Service Culture: You’re Doing it Wrong
An Argument for Repeal of the Airman’s Creed
Every Air Force Chief of Staff yearns to leave an indelible mark on the service. Seven years ago, General T. Michael Moseley chose to spend his dime on “reinvigorating a warrior ethos,” though he acknowledged at the time that airmen had been going “above and beyond the call of duty every hour of every day.”
In truth, Moseley was probably less animated by his love of warrior tradition than he was by his obligation to keep the service perceptually relevant enough in a persisting ground war to preserve its share of the defense budget. He may also have been driven to rein in the misperceived “selfishness” of younger generations of airmen, a disease of impression that has consistently caused senior officers to view the service’s junior members in downcast terms. Whatever his reasoning, Moseley decided to “gift” the Air Force with one of its most controversial and least useful cultural epithets: the Airman’s Creed.
Whatever he was trying to do (assuming it was something positive), it didn’t work. The creed was immediately reviled by career airmen who had come of age ascribing themselves to a family of creeds that had risen informally over time. With the swipe of Moseley’s pen, decades of tradition were destroyed, ironically in an attempt to manufacture tradition. The enmity didn’t stop there. As unit level vanguards of assimilation continually foisted the creed throatward, airmen choked on it. Rejection, resentment, sneering, and jokes prevented the creed’s implantation in service culture, and it quickly receded into practical irrelevance.
Unfortunately, it remains a formal entity, with its own constituency of evangelicals and apologists who somehow don’t seem to notice that a festival of eye-rolling — affectionately known as the “Creed Shuffle” — breaks out every time an E-9 or O-6 opens or closes a meeting with this aerial version of the pledge of allegiance. Make no mistake, this thing is almost universally hated by its purported beneficiaries.
In an unscientific online survey, respondents offered this sampling of descriptors:
“Contrived” “Hollow, meaningless, and half-hearted” “A cult chant” “Koolaid” “Empty” “Bullshit” “Irrelevant” “Corporate” “Silly” “Vacuous” “Hogwash” (to which I admittedly added “that’s an insult to the hog”) “Pointless” “Disingenuous” “Trite” “Feel like I should have a vodka in one hand and a sickle in the other while reciting it.”
and perhaps the most poignant:
“not gone yet?”
While an occasional fan will squint hard enough to find positive intent, the verdict is clear: the creed is overwhelmingly viewed by airmen as a liability, and that makes it a failed attempt at cultural engineering.
There are lessons to be taken from this failure, but those lessons will remain partially obscured as long as the creed remains an official element of the Air Force’s culture. Therefore, repealing it should be a swift next step. A closer look reveals flaws of construction and linguistics that make it easy to understand why airmen have been chafed rather than enthused.
The Airman’s Creed:
I am an American Airman.
I am a Warrior.
I have answered my nation’s call.
I am an American Airman.
My mission is to fly, fight, and win.
I am faithful to a proud heritage,
a tradition of honor,
and a legacy of valor.
I am an American Airman,
Guardian of freedom and justice,
My nation’s sword and shield,
Its sentry and avenger.
I defend my country with my life.
I am an American Airman:
Wingman, Leader, Warrior.
I will never leave an Airman behind.
I will never falter,
and I will not fail.
Note that the focus of the creed is almost exclusively individual. Of its 94 words, 16 are either “I” or “my” and the sole oblique acknowledgement of teamwork is a commitment in the final stanza to “leave no airman behind.” If the point of this prose is to drive airmen to think about their relationship with the profession of arms, the structure is wrong. Such an obsession on the first person drives a self-interested conception of the relationship between individual and service, overflying the reality that military missions are accomplished in teams.
Hokey attempts to unify should always be looked upon suspiciously because they waste time and energy. But they become destructive when they start to demand intellectual dishonesty from participants, and this is where the creed goes badly off the rails. Twice, it expects carolers to call themselves “warriors.” While the term is useful on a rhetorical level to mark the sense of duty and sacrifice of airmen who have actually gone to war, it’s not appropriate as a universal label equally applicable to those who haven’t. Many airmen have never deployed. Many never will. Many make their contributions to the Air Force mission in ways that are removed from common martial stereotypes of living in the mud and fixing bayonets. Forcing them to self-deceive backfires by inviting them to embrace a dishonest caricature of themselves. It also devalues the distinctive contributions of actual warriors.
Redundancy is also a problem for the creed. The moniker “American Airman” is internally redundant, since these words are applicable to members of the United States Air Force. That the recitation demands four repetitions of this already superfluous gibberish is not only absurd but counterproductive. Airmen are taught from their first day of service to pay attention to detail and get things right the first time, since second chances are elusive in the operational environment. Mindless reiteration thus undermines “make it count the first time” cultural efforts conducted elsewhere.
But there’s a real creed villain out there somewhere, and it’s the nameless rogue who penned its prose (or more accurately, brazenly aped the Soldier’s Creed), apparently while drunk and locked in a room containing nothing but children’s books and a box of Crayolas. Linguistically, the airman’s creed is clumsy and senseless.
Is it possible to be faithful to a heritage? Textually, no, because heritage is something owned by airmen –something that passes down to them when they put on the blue uniform. If they own it, there’s no question of faithfulness because it is theirs to do with as they will. But if we ignore the words and try to fish out the intended meaning, it seems the creed wants airmen to continue the traditions that comprise Air Force heritage, such as it is. But in dislodging the NCO Creed, the Senior NCO Creed, the First Sergeant’s Creed, the Chief’s Creed, and many others, the Airman’s Creed actually obliterated heritage, which is maybe the only way to be unfaithful to it. Not hard to understand why most airmen bristle at this particular line every time they encounter it.
