Ready, Fire, Aim: the Dangerous Habit of a Corrupt Chain of Command

A recent spate of questionable firings are casting doubt one whether the Air Force's command climate understands the difference between fact and rumor . . . and the difference between judgment and intuition.  Should innuendo and "gut feeling" ever be enough to destroy a career?
A recent spate of questionable firings are casting doubt one whether the Air Force’s command climate understands the difference between fact and rumor . . . and the difference between judgment and intuition. Should innuendo and “gut feeling” ever be enough to destroy a career?

What should it take to destroy someone?  What burden should be met?  When does conjecture cross the line into actionable fact? How is that determined?  How credible should we consider damaging rumors when they’re rendered by anonymous or biased sources unwilling to take public ownership of them?  When anyone can say anything about anyone else, no matter how damaging and no matter how unsupported, who should be believed?  How do we determine credibility in such an environment?  When rumors are enough to bring down authority figures, what is the risk that disgruntled losers will be emboldened to spread spurious information about those who held them accountable for subpar performance?

These are important questions, especially given the nascent toxicity of the US Air Force’s command climate.  In an environment where Colonels and Generals have stopped trusting their squadron commanders, looking condescendingly upon them and skeptically upon the processes that selected them as commanders in the first place, information that confirms or aligns with the biases of senior leaders takes on false credibility, creating disastrous results. This is an obvious injury to the ethical practice of leadership, an injury as yet unrecognized by the Air Force’s senior-most leaders.

Several times in the last 24 hours, both online and offline, I’ve heard the phrase “I’m sure there’s more to the story” (or something similar) with respect to the case of Lt. Col. Blair Kaiser and his questionable firing — a situation investigated and detailed by JQP.  A few anonymous netizens have even gone so far as to throw explosive ideas on the table without supporting or owning them, an obvious attempt to damage Kaiser even further as he struggles to publicly clear his name after being professionally destroyed without clear warrant.  The implication of these anonymous grumbles and speculative vagaries is that Kaiser *must have* done something wrong to earn his fate, and that we should trust the O-6s involved somehow found the right answer even if they did so via the wrong process.  Some have gone so far as to suggest that even if an investigation couldn’t prove it, Kaiser deserved to be canned “just because.”

This could not be more wrong or misguided.  If it can’t be proven, it didn’t happen.  That is and always should be the standard by which we act when we act punitively . . . so long as we call ourselves Americans.  Inverting this logic makes us more consistent with the culture of our potential enemies than we should ever allow.  Otherwise, we’re fighting to preserve a system unworthy of the sacrifice it demands.

Whether Kaiser is/was a candidate for sainthood isn’t the point.  In fact, show me a veteran officer about whom nothing negative has ever been spoken and I’ll show you an officer who has most likely avoided risk so pragmatically and politicked so deftly that s/he is a poor candidate for any leadership role. Indeed, what matters most of all is whether the chain of command met its burden of knowing — by proving to itself — that Kaiser’s leadership or character were somehow questionable enough that he was no longer the right person to command the 30th AS . . . that is should undo what was carefully and thoughtfully done just months before on the basis of years of aggregate and carefully documented evidence of superb performance and demonstrated potential.

This is a tough case to make given Kaiser’s narrow opportunity to actually command the squadron, the fact he was out of the country for 5 months on the eve of his firing, and the fact someone else had total legal authority over the unit he allegedly failed effectively command, making his putative failure of impossibility of reason.  In lay terminology, we could say Kaiser had not just one but two bullet-proof “alibis” . . . but these were swept aside by a chain of command apparently set on a course driven by obscured motives.  What did not drive this firing was anything Kaiser did during his tenure as 30th AS/CC.  That much is established by the investigation done after his relief.  When motives are obscured and relief from command is based on something other than the facts of a commander’s performance or conduct, we can’t say an ethical system emplaced.

The burden is not on Kaiser — just as it wasn’t on Craig Perry at Lackland — to prove sainthood or to knock down every rumor or innuendo uttered by any disgruntled subordinate or peanut gallery member.  That kind of burden-shifting scheme is the mark of a corrupt system.  When good leaders can be destroyed based on false witness and rumor mongering without any opportunity to understand or confront accusations, the system loses all stability and will soon collapse, leaving airmen and the mission in disarray.  Plenty of rumors and innuendos have been uttered about Kaiser’s wing commander and those above him in the chain of command.  Should those utterances be enough to cost those leaders their jobs and careers?  It’s a fair question that should be hovering in the minds of those who pulled the trigger on Kaiser’s firing.  It should be keeping them awake at night.  It should be bothering them deep down in places they don’t talk about at parties.

But just remember . . . we needn’t speculate too much because there *was* a commander directed investigation into Lt. Col. Kaiser and it did not substantiate any allegations.  Not only was there no fire, there wasn’t even enough smoke for a faint signal.  It’s little wonder the chain of command couldn’t meet the burden to relieve him given that he hadn’t really commanded his squadron much and hadn’t commanded it at all during the time he was allegedly failing to earn the confidence of his chain of command.

This looks like a(nother) case of “Ready-Fire-Aim” . . . and if allowed to stand, it risks inflicting more damage to the institution than to any individual involved.

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