The Air Force recently conducted a survey of an unknown but reportedly large number of its airmen. The focus, at least in part: determining how airmen get their information.
This can and should be seen first as a positive thing. It demonstrates concern for the flow and accuracy of information between headquarters and airmen in the field. The inability to communicate effectively up and down the chain of command has been a painful thorn in the Air Force’s side for some time. Airmen have too often felt kept in the dark, sensing that their voices on key issues are going unheard, while senior officials find themselves starved of street-level perspective, kept oblivious by protective coteries until inconvenient truths become too pungent for concealment.
The Air Force, for reasons as interesting as they are irrelevant, has incrementally molded itself into a hidebound hierarchy that prefers comfortable platitudes to essential truths, in the process addicting itself to the practice of exchanging near-constant bullshit salvos along the vertical expanse of the institution. This is what occurs in lieu of substantial, unfiltered, and clear communication between commanders and senior enlisted leaders. It leads to a workforce starved of vision, guidance, and rationale.
Exacerbating this pathology is the fact that the service’s public affairs node is afflicted with the intractable cancer of propaganda, and now busies itself with a daily spin cycle of internal make-believe and external doublespeak, orchestrated centrally from the very top through a painstaking process of drafting, vetting, and nervously approving every syllable of official communication. This structure strangles character as mercilessly as it drowns truth.
Unsurprisingly, this assembly of communicative malpractices has the service losing an accurate sense of itself, even as the nation it serves also grows intellectually and emotionally estranged.
The idea that senior officials have finally, at long last, noticed that their airmen have ceased depending on a broken chain of command for solid information and have instead turned to other sources is an important spark of official recognition.
But all is not sweetness and light.
The best way to find out how airmen are getting their information is not to conduct a social science data mining exercise using a third party. The best way is to ask them, listen intently, and let them tell you. Unless, of course, you’re not confident that the climate predominating in the Air Force will yield honest answers.
The fact that the Air Force chose a survey tool instead of relying on airmen to help them decode a basic communication problem says something deeply troubling about how the service sees its own organizational health. To the extent this survey is part of an effort to remedy that climate problem, it is laudably intentioned. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good approach.
Surveys like this should be avoided whenever possible, because they tend to categorize data more neatly than a qualitative assessment would, leaving out much of the important “connective tissue” between ideas where the most meaningful feedback often resides. They’re blunt instruments where precision matters.
This problem is most pernicious when a survey is poorly designed. Which brings us to the particulars of this most recent flail.
In building a question designed to elicit from airmen the specific sources where they find Air Force information, the author arrived at a curious construction:
Yes, you’re reading that correctly. This blog, which provides serious, fact-based analysis, insight, advocacy, and journalism on a range of Air Force and national defense issues and is regularly featured in national media as a source of original news … was equated with Duffel Blog, an obvious satire website that transparently misinforms audiences. Accentuating its own absurdity, the question closes with an “etc,” as if to smugly acknowledge that the two sites listed form such a nonsensical category that no third nomination could fit within it.
While JQP occasionally features clearly marked satire, it is not in the same species as Duffel Blog, something about which the operators of both websites would undoubtedly agree. Moreover, for the Air Force to posit whether airmen get their information from a known satire website is laughably misguided at best and insulting at worst.
This faux pas can only mean one of two things. It might mean that senior officials have become so galactically distant from the contours of the information environment that they actually don’t realize Duffel Blog is satire and John Q. Public isn’t. That would make them stupid enough that they shouldn’t be ordering pizza without supervision, let alone leading a team of several hundred thousand volunteer adults in the defense of the nation’s interests.
Then again, it might instead have been a deliberate slap at JQP – an attempt to portray this site as unserious or something at which to chuckle rather than a serious meditation on defense issues. Such “push-polling” is not without precedent and certainly not beneath a senior leadership that has publicly derided blogs and social media outlets repeatedly as untrustworthy. That they do so without evidence or even direct attribution, or that every attempt to marginalize non-traditional outlets like this one only boosts the flow of traffic seems lost on the current crop of generals.
That there is persistence in attempting to marginalize this particular blog is not strategically significant. But failing to comprehend changes in the communication patterns of airmen is a big deal. It helps explain why senior officials have hemorrhaged the confidence and trust of airmen. It demonstrates why the service has difficulty keeping pace with quickening changes of modern war. It’s just the kind of thing that happens in an institution that doesn’t cherish and jealously guard a commitment to core values.
Predictably, the mistaken belief that airmen can be dissuaded away from social media or their preferences subverted with such a haphazard and blunt approach will only serve to further augment the rush away from traditional sources and toward blogs like this one. A more competent, constructive, and perhaps even cooperative approach could have the opposite effect, returning the chain of command to primacy and nullifying a considerable aspect this blog’s relevance. It’s something I would sincerely love to see happen, and a non-satirical story I hope to someday write.
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The Air Force seems to be stirring with awareness. But there’s still reason to doubt that leaders are entertaining the right impulses or acting properly upon them. The main lesson the Air Force should be drawing from the exploding popularity of JQP is that when it comes to the issues confronting today’s Air Force, truth is more powerful than fiction. This site provides a space for the honest discussion the Air Force too often avoids, filters, or excessively choreographs, creating systemic dishonesty at every turn.
To compete with this project effectively, the service will have to rediscover its commitment to integrity in all things, most of all in its public discourse, policies, and command climate.
Or, we can just keep promulgating pointless surveys using taxpayer dollars to zero constructive effect.