Since when is being in the Air Force about “freedom and justice?” Since never. Airmen already take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, which the creed doesn’t mention. There’s no statutory requirement that they relate their service to other lofty concepts which may or may not help them make sense of their roles in national defense. Some airmen will note that defending the United States isn’t always about protecting or advancing the cause of freedom, and that defending it effectively is not always relatable to the idea of justice. Indeed, if the world abided by the rule of law, we would have no need of war and no need of an Air Force. To believe airmen are such blank slates of personal beliefs and philosophies that they’ll willingly be taken in by such platitudes is either naïve or chauvinistic, and wrong in either case.
By the time they’ve endured the Arthurian references of the first two stanzas, airmen are not surprised to find comic book invocations of swords and sentries in stanza number three. But what does catch many off guard is the use of the word “avenger.” Setting aside the debate about whether revenge is a legitimate or fruitful security objective, it’s beyond doubt that the Air Force has been used as an instrument of vengeance in the past. But it’s another thing altogether to surrender to the idea that it’ll happen again. To do so is to contemplate failing to successfully defend the nation from an attack, making “avenger” internally inconsistent with “shield.” Here, the creed is too busy trying to make airmen feel like superheroes to communicate a responsible and deadly serious message that it’s their job to preclude the need for vengeance.
Another questionable inclusion is the needless reminder to airmen that they must defend the country with their lives. It’s not as though this thought easily escapes them. They signed a check cashable up to and including the ultimate price, and to think they need to be reminded is an injury to the honor they demonstrated in that act. But it’s also dumb for another reason: we don’t want airmen to die for their country. Paraphrasing General George S. Patton, we want them to win wars primarily by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. This is the very seed of airpower. We win by degrading an enemy’s ability to wage huge, costly battles, thus avoiding those battles ourselves if we can. This is the advantage we gain by owning time through velocity and owning space through verticality.
But even if all of that were not true, a constant re-visitation of the “ultimate stakes” clause is unhealthy because it risks blurring the line between willingness to sacrifice and the embrace of faux-heroic shorthand at odds with reality. While some airmen have courageously given their lives in the last two decades of endless conflict and deserve to have their memories forever lionized, countless others have endured the more gritty, chronic, and unglamorous realities of war that are less adaptable to popular mythology. For airmen, dying in a blaze of glory is almost unheard of, but working tirelessly to contribute to the huge machine that makes adversaries suffer is almost universal. If that reality doesn’t fit neatly into a creed, we probably shouldn’t have a creed.
But the creed saves its worst offense for last, ending with the declaration “I will not fail.” This is horrible. It expresses a minimalist philosophy of doing just well enough to keep your collective chestnuts out of the fire rather than a maximal aspiration to dominate through air and space. This is uninspiring. It makes people think about losing. Why is it here? Because the creed’s author heard similar rhetoric in a presidential speech and thought it sounded nifty. But it doesn’t. It sounds dumb and repeating it makes people feel a little more foolish every time.
One definition of “creed” is “a set of beliefs or aims to guide actions.” On this definition, we could at least understand what Moseley was trying to do. Maybe he was, as he claimed, trying to inspire airmen to be more martial-minded and unified rather than balkanized into clans. But another definition is “a system of religious belief; a faith.” This one seems more consistent with what the Airman’s Creed tried to do. It’s obvious the original purveyors didn’t expect anyone to think critically about the words. Airmen were expected to import the creed as a system of beliefs about the meaning of service.
The problem with that, of course, is that service means something different to everyone and in fact different things to individuals over the course of time. The previously informal “guide for action” structure allowed for this. Unsurprisingly, it had a much higher participation rate. Allowing people to maintain individual service philosophies is important to the balance between uniformity and independent judgment. While the ceremonial prose of the Airman’s Creed might work well in a church pew or maybe even at a communal summer camp, it is ill-suited to a professional military force. This is a reinforcement of the idea that top-down culture-bending nearly always fails.
Given that this lamentable festival of jargon and jingoism stumbled out of the gate like an arthritic nag before crumpling into a useless heap almost immediately thereafter, why not just do the sensible thing and get rid of it? Now that is something airmen would find inspirational. Not only would it allow them to revert to the previous creed structure that had prevailed for decades, it would show them that their leaders are in touch; that they noticed the cultural rejection of this hokey experiment and are able to learn from it and make a corrective input.
What’s the lesson to be learned? Well, there are many. But the biggest one is that the best traditions are informal. They arise spontaneously from free will and are owned and cultivated collectively as sources of esprit and community. This kind of ownership just doesn’t arise from formal obligation.
Moreover, top-down socialization doesn’t work in an institution as large and diverse as the US Air Force. Holding dear and rallying around core values can work, but attempting to build an ornate superstructural sermon upon those values interferes with the ability of each individual to relate to those bedrock values in his or her own way, and to build upon them independently. When the reins of intellectual liberty are loose, people will relax into accepted constraints and focus on the road ahead. But when those reins are too tight, people will buck against them, losing focus and forward velocity in the process.
If the Air Force is truly faithful to its proud heritage, as the creed states, than the creed itself must go. The clear tradition of the US Air Force is to cherish decentralized execution, which means engendering the intellectual and emotional semi-autonomy that make it possible. Winning from the sky in an increasingly uncertain global security environment means relying on the judgment of airmen at the knife’s edge. This makes a mandatory poem designed to assimilate airmen a loser’s gambit.
The author is a retired Air Force officer studying law at Harvard.
Originally published at www.jqpublic-blog.com on October 22, 2014.