With more than 900,000 views since its September 4th release, the A-10 documentary “Hawg” has struck a chord with audiences, and not unexpectedly so. The story of how airpower enables and provides overwatch for ground forces in far-flung operations is as important as it is captivating.
At the time of the video’s release, which defied an internal Air Force decision to the contrary, I speculated about why it hadn’t been shared with the public and how that decision had been made. It seemed logical, even if objectionable, that the documentary would have been strangled for political reasons. The Air Force was in a fight with Congress and others about the future of the A-10, and the video’s release at the time of production would have upended any number of favored narratives.
Still, debunking a suppression theory would have been easy enough had I been able to get any kind of comment out of the Air Force prior to releasing the video. Several pre-publication attempts at a dialogue generated no meaningful comment.
Post-release, when the documentary’s popularity made it more difficult to ignore, comment from the Air Force was easier to come by.
Earlier this month, I reached out to Public Affairs officials at Air Force Headquarters to ask whether “Hawg” had been produced by Combat Camera airmen and whether it had been the subject of an officially sanctioned suppression campaign. I received the following response from spokesperson Lt. Col. Christopher Karns via email:
“The documentation was captured by Combat Camera. The primary intent of Combat Camera missions [is] to ensure documentation of military activities during wartime operations, worldwide crises, and contingencies. The foundational mission of Combat Camera was achieved. The documentation aided mission assessment. However, the video in your possession never entered the security and policy review process because it was not finalized for any other purpose.”
Karns seems to be claiming that there was nothing unusual about the non-release of the video because making videos for public release isn’t really the prime role of Combat Camera, the agency we can now officially credit with the publication (as a side note, the videographer responsible received an Air Force Combat Action Medal and an Army Commendation Medal; his name is withheld for force protection reasons). Like many Air Force public affairs statements, this one is technically correct but incomplete, creatively spun to support a position.
Here’s an excerpt from the Air Force’s own public affairs website explaining the mission of Combat Camera (COMCAM):
“COMCAM imagery serves as a visual record of an operation and is of immeasurable value to decision makers in the OSD, Joint Staff, and combatant commands. COMCAM imagery is also significant for public affairs, public diplomacy and psychological operations.“
Karns’ statement gives us half the story. The other half contemplates that when Combat Camera airmen risk their lives to get important footage of operations, it won’t be purely for archival and assessment purposes, but will ordinarily have public consequences as well.
This makes sense given the risks involved, as well as the costs of production, which are billed to taxpayers entitled to understand the fruits of their proceeds. It’s also underscored by the release of a similar documentary around the same time period “Hawg” was produced … notably featuring the less controversial F-16 rather than the A-10, but reportedly borrowing some of the footage gathered for the A-10 project.
There are also issues with Karns’ additional claim that the video was never “finalized.” While the version shared by JQP is a polished product in its own right, there exists another version, titled “Grunts in the Sky,” which is a final edit of “Hawg” complete with titles, credits, and additional finishing touches. “Grunts in the Sky” excises much of the practitioner commentary championing the A-10 and opining about its centrality and irreplaceability in the CAS mission. This is evidence that someone exercised editorial discretion in an effort to get the video through a policy review and into the public.
Still, Karns’ claim that the video never entered official review for releasability is not inconsistent with a suppression effort by the chain of command. It’s well-known that the security and policy review process is commonly used to block inconvenient or embarrassing information from becoming public, even if the objective of the process is to ensure “information is released in a timely manner, without divulging classified or sensitive technical or operational information.” This sort of review process places practically unlimited discretion in the hands of those with the strongest incentive to block release. This is a structural recipe for opacity, and helps explain why the Air Force has an absolutely abysmal reputation with media outlets. Getting information out of Big Blue is like pulling teeth.
But while Karns’ explanation seems reasonable in many respects, even if problematic in others, there’s another version of the story.
Multiple sources tell me the video was finalized and submitted for release, and that when it reached a certain staffing level, it was shot down with extreme prejudice. Officers close to the situation said that the wing commander at Bagram threatened UCMJ action against anyone who leaked the video, going so far as invoking the word “mutiny” in his warning.
To be fair, it’s likely he was only relaying a decision from a much higher level, and equally arguable that the intent of his language can’t be comprehended without more context.
On the other hand, threats of official action from senior officers to foreclose open discussion about the A-10 fit perfectly within the pattern that has characterized the fight over its future. To the extent there’s any credence to these latest reports, they renew questions about the climate created by the Air Force and whether it improperly diminishes the individual agency of airmen in favor of a requirements for total obedience not just in deed, but in thought and speech as well.
Much to the distress of his airmen, General Welsh hasn’t done anything meaningful to address this question, standing silent even as members of the Senate Armed Services Committee publicly excoriated one of his generals for suppressing protected speech in violation of federal law. It’s possible Welsh is unwittingly emboldening toxic conduct through his official silence. That he is wrestling through one of the more difficult moments in the history of the institution — a moment characterized by high stakes, complex motivations, and tangled equities — perhaps explain Welsh’s reticence to invite open debate. But this is no excuse for the damage an inappropriate loyalty culture is inflicting, and it won’t rescue Welsh’s legacy.
The service insists, through Karns, that it is not seeking to suppress or downplay the achievements of the A-10 community, pointing to a Smithsonian Channel documentary premiering tonight and developed with Air Force cooperation. But it’s not unreasonable to look skeptically upon this claim given many clear instances of misrepresentation by the Air Force on the subject of the A-10. Failing to correct the record and choosing to not tell the whole story are qualitatively no different than deliberate suppression. The effects are the same. High ethical claims cannot be made by an agency engaging in either, and the Air Force has been culpable for both.
Still, there’s one way Karns and the Air Force could reinforce his claim: release the finalized “Grunts in the Sky” documentary. And by release, I don’t mean by posting it to a sidelight repository in some dark corner of the internet. The Air Force should share the video with its two million Facebook followers, ensuring the story of Close Air Support in Afghanistan is consumed by the taxpayers whose representatives will ultimately decide how to appropriate scarce defense dollars.
After all, the Secretary of the Air Force recently used her social media feed, with notable glee, to share a music video created by the Max Impact Band. Surely our warfighting airmen deserve the same notoriety as our ornamental and exclusively non-combat personnel.
If you’re longing for a return to common-sense leadership that champions airpower for its own sake, without worrying about how celebrating airmen might create political or budgetary inconveniences, you’re not alone. Those who serve deserve for their leaders to showcase them, and do so enthusiastically … looking always for ways to expose their value to the nation rather than looking for excuses to keep their deeds hidden.