On an almost daily basis, we field submissions from people witnessing online crackdowns aimed at silencing the authorized, protected speech of Americans who happen to also serve the Air Force. The service has cultivated a toxic climate when it comes to this issue, with NCOs and junior officers playing the role of enforcer while more senior members behave like outright bullies.
It’s useful to occasionally showcase these examples. Today, we bring you two that are timely and particularly lamentable.
The first is straightforward. An off-duty airman (in other words, an American citizen serving on active duty who was not at work and not speaking for the service) expressed a personal opinion about a particular political candidate online. His comment was well within even the overly restrictive rules issued by the Air Force earlier this year, and nowhere close to the boundary of the actual law, which expects only that service members avoid the appearance of an official agency endorsement of a partisan cause or candidate.
This didn’t stop an NCO in his chain of command from insisting he remove the comment. The airman responded by providing the NCO with a copy of the applicable instruction spelling out the rules of the road and explaining that he was fully permitted to have and express individual political opinions consistent with those rules. Here’s what he got back in return:
This is what our NCOs think about personal political expression. It reflects a total failure by the Air Force to properly educate and train its supervisory element on the rights and liberties airmen are protecting with their service, and what special limitations apply modestly to those liberties when serving on active duty.
It’s also an example of blatant hypocrisy manufactured into the Air Force’s culture through too many years of senior generals and E-9s regarding everyone else as the help. This kid is getting a beating from his NCO for criticizing Donald Trump, who is not even in government yet … something he is within his rights to do … while the generals brazenly lobby Congress on a panoply of issues, many linked to narrow or parochial interests.
The second example is equally disconcerting.
Here’s the opening salvo, posted to a closed Facebook page designed as some sort of discussion area for those assigned to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.
And here’s what followed.
The last commenter was spot-on. Totally inappropriate response by E-9 Clark.
We’re in an era of declining support, failing facilities, and “pretty darn good” morale. The only way Air Force leaders have any chance of understanding and remedying any of these issues is if they are made aware of them in the first place. They should want feedback like this. They should seek it out. Stop caring so much about having it delivered on a feather pillow in perfect form and simply accept and act on the substance of what’s being offered. As Colin Powell used to say, when your people stop bringing you problems, you know you’ve failed as a leader.
What should have happened here is that Clark should have taken the information and done something constructive with it … like, you know, engage the support system and do whatever might be done to address the concerns being expressed. If Incirlik is cutting services and support to its people, there should be no mystery why it is absolutely necessary. So at the very least, an explanation is in order.
But that wasn’t Clark’s impulse. He represents the top 1% of the enlisted force, and his impulse was coercion, reprisal, and bullying … all designed to suppress online expression and weed out inconvenient information. This is very much the Air Force approach these days. If you don’t want a policy or a decision to show up online or in the press, change the policy or decision. Trying to keep mediocrity a secret didn’t work in the quill age or the typewriter age … and it certainly won’t work in an age of social media.
When people ask me why I believe Gen. Welsh and Sec. James have done unforgivable harm to the Air Force during their tenures, issues like these are always core to my answer. They’ve permitted — and in Welsh’s case encouraged — a 1950s McCarthyite approach to the protected expression — political and otherwise — of the service’s airmen. It’s unacceptable, and as these examples help demonstrate, pervasive. It has seeped into the foundation of how the Air Force talks to itself.
This is how organizations die. When they become unaccepting of contrary opinion, it’s only a matter of time.
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