Update: Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has called upon Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James to investigate the incident that gave rise to this essay. Read more here.
Last week, a 2-star Air Force general reportedly accused some of his own people of treason. Not because they were cowardly in the face of adversaries or gave aid and comfort to the enemy, but because they dared to speak to their own congressional representatives about the direction of the defense budget. The comments, delivered in the midst of a failed, flawed, but relentless effort by the service to retire the A-10 against the best advice of many of its own people, raises an important question: does the Air Force see itself as an extension of a free society or an extremist and intolerant world apart?
Before we explore one possible answer to that question, a few propositions as to why this general’s actions are much more important and distressing than the Air Force’s languid response would indicate.
The United States Air Force cannot thrive if it doesn’t reflect the nation it serves. It can’t just be a badass warfighting service. That’s not enough and has never been enough. It must also uphold the values it fights to vindicate. Why? Because otherwise, we end up with war unmoored from the moral foundations that gave rise to it being fought in the first place. We know from our own history how slippery war’s moral slope can be. How easily we can slide into oblivion after having begun with a righteous cause.
But there’s an even more important reason: the Air Force is not a moral or ethical island, but a public agency of the United States, subject to its laws, and peopled by Americans. To expect that it could advance American interests without conforming to American traditions is to beg absurdity.
One such important American tradition is free expression. The Air Force is struggling to uphold this tradition. This is reason for alarm, because the cause of liberty cannot be advanced by an air force that can’t itself bear the pains of untidy freedom.
This brings us back to the recent comments by Major General James Post, deputy leader of the Air Force’s premier command. Post took the floor in front of a large crowd of subordinate officers at the Air Force’s annual Weapons and Tactics conference, quipping that “if anyone accuses me of saying this, I will deny it” before remarking:
“[a]nyone who is passing information to Congress about A-10 capabilities is committing treason.”
Post went on at length, insisting that airmen have a duty to support the service’s chosen budget priorities by refraining from offering opinions inconsistent with those priorities. His remarks referred to the flood of phone calls, emails, and social media inputs rained upon legislators by champions of the A-10 during the Air Force’s recent failed attempt to retire its most effective Close Air Support platform. Many of these inputs resulted from public servants — including members of the active A-10 and Close Air Support communities — expressing their private views.
Assuredly not lost on an officer of Post’s intelligence was that his crowd included many A-10 practitioners as well as others possessed of the view that the Air Force owes ground forces the very best Close Air Support possible, and that this is currently only achievable via the A-10. This wasn’t the first time Post had engaged in this particular exposition. He’s reportedly been saying it to groups of A-10 operators for some time.
These comments can be seen as nothing less than an attempt to intimidate subordinates into refraining from exercising their rights to free expression and civic participation.
This is morally reprehensible conduct by someone in a position of such trust and responsibility that it is implausible to think he wouldn’t know better. But it’s not just that Post behaved immorally or that his promise to lie about his utterances betrayed the value of integrity that undergirds everything the service does for national defense. He also may have broken the law. The very law generals are supposed to enforce.
Title 10 of the U.S. Code §1034 states, in relevant part, that
“No person may restrict a member of the armed forces in communicating with a Member of Congress.”
It goes on to prohibit retaliation against members of the armed forces for making such communications, devising a broad protection that includes freedom from threatened personnel action or court-martial.
By accusing those who speak with their legislators of felony misconduct, Post makes it clear he considers them subject to criminal charges. If he thinks that, he might act on it. In his position, he has the power to act on it. This means his remarks can’t be swept aside as idle jawboning. He used his authority to coerce airmen into suppressing their political beliefs on pain of prosecution for treason.
In other words, Post didn’t just insult people, defile the integrity of the service, and display startling hubris . . . he may have put himself and the Air Force he represents on the wrong side of the law. Of course, Post did so knowing that in chilling the civic participation of his subordinates, he made it unlikely any of them would risk his wrath in order to take the actions necessary to manifest a complaint against him. This is how naked power operates.
What he may not have anticipated was that many in the crowd — warriors themselves with enough combat experience to understand the importance of spotting and maneuvering against a domestic enemy — would not take kindly to his bullying, and would ensure his words would find their way out of that room and into the media. Power’s weakness is its blindness to defiance.
So what, might you ask, did the Air Force do to respond appropriately to such shameful behavior? Was the general disciplined? Did he apologize?
The Air Force issued a vaguely-worded press release instead. This has become par for the course, allowing the service to make a sport of appearing responsive to inquiries without having really said anything. Such a routine is injurious to its relationship with the public it serves, but it typically prevails nonetheless. In this case, however, spokeswoman Genieve David did reveal important facts when she said, referring to Post’s comments, that:
“The intent of his comments [was] to communicate the Air Force’s position and decision on recommended actions and strategic choices faced for the current constrained fiscal environment.”
