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Birney Imes: Inside the mind of the U.S. Air Force


Birney Imes



Each year the U.S. Air Force gathers its best and brightest mid-level officers and sends them to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, AL., for what is called War College. There for 10 months these future military leaders, most of whom are seasoned warriors, turn their attention from suicide bombers, laser-guided missiles and helicopter rescues to matters of policy. 


Daily they hear lectures from generals, academics and authorities on strategic issues confronting the United States. Afterward in seminars, groups of 15-20, they dissect what they''ve heard. As part of this intensive "postgraduate" study, they travel with experts to some corner of the globe of their choosing where the U.S. has strategic interests, which it seems is just about everywhere. By the time it''s over, these officers have received a thorough schooling on the military, political and economic forces besetting our military, which, it may be too obvious to say, is a culture and society unto itself. 


Near the end of the 10 months, a group of civilians from military communities across the country is dropped into the mix, and, for a week, these soon-to-be full colonels spend five days with small-town mayors, chiropractors, real estate developers, bankers and in the case of the class just graduated, a newspaper publisher. We came from 34 states and the District of Columbia. The Air Force calls it the National Security Forum and this was its 58th year. 


Other than the obvious p.r. benefits, the Forum offers an opportunity for unflinching dialogue between future leaders and real world people, to the benefit of both. What interested me about participating was CAFB Public Information Director Sonic Johnson''s assurance that this would be a no-holds-barred conversation, an opportunity to look under the hood of the U.S. Air Force. "I''d love to swap places with you," Johnson said. I was sold. 


We heard from experts on bioterror, chemical warfare and unsecured nuclear weapons. We heard from the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. We heard lectures on the global economy and on Egypt and Russia. And we ate lots of barbecue. 


While there''s no way to do the week justice, I tried here to repeat quotes I thought illuminating or useful. Some came from the speakers, others came from soldiers, still others from fellow civilian participants. We were asked not to attribute quotes. 




"We''re building relationships here; relationships is how you get things done." 


"The ultimate homeland defense would be to lock down and eliminate loose nuclear materials." 


"With your kids learn CPR training." 


Quoting Marshall McLuhan: "There are no passengers in spaceship Earth. We''re all crew." 


"This is the everybody-gets-a-trophy generation." 


A speaker quoting Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Admiral Mike Mullen: "The national debt is the single biggest threat to our national security." 


"There doesn''t seem to be an appetite for base closings; we''re just finishing a BRAC process now." 


"The U.S. is viewed as a stabilizing force in the world." 


"The Air Force has been at war since Aug. 2 1990 ... an Air Force at war for two decades. 


"Be proud of the young men and women in your hometowns; they are rejoining and reupping. ... It''s never been more difficult to get in the Air Force." 


"(Afghanistan) is a tough neighborhood. The people are largely poor and illiterate; there is no infrastructure and there is a weak central government." 


"We are pouring money down a rathole (in Afghanistan). The place is a ghetto." 


"Russia is the largest producer of oil in the world (Saudi Arabia is second, the U.S. third); it is the largest country and they are a major player in space. ... It is the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists. ... It will take generations to turn around their declining population." 


"Bioterrorism is a far greater threat than nuclear. ... Biological agents can be manufactured in an area the size of a garage with materials commonly available on the Internet. Fermenters used to make beer or yogurt can be used." 


"It is vital that we in the armed services continue to connect with the country. With only 1 percent of the country having military experience, it is imperative we remain aware of what the country thinks." 


"We may be getting smaller, but we''re still going to be a kick-ass military." 


"Public service in general is something noble; we should encourage the best and brightest to do it. There is great reward, maybe not monetary." 


"Steadiness and good judgment is what the American people expect of their military." 


"Life begins at the end of your comfort zone." 




My time at the NSF was an enlightening and reorienting experience. By the end of the week I had a new appreciation for these intelligent, highly competent and sensitive warriors who are protecting our strategic interests as defined by our political leaders and by extension, we, the people. 


While there is much to question about U.S. military operations throughout the world, it''s difficult to find fault with the men and women who serve. 


Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said to the group, "America needs good people to do this stuff." 


From what I''ve seen, we have them.


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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