Monday, January 4, 2016

I slept with the real enemy for years

I spent 15 years of my life working for the US Department of Defense, 8 years as a civilian employee of the US Army, and the final 7 for defense contractors.  I do not miss it.  Looking back, though, I sometimes ask myself "what was so bad about it?  It certainly paid well."

Then I remember incidents like the following.

In the late 1990's my company was preparing a bid (as the prime contractor) for a multi-year contract to provide the information technology support for a large military installation (Redstone Arsenal, Alabama).  It was a huge contract, and the competition was truly brutal.  Our company "teamed" with a major Defense Department information technology contractor, Harris Data of Melbourne, Florida, to prepare our contract proposal.  The preparation of the proposal, which took the better part of a year, was conducted in a "secret" facility that was well guarded against espionage.  Part of the secrecy surrounded the exact makeup of the proposal team, and what types of people were flown in by Harris Data to work on it (most were technical writers, as I recall).  At the facility where we worked on the bid proposal, they even posted a lookout who watched the parking lot from an upstairs window, and described anyone who approached the building.  It was very serious business.

Two of my co-workers were having lunch with friends of theirs who just happened to work for one of our company's competitors for the contract.  A senior management official from our company approached their table at the restaurant and said to them, "You are sleeping with the enemy" and then walked away.  Several days later, on the military post, federal marshals with military police escorts came to the offices of these workers and made them stand in the hallway while their computers were searched.  They were fired on the spot for having compromising material on their workstations.  What "compromising material"?  Who knows?  Who cares?  They weren't fired for anything they did wrong.  They were fired because they were considered a risk to our company's chances at that base support contract.  And they were fired in a manner which would make it impossible for them to go to work for the "enemy," indeed, to work for any company on Redstone Arsenal.  The intent was not must to relieve them of their jobs, but to destroy their careers.  And to deliver this message all of us who remained: "And let that be a lesson to the rest of you!"  They were fired to make the rest of us cower in fear. It was psychological. We were made to feel like our own jobs, our careers, hung in the balance.  We were made to know our place, and to keep silent and remain submissive.  And it worked.  At least for most of the people.

Even now, years later, I sometimes look back and wonder, What was so bad about that, really?  How did it really affect me, personally?   All I had to do was to go along, to remain silent, to be careful who I chose to be friends with, to express nothing but the right political opinions, to look the other way when I was aware of any wrong-doing.   Hey, I could've done it; I could've retired comfortably, early, in one of those big brick south Huntsville Alabama homes, with an in-ground swimming pool and big redwood deck.  And what was so wrong with that?

Most people I knew had absolutely no problem with doing any of that.  It simplified life.  It made things black and white.  Do what you are told and hold no controversial opinion of your own.  We saw, very well indeed in 2002, how that dominated the thinking of most Americans.

The only problem was, I couldn't do any of those things and hold my head high.  I couldn't admit to myself for a very long time that submission and fear were the real keys to my own success.  Not my ability or my knowledge or my intelligence.  To admit that fact, I'd have to admit to myself that I made a career out of being weak.  And I had to admit, I was also "sleeping with the enemy." Because, for most of those years, I worked with and for people I could not respect and many I honestly detested for their lack of courage, or true adherence to principle.  For the most part, they weren't "bad people" at all.  They were, like most people are, governed by their own personal interest and the advantages of the moment.

I'm not saying anything at all about the Department of Defense, or its culture, ok?  I'm saying something about people who thrive in that culture. In the world's eyes, many of them would I believe, be considered "successful."  Yet, I pity them.