Opinion: The Limits of General Welsh’s Love for Airmen

General Mark A. Welsh (Photo: Department of Defense).
General Mark A. Welsh (Photo: Department of Defense).

“I love you. I love who you are. I love what you do. I love how you stand up for each other.”

These were the words of General Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, during his recent visit to Hill Air Force Base. It’s a common theme in Welsh’s stump speech, and something airmen have grown accustomed to hearing him say. When Welsh rose to his position, airmen had every reason to put stock in Welsh’s reputation as a genuine, no-nonsense military leader operating from a combat team perspective — just the sort of senior officer who could be expected to not only profess his love of comrades openly, but to actually mean it.

But, whether because Welsh’s words were always more style than substance, or because the perpetually soul-crushing political siege that is the job he currently holds has changed him somehow, Welsh’s actions have shown there are limits on how much he loves his airmen, or at least what he’s willing to do demonstrate that love.

On August 26th, I wrote an article here exposing questionable legal practices at Laughlin Air Force Base that had claimed the careers of several officers on the basis of text messages found on their personal cellphones, which had been seized on shaky legal grounds. The article provided the Air Force with a clear and credible indication of command abuse of authority. Welsh did nothing.

A follow-up on September 3rd raised new questions about additional compromises of civil liberties and due process. Welsh did nothing.

On September 16th, I reported that two Congressmen had sent Welsh a letter detailing their concerns with the situation at Laughlin, publicizing much of the content of that letter, which mirrored concerns that had been raised nearly a month before in the original story. Still, Welsh said and did nothing publicly to address the issue.

He remained motionless on October 1st when I reported that officers at Laughlin had been hounded not for actual wrongdoing, but for failing to pass along rumors of unprofessional relationships, and exhibited nary a twitch of interest on October 3rd when a story here exposed how Laughlin’s leaders had railroaded those who wrote letters in support of accused teammates to help them raise a defense.

These were all credible reports of airmen hounded, unfairly vilified, railroaded, and basically manhandled under the color of official authority without proper evidence, appropriate due process, or basic fairness. Airmen Welsh says he loves.

And yet he said and did nothing. Nothing to clarify the rules, nothing to remind airmen in the field of their duties in certain situations, and nothing reassuring them that they’d have nothing to fear in the absence of moral culpability. Nor did he send emissaries to do it for him. Welsh instead chose to ignore credible, consistent indications that something had gone wrong at Laughlin … something that quite possibly made victims of his beloved airmen.

And then, as if having imbibed mana from Heaven, Welsh suddenly relocated his love of airmen, or at least a caveated, conditioned version of it.

After meeting with the Congressmen who’d complained to him in a strongly-worded letter, he felt a sudden urge to make sure the airmen in this case had not been mistreated. He promptly opened two investigations into the entire Laughlin mess and committed himself, through spokesmen, to taking whatever actions were demonstrated necessary.

Those investigations are now ongoing, but Welsh still hasn’t made a public statement, despite national coverage by Air Force Times, Daily Beast, and Fox News in addition to what has been originally reported here. Not a reassurance to airmen that he will personally see the situation through. Not a personal commitment to justice or due process.

It’s a strange kind of love that only speaks its name when things are going well. That only applies to airmen who haven’t in some way lost Caesar’s favor. One might say it’s not love at all, because love applies without conditions. Love cannot contain itself to comfortable circumstances. It’s always there, even when its transactors are at odds with one another or unclear about how the future will turn out. 

But it’s not the first time we’ve seen this brand of affection from General Welsh. When it became public that Maj. Gen. James Post had intimidated subordinates into muzzling opinions about the A-10 by marking them with the stain of treason, Welsh similarly remained silent. It was later revealed that he’d known from the very beginning the substance of Post’s comments and done nothing to address them until it became politically untenable to resist doing so.

In deference to Forrest Gump, it’s entirely possible that General Welsh, though a smart man, doesn’t know what love is. A brand of “love” that only shows up when expressing it becomes politically unavoidable deserves suspicious quotes, because it is suspect. This is perfectly apropos of a situation driven entirely by unreasonable suspicion untempered by the presumptions that should accompany a loving regard for teammates.

“I love you. I love who you are. I love what you do. I love how you stand up for each other.”

Unless General Welsh says or does something to set the record straight, it’s fair to interpret this stylistic stump speech line as little more than a cheap euphemism. What he seems to actually mean is that he loves you if you’re a fellow senior leader, or maybe if you’re an airman who hasn’t run afoul of the chain of command, or maybe if you’re an airman whose situation has become politically threatening to the establishment and must, therefore, have love visited upon it.

Such variable affection isn’t the stuff of cohesive fighting teams. It’s a free-floating and varying form of approval … a vehicle for gifting unwitting masses with the warmth of power to purchase their approval and allegiance, until such time as they become one of the unloved — a less fortunate group of which we don’t speak.

Applying a gloss of camaraderie to official rhetoric in order to hoodwink a trusting audience desperate for something and someone in which to believe isn’t love at all. It’s just retail politics. It’s also increasingly obvious. Much more of this, and airmen are bound to lose that lovin’ feelin’.

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