Don’t look now, but a retired Air Force 4-star just proved that you can achieve the highest rank in the military and still be wrong.
In a letter published in Air Force Times, General (ret.) Roger Brady castigates airmen who have spoken to Congress about the A-10, portraying them as unruly. His words include a demeaning insistence that those who are not senior-most officials “have neither the responsibility nor the perspective required to determine how best to meet the Air Force’s myriad global missions within the resources available.”
This is offensive and alienating to scores of educated, experienced professionals who have willingly given their lives to the cause of national defense in an era of perpetual conflict, only to have themselves portrayed as an unwashed underclass who are to be seen and not heard.
Brady’s letter goes on to characterize disagreement within the A-10 discussion as “not about free speech … [but] about good order and discipline.” After expressing puzzlement that airmen might “see it as their responsibility or obligation to lend their voices to the discussion,” Brady delivers a coup de grace by labeling those who express their views to elected representatives as “insubordinate.”
Here, Brady does what got Maj. Gen. James Post reprimanded: he attempts to criminalize a protected right to speak with Congress. Like Post, Brady fundamentally misapprehends the limit of general officer authority. If the right to communicate with an elected representative is protected — which it is — there can be no judgment by Brady or anyone else as to the content of that communication. Whether an airman is agreeing or disagreeing with the chain of command is immaterial and no one’s business. That’s what “protected” means. It’s a disgrace that such protections are necessary, but Brady’s letter illustrates why they exist. His words carry that how dare you defy me tone that can sometimes signal impending reprisal.
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Criminalizing disagreement is the kind of fascist nonsense that would be right at home in the North Korean military. It has absolutely no place in any American public agency. Our nation is premised on rejecting fealty and tolerating opposing views. Our Air Force has an implied duty to affirm those ideals in its own culture. To believe a free society can be vindicated by an unquestioning, conformist air service where serfs surrender their dignity and agency to lords is misguided in the extreme.
But it’s also contemptible.
Insubordination is a term of art. It refers to a subordinate in a superior-subordinate relationship willfully disobeying a lawful command. It is a crime under the punitive articles of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. It is punishable by Court Martial. In time of war, it is punishable by death.
Nothing that has happened in the A-10 debate comes close to fitting within this definition. General Brady should know better than to imply otherwise. For him to suggest that airmen exercising clearly protected speech are guilty of a crime is outrageous, and hostile to federal law.
Airmen are still citizens. They’re still entitled to individual opinions, liberated thoughts, and free expression. There are special limits on what they can say and do, but those limits don’t invite the total imposition of command authority over every aspect of an airman’s life and conduct. Whether Brady genuinely believes advancing the opposite notion to be in the national interest or is simply propounding his own worldview is irrelevant. It’s wrong either way, and that makes him wrong even if his intentions are pure.
What makes his approach especially objectionable is that it seeks to substitute control where leadership should predominate. Air Force leaders never bothered to meaningfully consult or persuade their own Close Air Support community on the plan to divest the A-10. They never bothered to lead on the issue. That community has reacted by finding ways to have their voices heard. Unable or unwilling to persuade them through a competition of ideas, the service now seeks to control them.
Or maybe it’s only Brady who wants to do so. It’s hard to tell, given the parallels between his rhetoric and previous comments made by Welsh, Post, and other officials. All seek to marginalize those who disagree as “emotional.”
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Congress needs as much information as it can gather before deciding how to spend scarce taxpayer dollars to optimize national defense. Not just from “authorized” executive branch mouthpieces, but from Americans who actually have timely, relevant expertise and a proven passion for defending their country in the war they’ve been handed rather the one they’d hoped for. The vast majority of these types don’t wear stars or work in a headquarters building.
We should be heartened that rank-and-file airmen are doing their civic duty. That they would use the political process to pursue their interests in the future defense of our nation is a good thing, and a fortifying influence on our defense rather than a harmful one. It’s inconvenient, yes. But that’s the cost of living in a free society.
Neither rank nor power can alone imbue credibility, something a 40-plus-year military veteran should know. Senior officials are rightly considered experts in the organization, training, and equipment needed to field forces and fight war. But Americans and their representatives also need to hear from practitioners on how big picture programs translate into tactical and operational realities.
