Chilling freethinking in the USAF

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What would this post say and when would it appear if I had to clear it with a four-star admiral or general beforehand? A safe bet: it would be anodyne to the point of meaninglessness, and it would appear so late there was no point running it.

And that would be a feature–not a bug–for certain segments of the defense bureaucracy.

Including, it seems, the U.S. Air Force. Over at Defense News today, a doughty team of reporters carries the sad tale (click here) that service chieftains have ordered a clampdown on public outreach. Note Valerie Insinna, David B. Larter, and Aaron Mehta, the move “creates a massive information bureaucracy in which even the most benign human-interest stories must be cleared at the four-star command level.”

Two factors will chill public communications from the USAF: time and fear.

Time, in that draft press releases, interviews, and so forth will have to undergo “staffing” at multiple levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy. Time is delay. By the time a proposed story or event receives the stamp of approval, chances are its moment will have passed. I saw this as an editor at Georgia: I stopped soliciting material from government officials for our small journal because “pre-publication review” slowed it down for weeks or months–at which point why bother?

And even what PR issues forth will be increasingly banal. Fear of career repercussions will prime the overseers of USAF public affairs to squelch anything that could create the slightest controversy. Top leaders have biased the system against proceeding. It’s rather like the lawyer who’s assigned to advise a commander on rules of engagement. The lawyer is there to keep the commander out of jail. His reflex? To counsel the commander against taking the shot if there’s the slightest ambiguity to the situation. Inaction is safer than effectiveness.

Similarly, subordinates will try to put top leadership’s wishes into effect. Each reviewer will afford a proposal exacting scrutiny–and strike anything that hints at controversy. To do otherwise would court a backlash, damaging careers within the PR apparatus. But it gets worse. The leadership’s ukase will discourage individual airmen from speaking their minds in public, whether in professional journals, newspapers, or blogs. “The penumbra of this memo is worse than the memo itself. If you’re already an Air Force officer, who is disinclined to talk to the press, this just gives you one more reason to think it is not career enhancing to talk to the press,” former Secretary of the Air Force Whit Peters told Defense News.

Exactly right. Admiral Jim Stavridis exhorts sea-service professionals to dare to read, think, and write. To which air-force potentates are replying: oh, no, you don’t!

It’s one thing to suppress information about tactical information such as force movements or the specific technical characteristics of weaponry or sensors. It’s quite another to wall off the service from the world. Edward Luttwak sees beating ourselves up in public as a key advantage of an open society relative to closed societies like the Soviet Union or, today, Communist China. Scrutiny and debate help make us better; closing off scrutiny and debate carries us toward the authoritarian model in which keeping up appearances is everything and operational excellence is secondary.

Imposing a chilling effect fosters groupthink–and groupthink makes military institutions stupid (click here). Let’s thaw out the deep freeze, U.S. Air Force.