question on a summer morning in 1983 in that clean, well organized Army Mess Hall in Northern Germany was, “When is it OK to beat up soldiers?” Does this question demonstrate a support for Justice? Let’s see.

“First, make sure he’s not a dirt bag.”

Everything we learned that morning surprised us. The ADC’s reasoning was simple; if the solider is a dirt bag, get him out of the Army. In 1983 all of the U.S. Armed Forces—Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force—were re-building after the difficult 1970s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Our good leaders were weary. So, pre-requisite number one in this leadership example was to ensure the soldier was worth informal discipline.

“Second, make sure nobody sees you beat him up.”

I was too inexperienced in 1983 to understand that it is very rare—and almost always a mistake—for an officer to put his hands on a soldier. Physical contact is better practiced by the Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs), in a unit. Beating up a soldier is informal discipline and not done lightly. All discipline has to be for a specific, discrete purpose and is ultimately for the soldier’s benefit.

As Vito Corleone says to Tom Hagen in “The Godfather” after Corleone has decided to do violence for a man whose daughter has been beaten by men who went free for the crime, “Give this to, uh, Clemenza. I want reliable people, people who aren't going to be carried away. After all, we're not murderers…”

When you seize the initiative and have the boldness (or desperation) to resort to drastic informal operations, you have to be discreet and restrained. You may need to be secretive.

In this case we had already laid out that if a good NCO was putting his hands on the soldier and risking his stripes (meaning the sergeant was putting his career at risk), it had better be for a good reason. The soldier had better be worth saving. As the officer involved (indeed if you even knew about this dark deed), you had to be careful who you allowed to do the deed. It required reliable men who would not get carried away by emotion.

“Third, make sure that whoever is chosen to beat up the soldier can, in fact, beat him up.”

We received this admonition with laughter because let’s face it, it’s funny. In the ideal scenario two or three NCOs would corner the soldier. They’d explain—roughly-- why he was about to get a beating, but more likely than not he knew full well it was coming and likely knew he deserved it. Then, one or two NCOs would use the minimum force necessary while the other NCO made sure nobody came upon them during the administration of justice. The beating would be limited, would cause pain but not damage, and would be delivered as professionally as possible so there’d be no lingering bad feelings. And it all had to take place in a structured environment the overall integrity of which had to be clear to everyone.

The ADC painted the vivid picture of an NCO taking a soldier out behind the motor pool to deliver justice only to find, much to his own embarrassment and professional disgrace, that the soldier was tougher, smarter, more handy with his fists than the sergeant or sergeants. In those cases the beating was administered to the leadership. Imagine a bloodied NCO racing out from behind a tank with a soldier chasing him. There are lessons for the unit and the command chain there too, but they’re different lessons, obviously.

Soldier to the young Captain, 1987: “Sir, if an NCO had beat me up, I wouldn’t be going to prison.”

Some years later as a Captain I was privileged to command an Armored Cav Troop at the 3rd Cav at Fort Bliss, Texas. Some of my soldiers dealt drugs. I remember cocaine specifically. One of the soldiers involved was sent to the U.S. Army Disciplinary Barracks, federal prison, at Fort Leavenworth. He had been a very good soldier before getting involved with a very bad crowd. He came to see me the day he was being transferred to prison because I had played a role in his sentencing. He was accepting his punishment, his justice, with great dignity and came to say goodbye before he left the Troop. The Army had changed a lot in the few years that had passed since I was a 2LT. NCOs were less inclined to use violence to discipline soldiers. They had become more professionalized.

I told this young soldier on his way to prison, “Gone are the days when an NCO is going to risk his career by beating you up. There was a time when the Army said, ‘Come in and we will make a man of you.’ Now we say, ‘Come in the Army and we will help you make a man of yourself.’”

That good soldier’s response remains with me to this day. He said,

“Sir, if an NCO had beat me up I wouldn’t be going to prison.”

Fairness is treating everyone differently.

As a young father I used to believe that fairness meant treating everyone the same. Experience has taught me is that, in fact, if we are in a position as fathers, commanders, managers or owners of companies to administer Justice, the essence of fairness is taking into consideration each individual’s specific set of circumstances. To do that we have to get our hands dirty and learn what our people do, what tough calls they have to make and what moral dilemmas they may have to face. We have to know if they are good employees and worth risking our own reputations for. We have to know if we are tougher than they are. We have to know whether or not we have the courage and the prudence to sit in judgment. The answers to all of these questions will help us to be both just and to accept others treating us justly when we have erred.

Call to Action: Ask yourself today (and write the answers down in as great detail as you can)—“When was the last time I administered justice? Was I fair? When was the last time I received justice? Did I respond with dignity?”