The most revealing thing about this statement is what it doesn’t say: it doesn’t deny that Post made the comments. This means we can conclude he said what was reported (which has been privately corroborated by several JQP contacts who understandably provided corroboration on the condition of anonymity). It also reveals that Post has spoken with other senior officials about his remarks sufficient to concoct this press release, which means they are aware of his actions and have thus far done nothing substantial to address them.
David’s additional remarks might explain why:
“Our role as individual military members is not to engage in public debate or advocacy for policy.”
Yikes. That last bit makes it clear the Air Force doesn’t even understand the rules governing service member expression at the basic level, and therefore doesn’t see the problem created by Post’s behavior. Indeed, this may explain why Post himself doesn’t see a problem, having been socialized by the service to think the way he does and found great success with similar tactics along the way. These people think being an airman means no longer being an American. This is a perverse idea, and couldn’t be more wrong.
Military members do not give up the right to free speech when they volunteer to serve. They are subject to certain limits on political activity while in uniform and may not allow themselves to be construed as speaking for the service when they opine on partisan political matters (which do not include arguments about choices in the defense budget), but they are no less entitled to express themselves or to interact with legislators than any other citizen. In fact, some might argue that they’ve done more than most to earn that right. If the Air Force doesn’t understand this at the highest levels, it’s time for hearings on Capitol Hill.
Then again, the public affairs statement can be seen as simply disingenuous. The Air Force routinely trots out officers to make policy and issue arguments on its behalf, just as it did in the A-10 debate (Robert Spalding is a Colonel and Adam Lowther is an Air Force civilian). If it’s not the job of airmen to engage in public debate about airpower, General Welsh is himself flouting the rules, and so have legions of airmen across multiple generations — from Billy Mitchell to John Warden — who have taken pains to educate the public and advocate for investment in airpower.
A statement like this makes a farce of the critical role of energetic discourse among concerned countrymen on the best way to prepare for and wage war. If not airmen to discuss this matter, who should do it? Or is the Air Force position that only certain airmen may opine on matters of substance? Is the right to have an opinion confined to the domain of senior officers? If so, this would seem a curious position for a service that makes a show of encouraging every airman to play the role of “innovator.”
Post was wrong, and that makes the Air Force wrong. Rather than admit it, the service is closing ranks to save face and maintain confidence. But the confidence is false and the face has already been lost. No response, however politically adept, will fool airmen into seeing this as anything other than what it was: rank-driven intimidation designed to manufacture their consent for the service’s chosen priorities. Airmen know abuse of authority when they see it, and they saw it. The service is trying to push a good airplane out of service. Many airmen don’t believe that’s the right move. They’re letting legislators know. And in response, General Post and other enforcers are being sent out to crush resistance.
What, you ask, could motivate the Air Force to surrender its moral soul at the altar of neo-fascism? A one trillion dollar acquisition program that it believes holds the key to its institutional future, that’s what. The F-35 has become a matter of total stakes for the service. If it fails or is substantially curtailed, a dozen-year roster of supposedly visionary leaders — including a majority of currently serving blue-suit generals — will have been dead wrong about the future. That’s a big deal for a service charged with looking over the horizon and protecting against the world’s most technologically advanced threats.
But the pressure to make the F-35 succeed has created a classic dilemma for the Air Force. One in which it has become necessary under the conventional wisdom to burn down the village in order to save it. The F-35 is voraciously devouring the service budget, consuming dollars needed to sustain other weapons. Dollars needed to field and support the airmen who fight and win wars through air and space. And now, pursuit of the F-35 threatens to devour the very conscience of the service itself. A service born out of disruptive thinking and organized challenges to traditional power structures has devolved into a conformist technocracy increasingly bent on silencing challengers and achieving intellectual alignment via any means necessary — lawful or unlawful, moral or immoral.
* * * * *
James Post’s remarks aren’t exhibiting a new thing so much as the continuation of a decade long trend. How ironic that a fighting force born out of a war to turn back a gang of bloodthirsty fascists who got their hands on too much power is itself increasingly gripped with the salient characteristics of a fascist undertaking.
The Air Force has for a long time now been increasing the population of senior officers while decreasing the population of junior airmen. It is both smaller and more top-heavy than ever before. It has also been centralizing and consolidating organizations to move authority out of the hands of junior personnel and into the hands of senior officers. Decision-making has never been more concentrated at the top of the service than it is today, with field commanders largely relegated to caretaker status.
