This iterative variation on the timeless (and some say useless) “Dear Boss” letter is nothing if not entertaining. It was first bandied about four or so years ago, when the unidentified author had one foot out the door and used the remaining foot to kick around a few pearls of wisdom for the amusement of his friends and colleagues.
I didn’t have a blog back then. Since I do now and this thing seems to be re-surfacing, I dare not withhold it.
There are two problems with this wildly entertaining letter.
First, in both style and substance, it’s so utterly typical at this point that much of the comedic edge is doubtless dulled by the passage of time and the numbness of airmen of all ranks to the painful message they’ve not only consumed, but literally lived for too long to remember. But that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that its theme and main points are utterly correct.
The leaders of the Air Force have committed the ultimate sin: they’ve let daily squadron life degrade into a joyless, uninspired slog rather than the exhilarating ride in the cockpit of America that it once was.
Institutionalists make endless excuses for this. But the neo-fascists are even worse. They simply slap the “disloyal” label on anyone who worries about the state of the institution … before declaring in summary form that the disloyal specimen should simply get the hell out. Their destructive misapprehensions unchecked by a mostly self-interested cohort of unimaginative bureau-generals, they manage to persuade our best people — those most committed to their principles and most courageous about advancing them — that getting out is indeed the right move.
And that’s how we lose people like “Mikey” … who wrote this letter just a few years into his pilot commitment, the Air Force having beaten a once vibrant airpower passion out of him swiftly and completely. At one point, he was the best performer in his peer group, but not long after, he was climbing the walls to get out, totally alienated by the organization’s rapidly devolving culture and climate.
He tried to leave voluntarily but we didn’t let him. Then we kicked him out instead. Now, Mikey is about to graduate from medical school.
What happens to an organization that forcibly detaches its weakest performers and manages to alienate its best performers until they voluntarily detach? It retains only those in the middle of the bell curve, and tends toward mediocrity. Sound familiar?
In the naivety of my youth, I believed being a military helicopter pilot would be exciting, rewarding, and purposeful. Evidence along my path continuously pointed to the contrary, but I kept making excuses, hoping that in the “real Air Force” the silliness would be replaced by a real mission and genuine challenges.
Upon finally “arriving”, deep disappointment greeted me when I found myself plunged fully into the sea of oppressive and unimaginative praxes. I no longer had the student’s privilege of being isolated from the idiocy, and even more frustrating, in the “real Air Force” the people in charge sincerely believed their very livelihoods depended on their and their followers’ strict conformity to every nuance of their latest boss’s suppositions.
From these observations I concluded that career progression based on the nearly fundamentalistic fervor with which a subordinate must adhere to the doctrines of his supervisor guarantee the system can only continue to
devolve. Those in a position to invoke change only rose to such heights by buying wholly into the current model-they will use whatever authority they gain only to expand and reinforce the scheme at which they themselves excel, growing into the next generation of votaries pontificating the edicts of risk aversion and blind conformity. Thoughtful or bold individuals, of course, would never be trusted at the helm of such a machine because they may endanger the beast itself. Mediocrity is the best possible outcome of this incest.
Based on the fact, then, that the system will not improve, and knowing performance and promotions would be uncoupled for far longer than I intended to be in the Air Force (from my previous paragraph the reader should know I question the degree to which competence leads to advancement, but suffice it to say I wasn’t worried about my career given the over 90% promotion rates for the first ~15 years as an officer), I did my best to walk the fine line of taking upon myself as much of the make-work as possible to minimize the burden to my peers while maintaining the invisibility to leadership required to pursue my ambitions. My kairos came when the opportunity for me to separate presented itself. Upon voicing my desires, the bosses kept insisting I was “too much of an asset” and “too important” to leave the Air Force. My ability to write decoration citations honoring people for sitting in an air-conditioned office perusing the internet was threatening my dream of going to medical school. My plan to remain invisible had failed, leaving sabotage of my own career as the only option.
So I write to you from my quarantine in the headquarters building on my final day in the Air Force. Months ago I was absolved of all responsibility and have had all my evenings and weekends returned to me. And the pay’s the same. I will cherish the Letter of Counseling I earned for making a mockery of good order and discipline far more than the medals I received just for showing up. The former took courage. Meanwhile, life at the squadron continues: you’re still drowning in the deluge of random, pointless tasks; folks are still getting meaningless, cookie-cutter performance reports; the arbitrary policy changes and perpetual construction projects continue. I guess I wasn’t that essential after all.
What I want you to learn from my experience is that if your dreams are worth pursuing then chase them with all your strength and ability and you will make them happen. With God’s grace you will make them happen — the Air Force will not make them happen or even accommodate or condone them (unless your aspiration is to waste your days in a cubicle inventing inconsequential tasks in a pathetic attempt to validate your existence … or to be shipped to any number of miserable places absorbing bullets in conflicts manufactured to feed the military/terrorism-industrial complex). Don’t be so timid as to sell your soul for a steady paycheck and guaranteed health coverage. And you’ll regret selling out for the retirement benefits when you’re paid in
dollars so devalued they’re basically worthless.
Don’t think these problems are unit-specific, either. I have friends across various airframes, locations, and jobs who think similarly. Next, you don’t “owe” anything to the Air Force, and deep down you know what you do at work every day isn’t defending America or promoting democracy or protecting freedom or any of the other propaganda we are constantly fed. The dissonance of recruiting warriors who are adventurous enough to fly military helicopters, then stuffing them into cubicles doing superfluous paperwork under the charge of children too scared to say “no” to the whims of their supervisors or “yes” to the inputs of their supervisees is irreconcilable and borderline immoral.
I intended this to be a conservatively-portioned and subtly-seasoned serving of mikey-thoughts, made from all natural, fresh ingredients that have been carefully stewed over the course of many years. If you received this, it is because I have hope that you have the wisdom to see through the nonsense and the courage to rise above it.
Anyway, enough with the seriousness, here’s my top ten reasons to be happy to be leaving my unit and the Air Force in general:
10. Progress means decreasing our mission capability by more than half while getting more people and somehow becoming busier (whippersnappers if you don’t understand this ask the old folks about Lt Col X’s horrendous reorganization).
9. The dear leaders are convinced the American empire will instantly disintegrate if a line on a performance report ends with three spaces.
8. “War stories” among my peers all start with “Did you get that email?”
7. My favorite assignment is making pizzas for the air show, because that’s the only time I actually know what I did at work all day.
6. We’re told the future of the free world rests on our shoulders, and as proof, during day-to-day operations (and our basic existence and welfare) we’re trusted to do on our own … well … pretty much nothing.
5. The only bullets we talk about have nothing to do with guns.
4. The most dangerous thing I could possibly do as a military helicopter pilot would be to wear headphones while jogging on base.
3. Instead of pilot training, it would have been more appropriate to attend two years of instruction on how to write empty performance report bullets, run the CFC, organize a holiday party, participate in mandatory “volunteering”, buy plasma screen televisions, create unnecessary and wasteful programs, get meaningless degrees, and spend 80 hours at work every week without actually accomplishing anything; once we get to our first assignment we could complete a CBT to learn how to fly the aircraft.
2. Reference the chart.
1. If I had wanted to sit at work 14 hours a day and talk about how important I am while flying the occasional 1.5-hour flight to train for a mission I’m never going to execute I would have been a fighter pilot.
And my favorite article if you haven’t already read it:
Best of luck, and keep in touch, my lovely friend.