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Wild Blue Yonder

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Wild Blue Yonder

A general’s overwrought response to a race hoax at the Air Force Academy was off-base. November 22, 2017
Politics and law

American politics has been largely free of military influence since George Washington defused an incipient army mutiny at Newburgh, New York, in 1783. There have been relapses, including George McClellan’s presidential maneuverings before the 1864 election, and the insubordination of the politically ambitious Douglas MacArthur in 1951. But military deference to America’s elected civilian leadership has been so consistent for so long that even faint political activism by high-ranking officers stands out. Recently, a three-star Air Force general nudged up to, if not across, that thin line—taking to YouTube to accuse the institution, its cadets, and its staff of racism.

Academy Superintendent Lieutenant General Jay Silveria stirred the Internet in September when—not to mix military metaphors—he ordered the institution’s 4,900 cadets and staff to shape up or ship out following the discovery on campus of racist graffiti. “If you demean someone in any way, you need to get out,” Silveria said in a speech that quickly scored more than 1 million YouTube hits. “If you can’t treat someone from another race, or different color skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”

It was a textbook social-justice-movement moment—judgment first, facts afterward—insofar as Silveria had no clue who had scrawled the slur, no apparent interest in finding out, and no hesitation in spreading responsibility for it as widely as possible. And when the “hate crime” turned out to have been a hoax—the perp was a black student enrolled in an academy-preparatory program and one of five alleged “targets” of the slur—that didn’t slow down the academy’s virtue-signaling. “By embracing our differences, we help create a culture of respect and dignity,” said the academy’s director of culture, climate and diversity, Yvonne Roland. “As an institution of higher education and a military installation, we prepare our cadets to meet the challenges of an ever-changing global environment and to value ethics and human dignity.” Whatever that means.

Certainly, scant effort was expended to assign personal responsibility for the event. And Silveria dug the hole he was in even deeper when he tried to explain away the problem that the entire incident was a hoax. “[It has been] suggested that maybe my [YouTube] words were over the top . . . or perhaps that my words are inappropriate because [of who] actually wrote [the graffiti]. I disagree. Regardless of who wrote the words, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of who put that slur on the wall, it was written. Whoever wrote it, it was still written.”

Well, yes it was—but not by a cadet, not by a faculty member, not by an academy staff member, and not by any of the thousands of individuals Silveria tarred with his broad brush. Personal responsibility, accountability, and loyalty are laudable attributes in civilian life. In the military, they are the stuff of life and death. The service academies have personal honor codes—observed in the breach, in this case—precisely to promote trust in the ranks and confidence at the command level. That’s how wars are won—or, unhappily, sometimes lost.

Silveria trashed this principle without the faintest notion of who had done what. And when an investigation revealed the truth, he showed no contrition—if anything, he doubled down. This wasn’t strictly partisan politicking, but the general deliberately inserted his institution into an ugly national political controversy.

America has been at war for more than 16 years now. For the most part, the nation’s armed forces have performed brilliantly, but cracks are beginning to show. Underfunded, over-extended, and often buffeted by purely political civilian goals, the services are suffering from inadequate training and operational leadership failures. Among the byproducts: collisions at sea and in the air, troop retention and recruiting shortfalls, and high-profile discipline and loyalty scandals. Add to that list an air force general’s enlistment in the social-justice wars.

Defense Secretary James Mattis would do well to call Silveria out for his spurious activism, which has no place in America’s armed forces.

Photo: US Air Force

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