Be a Good Wingman: Follow the Air Force’s New Checklist

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The Air Force I joined in 1990 wasn’t perfect. But it got the important things right, and it knew how to distinguish between what was important and what wasn’t. There are moments when I observe the 2015 Air Force and become seized with disbelief that it’s the same organization.

I had one of those moments recently, when someone forwarded an email that crystallized one of the major cultural devolutions capturing the service’s current descent into organizational madness: it no longer views its people as adults.

Motherhood, defined as hovering over and micromanaging airmen — especially but not exclusively junior airmen — has become an unchecked Air Force obsession. Whether it’s a function of the parallel unfolding of a similar pattern in society at large, a matter of simple chauvinism, an outgrowth of the highest general-to-airman ratio in service history, a facet of the neofascist movement that is currently grasping at the service controls, or part of the risk averse political correctness that has captured the senior enlisted and officer ranks in recent years, the unmistakable fact is that America’s Air Force is increasingly treating its people — who are, by definition, trained adult volunteers with considerable responsibilities — like overgrown idiots incapable of independent thought or competent judgment in even the most mundane activities. The bar is continually getting lowered, alienating intelligent airmen and expecting too little of them.

Take this little gem, recently culled from the Luke Air Force Base newspaper:


Much is spoken by this. Not just that someone thought it was a good idea, but that it was a senior NCO acclimated and socialized to think this way over the course of a career and obviously undiscouraged by his own peers or superiors. And not just that, but that someone in the public relations business thought it would make a great thing to herald on the front page of the local rag.

Taking care of people is an important concept. It includes many things, including giving them resources, mission clarity, and effective leadership. It sometimes includes disciplining people. It always assumes being involved enough to know what must be done to take care of them. But what it does not include in all but emergency circumstances is the invitation of third parties — people who are not on the team — into the professional relationship between leader and follower without mutual consent. Even and especially not parents. The fact this would need to be made explicit is astonishing.

When you issue an airman a pacifier, you make a damning statement about how you view that airman’s agency, dignity, capacity for independence, and potential. You essentially communicate that you don’t consider him an adult, and therefore don’t consider him a citizen. This is a way of saying you don’t consider him a legitimate member of the Air Force. This is the textbook definition of how to alienate people, and the first to be alienated will be the ones least tolerant of foolishness.

Airmen hate this. And as well they should. So why does it persist?

Well, because no one is listening to feedback if it is emanating from perceived children. But even if the feedback registered, it would have to outweigh the corporate incentives of motherhood, which are currently considerable. Treating people like kids is a first step toward rules for control, monitoring, surveillance, and punishment. Such rules make it easy for a manager to look like s/he’s doing something while reducing the chance that someone might do something to make said manager look bad.

And of course, when senior officers believe no one is entitled to a private life or that exercising private communications is treasonous, there’s really no disincentive to treating people like infants.

Against this backdrop, consider the content of the following email excerpt, obtained by JQP from active servicemembers who received copies (and were duly mortified):

“The Air Force established the Wingman program to encourage Airmen and their families to look out for each other and to intervene when signs of stress are observed.  One of the tools that the Profession of Arms Center of Excellence (PACE) highlighted is the Wingman Boldface card. This card shows a series of steps and actions to help Airman intervene when necessary. Please use the voting buttons to respond whether this “Boldface” card is something you would use.”

So it seems we, the taxpaying public, paid someone to invent something called a “Wingman Boldface Card” instead of actually doing a real Air Force job. And the place where it was invented is apparently mislabeled. Also, “Wingman” used to be a strong element of Air Force tradition. Now it’s referred to as a “program.”

Here’s a snapshot of the relevant part of the uhh … “checklist.”

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Where to begin?

Perhaps with the ham-handed metaphor. This is not how the concept of BOLDFACE works. It’s reserved for emergency procedural steps that must be committed to memory because the emergencies they address do not allow time for reference to a checklist. This abuses the idea for at least a couple of reasons.

First, it treats the conduct of everyday relationships as an emergency on the order of an engine fire or rapid decompression. Nothing like a clear statement of misapprehension about what relationships are about to persuade an audience to stop reading. Second, attempts to prescribe a tool designed to guide a rote response in clear circumstances where an approach based on judgment under ambiguous circumstances is the entire point.

It’s a classic case of wrong tool for the job. But in this case, it’s a job for which there is no tool. There’s no checklist for how to cultivate healthy relationships marked by mutual respect and open communication. Strong wingman behaviors happen in healthy squadrons and they don’t happen in unhealthy squadrons. You don’t get strong wingman behaviors by directing them. You get them by providing the right leadership and resources so that a strong culture can thrive. So it’s not just a problem of format at work here … it’s the bankruptcy of the ideas behind the flawed communication.

But there’s another problem with the format that’s just too silly to be ignored: it’s a gimmick lacking an audience. Airmen can generally be divided into two groups (though there are a few career fields with feet on both sides of this line) — those who fly and those who don’t. Those who don’t use aviation-style checklists won’t know what the hell this motif is about, and it’ll add no effectiveness to this regrettably banal bundle of ideas.

Those who do fly and/or use such checklists? They’ll laugh. Uncontrollably. With enough readership, it’s likely a few of them with injure themselves laughing, which will add to the toll of this stupidity. That’s how bad an idea this is. It defiles aviation culture so grotesquely that it’ll be processed as unintentional satire.

There’s much more to work with here … from tortured syntax to down-the-bridge-of-the-nose condescension to the utter and complete missing of the point about teamwork. But such is the folly of standing up an organization whose sole purpose is to churn out fodder for the eyewash carnival, and there aren’t enough pages in all of the checklists of the world to contain what could reasonably be written in assailing this gibberish.

I’ll just offer this slight re-write, in case any of you want to send it along to the folks at some Center of Excellence or another:

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