Not only that, the ability to take care has been severely degraded by a sharp reduction in support for airmen and their leaders in the field while headquarters staffs have remained largely untouched or gotten bigger. The result is a well-supported senior command element and a poorly supported field element, which gives senior officers the luxury of constantly setting the agenda and maintaining initiative and control over their field subordinates.
The trend has also manifested with the creation of thousands of new rules, to include rote cookbooks that tell leaders how to lead as one might tell a horse how to drink. And it has shown itself through a VIP culture that pretends constant visits by senior officials are a positive management practice, when in fact they’re little more than an additional avenue for micromanagement of tactical matters by leaders at the strategic level.
Not only has trust been injured in all of this, it’s been rendered essentially a dead letter. Paranoia is the new norm. Airmen now presume that they’re being closely monitored for signs of compromised loyalty or unforgivable frailty, and that any mistake is career-ending. This has manufactured defensive thinking across field organizations, with the few who carve out the intellectual courage to think for themselves subject to accusations of treason by authority figures like James Post.
Facilitating this movement at every step of the way is the Air Force’s Public Affairs corps, which has forsaken an ethical duty to tell the story of airmen in order to propagandize endlessly, cowed by the authority of commanders who see it as their own personal device for mass socialization to the themes and ideas it chooses to champion.
These trendlines merge into a clear outcome: the consolidation of all meaningful power at the top of the institutional rank structure. That power, now aggregated, is doing what power does: exerting itself upon its subjects. General Post’s abuse of it is alarming and yet completely predictable under the circumstances. That he did it signals dark times ahead. That he’s not been held accountable makes it difficult to see any daylight on the other side.
General Welsh came to his position as a would-be reformer, and he has made some important changes that will take a long time to culminate in positive ways. But he has done nothing to address toxic leadership, and those chickens are now coming home to roost in the form of systemic abuse of power. Welsh either hasn’t noticed, hasn’t acted, or has actively fed the growing power imbalance gripping his service and its airmen. The problem is now beyond him.
Indeed, to wish for the service to reform itself would be like asking a tiger to stop hunting antelope. It’s not going to happen. Power is too far out of balance, and power — not values, laws, or morals — is at the controls in today’s Air Force. Reform will have to come from Congress.
Post’s actions fit with a pattern of abuses and unaccountable malfeasance over the past few years. Colonel Patrick Rhatigan went on a firing spree that eviscerated his wing, even firing one of the commanders he hired to replace someone he’d previously fired. Brigadier General Mark Camerer allowed a toxic subordinate to run amok, firing one of her subordinates without proper cause and concocting a kangaroo court investigation to cover her tracks. Brigadier General Mark Brown publicly disparaged a fellow officer without warrant and was never made to apologize. General Darren McDew wandered into an inappropriate exposition of the alleged but unproven misconduct of a subordinate commander in a setting where his remarks upset a member of the crowd. One of McDew’s senior staff aides played a venomously offensive video for a captive audience of subordinates on “Wingman Day,” offending at least a dozen of them in the process.
None of this has ever been publicly explained. And these cases are the tip of the toxic iceberg. Many others have been shared on the condition they not be publicly chronicled. Post’s behavior is not a one-off, but a clear symptom of an underlying ill: the misapprehension and abuse of power by senior Air Force members in positions of public trust.
As defined by the United States Constitution, Article III, Section 3,
“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.
There is no mention here of conferring with one’s own political representative, or of voicing one’s own opinion on matters of greater or lesser import. James Post very obviously doesn’t know what treason is. This recommends to suspicion that he either doesn’t understand the gravity of the Constitution’s words, or hasn’t made the effort to understand the document he has sworn to uphold. Moreover, his careless use of one of the most hateful words in the American lexicon reinforces the growing concern among many that the Air Force isn’t raising its generals properly. They don’t understand the laws they’re charged to uphold, having been trained most intensively in the language of power. They’re given to hyperbole in word and action, most distressingly in the area of law and order.
* * * * *
Loyalty. Compliance. Conformity. These are signal qualities of military organizations. But taken to extremes, they conspire to strangle free thought, free expression, and creativity. They create a fascist culture. In large, vertical organizations, there is a constant danger of slipping into a cycle of power unmoored from reason. The Air Force is noticeably on this slope.
Last week, General James Post accused some of his own people of treason. Not because they were cowardly in the face of adversaries or gave aid and comfort to the enemy, but because they dared to speak to their congressional representatives about the direction of the national defense budget.
He was wrong. He was immoral. His conduct was at odds with the law. And if his own bosses aren’t willing or capable of sending the right message to their airmen by disciplining him appropriately, it’s time for Congress to take a more direct interest in ensuring airmen have access to the fundamental rights they fight every day to preserve.
To help Congress notice, airmen should reach out and express their views, as they are entitled to do.