Wednesday, March 4, 2015
The Officer Club and Officer Development
The above picture is of the Robin Hood toby mug from the movie "Twelve O'Clock High" about B-17 crews during World War II. The toby mug played an important part in the movie. It normally faced the wall above the fire place in the officer's club until there was mission at which time the wing exec officer turned it face out. The officer's club of Twelve O'Clock high played a pivotal role for the officers. Pilots, navigators, bombardiers as well as the wing staff officers all gathered to socialize at the club. It was informal environment that allowed commanders and crews to communicate with one another outside the chain of command and try to maintain some semblance of sanity after the horrors of flying bombing missions over Nazi Germany.
The wartime realities of WWII, Korea and Vietnam developed many traditions within the USAF officers clubs (as I'm sure happened in Navy, Army and Marine Corps officers clubs). Clubs of that era are associated with drinking and raucous behavior but what is often overlooked is how the unit culture and history was learned and shared. Some reading this will roll their eyes and say, "That's exactly the problem, it was a culture of drinking and carousing!". But that view, in my opinion, looks only at the extreme and misses the important role officer clubs (O'Clubs) actually played in developing the officer corps and maintaining unit cohesion.
Task and Purpose looked at this in "The Military Has Overkilled Alcohol With Big Collateral Damage". When I was a cadet in ROTC during the early 80s, our instructors were all captains and majors who had come in during the 70s. The culture they taught us was every officer was expected to be a member of the officers club whether they chose to got there or not. Officers promotion packages were allegedly checked against the o'club roster, if your name was on the roster you were not going to get promoted. O'Clubs were that integral to an officers career (at least so we were told. I did not serve on a promotion board until I was an O-6, by then O'clubs had long stopped being a factor).
O'Clubs in my experience weren't quite the center of activity as they were depicted in "Twelve O'Clock High" but then until 2002, we weren't at war. However, they still were part of an officers development. My first duty station was Scott AFB in Illinois. It was a major command (MAJCOM) base in the middle of cornfields. First Fridays were de rigueur for officers, even if you didn't drink alcohol you still made an appearance. The lowly second lieutenant working in the basement might actually get a chance to chat with the wing commander or one of the generals. In this informal environment, junior officers got to hear and see how senior officers thought. Senior officers got an unfiltered view of how their junior officers were interpreting their policies and decisions. It wasn't something as formal as mentoring or feedback sessions, just getting together at the end of the work week.
O'Clubs overseas served on other purpose compared to their stateside counterparts. It helped officers feel connected to home. Especially if you were serving in Asia, O'Clubs might be the only place to get a taste of American food. The O'Club at Ramstein was perhaps the best example from my time in Germany. The O'Club at RAF Alconbury was the one club that most reminded me of the one depicted in the movie.
By the time I was transition our of the USAF in 1992, we were already in the throws of "deglamorizing" alcohol. Twenty-three years and one retirement later, I still don't know what the fuck that means. I never saw alcohol glamorized in the military (unlike in movies and television shows). I saw officers who inevitably learned to drink (or not drink) in college. "Officer calls" as the club were not invitation to get drunk, it was supposed to be an opportunity to get together in our environment. Of course binge-drinking, drunk driving and sexual harassment did happen but it was the exception that made the rule.
The "deglamorizing" movement was meant to curtail these episodes of bad behavior without ever addressing the real problem. There was never any "glamorization" of alcohol to "deglamorize". The real problem was those officers who did drink while under the influence, binge-drink or sexually harass had never learned to act responsibly in the first place. Somehow officers who were charged with being responsible for multi-million dollar weapon systems or given the responsibility for the men and women assigned to them were never given the charter for also being responsible for one another. Help out someone who obviously has had too much. Don't let the female officer leave with the senior officer who obviously has been drinking too much. Have base shuttles to take people back off base. No, we didn't do any of that. Instead the USAF turned to the informal slogan of "deglamorizing alcohol" and in the end laid waster to a valuable tradition.
