“American Pegasus” to Airmen: Civilian Life Sucks, Stay in and Make USAF Better


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Recently, an active duty Air Force MSgt posting anonymously under the handle “americanpegasus” rocked the Reddit/r/AirForce crowd with an epic rant that could have been easily shaped into a service creed for the ages. He touched on widely held frustrations. He substituted straight talk for corporate jargon. He looked with tough eyes on his fellow enlisted leaders and asked them to raise the bar of expectations and eschew careerism for a no-nonsense work ethic. Or at least that’s how I took his meaning. I personally loved that post, and wrote here about why I believe it went viral.

His latest post has me wondering if I misinterpreted the previous one, or if there are two different people using the same handle. Last week, he again picked up the mic and doled out some pithy wisdom. The message this time sounds in much different tones.

Taking on the important subject of whether airmen should stay in uniform or cross out of the blue into civilian life, our valiant poster mounted his soapbox poised to once again move the hordes with the power of his words.

But then, something went wrong. This guy, whose last post made him sound like a different kind of leader – one thinking for himself and free from the intellectual bindings of conventional power structures – penned a post that reads like it came right out of the standard SNCO cookbook. Sure, it’s amply adorned with catchy bro-flair and rendered more conversationally than the standard SNCO Academy workbook exercise. But there’s not nearly enough lipstick to hide the snout on this thing. This is a “stop whining and get back to work” kind of post, and I must say I’m not a fan.

Gone is the soaring language of great expectations from the “Epic Rant” … replaced here with a condemnable blend of fearmongering and condescension. Skepticism is replaced with cynicism and even shades of careerism. There are also errors of fact and reasoning that ultimately obscure the underlying message, which is too deeply buried in self-importance and anecdote to stretch comfortably across the loom of the masses.

Unlike last time, I won’t retransmit the entire post, which can be found along with its original comment thread here. Instead, let’s take a walk through some of the highlights and lowlights.

Opening:

I’ve seen a certain attitude for many years now, and it goes something like, “I can’t wait to get out! It’s gonna be awesome!”

This works well as an attention-grabbing breach into an important topic, but its vagary trades away essential truth right off the bat. Most people who talk like the author implies are those with a firm separation date (impliedly not those still weighing whether to stay). This is a small group of airmen. To pretend they’re a teeming enough horde to have constantly assailed the author with their attitudes throughout his career is a stretch of plausibility, and the outlines of a straw man are faintly visible.

Continuing:

Listen, if you work a dangerous job and your concern is being around long enough to see your baby grow up, then more power to you. I recognize there are some truly terrifying and war-oriented positions in the Air Force and I have nothing but respect for those that fill them. Security Forces doing IED laced convoys with Army personnel? On constant 6 month deployments? Total respect from me: I wouldn’t re-enlist either without a good reason. But for most of us? We’re not actively at war right now and most of us do fly a desk. I’m betting that the majority of the Air Force, despite the corporate nonsense we have to endure, have it pretty good.”

At this point, the author draws a bright red line between those who brave mortal danger and everyone else. He equates mortal danger with “having it rough” and sitting behind a desk with “having it pretty good.”

The first sin here is fundamental: the point of the Air Force and airpower itself is to beat an enemy without enduring the same kind of mortal danger the enemy must endure. Asymmetry is the entire point. To diminish an airman for exemplifying the very reason there is an Air Force is to demonstrate a lack of basic comprehension about the airpower profession. This poster is just the latest in a long line of misapprehenders, and I bear him no special enmity. I do lament the state of Air Force PME, which has produced an NCO corps that serially marginalizes professions based on their conceptual distance from land-based martial tradition. We’re loathing ourselves right out of business.

This is also a gross oversimplification, given the countless gradations between getting shot at daily and working in an air conditioned office. Nearly 90,000 enlisted airmen work in logistics career fields – most of those in aircraft maintenance. Another 45,000 work in operations. This means well over half of the enlisted force works in hands-on, constantly-on-the-move career fields that are perfectly capable of inflicting ample payloads of hardship and misery without IEDs or close-quarters standoffs.

Of course, this is also an inaccurate devaluation of what airmen do. You know who works in an air conditioned office? A sensor operator. The enemy is just as dead after a Hellfire strike as he is after a rifle shot or bayonet thrust. In fact, he’s probably more definitively dead, and with less suffering and expense on both sides. So maybe we shouldn’t make who sits in a chair or has an office cooling system our barometers for organizational worth.

Most importantly, the poster’s claim that “most” fly a desk is incorrect, making his bet that most people “have it pretty good” similarly specious.

