It's that moment again. Graduation time in high schools and colleges across the country. Because I've always thought that graduation speeches had a certain je ne sais quoi, I've given a number of them at TomDispatch to" well, I must admit, never anyone actually graduating from anyplace anywhere, but only, as I once put it, "on the campus of the mind." Strangely enough, despite my 20 years at this site, no grade school, high school, college, or graduate school has ever asked me to address its graduating class. Explain it as you will. Still, that never stopped me, nor this year has it stopped TomDispatch regular, historian and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel William Astore from ushering the graduating class at the Air Force Academy, where he once he taught, into our all-too-embattled world.
Perhaps you won't be surprised to learn that the actual graduation speech at that academy this year was given by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. If you read it, you'll see just how relieved Washington types are that, after 20 years of disastrous American war-making across the planet, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and turned us back into " to steal a phrase from an earlier piece by Astore " the "good guys." In fact, in that academy speech, Austin managed to dismiss this country's 20-year Afghan disaster all too modestly. "America's longest war " one that spanned nearly all of your lifetimes " came to an end," he said. Indeed, it did and what a mess of an end it truly was. Austin, however, made it sound like a near-miracle of Air Force triumphalism. "Last year," he said, "your fellow graduates played a significant role as the United States evacuated 124,000 people from Afghanistan " the largest air evacuation of civilians in our country's history. Young service members showed courage, skill, and deep humanity. And they got plane after plane into the sky." No retreats or losses or disasters there, just a simple evacuation, right?
Of course, don't bother to ask those seven Afghan children killed in our final air strike in Kabul " the U.S. military termed it a "righteous strike" at the time " what they thought of our "deep humanity." That, naturally, is beside the point. So, with our strange and ever more disturbing world in mind, including the growing armed violence in this country, take a moment to graduate with William Astore onto a planet spinning into unknown space. Tom
Destroying the Town Is Not Saving It
Two Unsung Heroes as Role Models for the Air Force
Twenty years ago, I left the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for my next assignment. I haven't been back since, but today I travel there (if only in my imagination) to give my graduation address to the class of 2022. So, won't you take a few minutes and join me, as well as the corps of cadets, in Falcon Stadium?
Congratulations to all you newly minted second lieutenants! As a former military professor who, for six years, taught cadets very much like you at the Academy, I salute you and your accomplishments. You've weathered a demanding curriculum, far too many room and uniform inspections, parades, restrictions, and everything else associated with a military that thrives on busywork and enforced conformity. You've emerged from all of that today as America's newest officers, part of what recent commanders-in-chief like to call "the finest fighting force" in human history. Merely for the act of donning a uniform and taking the oath of office, many of your fellow Americans already think of you as heroes deserving of a hearty "thank you for your service" and unqualified expressions of "support."
And I must say you do exude health, youth, and enthusiasm, as well as a feeling that you're about to graduate to better things, like pilot training or intelligence school, among so many other Air Force specialties. Some of you will even join America's newest service, the Space Force, which resonates with me, as my first assignment in 1985 was to Air Force Space Command.
In my initial three years in the service, I tested the computer software the Air Force used back then to keep track of all objects in earth orbit, an inglorious but necessary task. I also worked on war games in Cheyenne Mountain, America's ultimate command center for its nuclear defense. You could say I was paid to think about the unthinkable, the end of civilization as we know it due to nuclear Armageddon. That was near the tail end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. So much has changed since I wore gold bars like you and yet, somehow, we find ourselves once again in another "cold war" with Russia, this time centered on an all-too-hot war in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, instead of, as in 1962, a country in our immediate neighborhood, Cuba. Still, that distant conflict is only raising fresh fears of a nuclear nightmare that could well destroy us all.
What does this old light colonel, who's been retired for almost as long as he wore the uniform, have to teach you cadets so many years later? What can I tell you that you haven't heard before in all the classes you've attended and all the lectures you've endured?
How about this: You've been lied to big time while you've been here at the Academy.
Ah, I see I have your attention now. More than a few of you are smiling. I used to joke with cadets about how four years at a military school were designed to smother idealism and encourage cynicism, or so it sometimes seemed. Yes, our lead core value may still be "integrity first," but the brass, the senior leadership, often convinces itself that what really comes first is the Air Force itself, an ideal of "service" that, I think you'll agree, is far from selfless.
What do I mean when I say you've been lied to while being taught the glorious history of the U.S. Air Force? Since World War II began, the air forces of the United States have killed millions of people around the world. And yet here's the strange thing: we can't even say that we've clearly won a war since the "Greatest Generation" earned its wings in the 1930s and 1940s. In short, boasts to the contrary, airpower has proven to be neither cheap, surgical, nor decisive. You see what I mean about lies now, I hope.
I know, I know. You're not supposed to think this way. You eat in Mitchell Hall, named after General Billy Mitchell, that airpower martyr who fought so hard after World War I for an independent air service. (His and our collective dream, long delayed, finally came to fruition in 1947.) You celebrate the Doolittle Raiders, those intrepid aviators who flew off an aircraft carrier in 1942, launching a daring and dangerous surprise attack on Tokyo, a raid that helped restore America's sagging morale after Pearl Harbor. You mark the courage of the Tuskegee Airmen, those African American pilots who broke racial barriers, while proving their mettle in the skies over Nazi Germany. They are indeed worthy heroes to celebrate.
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