Yes, there were excesses that needed to be curtailed but these were not the norm, just the ugly exceptions that made headlines. The USAF officer corps lost a place to socialize rich with history. Many O'Clubs have pictures and paintings form the earliest days of military aviation, the legacy of the base and very unit the officers are assigned to. What a great place to mentor officers on some of the very topics I've talked about in this blog over the years. Instead, the USAF is found of ending an officers career for mistakes (especially anything associated with alcohol).
The hypocrisy of course of action is that is was developed and fostered by senior leaders such as Michael J. Carey. Ralph Baker another. And of course the most famous of all recently is David Petraeus. All of these former senior leaders helped shaped and enforce the 'deglamorization" mythos to supposedly prevent the very behaviors that they ended-up being guilty of themselves.
"Deglamorizing" didn't stop officers from drinking, they merely went off base or drank at home. What it did stop was having a place on base to help guide one another into not only becoming better officers but better people. Instead the USAF has fostered a culture of "careerism" instead of helping young officers develop a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves.
John Q. Public covered this in "To Be or To Do? The Trick Question of Air Force Officer Development". His essay recalls a quote Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave during is 2008 speech at Air War College, "If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors." I saw that many times throughout my career (and I was certainly guilty of it myself a few times). Air Force officers are faced with the Hobson's choice of worrying about assignments (also known a checking-the-box) in hopes of getting promoted or actually focusing on the job and risk a premature end to your promotion opportunities.
I had always suspected that appearance was more important than substance (not the increasing emphasis of PT scores, something formerly only the concern of soldiers and Marines). But then I saw this slide in the essay and more suspicions were confirmed;
That slide is from a 42 slide mentorship presentation by Colonel Michael Hornitschek. The colonel dared to put into words what had previously only been implied but never put into writing. Col Hornietschek mysteriously (!) was not promoted to O-7 (even though he had been what is called a "fast burner") and was relieved of his command after this presentation. Col Hornitschek was right in what he was trying to do (help educate officers on the unwritten rules for getting promoted) but he was wrong in how he went about it. In my opinion, had Col Hornitschek only had this slide in his presentation, he might have kept his command job (but his O-7 promotion still would have evaporated). No, to me what really put the nail in his career was this next slide;
Yes ladies and gentlemen, Col Hornitschek with this slide went above and beyond in disproving any notions that your career is actually about doing your job. In all fairness, I'm sure it wasn't he intent to do anything more than help officers plan their careers. But what he had shown with these two slides were that the USAF promotion system really is geared to appearances and not accomplishments. So much for the Air Force Core Values of Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do. Col Hornitschek called it a game and laid out the rules of the game.
As much as I would like to disagree with Col Hornitschek, the evidence to the contrary is too thin. Officers who spent multiple deployments leading troops are passed over. General officers are too often those who successfully maneuvered through assignments without rocking the boat. Even back in the Vietnam war, the Air Force seemed to reward bureaucrats and punish warriors. I give you as an example Robin Olds. He was by any measure a brilliant fighter pilot. He was also charismatic and knew how to train other fighter pilots to become brilliant as well. However, he was also a heavy drinker who spoke his mind too many times for the higher ups.
Olds was what the Air Force needed in Vietnam but his war record and outspoke nature made him anathema to the general officers he worked for. Even though cadets and commissioned officers are required to about officers like Olds, the reality is their opportunities for promotion lie more in the guidelines Col Hornitschek put into his PowerPoint.
How does officer career development and O'Clubs connect? The O'Clubs served an important role in helping officers discuss issues such as promotions and career choices without the fear of retribution. Senior officers had the best mechanism available for hearing how to better shape and refine their policies. Try criticizing a senior officer during a staff meeting and your promotion packet is toast. Post your thoughts about a Air Force policy on social media and watch your primo assignment to the Pentagon turn into a remote tour in a country you've never heard of.
The Air Force deglamorized alcohol and in the their haste eliminated one of the last, best hopes to get the officer corps collective head out of their asses. The mid-level talent with war experience are getting out because they can't get promoted. The new officers coming behind them will have a huge cultural gap between themselves and their senior leaders. The old school O'Club could have been a mechanism to help deal with this issue. Instead, I see one more reason why the USAF may one done be no more.