Continuing:

So you want to get out? Do you have a plan? Does that plan hopefully involve more than just blindly going to college? Guess what? Shit sucks out there. Families have both partners working two jobs just to make ends meet, and unless you have significant technical expertise or are privy to some top-tier connections there’s no fountain of six-figure salaries to pick from.

This is an irresponsible use of a scare tactic. It’s a scare tactic because it’s not true. Shit doesn’t necessarily or universally suck out here. Depending on your level of preparedness, individual work ethic, chosen market, luck, and a whole host of other things, you may be better off financially as a civilian. Or, you may suffer a little bit financially, but find the lifestyle setbacks utterly palatable against the value of intangible advantages you’re able to harvest. Or, as the author suggests, you may fall on hard times. When it comes to handicapping this particular part of the separation/retirement calculus, I’ll repeat the advice given by another Reddit poster: don’t listen to people who are still committed to a career in the Air Force. The confirmation bias is thick enough withstand Thor’s hammer. Do your homework. The truth is complicated.

This tactic is irresponsible because the duty of a SNCO (and any Air Force supervisor) is to build people up, not chip away at their confidence. Every airman will eventually transition to civilian life. Some in the poster’s audience will separate whether they want to or not, and before they planned. His job is to give them the tips and tools to start building for that moment. Not to present them with a false dilemma, and certainly not to sell them on the idea that life on the outside is so insufferable that they should simply gorge themselves on whatever bowl of oatmeal the Air Force puts in front of them and happily get back to work.

Later:

I feel blessed that I went to college prior to enlisting and held down a large collection of various blue collar jobs. Everyone has a boss, folks. Every job has bullshit you have to get through. Some jobs are better than this, true, but do you really qualify for them?

Do you have a passion for robotics and the kind of deep mathematics that are going to dominate the next few decades? Can you open up a profitable sand shop in Dubai? Do you understand how to juggle a thousand dimensions of logistics and productivity at once? Or are you like most people: pretty good worker, occasional moments of brilliance, and enjoys watching football/playing video games/surfing Netflix with your spare time?

This is bad right here. It connotes someone looking down on his fellow airmen. There’s an elitism to it that does not play well in the arena of judging the aptitudes and lifestyles of others. I guarantee many people stopped reading at this point.

Continuing:

I know we all house strong egos, but you need to take a good look at yourself. What talent and dedication do you have to offer the world outside the military? Because if your plan is to go to college, get a random degree, and suddenly prosper… guess what? Your plan sucks.

There’s a piece of good advice here, but it is sheathed in a caustic capsule of chauvinist bile certain to turn off just about anyone in the intended audience. Yes, it’s true that not having a plan for post-service life is foolish. No, the way to get that message through to people is not to tell them to look in the mirror and study their inferiority. Re-crafted, this could be a powerful sequence. For example: “You’re succeeding in a tough job at a historically difficult moment for military service. Obviously, you’ve got a lot to offer a civilian employer. Make sure you have a plan to translate your worth into something valued on the outside.”

I know it may sound coy coming from a cynic like me, but positive emotion should almost always be the lead card in mentorship. (Yes, I realize that I am ironically doing violence to that principle with this post. Noted for the record.).

Later:

So that’s another reason why leadership can rightfully expect you to get your CCAF degree: Because you’re already making more than most people with an associate’s degree. Your education should reflect that.

In argumentative parlance, this is too dumb for smart people and too smart for dumb people. Anyone smart enough to understand the somewhat nuanced institutional argument made here is too smart to think it justifies the wasted energy of chasing a worthless degree. Anyone dumb enough to think the CCAF is not worthless doesn’t need such an argument to be persuaded. The author must understand this, given his critical thinking ability. That makes me suspect this aspect of his rant is theatrical – something to earn him the approval of the corporatists watching from the sidelines. This is great way to lose the most intelligent segment of an audience, which in this case is a larger crowd than the author estimates. It also smacks of box-checking careerism, the artery upon which the CCAF degree depends upon for its very existence.

And then there’s this:

Don’t think that things like CBTs, SAPR, douchey bosses, incompetent support, and bureaucratic red tape end when you leave the military. Remember: the Air Force copied many of these things from the corporate world. They didn’t originate here.

Yes, the Air Force is guilty of aping the worst elements of modernist management science, which continue to hold considerable sway in larger corporations. But the author is mistaken to think wasteful behaviors predominate on the outside in the same way they plague public agencies, most of all within the DoD.

