In his latest “Airman to Airman” video, Gen. Mark Welsh abandons caution. In the grand tradition of his barnstorming, devil-may-care aviation forebears, Welsh attempts the rhetorical equivalent of something not even Rodney Dangerfield would dare try: the Quadruple Lindy.
Welsh’s purpose in this death-defying stunt is to hit four consecutive talking points and then complete his speech gracefully without leaving too many ripples in the water. To do this, he must start by setting out a clear objective, motivating his audience, and showing he’s in charge. This is what comprises the vaunted Triple Lindy. But to demonstrate he is beyond such sparing trivialities, Welsh sets his sights on a fourth target: inspiring the force.
Leaders capable of elevating the spirit of hundreds of thousands of people through a single, brief communication are historically rare — the white whales of military lore. Dwight Eisenhower’s letter to the troops in the eve of D-Day is perhaps the best modern example.
Is Welsh such a leader? Can he pull off this fearless gambit without figuratively cracking his cranium on the diving board (also known as “Louganising“) or ending in a belly flop?
Give the video a look and then we’ll break down his attempt.
Welsh opens with “[w]e’ve had lots of distractions.”
Undoubtedly true, and a good stage-setter. But of course, what qualifies as a “distraction” is subjective. While Welsh might be thinking of budget pressures and pay/benefit proposals when he uses this word, airmen might be imagining the endless string of mandated ancillary training events, emails from centralized finance or personnel offices reminding them of their self-support duties, or the perpetual parade of senior officials interrupting their duties for base visits.
But whichever perspective we adopt, it’s undeniable that distraction across the force is a real problem, so Welsh’s presentation is off to a promising start.
“We’ve had people worried about sequestration … retirement plans … commissions.”
This is more stage-setting, but of a more specious variety. Let’s take each of these claims in turn.
Airmen are not worried about sequestration per se. If you were to pick airmen at random and ask them what sequestration is, half would say it has something to do with a jury and the other half would say it has to do with horses jumping over obstacles. Those scant outliers who recognize it as DC-speak would likely respond by fleeing the interview.
They are distracted by the consequences of sequestration, most notably the manner in which it constrains the Air Force from correcting objectionable decisions made over the past decade. Decisions that eviscerated squadrons, creating endemic self-support requirements that make distraction inescapable.
They are distracted by the prospect of Congress raiding their pensions. Welsh and his fellow Joint Chiefs have not done enough to publicly stand against this notion, and are thus in no position to be mystified or unaccepting of troops harboring anxiety about it.
By “commissions,” Welsh seems to allude to the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC). In lumping it into his list of “distractions,” he comes close to slipping off the platform before he even gets the dive underway. The MCRMC performed a Congressionally mandated study of military compensation with an eye on potential changes fundamental to the prospect of an all-volunteer military. The Commission necessarily “distracted” servicemembers by gathering information from them in order to carry out its statutory duty, which had Presidential sponsorship. It wasn’t a distraction, it was a political process requiring the attention of airmen.
Welsh then moves to complete his preamble by saying, in reference to “Force Management” the chosen bureaucratic euphemism for the jettisoning of 19,000 airmen in 2014, “we’re past that now.”
He doesn’t realize it and certainly doesn’t mean it this way, but this is the equivalent of pissing from the diving platform to taunt the crowd.
Airmen are not “past” the reality of the 2014 drawdown. Those who were eliminated involuntarily and their families are certainly not “past” it, but neither are the teammates they left behind on active duty. This is true for at least two reasons.
First, as I warned during the serially inept unfolding of the drawdown, the consequences of breaking faith with airmen will not be limited to those directly impacted. Other airmen will take note of how their teammates are treated. 2014 changed the Air Force fundamentally. It showed airmen just how expendable they could become, and just how quickly. It showed them that behind the rhetoric of values and teamwork, the service considers them commodities.
This spooked everyone. Not only do many if not most airmen simply disbelieve Welsh when he says Force Management is over, but they take exception to him believing he can sweep away the dishonor of 2014 this casually. No one has been held accountable for the many mistakes of that morass. Welsh has never apologized for any of it. The “commander” of the Air Force Personnel Center, which executed the drawdown, has never publicly spoken about it. Simply hand-waving and uttering “we’re past that” is not an effective salve for the wounds the force incurred last year.
