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When Americans raise their hands and volunteer to join the military, they willingly enter into a reciprocal contract with the chain of command. Individuals agree to accept occasional restrictions on their conduct to the extent such restrictions are necessary to the maintenance of good order and discipline and supported by a valid military necessity justifying special, military-related constraints on their liberties. In exchange, commanders and their agents agree to emplace such restrictions only to the extent required, and to refrain from abusing their discretion as a matter of managerial convenience.

Military lore is replete with valid examples of this contract in action. Basic military training, for example, is an indoctrination process that requires tight control over the thoughts and actions of its subjects. This means sharp limits on freedom of thought and action for the period of training. Restrictions on movement during fielded fighting illustrate another example. Even restrictions on the nature of relationships between supervisors and subordinates can be seen as uniquely military given the acute impact on good order and discipline triggered by real or perceived losses of impartiality among commanders.

But there are limits to this principle. Not everything falls within the discretion of a commander. For example, former Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh’s notorious declaration that airmen had no right to privacy in their personal text messages clearly exceeded the bounds of his authority. This was so because his pronouncement lacked a basis in valid military necessity. There’s nothing uniquely military or key to good order and discipline that requires commanders have warrantless access to the private communications of subordinates. In situations lacking that unique rationale, the Air Force is just another employer, even if it constantly forgets this idea and tells people how to live in a manner as intrusive as it is obnoxious.

Cases aren’t always quite so clear, though. And for the Air Force, this presents a huge challenge, because the service doesn’t prefer to teach its officers to reason through ambiguity and apply judgment in “gray” situations. The prevailing culture pretends everything is black-and-white, and that there is always a clear answer somewhere in scripture. This leaves its officers pitiably underprepared for the nonlinear and constantly ambiguous prospect of leading human beings under challenging conditions. The results are often embarrassing.

Enter Major John “Skid” Mark. When you’ve stopped chuckling at the low-brow handle he’s proudly sporting, consider the following chronicle of his recent actions as a supposed leader of men and women.

Major Mark recently found himself typing up an email to be sent to denizens of the 16th Training Squadron, a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) training unit based at Holloman Air Force Base, just outside of the glowing beacon of civilization known as Alamogordo, New Mexico. For the uninitiated, Alamogordo is best summarized as an unsparingly miserable hellhole. It is an excruciatingly hot and featureless engine of ennui. Unless idly musing at coyotes and tumbleweeds happens to be your thing, it’s not a good place to find yourself, especially as a new airman who joined the Air Force to experience exotic locales.

But if your find yourself there, at least you still have what the military theoretically offers at every location, no matter how otherwise lame: the chance to build camaraderie and be part of a cohesive team. This comes about in many ways, among them by gathering together under the soft glow of the beer light for a spirited exchange of war stories, lessons learned, and good old fashioned trash talking.

Unless, of course, Skid Mark is your boss. In which case you’re only allowed to do this until someone else in the squadron does something stupid and you’re inexplicably punished, micromanaged, and infantilized as a result, without respect to your own culpability or lack thereof. This is done under the false pretension of military necessity, but is really about lazily carpet bombing a problem that calls for a precise application of discipline.

Here’s the email Mark sent out to his squadron a few days ago. 

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A couple of initial observations, none of them ridiculing that this dude is the “director of student affairs” … which is just below “ham sandwich” on the organizational scale and nowhere near the level where legal authority is legitimately conferred.

First, this message is internally inconsistent. It comes from a guy who calls himself “Skid Mark” but implicitly claims to be professional. This is a laughable contradiction in terms. But it also laments alcohol policy violations “in the dormitory” … that happened off base. This raises the question whether this email even knows what it is addressing or trying to accomplish.

But there’s something else here worth flagging. Mark discusses punishing severely. This is a clear signal he is not thinking clearly about how to exercise authority. When given the legal responsibility to punish, a commander quickly realizes that the degree of punishment can only be considered after a lucid assessment of the facts and a legally sufficient determination of culpability. It is never appropriate for a commander to preview the relative severity of punishment, as this amounts to a pre-judgment of the degree of guilt. Mark is clearly punching above his weight on this one. Then again, he’s not the commander.

