Betraying Marshall: Air Force Stands Idle Amid Toxic Destruction of Good Leaders

General George Marshall developed a system for developing and placing commanders that persists to this day.  But do those relying on the theory behind it understand how it works?  There's reason to question whether this is the case in the modern US Air Force.
General George Marshall developed a system for developing and emplacing commanders that persists to this day. But are those relying on aspects of Marshall’s theory being faithful to his intent?  There’s reason to question whether this is the case in the modern US Air Force.


The 2014 US Air Force has much going for it. Superb people, strong leaders at the very top, and a nation that continues to admire and support it. But there are problems, some of them significant and potentially hazardous. One such problem is that of toxic leadership.

What do I mean by “toxic?” Abusive. Given to the overexertion of authority and the overextension of power. Given to micromanagement. Tending toward antagonism with subordinates rather than constructive relationships. Given to the belief that it’s alright to discard people based on personal preferences, style differences, or fiat. Susceptible to the championing of form over function . . . of appearances over results. Given to the idea that destroying a career is an acceptable response to the unwillingness of a subordinate to submit intellectually or attitudinally — in other words, showing the independence of thought that marks a good American. That’s toxicity, or at least what I mean by it. The Air Force has a growing problem with it. This problem is noticeable among the current crop of wing commanders, and seems to be worsening as it unfolds without a noticeable correction from the institution.

Some folks believe these behaviors and this trend are perfectly acceptable. They argue that commanders should be permitted to pick their teams without explanation, hiring and firing at will. They’re wrong. The Air Force has processes that choose commanders based on a career-long pattern of demonstrated potential rather than the anecdotal impressions formed by one boss. Contrary to the pedantic assertions of various barracks lawyers, it’s not acceptable for one commander to fire another without providing a valid reason. While commanders have wide latitude in deciding whether and how much to trust subordinate commanders, this is not an unlimited power.

In arguing that anyone of greater rank can do anything to anyone of lesser rank, proponents of the theory of the unitary commander often lay claim to the mantle of General George Marshall. Marshall was known for demanding loyalty, team play, and positivity from his commanders. His philosophy has too often been hijacked by adherents to the loyalty culture currently grappling for control of the Air Force. What they tend to omit is the other aspects of Marshall’s theory of command — aspects which cast a pall over the expulsion of good leaders for less than exigent reasons.

Marshall’s expectations were paired with two important assumptions. First, he didn’t just expect loyalty, he felt comfortable expecting it because he also demanded candid vertical communication in both directions along the chain of command. He knew loyalty was an outgrowth of honesty between professional colleagues. He knew further that loyalty was easier to demand and more likely to inhere when subordinates knew and could strive to meet the clear expectations of superiors. This is a critically important idea. No matter the war, the century, or the method of combat power, military commanders are capable and willing to measure up to the standards of their bosses so long as those standards are clear and unequivocal — even when they don’t agree with them. This needn’t be litigated. It has been a truism for millennia, making it a fact of military life.

But second, and more importantly, Marshall focused not on style or attitude, but on results. When the system he baked into the US Army decided to set aside a commander, the decision was virtually always rooted in an operational failure rather than a style difference. Marshall’s system tolerated the flamboyant, the politically incorrect, and even the mild to moderately insubordinate . . . but it tolerated these weaknesses only in the context of successful operations and combat victories. George Patton is only the most popular and vivid example of this principle. There are many others.

But there’s something deeper and uglier at work in the modern Air Force. It’s one thing to fire a commander for an actual or claimed failure. It’s another thing altogether to inflict upon that relieved commander career-ending administrative punishments and performance appraisals. It’s another thing still to affirmatively destroy that officer’s future by having him stricken from the roster for developmental education that stands as an unwritten prerequisite for future advancement. Commanders in today’s Air Force don’t just get relieved . . . they get destroyed. This is not only immoral and unethical given the variance between anecdotal performance issues and permanent consequences, but it’s counterproductive. Marshall would never have sponsored it, because he knew that sometimes, commanders relieved and given second chances were the best leaders of all. Patton is again an example of this idea, though there are many more.

Tom Ricks’ excellent study “The Generals” is a good resource for understanding the Marshall system, which is undeniably the root structure of modern command culture, but has been cherry picked and perverted to the detriment of all involved, especially by the US Air Force. One of the cardinal rules of combat is precision.  Never destroy that which needn’t be destroyed.  That the modern Air Force has seemingly forgotten this is either an alarm of institutional ineptitude or an indication that abusive leaders are seeking to cover the tracks of capricious and arbitrary firings by layering on the legitimacy of officially recognized malfeasance.  Look no further than the patent misappropriation of commander directed investigations at Lackland Air Force Base for an example of this particularly poisonous form of abuse.

The scornful discarding of commanders in the modern Air Force — particularly squadron commanders — is reaching proportions that betray its ability to remain obscured by the bureaucratic veil. Commanders are being fired without cause, without notice, and without feedback. They’re not even having their destruction lucidly explained by the person responsible.  Without warning or official acknowledgement, they’re being served with a piece of paper that ends a thousand aspirations and being left to rot in isolation.  They’re being re-designated from “hero” to “zero” without knowing why. They’re losing their jobs — after years of carefully manicured matchmaking by the service’s numerous promotion, development, and selection process — over trivial matters of style, rather than and often despite the superb operational results they’re generating.  

It’s happening across bases and commands, but seems prevalent within the air mobility community — a community that has been thumped ceaselessly since 2001 and is showing visible signs of wear, notwithstanding the steady stream of celebratory selfies, red carpet arrivals, and band performances trumpeted by its public relations officials.  It seems as though the command is turning on itself, with commanders forming a circular firing squad as a decade of neglect in training and crew development comes home to roost.  Who is to blame for the command’s myriad problems?  Apparently the squadron commanders who came of age doing its heavy hauling over the last dozen years.

Other examples abound, some public and others not, but all intensifying the pressure on senior generals to get involved and put command culture back on vector. In the absence of correction from the top to reign in the exceedingly imperious, frivolous, and political, the service will lose the devotion of the appropriately humble and mission-focused servants it needs to forge an excellent future in the nation’s defense.

If you’re a general and reading this, my message is simple: look closely.  After you’ve looked, look harder.  There’s a lot of dirt being concealed by the veneer your subordinate Colonels are expertly varnishing.  Prove this statement wrong by investigating.

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