One of the more dependable facets of Air Force life … more dependable perhaps than the ritualistically wholesale changing of uniform designs every 6-9 years … is the constant traipsing of senior generals and other anointed dignitaries through Air Force bases on “how ya doin” tours. This is the reason protocol staffs routinely outsize weapons and tactics shops on many bases, and among the many reasons many wing commanders secretly stash hard liquor in their offices.
The idea behind such taxpayer-funded tourism is to give senior officials with various, important-sounding titles some sense of how things are going on the installations for which they’re in some way responsible. This is thought, according to the modernist school of management that has long gripped the Air Force’s stubbornly hidebound hierarchy, to support better decision making at the highest levels. Sure, we have legions of other senior officers actually in touch with what’s going on who are capable of simply telling senior officials the state of things. But what fun would that be? … especially when “trust but verify” sounds in such elegant tones of managerial diligence that it can rhetorically justify a fleet of private jets larger than the air forces of most other countries.
What is not acknowledged, mainly because no one benefitting from the current system has interest in admitting it and no one victimized by the current system is empowered to express it openly, is that there are huge downsides to these visits. One cost is the proliferation of a tacitly approved system of manufactured dishonesty. Base commanders are expected to put their best foot forward when a big-ticket leader visits, which means that visiting leader isn’t seeing the actual state of things, but a misrepresentation created for their consumption. This in turn allow them to go back to assorted ivory towers and report that all is well, and indeed that morale in the field is “pretty darn good.” Read the Wikipedia entry for “Potemkin Village” or watch any documentary on North Korea for further elaboration on how this works.
The largely uncounted cost is both intangible and catastrophic. The Air Force lies to itself about the state of things, and this self-deception delays problem recognition, which obstructs the pursuit of fixes to problems capable of compromising future national security.
Subsidiary to this intractable practice of erecting a glorious facade to conceal the grimy reality lurking behind is the debilitating disruption inflicted as a result. It saps the focus and energy of base-level personnel. Bases literally shut down activities and stop pursuing their missions in order to put on shows for visitors. Schedules are shuffled, leave gets canceled or moved, offices get shuttered, and sometimes planes get parked so the manpower to fix and fly them can be rededicated.
Think it doesn’t happen? Then you’re fooling yourself … and if you’re in the Air Force, you’re part of the massive apparatus of denial and obfuscation powering the engine of this problem.
Here are a couple of recent examples — feel free to add more in the comments.
First is an excerpt of an email from Fairchild (emphasis mine):
From: [Sender] GS-12 USAF AMC 92 ARW/CVB
Sent: Monday, April 11, 2016 3:03 PM
Subject: Wingman Day – Change 1 – Color Run Cancelled
We are postponing the color run until later in the Spring/Summer/Fall due to the upcoming DVs and the fact we cannot guarantee that the color will wash off the streets/grass/flagpoles/etc. by Monday.
This ensures that the base is in tip-top shape and that CES doesn’t have to work overtime trying to clean up our mess after the run. 🙂 Please let your units (including leadership) know. I will brief the Commanders at Wing Stand Up on Wednesday as well.
There’s a dual-layered irony here in that the “color run” was probably a frivolous waste of time in the first place, but it had to be cancelled to accommodate an even more frivolous waste of time … and that it’s not being cancelled because of actual logistical issues associated with a DV visit, but to avoid the frivolous waste of cleaning up the evidence rather than simply leaving it for the next time it rains. No word on whether children were also advised to refrain from the use sidewalk chalk during the week preceding the tour.
Here’s a second example … an email excerpt from Travis:
Subject: INFO// Base Photo Lab Closure 13- 15 Apr 2016
Good Day All,
Please disseminate… The base photo lab will be closed from Wednesday (13 Apr) – Friday (15 Apr) to support the 18th AF Visit. The photo lab will reopen Monday, 18 Apr at normal operating hours.
[photo lab henchperson]
No word on whether unauthorized interlopers should expect to be forcibly expelled from the photo lab, but that seems to be the “Travis standard.”
These are micro examples of a macro phenomenon that plays out every day across the service. While there are occasional good outcomes from these visits, they are mainly engines of disruption and distraction that harm the functioning of the Air Force.
When I talk to current and former wing commanders about this issue, they paint the picture of a typical prisoner’s dilemma. All agree that visits are out of control and that preparation for them should not be necessary or undertaken. But each individual recognizes that even if all tacitly or expressly agree to change their practices, it would only take one breaking the contract to advance his or her personal interests … to create a punitive contrast and attendant career jeopardy for the rest.
In other words, there is no direct link between what’s best for the individual wing commander and what’s best for the collective when it comes to this issue. And that’s because the ability to emplace such a link rests solely within the purview of the generals and senior officials who have no interest in changing a status quo that affords them exorbitant trappings of status and prestige along with an inflated sense of direct relevance. They’re paid to be senior staff, to make decisions, and to provide strategic direction. Instead, they’re globetrotting celebrities glad-handing with compulsory crowds as they bask in the glow of puffed up importance on manicured itineraries … minions buzzing about catering to their whims as if each one is a CEO.
And it’s all taxpayer-funded.
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