Second, the absence of those 19,000 airmen is felt across the force every day. None of the Air Force mission has gone away, so those who remain are simply more task saturated than before. Squadrons were already ill-resourced before the drawdown. Many are now debilitated. They mask their deficiencies by constantly shifting manpower to service rapidly changing priorities. Their pleas for help from the top go unanswered.
At an elapsed time of 33 seconds, Welsh’s attempt to reach into the minds and hearts of the force looks unpromising. Can he recover?
“…reset our focus on the fight.”
Yes! The crowd goes wild! After stumbling considerably, Welsh nails his first substantive talking point by setting out a clear and important objective. Airmen applaud. They’d loving nothing more than to screen out nonsense and focus on job performance.
“Our job is to fight and win the Nation’s wars.”
Boom! Who is this guy and where has he been for the last couple of years? This is exactly the kind of re-motivation a tired and distracted force needs in order to focus and dominate. Airmen are encouraged to hear CSAF explicitly acknowledge the service’s raison d’etre. If he’s thinking this way, it enables them to do the same, and they desperately want to do so.
“Those of us who work in DC’s job is to help provide you the resources, the education, and the training to be able to do that.”
Nailed it! Here Welsh acknowledges he’s got the controls. It’s a “buck stops here” sort of statement, and it creates anticipation that he’s about to tell airmen exactly how he plans to address the resource deficiencies they’re enduring.
At this point, he has successfully executed the components of a Triple Lindy, and could simply complete the dive and accept a decent applause. But Welsh is going for the gold. He wants to inspire the troops, an admirable goal. But can he pull it off?
“…I ask you trust us to get that done.”
Perhaps not. This is a huge misstep. After holding the audience in thrall with talk of command responsibility, Welsh makes no assurances that he will address the concerns of airmen. He instead retreats behind a veil of vagary, and further cheapens the exchange by making an emotional appeal without having built sufficient foundation to reasonably do so. Airmen want and deserve for CSAF to provide a concrete plan for how he intends to address the current mismatch between demands and resources. They don’t want saccharine but empty reassurances.
At this point, the quest for the quadruple is over. Welsh is, in fighter parlance, “raging white” for the balance of his maneuver. But he continues, and things go downhill from here.
“Nobody’s going to hurt you on the pay side of the house.”
This is manifestly false. Pay raises are behind inflation and housing allowances have been slashed. New rules on travel pay push the costs of being ordered off-station onto the backs of airmen, and do so in such Byzantine ways that a PhD in economics is necessary to decipher and file a travel voucher — something airmen do for themselves nowadays.
But beyond that, this is nudum pactum. It’s a promise Welsh can’t make, and he misleads airmen in suggesting otherwise. Congress controls the purse strings. It would be different if Welsh had said “I will fight like hell to make sure it doesn’t happen.” But he didn’t say that, and hasn’t done that.
But the biggest problem with this statement is that it misapprehends the entire point. Airmen don’t have a focus problem because of pay. Everything might be about money inside that torturous five-sided puzzle palace known as “The Pentagon,” but out in the real world, everything is about the mission. Airmen aren’t preoccupied with pay issues. They’re worried about having enough manning, enough time, and enough freedom from headquarters-inflicted nonsense and make-work to be able to get their ever-growing jobs done in a manner they can be proud of.
“Nobody’s gonna make retirement something you won’t be very satisfied with.”
Again, this is not something Welsh can promise. Congress is in fact moving toward shredding the 20-year retirement, something it does with the support of the Joint Chiefs. It wasn’t long ago the generals — Welsh included — stood silent while Congress broke America’s promise to veterans by retroactively slashing their pensions, something that was overturned in part because airmen voiced their concerns about it in the halls of Congress and in public debate.
