“This letter was sent to me by a friend who is active-duty fighter pilot. As a someone who has been a leader at every level of the Air Force, from squadron to Major Command, I wholeheartedly endorse this heartfelt and poignant message.”
– Lt Gen Rod Bishop Jr. (Ret)
Brigadier General (Retired) Marty France, a former Air Force Academy professor and current Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) representative to the Academy, had some choice words to say about Cadets who are resisting the order to take the COVID-19 vaccine due to religious objections. In his 18 May Daily Kos article, General France, a graduate of the Academy himself, incorporated almost every aspect of the USAF Academy experience to prove his point. Are cadets, who have lost their commission and risk hundreds of thousands in debt, truly enemies to the values of the Air Force Academy? General France seems to think so, and he ties it all together with one quote from legendary General George S. Patton:
“If you can’t get them to salute when they should salute and wear the clothes you tell them to wear, how are you going to get them to die for their country?”
General France is clear about his opinion that the four cadets resisting the COVID-19 Vaccine are insubordinate, and he seems to believe the implications of this supposed insubordination will have disastrous consequences for good order and discipline in the Air Force. General France claims these cadets’ “Burger King” mentality of having it their way over their firmly held religious beliefs is as incompatible with military service as wearing a nose ring or not wearing pants. False equivalencies aside, it’s rather ironic that an Academy religious freedom representative finds religious beliefs so intolerable. After all, wearing a nose ring is not far from a Sikh wearing a turban in uniform: a practice that has been authorized in the military.
The assumption that these future warfighters won’t be willing to die for their country because of their religious convictions is simply preposterous. There are far more Academy alumni than you would imagine who feel the same as these cadets, and they are risking their careers, retirements, and paychecks to stand for those same beliefs. Amongst the ranks are squadron commanders, weapons school graduates, members of Air Force special operations, flight test engineers, and many others who have seen combat and would see it again. General France, who spent his career within the comfortable confines of academia, has no place questioning the resolve of those who have actually put their lives on the line.
It’s time to face this issue head on and ask the tough question: is this mandate about the safety of our airmen, or is it about saving face and insisting on compliance for the sake of compliance? General France never once mentions that this mandate exists to protect cadets and airmen. In fact, he doesn’t seem interested in the vaccine as a medicine at all. Instead, he makes it into a symbol of total compliance and servitude to the military. Why can’t we grant these cadets an exemption to this mandate? They went about the religious accommodation process after all, something General France should be intimately familiar with. These cadets want to serve their country. Is it such an overwhelming price to pay for just four out of close to 1000 cadets to have an exemption as provided by law? It appears what General France is really after is blind compliance to all orders without question, and that philosophy leads to tragedies like My Lai.
General France is certainly right about one thing. At the Academy, we were absolutely required to memorize a lot of quotes about leadership including that very quote he borrowed from Patton. Not only did we have to memorize quotes down to the punctuation, but we also had to recite them under the pressures of physical training, yelling from upperclassmen, and threats of losing our weekends. General France is also correct when he says that Contrails, the little book of quotes and knowledge cadets are issued, dictated our lives as underclassmen. I still have mine.
If there’s one quote from Contrails I remember more than any George S. Patton quote, it’s Lieutenant General John M. Schofield’s quote. It was a daunting quote to memorize, and I can assure you this long, complex quote was not fun to recite while doing pushups and hill sprints. However, that quote was unforgettable. It is seared into my memory and the memory of every single graduate of the Air Force Academy. I’m sure General France remembers it too.
The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. It is possible to impart instruction and give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice as to inspire in the soldier no feeling but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey.
The one mode or the other in dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them respect for himself; while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect toward others, especially his subordinates, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.
– LTG John M. Schofield, 1879
General Schofield, though he may have tortured us with his prose, is right. The respect of airmen and cadets is earned. It certainly is not bought through edicts, public admonishment, or humiliation from former faculty and graduates. Compassion is the root of this quote, and it’s what these four Cadets deserve. They don’t deserve it because of their perceived disobedience, or because they are risking their futures, or even because of who sides with them politically. They deserve compassion because ALL subordinates deserve compassion, and leaders would be remiss not to apply compassion universally.
Schofield’s quote provides much needed context to Patton’s. Yes, it is true that a disobedient force is not a reliable fighting unit; however, I wonder if General France has ever considered that Patton is talking to leaders rather than attempting to scare subordinates into compliance. I also wonder if he has considered that maybe there is more to noncompliance than its face value detriment to combat effectiveness. Perhaps that quote is an indictment of poor leadership and an answer to the question: “Why won’t my soldiers follow me?”
