Degraded by Dogs and Ponies: The Lying Game of Air Force VIP Culture


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Ask any Air Force wing commander where s/he spends the most time and effort. You’ll get an articulate answer sounding in tones of mission and people. Now put a gun to that wing commander’s head and insist on the truth. One hundred percent of the time, you’ll get the same answer: visits

If you’re a wing commander, visits can get you fired. They’re break-even events. Wing commanders rarely hope to get money, notoriety, or adulation out of a visit. They simply hope to survive, and maybe put some vague positivity on the record. Visits are like going to the dentist. It’s unlikely you’ll be congratulated for your superior dental hygiene practices. The best you can hope for is to walk out of the experience with your jaw intact.

Contrary to fictions branded into the brains of senior officials, airmen couldn’t possibly care less about spending time with them. No airman, NCO, or CGO lays awake in bed at night dreaming of the chance to show a senior civilian how to preflight an oxygen mask or calibrate a torque wrench. And no one worth his salt yearns for a selfie with Leader X or General Y. If they do, we probably aren’t yearning to showcase them. 

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Confounding popular myth, visits don’t help senior officials better understand the mission, either. In fact, visits reduce understanding of the mission. There’s nothing about a superficial walk-through that ingrains the essential truths of day-to-day operations. Visits are about sampling the operating environment, not truly savoring it.

Visits are impression-based activities. There’s no way to give a visiting official a genuine sense of the mission in a short space of time, so a wing commander instead develops a plan to give the visitor an impression of the mission. Not just any impression, but the best possible impression. This explains why portly folks are given the afternoon off, hedges are trimmed along the main thoroughfare, and the turkey tetrazzini usually served on Tuesdays at the chow hall is replaced in the rotation by steak and lobster. Visits aren’t about showing what really goes on. They’re about showing an upbeat TV commercial version of what’s going on.

 

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Impressions are dangerous things. They’re not true. They’re a shorthand version of the truth. A model for a much more complex reality. They don’t show the grit, the dirt, the ups-and-downs, or the occasional failures of an organization. They put on an organization’s best face. This is a lie of sorts. It omits things that the visitor should know if s/he is to truly understand the organization. As such, these impressions proffered as substitutes for reality lead to conclusions at odds with real working conditions. No surprise that decisions made by senior leaders relying on these impressions often seem aloof or just plain dumb.

But if visits lead wing commanders to arrange elaborate commercials about their organizations, and the wing commanders who handle visits best are the ones who end up progressing further up the Air Force ladder, there is a powerful incentive for dishonesty. And not just any dishonesty, but an elaborate lying game implicating the entire institution, with officials encouraging it, senior officers feeding it, and the rank-and-file along for the ride.

Airmen caught up in this lying game are not stupid. They know they’re being used to create a dishonest impression. They see the gap between this and the core value of integrity they’re constantly exhorted to uphold. That say-do gap is an injury to leader credibility and to the individual airman’s commitment to core values. They also get tired of the thick hypocrisy. 

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They’re told to focus on primary duties, but interrupt those duties regularly to prepare for visitors. They’re told they can’t get a rental car when they go TDY because the service is broke, yet they watch as a fleet of surreys and staff cars cater to a steady stream of self-anointed dignitaries. They’re told they can’t fly training missions for lack of funds, then watch as the money for a recreational mission magically materializes when the time comes to show off for a senior official. They’re told they can’t get home from deployment on time because of the expense of airlift, then stand in line and salute as an executive arrives in a dedicated transport plane. Every time airmen watch senior officials stepping over dollars to save dimes, it makes leaders less credible, and it makes the causes of conservation and austerity seem utterly laughable.

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Now multiply this effect by fifty – a typical number of annual visits for an ordinary Air Force base each year. Now add several inspections and staff assistance visits. Now add in civic leader tours and community outreach. The result is senior officers on Air Force bases engaged in a perpetual, repeating cycle of institutionalized dishonesty, with the best liars getting a general’s star as a reward. This is how a DV culture and the endless visits it generates can crush integrity.

With this reality unfolding constantly, it’s not difficult to understand how senior officials have lost the confidence of rank-and-file airmen. Not only are senior officials engaging their own airmen in a steady betrayal of the value system they’ve sworn to uphold, they’re ingraining and adopting false, rosy views of Air Force life that are preventing recognition of deep-seated problems drastically in need of remedies.

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So what is the alternative? Two things come to mind. First, senior officials should summarily cut their own travel budgets by two-thirds. After all, we’re broke and every dollar counts. This will force officials to rely on the assessments of the on-scene commanders they’ve hired and will reduce both fiction and micromanagement in the operating environment. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James has conducted an estimated fifty to seventy-five visits since assuming her position. She has continued undaunted despite a DoD report finding that excessive visits are partially to blame for the warping pressures being felt by the nuclear missile community. By traveling this much, James is giving herself a false sense of the problems she’s charged to fix.

Second, visits that are undertaken should be unannounced and unscripted. Want a real impression of what’s happening on an Air Force base? Show up mid-week during shift-change and watch what happens after the sun goes down. Then, wake up the next morning and try to use base agencies in the ways airmen use them. The result would be a shocking jolt of truth that might just revive a once great but now dying aviation culture before it goes cold.


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