Publicly traded companies have shareholders who hold them accountable. They can’t tolerate wasted time and energy of the magnitude embraced by Big Blue these days. Employees have more avenues for grievance, corner office denizens have fewer shields behind which to hide the truths of their policies, and productivity is the undisputed king. When profit slips, the system reacts. Beyond huge corporations, in the realm of small businesses, startups, and the knowledge economy, this kind of nonsense is just flat-out repudiated. It doesn’t even get to the start line.

Many airmen in the poster’s audience could and will find homes in workplaces that better reflect what they want out of their work life. It’s silly for him to pretend the world is a monolithically stupid place, especially given that he’s been on active duty for a decade and thus has not been immersed in the job market he’s diagramming.

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At this point in the rant, the poster pivots. After attempting to establish that civilian life isn’t all that great, he wants to encourage his audience to consider that the Air Force isn’t all that terrible. Here, the message becomes more redeemable, though it remains plagued be periodic digressions into out-of-school pontificating about what life is like on the outside.

Consider:

Maybe a different view is needed. Maybe it shouldn’t be all about: “Man, the Air Force sucks. I’m getting out of his mess!” What about, “Man, the house of Air Force sucks right now. Let’s fix this place before it springs any more leaks.”

Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. We have a negative idea reformulated as a positive one, complete with a sober recognition that things do indeed suck. We also have an effective metaphor to help the audience visualize the subject matter.

Now, let’s discuss some of those problems we’re going to fix and how we’re going to go about turning this thing around! Right?

Wrong.

If your job is bearable, then your salary is adequate. As much as I like money, even I have to admit that. You A1Cs have it a little rough (I was there too), but it gets a lot better over the next few years; hang in there. But don’t jump from sinking ship to sinking ship without thinking about what we can do to patch the holes in this one first. Because it’s not magically better on the outside.

He circles right back to bashing civilian life and focusing on money. Not only that, he sets the job satisfaction target at “bearable.”

If you’re an airman reading the original post, it’s at this point you realize you’re led by SNCOs who will be content if they can get your job to a bearable point for a level of compensation you find tolerable. That’s not an uplifting message. It’s deflationary. If you’re a highly talented, highly capable airman reading the original post, you realize that it’s time to start planning for civilian life, because the people you’re working for have no interest in making the Air Force great. They’re targeting “just good enough.”

In other words, the post undoes itself here, and stands to actuate exactly the opposite of its intended effect.

There’s an essential truth distilled in this part of the essay, though I suspect it’s unintentional. The truth is that members of the Air Force are mainly not motivated by money. Sure, the money they make needs to rise above a certain threshold in order to justify the requirements of service and opportunity costs for them and their families. And sure, pay and benefit cuts tend to rile the troops because they represent losses from the status quo. But airmen place much more value on the intangibles of service.

They yearn to be capably led, well trained, and treated like adults. They need to feel like what they do is valued, makes a difference, and entitles them to respect and a reasonable and ever-enlarging degree of autonomy in their work. They need to feel like they’re part of a team, and part of something larger and more important than their self-interests. These are some of the things that make service life special, lending it a culture all its own. As these things dissolve, money becomes even less consequential.

Things like unnecessary family separation, disruption caused by someone else’s inability to plan, needless red tape, bureaucratic jackassery, and endless performances of the eyewash carnival add up to a huge devaluation of service life. Chauvinism pisses people off. Codified idiocy does too. Failing to cultivate a robust supervisory system gnaws away at the team identity they crave.

These issues exact a large enough debit to ameliorate any financial reward, and this explains why pilots, for example, are bailing out in droves rather than accept a quarter million dollars to keep doing what used to be the best job in the world.

The balance of the original post dabbles in various motivational techniques appealing to various forms of loyalty based on anecdotal examples. But by the time he tries this approach, the poster has already spent too much time focusing on money and bashing civilian life to effectively make his case on other terms. His argument flails at the end, appealing for everyone to stop fantasizing about leaving the Air Force and to instead focus on fixing it.

The second part of that is a great piece of advice. But to accomplish it requires listening to those who are engaging in the first part. When the service – particularly its SNCOs – recognize this and use their considerable persuasive skills to marshal energies toward the fixing, there will be a lot less fantasizing.

A message scrawled stylistically into wood is still wooden.
A message scrawled stylistically into wood is still wooden.

I give this one a thumbs down, but we’ll continue to keep an eye on American Pegasus. Agree or disagree with him, he’s got a lot of wheels turning upstairs, clearly gives a damn, and knows how to kick off a valuable discussion.


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