Sometimes you read something so insanely stupid that you feel violated — perhaps lobotmized — after having read it. At the risk of making you all dumber than you were before, here’s a window into the immeasurable inanity of the Air Force’s service culture in 2017.
In a 47-slide presentation recently foisted upon all personnel in 19th Air Force, the chief lawyer of Air Education and Training Command (AETC) unintentionally crystallizes the distinction between good intentions and true leadership. The slides, meant to communicate the relevant meat of AFI 36-2909 and an AETC Guidance Memorandum supporting it, is like a step-by-step cookbook for how to destroy unit morale and cohesion. First it divides people into bureaucratic bins, giving each human a label. Then, it declares that the bins are never to touch one another. All the while, it pretends this is a perfect recipe for professionalism, demonstrating zero understanding of the definition of the word.
The stated purpose of this joke is to define and police unprofessional relationships. It is an overreaction to the USAF’s loss of political currency in the past decade because it has failed to get issues of sexual assault and harassment under control. Ironically, these slides are aimed at some of the service’s most junior personnel even though it’s the senior officers constantly caught with their zippers down or failing to adequately and competently pursue complaints. To cover themselves, they over-pursue unworthy complaints and dial up coercive pressure where it is easiest to do so: among junior airmen apt to comply with even the most questionable orders.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when you give the lawyers too much latitude. And I say that as a lawyer.
This isn’t the place or time for an exhaustive analysis, and this piece of trash doesn’t deserve that much attention. Instead, we will focus in on the most problematic aspects of the presentation, which are captured below as snips from slides 11-13 and 27. Have a look, analysis after — along with the entire slide deck for those of you beset by morbid curiosity. Remember, the idea here is to keep people with power from screwing (literally and/or figuratively) people without it. Ask yourself if this accomplishes the goal.
So, the first move is to establish a reporting requirement that compels anyone with knowledge of an alleged violation of the policy against unprofessional relationships between any instructor and any student/recruit (and others as defined) to report it to the chain of command.
The second move is to redefine knowledge so it carries the meaning of mere vague awareness of a faint possibility. Even if an alleged violation is believed to be false, reporting is mandatory. How awareness is created is also irrelevant … even the barest rumor spirited on the winds of snapchat creates a legal duty to tattle, the consequences to team and individual be damned.
Next, a requirement is established to strip NCOs and officers below the level of command of any latitude to apply judgement in determining the veracity of an allegation. They are required by AFI to pass along even the most obviously specious allegations, which are in turn required to be reported to them. Suddenly, the tedium of student gossip is automatically a matter of command concern and quite possibly a subject for criminal investigation.
But wait, there’s more.
Just in case anyone was clinging to a last shred of trust or autonomy, here’s a very blunt threat. Fail to report as specified above, and you will be subject to prosecution for failure to obey orders. Never mind that the orders contemplated herein are unlawful because they lack a valid military necessity … since no one will have the balls to challenge their legality, you can expect a court-martial if you fail to comply. And if they can’t get you into a courtroom for lack of evidence or because the order disobeyed is legally assailable, they’ll simply destroy you with administrative sanctions or find some other flaw to serve as a predicate for Article 15 punishment.
This slide show proves what everyone is constantly saying: the Air Force is not a military organization and isn’t even trying to be one. Not because it doesn’t lift enough weights, live in the mud, or use phrases like “in garrison” and “don your cover.” But because it lacks even the most basic comprehension of how to build a cohesive fighting team marked by loyalty, mutual respect, and mutual support. In today’s Air Force, the recipe for individual success is to avoid social contact with everyone, see and say as little as possible, and demonstrate conformity. These traits are anathema to open communication and effective informal leadership — two prime ingredients in the gelling of winning teams.
This particular shit show distinguishes its ridiculousness on two levels worthy of additional comment. First, the reporting requirement goes a thousand leagues too far. Even if you only hear a rumor of an untoward kiss or hug and don’t believe it’s true, you’re required to report it. Not only does this encourage a level of social awkwardness and distance capable of single-handedly preventing esprit, but it is an open door to abuse, collateral, and false allegations. Ruining someone doesn’t even require standing behind an allegation: it requires only introducing a reed-thin rumor that others are required to repeat to commanders, who are then politically compelled to pursue it.
But this also screws with victims. The whole point of a divided reporting system is to give victims control over whether they choose to make their circumstances known to the chain of command, which can lead to stigma, professional compromise, and unwanted referrals. Under this idiotic reporting system, the alleged victim has no choice but to have the situation known. This hurts victims by taking away what little power they have to decide what their victimization should mean to them. It shows that USAF commanders haven’t the faintest idea what they’re doing to the individuals they’re supposedly protecting. This is all about commanders protecting their own equities. Victims are just incidental and sometimes useful pawns … but nothing more.
This is telling adults how to behave on the most basic level. It is building walls that decrease authenticity and humanity, which are ingredients in any meaningful relationship. It is 47 slides telling adults exactly how and where to draw boundaries. No one worth a damn would want to be in an organization that thinks so little of them that it believes they need to hear this.
But where it goes from incompetent to destructive is in its extensive effort to criminalize human transgressions, and in its open encouragement to make those mistakes permanent fixtures in someone’s life. Under this guidance, two Lieutenants who went to college together and have known one another for years, are the same age, and have zero power imbalance between them … can be court-martialed and professionally ruined for life if one of them is a an instructor in any course at any base and the other is a distance learning student in any course at another base on the other side of the world. If they decide to kiss, hug, send romantic messages, or (gasp) have sex, they are instantly regarded as criminals … as is anyone who fails to report them. Read through the slides again and consider how they divide people into all-encompassing categories. Now think of as many scenarios as you can in five minutes that would break these rules without doing a shred of harm to good order and discipline. The fact you can come up with them so easily demonstrates the degree of over-control being sought here … and in that space of excessive control lies morale that will be destroyed and never rebuilt.
This guidance is breathtakingly lazy. It attempts to bureaucratize relationships, which are the ultimate untamed human wilderness of human indiscipline. This showcases an Air Force that has forgotten the central role of human relationships in the winning of wars. It feels like the service’s attitude about air support — that it would rather provide it from a distance without getting pulled into the messy business of sorting legitimate from illegitimate targets — is also governing its approach to relationships.
The USAF has had the most repressive and regressive approach to relationships of the services and has also clocked the worst record on sexual assault. This isn’t an accidental correlation. The key to preventing abuse is a culture of dignity and respect enabled by open communication. Focusing there would be far more productive than 47 slides designed to give commanders 69 hooks upon which to hang those who are overwhelmed by human impulses. Far from having the chance to learn from their mistakes, they’ll be bagging groceries back home while the USAF continues to whine about being short-staffed and devoid of character — the kind of character we get from making and recovering from human errors.
Enjoy this 47-slide compendium of craptastic ignorance concocted by someone who has manifestly zero business wearing a military uniform … and remember, the same generals poised to crush you for drinking beer with the wrong person were 100% mistake-free when they were your age.
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