Earlier this week, I offered a few thoughts concerning cultural issues I observed within the US Air Force that weighed heavily on my decision to retire. I had zero expectation these thoughts would have much reach or impact. To my surprise, my writings seem to have touched a nerve. Some laughed, some cried, some thought it was better than Cats. Some displayed powerful inductive reasoning, concluding me to be an arrogant elitist from just one blog post. Some apparently sat in their high-backed swivel chairs and uttered “good riddance” … somehow unable to muster a warrior’s courage to engage me personally, despite ample access to reflective belts and assuredly having received Excellent marks on their most recent waist measurements. Interestingly, one notable blogger responded to my warnings about excessive conformity by, well, demanding more conformity. His response (which I encourage you to read) was designed to castigate me into submission. It had the opposite effect.
In the terminology of Groupthink, a theory describing how human cravings for uniformity and acceptance destroy critical thinking, the role of mindguard is pivotal. Mindguards prevent the status quo from being challenged by discouraging, deterring, minimizing, and dismissing those who bring forward opposing views. Army Maj. Crispin Burke, a warfighting helo pilot and bright mind who runs a great blog called Wings Over Iraq, has voluntarily taken on the role of mindguard in his response to my post. Lamentably, he’s doing it wrong. But in keeping with military tradition, we can still learn from his example.
My counterintuitive decision to share Burke’s post here is driven by the fact that above all, his post is damn funny. It’s not every day I’m treated to the thick irony of being stylistically critiqued by someone who uses a word like circumlocution (when I saw that word, I thought to myself “gee, this guy is smart”). Also, being called arrogant is always a joy, especially when it’s done by a self-labeled “pocket full of awesomeness” who has his own online moniker, something only the top 99.9% of erudite blogizens are permitted.
I was a little disappointed when Burke took issue with my abuse of the term “autobot” … which sent him spiraling into a hyperventilating fit that ended with a non-sequitur cartoon and undoubtedly some confused readers. I mean, who doesn’t know that the Autobots eventually evolve into the humanoid Maximals, and who can’t see the writing on the wall that this is the inevitable future of the Air Force? They are energy efficient, they appear peaceful and are thus more effective at confusing enemies, and they are allied with Shia LaBeouf. Seems Burke wanted me to use the word “automaton.” I suppose the extra syllable is a small price to lay upon the altar of literary sacrifice. If it’ll earn me the adulation of someone who calls himself “Starbuck,” count me in.
But Maj. Burke also took issue with my use of the word soliloquy, providing a handy link to the dictionary definition (which I’ve done here as a blogger’s homage, with faux French pronunciation). This was an odd tactic for someone bent on appearing unpretentious. I’m sorry Crispin, but you missed my point completely, which is probably my bad. The point was that the general was talking to himself because his audience tuned out. But I do appreciate the refresher – my son has the SAT this weekend, so it could come in handy.
But before I get lost — as Burke did — in matters of style, let me point out that I believe his jabs are worth absorbing because I believe his critique of my work is well-intentioned, if not altogether intellectually sincere. See, I don’t think he was seeking to wrestle with my ideas so much as amuse his subscribers by taking a few cheap shots at the NKOTB (New Kid On The Blog); that a certain faction of Army bloggers will take a slap at any Airman who dares raise his voice is axiomatic. But to the extent I engage the same cycle of self-loathing that troubles any writer (any good one, anyway), I submit to Burke’s point that my thoughts may seem grandiose or even narcissistic to those who don’t know me personally. It’s a fair criticism that I take to heart.
But there’s a huge problem with the substance of Burke’s post. To be effective, a mindguard must de-legitimize someone’s ideas, not just focus on delivery. Here, Starbuck exposes himself as a noob to the Groupthink game by, well … agreeing with me. After spending half his post attacking my credibility and even stating openly that he wasn’t trying to make me a strawman (the critical equivalent of “no disrespect intended” … which is always followed by a disrespectful comment), he essentially expressed approval with each of my points, re-phrasing them in his own voice, ostensibly to amaze readers with his Starbuckian insight.
Sure, Burke adds some anti-corporate rantings about how the culture of Apple, Inc is no better than the culture of the US Air Force … but first of all (despite owning and enjoying many Apple products) I am not a corporate apologist, and second of all, this comes off as serving the same drink but adding a twist of Apple and attempting to call it something different. Burke does make a valid point that “the grass is never greener,” but this is just a common mindguard tactic designed to paint nonconformists as whimsical drifters incapable of understanding the world around them … as opposed to omniscient conformists who are absolutely certain the staid culture to which they’ve adhered is right, just, and superior. He gets the tactics. More on that in a minute.
Burke closes by reminding us all about the importance of humility. On this we agree. I do understand humility, and thus I leave room for the fact that I could be wrong. In fact, when it comes to the assertions I made earlier this week, I sincerely hope I am wrong. The problem with invoking humility is that it is double-edged … and accusing someone of arrogance while assuming away the body of work upon which their input is based is itself devoid of humility. This is, however, the thing Burke got right about mindguarding: the tactics. Sweeping away valid ideas by minimizing them as unfounded rants is effective mindguarding, as is attacking the character of the person who made the offering. But if humility is to be our polestar, I’d ask Burke to re-read what I’ve written while imagining me to be an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) with an honorable service record whose words deserve to be taken at face value. Given a fair hearing, I believe they can hit home as the unemotional, matter-of-fact, constructive offering intended.
In the end, Burke is right, though: change is hard. It takes tireless work and critical reflection. But it also takes a willingness to put ideas in front of those who might savage them, and yes … sometimes … to “rant.” Let it fly. Let the ideas out. Instead of worrying about their palatability, just offer them and let others decide. That’s how conversations start … and if there are a few more conversations about this happening across the USAF today, it beats yesterday’s nihilism. What does it say about the state of culture in the USAF that my inputs are getting more attention now (albeit negative) than when I offered them a few months ago as a sitting squadron commander?
I assume Maj. Burke serves his country well in tough times, undoubtedly doing so with courage and honor. As a US Army officer, he is deserving of that assumption. Despite my good-natured attempt to have some fun at his expense here, I also respect the additional service he renders by engaging in the exchange and sometimes contest of ideas concerning how to best secure this great nation of ours. His perspective has enhanced mine and will enhance yours. This is why I share his thoughts on my blog and encourage you to digest and consider them.
Posted by Mr. TC, Lt Col, USAF (ret.) on March 6th, 2013.