What General France fails to ask is why these cadets are resisting this mandate. I cannot speak for them, but I can speak for myself when I say it violates my religious beliefs in a way I simply cannot accept. For me, it is about devotion to my faith. It matters what my moral principles tell me, and it matters that I do
the right thing. It matters that I have integrity, and receiving something that violates my religious principles for the sake of personal gain is not an act of integrity.
Whether or not General France agrees with these cadets is irrelevant. This Nation was founded on the principle that all are free to disagree, believe freely, and remain in harmony with a respect for their fellow man. Good order and discipline are incredibly important for any military organization, but they are not the only important aspects. Compassion, understanding, and respect are essential precursors, so we should all take time to truly understand each other. If diversity is our strength, then these cadets have something worth listening to. After all, Patton also said:
“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
We cannot afford the tyranny of groupthink in this modern military. Even the Academy exalts free thinkers with conviction like Billy Mitchell. These four cadets are embodying traits we want in our warfighters by standing for the very Constitutional rights they should be swearing to defend. General France may disagree, but he should at least respect their convictions and take a closer look at the root of these mandates as they stand today.
Regardless, wishing ill will, punishment, and suffering upon those who are standing up for what they believe in, by risking everything to prove it, is not leadership. General France’s message brought me great sadness, and it brought many other alumni from the long blue line sadness as well. Is this how we treat people who simply fight for what they believe in? Aren’t we all doing that in our own way? Why can’t we simply have respect and compassion for each other regardless of our differences? After all, these cadets, General France, I, and many others all read the same little book called Contrails.
In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give up earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose that in any situation, or under any circumstances, is it best for you to do a dishonorable thing.”
– President Thomas Jefferson, from a 2015 copy of Contrails
Endorsed by the following graduates who are fighting daily alongside these cadets for their religious freedom:
F-16 Pilot, Class of 2019
F-22 Pilot, Class of 2010
B-1 Pilot, Class of 2009
Intel Officer, Class of 2012 T-6 Pilot, Class of 2019 Instructor Pilot, Class of 2002 AFSOC Pilot, Class of 2006
Instructor Pilot, Class of 2003
F-15 Pilot, Class of 2004
Instructor Pilot, Class of 2019 Cyberspace Ops Officer, Class of 2019 B-2 Pilot, Class of 2013
C-5 Pilot, Class of 2003 F-16 Pilot, Class of 2015
F-35 Pilot, Class of 2013
F-16 Pilot, Class of 2012
F-16 Pilot, Class of 2019
F-15 Pilot, Class of 2010 KC-135 Pilot, Class of 2018 KC-135 Pilot, Class of 2014 F-15 Pilot, Class of 2006
F-15 Pilot, Class of 2013
Civil Engineer, Class of 2012 F-22 Pilot, Class of 2009 KC-135 Pilot, Class of 2009 Logistics Officer, Class of 2020 F-16 Pilot, Class of 1994
A-10 Pilot, Class of 2010
KC-135 Pilot, Class of 2017
RC-135 Pilot, Class of 2011
T-37 Pilot, Class of 1988
F-4 Pilot, Silver Star Recipient, Class of 1965 Army Artillery Officer, Class of 2018
Space Officer, Class of 2021
Personnel Officer, Class of 1987
F-4 Pilot, Class of 1985
F-4 Pilot, Class of 1973
Developmental Engineer, Class of 2020 C-130 Pilot, Class of 1987
Combat Rescue Officer, Class of 2007 T-6 Pilot, Class of 2008
Developmental Engineer, Class of 2013 F-16 Pilot, Class of 1985
MQ-9 Pilot, Class of 2017
Acquisitions Officer, Class of 2016
U-28 Pilot, Class of 2006
AFSOC Pilot, Class of 2004
RC-135 Squadron Commander, Class of 1999 Acquisitions Officer, Colonel, Class of 2001 C-5 Pilot, Class of 1974
HH-60 Pilot, Class of 2004
Instructor Pilot, Class of 2003
A-10 Pilot, Class of 2013
KC-135 Pilot, Class of 2019
Test Pilot, Class of 2005
C-130 Pilot, Class of 2005
F-16 Pilot, Class of 2004
F-22 Pilot, Class of 2002
Security Forces Officer, Class of 2020 Student Pilot, Class of 2020
B-52 Pilot, Class of 2003
Squadron Commander, Class of 2000
C-130 Pilot, Class of 2007
Instructor Pilot, Class of 2004
F-16 Pilot, Class of 1999
AFIT Professor, Class of 2003
C-130 Pilot, Class of 2000
Developmental Engineer, Class of 2003
C-5 Pilot, Class of 2008
MQ-9 Pilot, Class of 2018
Developmental Engineer, Class of 2018 AC-130 Pilot, Class of 2018
C-146 Pilot, Class of 2014
KC-135 Pilot, Class of 2018 Acquisitions Officer, Class of 1987 Security Forces Officer, Class of 1987
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