If you’re going to assign a high-visibility project to a fool, put minders in place to keep the fool from doing something daft. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert relates a story involving fools, foolishness and the death of children’s innocence.
If you’ve ever asked yourself ‘Am I working for an irredeemably dysfunctional company?’ the surest possible evidence supporting a yes answer is getting ordered to make a room full of small children cry. This really happened to me. I promise to tell you the entire tale, right after I explain the title allusion.
Last week, I referenced James Cain’s classic film noir murder-plot-gone-wrong story The Postman Always Rings Twice. Cain’s follow-up novella to Postman was another dark murder-and-conspiracy story called Double Indemnity. After publishing it serially in Liberty magazine in 1935, Cain tried shopping it around Hollywood. While the studios loved it, the censors intervened, declaring, ‘The general low tone and sordid flavor of this story makes it, in our judgment, thoroughly unacceptable for screen presentation before mixed audiences in the theater.’ Eight years later, after re-publishing it in book form, Paramount Studios took a chance on Cain’s story and pushed the bounds of what American censors would allow. The result was a classic noir film that was nominated for seven Academy Awards.
Without spoiling the story, it’s clear why the censors were aghast at the thought of bringing Cain’s dark tale to the screen. The protagonists were all black-hearted scoundrels, but not the sort of cartoonish villains that movie audiences were used to. Instead of cackling, mustache-twirling caricatures, these were vain, spiteful, believable people whose greed, lust, fear and hate insinuated that anyone could fall into such depraved criminality. There was no square-jawed hero, and the villains’ fates were tragic – not poetic. That’s why the studio hired experienced screenwriters to re-work the story, and the result was a far better product than Cain’s original novella had been.
I know this may seem weird. The reason I’m introducing the title allusion first because I want you to keep it mind as I tell my tale. First, it’s important to understand that Cain’s story was considered shocking – something that audience of the time weren’t accustomed to, and might find repugnant. Second, the plot of Indemnity involved lots of lying that led inexorably to the final tragic conclusion. Lastly, the censors had a point: Cain’s story probably would have shocked audiences.
Back to the crying children, then. This story happened back when I was still a military officer. One of our unit’s ambitious political climbers – we’ll call her Moira  – got the bright idea to host a ‘mock deployment’ for our unit members’ children. She’d seen an video of this programme being implemented at a nearby base. The footage showed wee tots running around hangers and climbing on trucks with painted faces and soldier costumes while laughing. The event organizers claimed that the day-long event was a huge hit with both spouses and children, because the kids got to pretend that they were going to work with their military parent. Moira figured that copying the other unit’s event would net her some nationwide positive exposure, which she could then parlay into a higher-paid position at a higher level. She didn’t actually care about kids or families; just about herself.
I got involved when my boss Bob volunteered me to help. He really didn’t care about the event itself; he enjoyed forcing me to work with Moira because he knew it annoyed me. I dutifuly contacted Moira and asked her what it was that I’d been volunteered for. She told me that I was to oversee a few activity stations, and also present the kiddies with their ‘rules of engagement’.
If you’re not familiar with the term, let me quote the Wikipedia definition: ‘Rules of engagement (ROE) are rules or directives to military forces (including individuals) that define the circumstances, conditions, degree and manner in which the use of force, or actions which might be construed as provocative, may be applied. They provide authorization for and/or limits on, among other things, the use of force and the employment of certain specific capabilities.’
In a real military deployment, one of the briefings that the squaddies receive before flying over to Country X is what the rules and expectations are for the use of lethal force once they land. The reason this is done before embarking is that expeditionary forces can get dropped right smack into the middle of a firefight upon landing. Commanders need to be sure that every gunfighter on the plane knows the rules regarding using their weapons before they have to defend themselves.
With that for context, the whole idea of briefing the ROE for a fake deployment to a foreign Theatre of Operations to a bunch of small children seemed utterly ridiculous. I asked Moira what she really wanted. Surely she didn’t want to do something grimly serious that violated the entire tone of the lighthearted event. Moira scoffed at me and said, ‘We always brief an ROE when our unit deploys!’
‘Yes,’ I said through gritted teeth. ‘But we also send real fighting men to war with real bullets, and we’re certainly not giving small children actual weapons or ammunition. Therefore, I submit that it’s wildly inappropriate to brief real engagement parameters to small *£&$ children!’
Moira waved her hand dismissively and walked away.
For context’s sake, I outranked Moira by an obscene margin. Her contempt towards me was blatantly insubordinate and would normally constitute grounds for disciplinary action. Moira got away with it because she wasn’t in my chain of command, and because my boss Bob refused to act. Bob was a sadist, through-and-through, and took great pleasure in winding me up – even by proxy.
During the next event planning meeting, I asked Moira again (in front of a room full of witnesses) for clarification. We had different ROEs for squaddies deploying to Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Italy, Spain, I said… Which one, specifically, did she want briefed to the children? Moira contemptuously dismissed me again, saying only, ‘It doesn’t matter. Just brief it.’
Seething, I went back to my office and drafted a formal email to Moira and her assistant organizer. I explained that I was deeply uncomfortable briefing violent, adult content to small children and advised that I thought this was a spectacularly bad idea. Neither of them responded, which wasn’t terribly surprising. By ignoring me, Moira demonstrated that I was beneath her notice.
On the day of the event, I printed a copy of the 1992 ROE for the Somalia deployment because it was the least explicit example I could find. When Moira made her rounds of the stations, I offered it to her and asked her again if she wanted me to brief anything other than exactly what was written on the page. Moira refused to look at it, repeated her favourite condescending gesture and imperiously drifted away to the back of the chamber to chat with her mates.
