Air-Minded: The Warrior Ethic

My friend Dick Herman, in a comment to an earlier entry, asked for my thoughts on the warrior ethic.

For a few years, back when my career was on fire, I was on the staff of a joint command, working with Army, Navy, and Marine officers. Army and Marine officers could philosophize about the warrior ethic all day long. Navy and Air Force officers, particularly Navy and Air Force fighter pilots, didn’t talk about it all that much. I certainly didn’t, and I’m a little uncomfortable talking about it now. But since Dick asked, I’ll try to put words to what I believe about fighting for my country.

The warrior ethic, translated into fighterspeak, is professionalism. You strive, from your first day in uniform to your last, to master your craft and carry out the mission. Your goal is to be the best, not in any sort of prima donna way (which is where a few fighter pilots fail the test of professionalism), but in a subservient role. You serve a master.  You do what you’re told to do, faithfully, correctly, and, to the best of your abilities, successfully.

Patriotism is part of the warrior ethic, but not, I think, the biggest part.  Certainly, you have to love your country to be willing to fight for it. Die for it? Well, yeah, but not in the sense of throwing your life away as a mere target for MiGs and SAMs. Instead, you accept the idea that you might die for your country accidentally.  You have to believe the odds are in your favor, and that if you get blown out of the sky it will only be because you, your team, or your equipment failed . . . or that it just isn’t your day. You have to believe you have the best training, the best skills, the best equipment, and the best experience – and I always did believe that.

Getting right down to it, though, professionalism was what drove me.  I wanted to fly – I always wanted that – but I also wanted discipline.  I wanted to master a highly-demanding skill, the harder the better.  To be perfectly honest, I also wanted to be seen by my peers as master of a highly-demanding skill; to become a respected member of an elite brotherhood at the top of a pyramid few can climb (Tom Wolfe, in The Right Stuff, had that part nailed).

Like all new fighter pilots, I knew little and was master of nothing.  Every time I flew I measured my skills, and my progress in attaining them, against more experienced pilots.  In time I became a flight lead, an instructor, and a mission commander – a professional among professionals.

That doesn’t sound patriotic at all.  It sounds prideful, and it is.  But I wonder how many fighter pilots could engage the enemy in a fight to the death – let alone make it through the training program – if they didn’t embrace discipline, brotherhood, and pride. These things are, at least to me, essential parts of professionalism and the warrior ethic.  As in: my brothers, because I’ve proven myself and become one of them, will hang it out for me . . . I’ll be damned if I won’t hang it out for them! That’s what it comes down to, whether you’re a fighter pilot, an infantry grunt, a tank driver, or a submariner. That, and being cool on the radio.

Oh yeah, you read that right.

One night in Australia, when I was flying out of Darwin in an exercise with the RAAF, my Utility A hydraulic system failed. This was a reasonably serious emergency in the F-15, because among other things it meant you couldn’t lower your landing gear normally, and once you blew the gear down with the emergency system, you wouldn’t have brakes or steering on landing. I orbited for 30 minutes, burning down fuel while everyone else landed, then blew the gear down and lowered the tailhook. My plan was to land in the first 100 feet of the runway, lower my nose, and catch the approach end cable, which would bring me to a very quick stop. Everything went perfectly, and I’ll never forget the light show in my canopy-mounted rear view mirrors – a two-hundred-yard-long rooster tail of fiery sparks kicked up by the tailhook – and slamming forward in the straps when I caught the cable.

But the best thing happened after I’d landed, when our detachment commander – a fellow lieutenant colonel and fighter pilot, a man I respected greatly and who was bound for greater things in the Air Force – climbed up the crew ladder, shook my hand, and said “Skid, you sure were cool on the radio – I knew you had a handle on it.”

I was a Cold Warrior.  It never came my way to fly combat against the Commies. I never killed anyone or had to seriously worry about anyone killing me. Flying fighters was always dangerous, sure, but it was an impersonal danger.

But one thing I observed in my years of flying was that when pilots were cool on the radio, they were cool in everything else.  They were on top of it: skilled, disciplined, and professional.  That’s the kind of pilot you want to fly into combat with.  That’s the kind of pilot you want to be.

And by God, I was cool on the radio! I had a handle on it! I was a professional! I was a warrior!

