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USAF Chief of Staff Welsh and the Crisis of Gutless Leadership

A slowly-simmering frying pan of searing religious repression is frittering away at unit cohesion, morale, good order, and discipline within the Air Force.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Aug. 10, 2012. (Photo: US Air Force / Flickr)

In times of grave and unprecedented national security crises, the United States Armed Forces demands strong, unyielding, and effective leadership. Nowhere is this more apparent than within the headquarters of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where sterling leadership qualities and impeccable strength of character are the foremost job requirements. Unfortunately, the United States Air Force (USAF) Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh IIIembodies a different principle altogether, namely an unwise ‘laissez-faire’ leadership approach that can be accurately summed up as follows: “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” In more pedestrian terms: “gutless.”

How else to describe the fact that, despite the mountains of evidence regarding the slowly-simmering “frying pan” of searing religious repression frittering away at unit cohesion, morale, good order, and discipline within the Air Force, Welsh still seeks to find a “compromise” with therabid dogs of fundamentalist Christian theocracy and extremist militancy regarding the watershed religious protections from chain-of-command proselytizing embodied by Air Force Instruction 1-1 (AFI 1-1)? Hello, Neville Chamberlain? By cowardly capitulating to the demands that the USAFamend AFI 1-1, Welsh will be opening the gates to the further degradation of the USAF’s collective integrity and character. As dangerously freighted as the Air Force already is with its universally tribal, adversarial, communal and ritualistic culture, the last thing it needs is to be yet further transformed into a stomping ground for free-range proselytizing, coercive religiosity, and fundamentalist Christian crusading.

The Air Force motto is “Aim High.” So, too, should the bar for exemplary leadership be set. Welsh’s refusal to apply any cognizable backbone to the defense of AFI 1-1 directly contradicts the subsequent Air Force Instruction 1-2 published on May 8, 2014, entitled “Commander’s Responsibilities” and signed by none other than Gen. Welsh himself. Among the various rules and regulations is item 3.2, which reads, in salient part: “A healthy climate ensures members are treated with dignity, respect, and inclusion, and does not tolerate harassment, assault, or unlawful discrimination of any kind.”

The bottom line of AFI 1-2 is that commanders have the responsibility to combat “unlawful discrimination” in all forms, clearly including religious discrimination. Commanders must foster inclusion, which includes religious diversity. Commanders must safeguard respect, foremost among which includes respect for religious beliefs and affiliations (or the lack thereof), religious and non-religious minorities, as well as sex & gender minorities. As was the case with the time, place and manner considerations of proselytizing as covered by AFI 1-1, AFI 1-2 should have decisively ended the “debate” about whether proselytizing and “witnessing” by commanders, supervisors, chaplains et al was allowed on USAF bases and installations.

Yet, seemingly, breath-taking negligence and ethical poverty still reign supreme among the Air Force top brass. Welsh appears impotently unwilling or unable to do anything to remediate it. Indeed, it is even alleged that Gen. Welsh’s own Number Two right hand, General Larry Spencer, the Vice Chief of Staff of the USAF, deliberately and defiantly keeps an oversized copy of the Christian Bible prominently displayed on his Pentagon office desk lest any of his hundreds of thousands of USAF subordinates doubt where his primary loyalty lies. Never mind that such an in-your-face, sectarian display violates the currently still-viable time, place and manner restrictions of AFI 1-1 concerning the promotion of one’s personal religious faith to those subordinate to them in rank. And the only person in the entire Air Force NOT subordinate in rank to Gen. Spencer is his boss, Gen. Welsh.

Witness further the narcissistic spectacle of Gen. Welsh patting himself on the back, crowing to the high heavens about how he’s “very happy with the ethical fabric of the United States Air Force.” This specious, self-congratulatory song and dance couldn’t be any more ill-timed, considering that under his watch numerous scandals have erupted, laying bare the internal decrepitude existing within the highest echelons of the Department of the Air Force.

“Do we have incidents? Absolutely,” Welsh coyly remarked about the appalling disgraces the world has witnessed under his watch. This past spring, 9 nuclear (yes, NUCLEAR) missile commanders were fired and dozens of officers were disciplined for cheating on a series of critical operational exams at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. This shameful scenario at Malmstrom AFB included failed drug tests, failed inspections, and the unauthorized passing of answers to exams regarding the execution of emergency war orders. While Air Force leaders like Welsh lined up to formulaically denounce these violations of “basic Air Force values,” the damage had already been well done. The root causes of these failings? Pathetically low morale and a fatal failure in management.

Another “incident” was the case of Major General Michael Carey, Commander of the 20th Air Force and direct overseer of the Air Force’s entire fleet of Inter-Continental Ballistic (again, NUCLEAR) Missiles. Tasked with representing America’s military at a nuclear security conference in Russia, Carey instead went on a drunken bender – to the bemused disgust and pity, no doubt, of his “colleagues” in the Russian Armed Forces. Hey, we all make mistakes, no? Even commanders involved in high-stakes international nuclear diplomacy who occasionally have their fingers on the triggers of all-out nuclear warfare are entitled to a free pass every so often, right?

Welsh, apparently, likes to draw the line between “bad behavior” on the one hand, and “bad ethics” on the other. To take a glaring example of this stupidity, look at the hugely expanding catastrophe of sexual assault and rape within the Air Force. In Welsh’s opaque, clouded mind, this epidemic is a mere “trend” in unlawful activity, yet it should still be somehow disingenuously distinguished from a precipitous and systemic degradation of ethics within USAF? Are you serious, Gen. Welsh? Is it any wonder why Welsh has been ignominiously lambasted by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) for ignoring the plight of the Air Force’s countless sexual assault victims?

“[It’s] deeply troubling that he’s ‘very happy’ with the ethical conduct of his force,” commented Gillibrand, chair of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel. “You have to wonder when he will finally get it… I hope his cavalier attitude to this crisis is not reflective of his superiors’ position.”

As the saying goes, “a fish rots from the head down.” As we can plainly see there is indeed a severe crisis within the military, not from the bottom-up but from the top-down. Attempts to blame the lower-level officers and NCOs rather than to take bold and comprehensive ownership of the issue incontrovertibly establishes Welsh’s downright lack of professionalism and his universal complicity in the crisis. One can envision a parent blaming their out-of-control children for being uncontrollable, rather than pledging to improve their own poor parenting skills.

As I’ve grown fond of saying over the years especially in relation to the United States military’s leadership culture and doubly-so in relation to the commanders at the head of USAF, from the Air Force Academy to Headquarters USAF in the Pentagon: “Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is completely indistinguishable from malice.”

Enough is enough.

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