Some of you are wondering why I’m not critiquing the commander. After all, he handed out the order that got this shitball rolling. Well, I do criticize him. I believe he over-stepped his authority and should be disciplined for trampling the rights of all of his airmen as a response to misconduct by a few. He should also be held responsible for the manner in which his order was communicated and carried out. 

But let’s have a look at the order he actually gave, and then we’ll discuss why we should reserve special contempt for his unhinged underling.

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Note how Palmer’s decree mentions “severe” punishment. Now we know where his enforcer got the idea. Note also how Palmer doesn’t bother explaining why he is abridging the liberties of his people. This is a major sin for a leader. People rightly take it to mean that the rationale is flimsy and the leader is anxious to avoid defending it. When a reason is not provided, it can’t be challenged, and the order is therefore unassailable. Leadership by “because I said so” works reasonably well in a kindergarten classroom. Not as well with intelligent adult Americans who know they’re being subjected to unwarranted authority.

But more importantly, notice how Skid’s email differs from the source order in two key respects. First, the commander addressed his letter to non-prior-service airmen, yet Skid includes everyone. This is an enlargement of the order that removes a key distinction. To the extent Skid is restricting anyone who is not covered by Palmer’s order, he’s got not legal foundation for it and is abusing his power.

But a second enlargement is much more condemnable: he attempts to criminalize failure to report. This is totally wrong. Individuals have no legal duty to report minor misconduct by their teammates, and there is no unique military necessity (in this case) supplying a legal rationale to create such a requirement. You can’t make people rat on each other in this way, and to make the attempt is not only an abuse of power, but a recipe for dissolution and distance between unit members. This is exactly the opposite of what we should be cultivating in a training environment.

Moreover, if you can’t trust people to drink beer in their own homes, you can’t trust them to fly RPAs or drop bombs. There’s just no refuting that. And if you don’t trust them, it’s time to take a bow and close the curtains on the whole damn show.

The reason this story is worth telling is because Skid Mark is not unique. Too many Air Force officers struggle with the responsible exercise of power. After waiting a decade or more to get their first real taste of authority over others, they’re suddenly invested with massive discretion and given very little thoughtful instruction or development concerning how to responsibly exercise it. In too many cases, this results in the newly empowered tumbling into authority pitfalls such as indiscriminate restriction, coercion, and collective punishment.

This sets up a killer cycle. People misapply or abuse power, and the service responds by lifting that power higher in the chain of command, which results in officers and NCOs waiting longer into their careers to be entrusted with authority. Couple this cycle with a tempo that leaves too little time for deep development or meaningful mentorship and then layer over everything a promotion system that favors technical prowess over demonstrated leadership ability, and you have the makings of a historically inept leadership corps.

Our airmen deserve better than this. They deserve reasonable and discriminate commanders who punish wrongdoers and leave everyone else alone.

But it’s not just about what they deserve, it’s about what works and makes sense. If you’re a commander genuinely concerned about the safety of your airmen in Alamogordo, encouraging them to do their drinking in the dorms or in the on-base club — where you exercise greater influence and monitoring — makes a lot of sense. It keeps them out of motor vehicles and out of downtown bars while acknowledging that you can’t keep them from drinking no matter the imperial tenor of your threats. It’s also a tip of the hat to that most precious prospect: camaraderie. Drinking and hanging out in the dorms has been responsible for the winning of many a battle. Sure, it also carries the risk of occasional adverse consequences. But so does walking down the street. Commanders need to relax about the dorms and let airmen enjoy their personal space. It leads to a healthier service climate than ad hoc prohibition enactments.

But you can only reach these conclusions if you’re selflessly thinking about what’s best for the team. If, instead, you’re selfishly concerned with obedience and control, you reach the conclusions reached by Major Skid Mark.

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