Right, then. I thought. Here we go…
The programme kicked off with a welcome speech and a slideshow, followed by a weather report and some other innocuous yammering. The older kiddies obviously wanted to go play with the military toys and clamber all over the vehicles, while the younger ones seemed completely flummoxed by everything. Us adults were just wasting our time… and then it was my turn.
‘Good morning, troopers!’ I roared, striding onto center stage. ‘These are your rules of engagement for Operation SPARKLY PONYTIME.’  I knew how to capture a crowd’s attention – by the time I reached the end of the first sentence, I had a hundred pairs of pint-sized eyeballs locked on me.
‘Once your aircraft lands in the operational area, be aware that you have the right to take appropriate action to defend yourself and your unit.’
Some of the older children glanced at the kids to either side of them to see if anyone else knew how to react properly to this announcement. All of the fidgeting and giggling in the room stopped.
‘Hostile fire may be returned effectively and promptly to stop a hostile act!’
In the back of the chamber, Moira stopped gossiping with her assistant and started paying attention to the disaster unfolding in front of her.
‘When U.S. forces are attacked by unarmed hostile elements, mobs and/or rioters, U.S. forces should use the minimum force necessary under the circumstances and proportional to the threat!’
Moira finally clued in, face contorted in silent, impotent rage, as I finished briefing the rest of the list. You could have heard a pin drop when I walked off-stage. In the back of the room, one little girl started to cry. Then another. Then another… Lower lips were trembling all across the room. I found out later that several of the kiddies had burst into tears on the bus ride taking them to the static display aircraft. I was told that one kid plaintively asked her escort if they were really being shipped off to war, because she wasn’t allowed to touch a firearm…
A half-hour later, Moira came storming into my unit’s outdoor station and demanded to know why I’d ruined her opening. I blandly pointed out that I’d been asking her for weeks what she wanted said, and that she’d consistently refused to answer me. If she didn’t like it, what did actually want?
‘You know!’ Moira stammered. ‘Things like “Let’s all have fun!” and “take a friend when you go potty”.’
‘Hmm…’ I said, trying to remain civil. ‘If that’s what you wanted, then why the *£&$ didn’t you SAY SO when I asked you what you wanted?!’
‘But… but… but… everyone knows that…’
I gave Moira my iciest glare. ‘If I’d known that,’ I hissed, ‘then why did I keep asking you what you meant?’
It was like talking to a wall. Moira sputtered and waved, confused and angry that I hadn’t magically read her empty mind. 
Just in case the tie in to the title wasn’t obvious, here’s what I’m on about: the cinema censors who suspected that Cain’s novella was too disturbing to show contemporary audiences had a point. His story was based on a real-life sordid murder plot. At the time, audiences weren’t accustomed to seeing dark portrayals of real-life evil when they went to the movies. It was highly probable that some audience members would be shocked and horrified by the story. People going to the movies for some harmless diversion might find their world views changed by the violent subject matter.
Along those lines, the parents who dragged their tots to the base for Operation FLUFFY KITTIES  were likely expecting some mindless, harmless, G-rated diversion. Most probably expected that their kids would walk away under the impression that daddy dressed up like a plastic fern every day in order to play on a really expensive playground. Most parents weren’t expecting to have to explain to their spawn that daddy was in the business of state-sponsored mechanized mass murder, and that every time daddy put on his ‘heavy hat’, he might wind up screaming for his mommy while he bled out in a ditch somewhere far, far away. That’s some rather grim content for a wee one to process.
The thing is, Paramount knew what they were doing when they fought the censors to bring Double Indemnity to theatres. They realized that they had a gripping story, and that the style of telling it would leave audiences hungry for more. They were right. Indemnity helped launch the film noir genre. Paramount gambled and won. That being said, Paramount Studios took that action deliberately, based on a very shrewd understanding of what they were getting themselves into. Moira, on the other hand, never had any intention of forcing a bunch of little kids to confront their parents’ mortality. Even though that realization had to happen to each kid eventually, the possibility of it happening at her event never crossed Moira’s mind. She just wanted to throw a party and win herself a promotion. She never once stopped to consider what lessons the kids were taking away from the experience, or what dark places their accidental discoveries might unlock.
Wiser heads would have ditched the ‘realistic’ activities in favour of a bounce house and maybe a petting zoo. Much wiser heads would have considered what messages the tots were likely to take away from. Moreover, our senior leaders should never have given over control over such an event to a flighty project manager with zero communication skills. Moira wasn’t some new hire; she had already earned a reputation for incompetence in everything that she touched. The first time that someone suggested letting Moira design and run an event for impressionable children, at least one sane colonel should have insisted on putting control measures in place to ensure that Moira didn’t veer out of bounds.
Most everyone else gets this. Paramount and the producer that brought Cain’s story to film got it. They added experienced writers to tweak Cain’s early script in order to ensure that the final product would pass the censor’s scrutiny. It’s hard to believe that a highly conservative military unit would possess less self-awareness and a lower standard for risk tolerance than ‘liberal’ Hollywood, but there you are. The film censors were right when they argued that real life is often stranger and more vulgar than fiction… and that daft content decisions can make little kids cry.
 Because according to some online name lookups, ‘Moira’ supposedly means ‘sea of bitterness or sorrow’, which fits her character perfectly.
 I don’t remember the actual fake mission name for the event, but it was something equally insipid.
 I’d say that we never got on well after that debacle, but truth be told we never got along at all. Moira was a pretentious, scheming weasel and I had no use for her.
 Or whatever it really was. See .
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.