Air Force generals don’t have great credibility in that regard. Despite its superb airmen, the service failed repeatedly to innovate in the last dozen years, to the point that former Secretary of Defense Gates was moved to excoriate its lethargic culture, remarking that “[b]ecause people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it’s been like pulling teeth” getting the Air Force to adapt. His remarks came on the heels of Brady’s nearly four-year tenure at the helm of all Air Force personnel programs.
Sequestration has brought with it a dawning reality for Congress and the American people that making informed decisions about how to spend hundreds of billions of dollars can’t solely mean consulting with senior officials, who lack operational recency and have shown repeatedly that they are disinclined to allow expertise within the ranks to bubble up and into budget discussions. This point Brady unintentionally reinforces with his letter.
Spending resources wisely means talking to people who have actually deployed and fought in the post-9/11 military, a roster that doesn’t include General Brady or very many of his high-ranking colleagues.
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Brady’s letter is another indication of confusion among Air Force generals about the difference between power and legal authority. The former, no matter how great, cannot overcome limits placed on the latter. The unmooring of power from reason among military leaders is cause for concern in Congress and elsewhere. Without properly calibrated power relationships, the services will not think, prepare, or train effectively. They’ll be flat-footed when danger calls. The price will be exacted in blood.
At the risk of giving the general a more robust response than his letter deserves, there’s something else that needs to be said here.
This letter is incredibly smug coming from General Brady.
His generation of leaders inherited a healthy Air Force and did their best to put it into an unrecoverable spin. The years that followed the 9/11 attacks should have been a time for airmen to full-heartedly and proudly demonstrate airpower’s worth and to have their honor affirmed in the process. Instead, the service tarred itself with one misstep after another, all originating at or near the top.
There was constant, unnecessary bickering over theater control of joint airpower at a time when cooperation on doctrinal matters would have cost the Air Force absolutely nothing worth defending. There was a stubbornly defiant campaign to resist developing and fielding urgently needed airborne reconnaissance assets. Most distressingly, there was a string of managerial calamities culminating in the nuclear incidents that triggered the coincident sacking of a service chief and secretary. In too many relevant ways, the service is still reeling from these and many other errors.
Along the way, the service traded thousands of manpower billets for modernized aircraft, all the while constructing a deployment system that guaranteed unchallengeable personnel abuses for the sake of “joint” appearances. Many of the airmen Brady was lecturing in his letter have more years away from home than he has stars in his shadow box, and some of those years have been unnecessary, part of a craven political gambit to keep the service perceptually relevant enough to argue credibly for its place at the budgetary feeding trough.
What was the Air Staff doing while this was all unfolding? Negotiating (improperly) an expensive new Thunderbird visual services contract (despite having met recruitment goals for as long as anyone could remember), gutting squadron staffs and replacing them with centralized and ineffective micromanagement of human resources, and setting the conditions for a pilot shortage that now threatens to compromise the service’s fundamental viability in its core missions.
Today’s airmen are not benefactors of such “leadership.” They’re survivors of it. To be publicly scolded now and told to basically stay quiet and get back to work is not something they welcome.
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The unfolding story of the modern Air Force is one of mismanagement at the top rescued by perseverance, grit, and superior performance at squadron level. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that when it comes to the A-10, the same thing has been happening. Senior officials have butchered the discussion and lost credibility. The debate has been rescued by straight talk and combat-relevant truth channeled from street level. That and the personal, privately rendered, legally protected opinions of airpower practitioners who also happen to be civic-minded and fully entitled American citizens.
What we’re seeing is a long-simmering reaction to a long period of strangled and propaganda-driven internal communication. The Air Force has asked airmen to choose between doing what is right and what is loyal, a choice which free men and women always recognize as alien to their way of life. It has asked them to set aside what they believe is moral and to instead yield to authority because of where it emanates. They’re unwilling to go along on that rationale, and we should thank our lucky stars that is the case.
The expression of learned opinion that happens to disagree with power — whether rendered to Congress or the Avon Lady — is not insubordination. It is moral courage. With more of it, we might have a fighting chance at a well-defended nation. This is the common ground we should be striving to stand upon; not what’s in the interest of, most convenient for, or most comfortable for general officers or senior executives, but what’s best for the country.
In the meantime, generals both active and retired should be working hard to regain the trust and confidence of those they lead, rather than telling them to basically shut up and color.