I'm a bit puzzled by recent statements from senior Air Force leadership, reaffirming the service's "zero tolerance" policy for personnel who participate in hate groups or gangs. The Air Force Chief of Staff, General T. Michael Moseley, recently told a Washington audience that "participation in such activity has no place in our Air Force."
The fact that Moseley would make such a statement is hardly surprising. Service and DOD regulations clearly prohibit such conduct among service members, and the potential punishment (under the UCMJ) can be harsh. The real question is why the Chief of Staff is devoting time to this issue, particularly when it doesn't appear to be a problem. Speaking before the same audience, the service's senior enlisted advisor, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF) Rodney McKinley said he "never observed any gang activity" during his many years as a First Sergeant, noting the "high quality" of Air Force recruits. If McKinley is correct, then the "problem" may be non-existent, which raises that nagging question about why senior leadership is apparently focused on the issue.
From a public relations perspective, the answer would be "to prevent gangs and hate groups from becoming a problem." But do prevention efforts require the attention from top brass, particularly when the service has far more pressing issues, ranging from recapitalization of the aircraft fleet, to the ever-increasing burden of combat deployments. Surely, there are more important issues on the plate of the Chief of Staff and his top enlisted advisor.
If I had to guess, I'd say there may be two possible reasons for the "focus" on hate groups and gangs in the Air Force. First, there is a chance (albeit slim) that the service is trying to get out in front of a scandal that has yet to break. However, I'd say the odds of that happening are a bit slim. Having spent more than a quarter century in and around the Air Force, I've never detected even minor problems with hate groups and gangs among our service members. There may be a handful of airmen here and there affiliated with the Ayran Nation or the Gangster Disciples, but they are certainly the exception, not the rule. And apparently, they keep their affiliations quiet, because base commanders I've spoken to have never indicated these problems exist on their installations.
A more likely explanation is that Air Force leadership is simply following guidance from above. Back in July, The New York Times ran a typically breathless report, suggesting that hate groups were flocking to the military. In response, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld appointed a task force to study the problem. More than likely, the task force has recommended that service chiefs begin "talking about the issue," and reaffirm DOD's no tolerance policy. Note: We wrote about this issue earlier in the year, based on a Chicago Sun-Times report on the discovery of gang graffiti at U.S. bases in Iraq. At the time, we opined that the issue probably required some sort of inqurty, but the problem appeared isolated. Indeed, the Sun-Times article noted that rival gang members seemed able to co-exist peacefully, suggesting that the gang bangers were more concerned about escaping their past, or acquiring military skills that could be put to use after they left the military.
All that is well and good, but there's a little problem with the "problem." As James Joyner at Outside the Beltway noted when the story broke, the hate groups that supposedly threatened military discipline and order were white extremist organizations. And what was the basis for this assessment? Why, none other than the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has a long history of exaggerating threats from skinhead and neo-Nazi groups. With its traditional bogeyman (the KKK) now deservedly in ruins, the SPLC has been forced to create new "threats" to justify its existence, and keep donations rolling in. Mr. Joyner reminds us that the SPLC and its founder, Morris Dees, have a checkered ethical history, at best. It's also worth noting that the SPLC routinely ignores more dangerous threats, including ethnic gangs and Islamic extremists. Conspiciously absent from the organization's 2005 list of "active" hate groups are MS-13, Hamas, Hizballah and Al Qaida, all of which have operatives inside the United States, and pose a far greater threat to the military (and the nation as a whole) than a few neo-Nazis or the occasional Klan member.
The real question is why DoD--and the Air Force--devote time, effort and resources to a "problem" that doesn't seem to exist, and accept the rantings of the SPLC as unbiased "fact." In the middle of a War on Terror, defense department leaders should be focused on real problems and real issues, and not furthering the civil rights "career" of Morris Dees.
Addendum: Late in my Air Force career, I was required to participate in some sort of "tolerance" traning that was mandatory for all personnel. Virtually all the information used in the training came from--you guessed it--the SPLC. Someone needs to explore the apparent connection between that organization and the DoD; the idea that the Defense Department would accept SPLC information as the "gospel truth" is more than a little disturbing.
One final thought: early reviews from the field on Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Rodney McKinley are less-than-encouraging. Since taking the post earlier this year, McKinley has been pushing education for the enlisted force, suggesting that senior NCOs may be required, at some point, to have bachelor's degrees (McKinley has both a bachelor's and a master's). That begs some obvious questions; first, in an Air Force where many personnel are deployed six months out of the year, how are service members supposed to work on a degree? Secondly, how does the AF pay for increased education costs, when other programs are being shredded to buy new aircraft? And finally, how can the Air Force persuade enlisted members to stay in service once they've earned their degree? So far, McKinley has been short on answers.
It's also worth mentioning that McKinley's power of observation may be lacking as well. In the early 1990s, McKinley was the First Sergeant/Senior Enlisted Advisor for a small AF munitions post at Ghedi AB, Italy. The unit was fraught with problems during McKinley's tenure--rampant adultery, excessive DUIs, poor morale, and marginal performance. McKinley apparently did nothing to correct the problems, and the unit wasn't turned around until the mid-1990s, when a real commander and first sergeant took charge at Ghedi. However, the difficulties at Ghedi never hurt McKinley's career, and he continued the ascent that led to his present post.