Pullstring

Trust is not built on perfection or even on discipline. Trust is built on mutual honesty. Authenticity. Genuineness in word and deed. For too long, the Air Force has favored perfection (or more accurately, total risk aversion) over authenticity in both its inward and outward facing communications. For that reason, no one trusts the Air Force anymore. Not airmen, not the public, not Congress, and most certainly not an increasingly frustrated media.

Here’s an example illustrating the principle.

Late last week, we broke a story here on John Q. Public about a retired four-star general under investigation for sexually assaulting a subordinate on multiple occasions back in 2007 and 2009. That story has since evolved, with Gen. Art Lichte identified as the accused in several national articles here and elsewhere.

Two of those articles — from the Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe and Air Force Times’s Steven Losey — contain quotes from Air Force spokespersons that are deserving of closer scrutiny.

From the Post article, a quote from Col. Patrick Ryder:

“I can tell you that the Air Force takes all allegations of sexual assault or harassment very seriously. We are committed to upholding the high standards and values of our service and ensuring an environment of dignity and respect, where sexual assault or harassment is not tolerated, and where there is clear accountability placed on all Airmen at every level.”

From the Times article, a quote from Ann Stefanek:

“The Air Force takes all allegations of sexual assault or harassment very seriously. We are committed to upholding the high standards and values of our service and ensuring an environment of dignity and respect, where sexual assault or harassment is not tolerated, and where there is clear accountability placed on all airmen at every level.”

These are allegedly two different human beings providing human comment on an important issue of grand public stakes. An issue that could well determine whether the Air Force is permitted to continue operating its own justice system. And the best they could do was to read from obviously scripted note cards while pretending to be engaging in genuine human interaction. Absolutely pathetic.

Not only does garbage like this expose how much money we waste overpaying (alleged) humans to do a job better assigned to a computer with a voice modulator … it exposes the fundamentally misrepresentative communication habits of an institution that owes more to the public and to the airmen who serve it than pre-baked and unserious syntax on the most serious of issues. An NCO speaking to his airmen with such an obviously deceptive design would be excoriated, and should be unstriped.

Pretending to be lending personal insight while merely reading from a notecard is lying. Even if the immediate recipient of the prepared jargon knows s/he is being fed a prepared BS statement, countless others in the audience will mistakenly take the words at face value, attaching to them undeserved credibility because they came from a Colonel or high-ranking civil servant known to have access to senior-most officials. Many will give those words more credence than they deserve, which is of course the entire point of such scripted fluff as this. The point is to employ the human form in delivering a political message, thereby perceptually supplying human credibility for a wooden response.

Every lie is concealing something, or else it would have no need to exist. This lie is concealing (quite poorly) the cowardice of those paid the big bucks to take responsibility for the public image of the Air Force. The Secretary of the Air Force shouldn’t be sending others to speak on her behalf when one of her four-stars is accused of the crime of sexual assault. She should stand in front of the media and public and her own airmen and give her own unscripted response to the questions naturally arising from a scandal like this one … because right, wrong, or indifferent, it reflects poorly on her leadership of the service. If she doesn’t have the guts to speak for herself, she should at least refrain from forcing others to lie on her behalf by pretending they are cardboard cutouts rather than red-blooded humans.

Take another look at the jargon salad we’re talking about … this time excerpted from Ryder’s statement to JQP via email:

“I can tell you that the Air Force takes all allegations of sexual assault or harassment very seriously. We are committed to upholding the high standards and values of our service and ensuring an environment of dignity and respect, where sexual assault or harassment is not tolerated, and where there is clear accountability placed on all Airmen at every level.”

What does it even mean? Upholding standards? Ensuring environments? Why is sexual harassment mentioned in a story about sexual assault? Why are all airmen mentioned in a story about a solitary four-star? The answers are obvious, disheartening, and unacceptable.

The world needs more straight talk. I dare say without it, the Air Force is apt to devolve into little more than a late night skit with a cool logo.

Here’s what I would have said:

“Gen. Lichte is under investigation on serious charges. He’s innocent until proven guilty. If the evidence supports a charge, he’ll be charged. Anyone committing the crime of sexual assault will be prosecuted in federal court, regardless of rank. We will presume the victim is being truthful unless and until the evidence shows otherwise, and give her the care and support she needs to recover. We’ll disclose more when we know it.”

Which formulation do you prefer? The one repeated three times above has the benefit of saying all the right things. It bears the liability of everyone knowing it is insincere bullshit designed to say all the right things.

The other one I just made up on the spot. It’s the issue as I see it. If I got the same question tomorrow, I’d respond the same way … not with the same exact words, but by answering honestly and sincerely, adjusting for any newly established facts.

Until we get a new SecAF who is something more than a pullstring-doll-wielding propagandist, we’ll keep starving for honesty … and the tailspin of cultural decrepitude will continue to tighten. Or we could start grading senior leaders on their authenticity … and who knows, maybe sidestep hiring more brass-adorned expert spokesmodels with bone mounds buried under their houses of lies.

If you have any problems viewing this article, please report it here.