It’s about this point that this speech, which was supposed to be about mission focus, starts to take on a sort of “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” feel. It’s unseemly. CSAF is asking airmen to refrain from thinking about proposed changes to retirement benefits, which is another way of appealing to them to refrain from participating in debates about such proposals. He’s encouraging them to curtail civic participation. This is an animal in the same species as the one Maj. Gen. James Post unleashed upon airmen back in January in remarks that eventually earned him a reprimand. Post’s actions, and Welsh’s response, have a lot to say about the Air Force’s institutional health.
While Welsh comes nowhere near the egregiousness of the Post debacle, it’s arguably still inappropriate for him to appeal to people to steer clear of debates that impact their futures and families. The impulse to deal airmen out of their roles as American citizens is unhealthy and troubling, something recently noted by others.
Airmen are free to join Military and Veteran Service Organizations that lobby Congress and create public awareness around issues such as compensation, medical care, and retirement. Airmen are free to participate in those discussions through an organization or on their own accord, and that’s a good thing. The country should not have military personnel policies informed solely by senior officials who lack appreciation for how military life has dramatically changed since 2001. Welsh should want his people to participate in the debates that shape their futures and impact their families. That’s what being American is all about.
He also shouldn’t assume they can’t focus on their duties and also be citizens. They deserve and have consistently affirmed higher expectations.
Referring to threats to pay, retirement, and medical care, Welsh continues his flourish with “[t]he Air Force isn’t going to allow it, the Department of Defense is not going to allow it, and the Congress is not going to allow it.”
Wrong, wrong, and wrong. The Air Force has and will support pay, benefit, and retirement cuts when it believes doing so is in the institutional interest. Congress has a long history of abandoning veterans when the guns fall silent, and sometimes even before that point. The Defense Department has led the recent charge to reduce personnel spending in order to create budgetary tradespace for weapon modernization, including the Air Force’s prized F-35.
Airmen should be worried about these things. They’d be foolish to not stay engaged. This doesn’t mean they should or will be “distracted” from the mission. It means they’re adult rational actors rather than the kind of emotional lemmings who would be taken in by appeals for trust under the current circumstances.
“So let us work the details of those programs, and you focus on the getting the job done. You’re the best in the world at what you do, and no one can compete with you if you keep that focus.”
This is admitting that the ability to focus is important to fighting and winning war. It is at the same time self-incriminating. Welsh has not done enough to enable the focus he knows is important. Airmen letting him work on their pay and benefits is not the proper target. Sustainably resourcing squadrons and empowering squadron leaders is the appropriate target. As they go, so will go the Air Force.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
This is an important video. It touches on a critical lesson of leadership that is currently casting a long shadow over all things Air Force.
As a leader, any time you find yourself asking for trust from your people, you’ve probably done something wrong. If the relationship between you and your people has been properly cultivated, you’ll never have to ask for trust, and nor will they. It will be implicit in all things — a rebuttable presumption to which all are entitled. This is the aspiration underlying the Air Force’s core value of integrity. If internalized by everyone who serves, it eliminates the need for second-guessing about individual motivations.
In begging for trust, Welsh acknowledges in the course of his dive that there might not be any water in the pool.
He should be worried. Trust between airmen and their senior leaders is in tatters. On issues from the nuclear missile cheating scandal to Force Management, senior officials including Welsh have failed to take responsibility for setting up systems that manufacture dishonesty and dishonor. The service has engaged in misleading political shenanigans in the A-10 debate, sidestepped questions about abusive leaders, and allowed communities to fall into chronic disrepair and crisis while officials at the top carry on as though all is well — something seen by many airmen as fiddling while Rome burns. There has been too much opacity and propaganda rather than the straight, serious, mission-focused communication upon which trust is partly founded. The other thing missing is the action necessary to make such talk worth anything.
Once trust has been scotched, asking for it back won’t work. Rebuilding it is the only option.
A well-executed dive into an Olympic pool can be inspirational. Just ask Rodney Dangerfield. But a tortured belly flop into a dry concrete pit is always counterproductive. In this case, Welsh’s rhetorical contortions have probably done more harm than good.
But ultimately, we can’t score the effort here. Only airmen can do that. Time will tell how they judge this attempt, and whether their trust can be regained through words alone.