No Place In Today's Air Force For Potemkin Villages

  • Published
  • By Maj. Herb Meadows
  • 71st Security Forces Squadron commander
Historically, the term "Potemkin Village" has been used to describe the purported, fake village settlements erected at the direction of Russian minister Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin to mislead and at the same time make an impression on Catherine II during her tour of the Crimea in 1787.

Legend has it that Potemkin, who successfully led the Crimean military campaign, directed the construction and use of hollow facades of villages to be proudly displayed along the banks of the Dniper River. As the empress and her entourage traveled from one village to the next, it would appear that her newly acquired land and villages were significantly more robust and industrious than they actually were. In fact, many of Potemkin's political rivals also claimed that entire village populations and accompanying livestock were strategically and covertly placed ahead of the empress' s party and smartly staged within these villages to make each town's number count appear robust.

Of course this all sounds like the makings of a really bad "Monty Python" skit from the '70s, and indeed most modern historians now consider the extraordinary tales of Potemkin's deceit to be a far stretch at best and quite possibly just malicious rumors spread by his many opponents at the time. We do know that Potemkin directed peasants to make the riverfront presentable prior to Catherine's arrival to the region but the construction of the elaborate fake settlements and the migrating "rent-a-crowds" is mostly fiction.

Today, the term "Potemkin village" is still used mostly in a political context to mean any hollow or false construct, physical or figurative, meant to hide an undesirable or potentially damaging situation. You may remember the term used to describe the old Soviet Union while hosting foreign visitors. That government was accused of taking visitors, who were normally sympathetic to their political cause, to only a select number of premiere and showcased villages, schools, factories and neighborhoods, presenting them as the status quo rather than the exception. Of course it was almost impossible for visitors to see other comparative examples in the country at that time.

In today's news, we've seen top military leaders held accountable for allowing troubling "Potemkin-like" management practices to develop and thrive within their units or organizations. The recent investigation into tattered and unsanitary conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center outpatient care facilities can serve as a valuable leadership study for military and civilian managers at every level.

I'm certain that well publicized incident forced leaders throughout the Department of Defense and elsewhere to reflect on the organizational and functional health of their respective units or sections: checklists are developed for a reason, are my folks following them? Are self assessment reports factual and reflect validated program compliance or do the dirty details mysteriously disappear before they reach my desk? Do unit personnel report minor or major equipment discrepancies in a timely manner? Are safety hazards covered up or hidden from leadership during walk-arounds or inspections? Are inventory or accountability numbers padded? Are procedures accomplished when no is looking and reported accordingly?

Obviously, those questions should be satisfactorily answered or resolved by well- trained personnel who take Air Force core values seriously and are energized to take care of the government's business in a professional manner on a daily basis.

As commander of a security forces squadron in the northern tier, I had the opportunity to give our new wing commander a one-hour squadron tour. Unfortunately, the unit inherited dilapidated, Strategic Air Command-era facilities that required significant repairs and remodeling. I made it a point to show the boss each leak in the ceiling, hole in the wall and cyclical plumbing issue in each facility. Long story short, within two months, the unit received the funds needed to complete a respectable remodeling product.

Ensuring our organizations never develop or accept modern day "Potemkin Programs" or "Potemkin Practices" is a constant challenge and should serve as a professional motivator for all of us. The mission depends on it and our Airmen will ultimately succeed because of it.