In a speech at the Marine Corps Association Foundation dinner in Virginia last month, Central Command boss Gen. David Petraeus broke the ice with an age-old bit of comedy, comparing the grimy plights of ground soldiers with the comparatively comfortable lives led by many Air Force aviators. But the jab sparked an angry protest — and some rushed damage-control by Petraeus’ handlers.
“A soldier is trudging through the muck in the midst of a downpour with a 60-pound rucksack on his back,” Petraeus’ joke began:
‘This is tough,’ he thinks to himself. Just ahead of him trudges an Army Ranger with an 80-pound pack on his back. ‘This is really tough,’ he thinks. And ahead of him is a Marine with a 90-pound pack on, and he thinks to himself, ‘I love how tough this is.’ Then, of course, 30,000 feet above them … an Air Force pilot flips aside his ponytail. Now, I’m sorry — I don’t know how that got in there. I know they haven’t had ponytails in a year or two. And [he] looks down at them through his cockpit as he flies over. ‘Boy,’ he radios his wingman, ‘it must be tough down there.’
Harmless, sure. But tell that to the Air Force Association, the old-school lobbying group that fought tooth and nail to preserve the F-22 fighter and staunchly represents traditional Air Force values. AFA was pissed. Petraeus’ praising words for deployed airmen, elsewhere in his speech, “do not alleviate the offensiveness — and un-jointness — of his later comments,” a new AFA editorial asserted. “They are symptomatic of the long-held belief of many ground commanders that air power is no longer, if it ever was, relevant.”
In an apparent effort to head off a wider outcry, Central Command scrubbed the jab from its transcript of Petraeus’ comments. You can see an unedited video of the speech here.
Personally, I think AFA is missing the joke’s most politically charged implication. Petraeus said aviators haven’t had ponytails in a “year or two.” What happened a year ago? Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a clean sweep of the Air Force, removing the air service’s two top officials, and clearing the way for a wide range of reforms that have made the Air Force more relevant to today’s ground wars.