The First Lady recently visited Al Udeid Air Base, the Air Force’s bloated salt mine in Qatar where “war” and “fun” are both treated as four-letter words.
The USAF’s public affairs team at Al Udeid didn’t cover the visit or Mrs. Obama’s remarks (although we did). They also chose, perhaps wisely, to forego coverage of some of Conan O’Brien’s comedy routine, which stood in clear violation of the provisions of Air Force Instruction 1-1. Airmen applauding some of the more inappropriate material might well have stood in violation of Gen. Welsh’s standing policy:
“We all know 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on and off-duty, Airmen have signed up to live up to Air Force Standards and Core Values. Through all the different ways in which Airmen communicate and interact, respect and dignity are essential.”
Instead of discussing these other issues, PA did what PA does best: they covered themselves, rushing to press a fawning and banal slab of propaganda focused on how cool it was that the AFCENT Band got to play not for the habitually morose denizens of Al Udeid … but for Conan, who called them “one of the best bands” he’d ever heard. Alight with such praise from a popular comic, who needs the approval of fellow airmen?
Just to flag something that is not immediately obvious to most: bands are part of the Air Force’s public affairs (PA) community. The airmen who serve in PA and those who strum, croon, and trumpet as part of its dozen-band legion of musicians are all working for the same functional boss, Brig. Gen. Kathleen Cook, who began her career in an Air Force band. Her tenure as the service’s chief publicist has given bands unprecedented prominence in the Air Force story, to the point that many, myself included, feel that stories celebrating music have inappropriately overshadowed stories about airmen performing the service’s core missions.
All of which is to say that anytime you see a story written by PA about a band, you should consider that there’s something unseemly and incestuous about it. These stories are nothing more than cronyist back-scratching, with the added benefit of currying favor with the PA boss while avoiding the more difficult task of reporting on the less glamorous business of making airpower happen.
The issue was captured almost perfectly, if unwittingly, in PA’s wayward coverage:
“Our job is to increase other people’s morale,” said [Senior Airman Melissa] Lackore. “It was great to be a part of something that boosted our morale as well.”
So we have a story written by PA about PA that boosts PA’s morale by discussing how PA had its morale boosted while boosting the morale of others. OSUM. Now let’s snap a selfie.
But there’s just one problem: no evidence supports the claim that the band boosted anyone else’s morale in this instance.
JQP obtained several video clips of the band’s performance, which was apparently the centerpiece of a 2.5-hour quasi-mandatory circus preceding the First Lady’s appearance. Shops were cleared out, facilities were shuttered, and airmen were told that their attendance at Memorial Plaza was expected. Here’s a representative sample of what they endured:
Note how the band is going nuts on stage, apparently having a blast. Note how the crowd is basically catatonic. It’s nice when the things done to raise the morale of others also raise your own morale. It’s not as nice when your morale is raised so much you don’t even notice that your Pat Benatar rendition has basically hypnotized an audience that would probably be somewhere else if it could be.
Now, none of this is meant to savage the wonderful performers of the AFCENT Band. They made friends with Conan and Grace Potter and got to close out their desert tour on a high note (pun). No one should begrudge them any of that. They’re just doing their jobs. The same can be said for PA personnel in the trenches, who are told what they’ll cover and how they’ll go about doing so.
But the leadership at Al Udeid and across the Air Force more generally should take a note (pun). Forcing people to attend band performances alienates them from the band. Not because they’re millennials or because they’re too salty, but because it’s human nature to resist something that has official approval, especially when you don’t happen to enjoy it. Would playing something other than Pat Benatar help? Perhaps. But when your musical selections must come from a canon consistent with the strictures of AFI 1-1 and your stage dress consists of the worst utility uniform in service history, you might not be capable of giving the audience anything it would actually enjoy.
But what alienates airmen even more in the current context is how PA priorities and band hijinks reflect a lack of focus on the mission. PA coverage — and the nascent obsession on bands specifically — has become painfully symptomatic of a focus problem. As long as PA is permitted (or directed) to avoid telling the Air Force story, intra-service communication will remain muddled and confused, as senior officials continue to use their propaganda service to avoid confronting the difficult stories that are an inescapable feature of current service life.
Bands provide a cool message, one that is undeniably positive and uplifting in its essence. They also represent the trappings of a professionalized military, signaling that despite any problems, all must be basically well. But there comes a point where telling people water isn’t wet no longer uplifts. When they recognize that their problems aren’t getting addressed because no one is talking about them, they begin to resent efforts to drown out essential truth with uplifting musical arrangements and stories about how uplifting the musical arrangements were.
The fact that AFCENT PA’s first story after Mrs. Obama’s Al Udeid visit didn’t cover Mrs. Obama is somewhere between bizarre and unprofessional. The fact it was just another example of PA obsessing over itself is symptomatic of the need for a community overhaul. That overhaul should probably include a new boss who is less infatuated with a narrow and peripheral sliver of the Air Force … and it should definitely include more commitment to truth.
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