Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF) James Cody flexed his considerable influence and power recently, demonstrating that when the stakes are appropriately high, he can make the Air Force bureaucracy sing to his whistled tune.
Upon deciding to wield his E-10 bow staff to crush something, Cody chose his issue carefully, sidestepping such frivolities as unnecessary deployments, un-scored promotion tests, and the unwarranted abuse of administrative sanctions against his airmen. Nor did he bother with accountability for the human wreckage of last year’s drawdown. I mean, after all, that’s in the past. Instead, he aimed for the figurative jugular: cementing his own legacy as the guy who gifted the Air Force with the Latest Blue Hymnal.
What is the Latest Blue Hymnal, you ask? Well, no one really knows. But it seems to be a compendium of sorts … a collection of obligatory chants, poems, and recitations bundled, with graphical zing and pep, under the rubric of “Profession of Arms.” The publication of the hymnal says as much about the mentality of the senior enlisted Air Force as the contents themselves.
In the days of yore, Chiefs were teachers. They illuminated lessons of both airmanship and life in general. They mentored, usually through tough love and a noticeable allergy to bullshit from any and all purveyors. They talked straight, balancing out the unintelligible jargon-babble of their despotic and rightly despised managerial counterparts, carving out a sanctuary of common sense and hard-nosed realism in every squadron. They set the tone for the entire service, expecting hard work and mission results from the intelligent adult volunteer airmen they supervised.
Today, Chiefs are more like preachers. They occupy public speaking venues rather than offices, and have become unapproachable celebrities afforded papal deference by toadies wearing five to seven stripes. They’ve become distant from airmen … hoisted upon bully pulpits as they pound home buzzword after buzzword, sleeves creased as sharp as shark’s teeth, arms akimbo with textbook gesticulation as they’re filmed for the next propaganda clip … each seemingly a carbon copy, in word and deed, of the next. They have become, in the minds of most airmen at street level, institutional scolders and enforcers charged with socializing and indoctrinating juniors according to a mindless ideology that expects almost as little as it delivers. To be “chiefed” is to be subjected to a sort of unthinking and usually inapplicable statement of cherished principles, whether or not they apply. Unsurprisingly handmaiden to all of this is the nascent obsession with bibles, hymnals, and scriptures of various types. Chiefs are still setting the tone for the entire service, but not in the way we might hope.
Which brings us to the latest exhibition of the Taxpayer-Funded Traveling Eyewash Carnival.
Observers will recall that last week, as any number of important issues sat motionless awaiting action from senior officials, the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff joined CMSAF in ambushing a gaggle of unsuspecting airmen as they graduated from Basic Military Training. These newly-minted minions, undoubtedly mystified, ran headlong into a smiling, quasi-saluting propaganda buzzsaw, a flurry of pablum-spouting celebs personally presenting them with copies of the Latest Blue Hymnal. Seldom in the history of airpower has so much official authority been gathered in one place for a less significant purpose, sapping the time and focus of so many.
Or maybe it was true genius. I mean, we have core values, we have a creed to unite all creeds, we have all these other awesome buzzwords, lingo, and catchphrases … but no one has ever thought “what if we PDF these?” Perhaps one man’s unceremonious refuse is another’s creative gold.
But however we might feel about the Latest Blue Hymnal or the canine-equestrian circus heralding its initial foisting, what happened next was undeniably impressive. The morning after the Lackland festivities, airmen across the planet logged into their Air Force computers to find, after various processing delays, unread pop-ups, and required clicks acknowledging the obligation to refrain from committing various crimes, a most wondrous gift: a shiny new icon. It turns out the normally aloof network elves had been up all night making magic happen. Airmen could now click their way to deep blue enlightenment without even un-assing from their desks.
According to multiple corroborated reports (and since confirmed via email by CMSAF’s spokesman, SMSgt Lee Hoover) this happened not because a workorder was submitted and handled via the normal process, but because CMSAF reached down into the network operations community and directed someone to make it so. If the reports are to be believed, pulling off this little trick became the sole focus of a particular network operations team for a few weeks, essentially blocking out the sun. So if you’ve had a trouble ticket waiting for attention and seemingly delayed without good reason, this might be why. But … that icon tho … it was worth it, amirite?
Some airmen will find this all more than a little quizzical. In an Air Force where making the printer work in the squadron takes weeks and requires a UN resolution … in an Air Force where the mandatory travel software has been broken since it was fielded and no one has ever done anything about it … in an Air Force where promotion tests don’t get scored because of digital and analog fiascos that have proven impervious to correction for years … in this same Air Force, an enlisted airman was still able to make something at once trivial, digital, global, and labor-intensive happen on his timeline, with perfect results.
Just goes to show that when the senior enlisted advisor decides something is important, it can not only get sorted out in short order, but expertly force-fed to more than three hundred thousand of his subordinates and superiors alike. The mind boggles to imagine how much better things might be if such phenomenal cosmic power were applied to actual, legitimate issues … like the stumbling, stupefying, micro-mangled rollout of the new Enlisted Evaluation System.
As for the Latest Blue Hymnal itself (which purposely not linked here because there’s enough silliness in the world) … it’ll be forgotten rapidly by anyone who hasn’t already forgotten it. Even if the message had value or novelty, which it doesn’t, the delivery method fatally undermined any hope it would be absorbed into the culture of the service.
This doesn’t means written words never work, but they can’t precede the actions and examples they’re meant to support and affirm. When the core values were introduced in the mid-1990s, the leaders introducing them had credibility, lived those values with their own examples, and expected the same from others regardless of rank. Today’s senior Air Force leaders don’t, don’t, and don’t. Thus, airmen are less accepting of a coerced ethos from today’s leaders. Most would delete their new icon if the network allowed it. One colleague remarked sardonically of the photo below how unfortunate it is that the network won’t let him deposit the first two icons into the third one.
If you want people to adopt an idea, philosophy, or system, you have to let them build it for themselves in their own image rather than purchase the rights to your idea with their loyalty. How do you do that? Encourage more original thought and demand less obedience. How else do you do that? By planting the seeds with your narrative, watering those seeds with your example, and getting out of the way.
Not through clumsy attempts to catalog every trite, shop-worn, thought-free, quasi-ideological notion currently riddling the service’s ailing collective intellect in one tortured tome … before passing it off on grown adults as thought they will automatically cherish it simply because it came from you.
But even if there is some merit in mass-producing and electronically leaflet-bombing this besotted manual, there is no reason (better stated, no excuse) why it should occupy such a prominent position on CMSAF’s to-do list … certainly not until noted terrorist ass-kicker Spencer Stone has been appropriately decorated (by an American leader) … not until the 1,300 Senior Airmen condemned to promotion limbo have had their fates sorted out and communicated … and not until the many legitimate questions airmen have about the new enlisted evaluation system get the genuine attention they deserve rather than stock answers recited from scripted talking points as part of a psychological influence campaign.
There was a time in our history when we expected our most senior enlisted airman to safeguard the interests of his people. Somewhere along the way, that changed. Today, we expect him to serve the narrative while working to cement his own legacy.
And his performance meets or exceeds most if not all of those expectations.