© 2007 – 2015, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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2 thoughts on “Air-Minded: The Warrior Ethic

  • Dick, I hate writing about such abstract stuff. I suppose it’s important, though. With more time, I’d try to flesh out the purely conceptual paragraphs with personal stories. Maybe I’ll do that in future entries.

    A couple of clarifying comments:

    He vrs she; brotherhood vrs sisterhood: gender-specific words may be offputting for some readers, but that’s the way it was for Dick and I. Women weren’t allowed to fly combat aircraft in our day, so we never had the opportunity to fly with them. In my post-USAF career as a contractor flying safety instructor, I met several female A-10, F-16, and F-15 pilots and was impressed with them. According to the guys who fly with them, they’re good wingmen. They’re more than holding their own. Almost every female fighter pilot I talked to expressed pride in being part of the brotherhood – D’oh! – I mean personhood.

    When I started flying, and for several years afterward, I could not have articulated my feelings about patriotism and professionalism. I knew two things: I wanted to fly and I wanted the discipline. The rest became clear to me only much later.

    I didn’t mention camaraderie. Camaraderie is what keeps you going. Along with the glamor of flying fighters, particularly air-to-air fighters, comes a ton of suckage: constant deployments, frequent moves and family disruption, training and more training, check flights and tests, readiness exercises, chemical drills, long hours, military Mickey Mouse hoop-jumping, pressure to do things you don’t want to do in order to be promoted, and (with increasing rank) mountains of meaningless paperwork. But an hour in the squadron bar at the end of the day, singing bawdy songs with your buds, makes up for all of that.

    More later, perhaps.

    Dick, I’m looking forward to your comments. I showed you mine, how about you show me yours?

  • Paul, sorry for not responding sooner, but your post really got me thinking. I even printed it out so I could annotate it and make notes. Much of what you said parallels my own beliefs but you added an insight that I was lacking, mainly because I never commanded squat all and the high point of my career was running a plans section. Further, you are able to capture your thoughts with the written word and write in an extremely coherent manner, which is becoming more and more rare these days. It’s all 15 second sound bites and keep it simple. It seems the growing trend is, “the fuzzier the better.” But that’s another topic.

    Your emphasis on professionalism, comraderie, and the willingness to deliberately face danger are, I believe, at the heart of the warrior ethic. It is not a mindless rush to destroy things or people but the deliberate application of force. Goals are the key, whether it is to defend your family, support your buddies, or defend your country. There is a hierarchy here that is directly related to rank and level of responsibility. My goal flying in the pit of an F4 was to get bombs on target and survive the mission – along with my buddies.

    When I look back, all the antics and boozing at the bar had to do with unit identification and celebrating success, success measured in terms of mission accomplishment, and, in combat, survival. Ultimately, I was in combat because my buddies were there. Okay, so that is simplistic, but it is true.

    You also pointed out something I had not experienced, the difference in attitude between grunts and airdales. The grunts were more ready to discuss it than fighter jocks. I need to think about this but suspect it might be due to the nature of the job, They were closer to the action than we were.

    As for sounding good on the radios, I remember being told early on that it was better to die than sound bad on the radios. During my first tour in SEA, I was flying Blind Bat missions over Laos and North Vietnam, dropping flares from a C-130 at night and looking for trucks. One night we were hosed down by 37/57 AAA. The copilot lost it and was screaming over the intercom, “We’re gonna die! We’re gonna die!” The aircraft commander reached across and grabbed the hose of his oxygen mask, squeezed it and cut off his air flow, and shook it hard. The AC shouted, “Shut up and die like a man!” The upshot is that I would have followed that man through hell. It has to do with being in control of the situation. I wouldn’t have followed the copilot to the latrine and avoided flying on his crew when he was later upgraded to an aircraft commander.

    So, how do I capture all this in a novel? That is the hard part. I’m doing it with sayings like:
    “Honor the threat.”
    “When something goes wrong, get aggressive.”
    “Never fly in the same cockpit with someone braver than you.”
    “Train like you plan to fight.”

    So if you’ve got any pithy sayings, I would appreciate hearing them. In fact, if you can think of any Hasher sayings that might be applicable, let me know.

    But ultimately, it comes down to showing the reader what the warrior ethic is through the actions of my protagonist. I hope I get it right.

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