@Real JQP Weighs in on Ned Stark, USAF Reform
Starting in March of 2013, the day after my retirement from active duty, I wrote a blog primarily focused on instigating debate within the ranks of the United States Air Force — first using my own name and later under the pseudonym John Q. Public (more about that later).
The objective of the blog was to get the service’s leaders to recognize the severity of its cultural rot, transparently acknowledge it, and to at least start changing course.
The tactics included mercilessly exposing things which had been rug-swept for too long, casting a light on internal corruption and power abuse, and the provision of original reporting together with analysis and opinion. The site, and its creator, were sharply and un-apologetically critical. It was the tonic I felt necessary at the time, and the passage of time has only made me more certain.
In 2017, having seen evidence the core objective was accomplished, I stopped writing for JQP. I saw Gen. David Goldfein’s leadership team beginning to earnestly engage in the right conversation with airmen and felt my role was to get out of the way and let that process happen.
JQP has since morphed into a different sort of site. An Air Force tabloid of sorts. No opinion, analysis, original reporting, or any discernible reform objective.
But in the wake of the original spiral of JQP, the voices of others have filled in the debate space it had occupied, bringing fresh perspectives to a vibrant and renewed intra-service debate consistent with the USAF’s tradition as a free-thinking contest of ideas.
One such voice is that of Ned Stark, a pseudonymous would-be reformer whose essays on leader development began populating the pages of War on the Rocks around one year ago. The conceit of Stark’s contribution is that he’s had something controversial to say and feared for his career safety in saying it. Hence the choice of namesake corresponding to a Game of Thrones character cropped at the neck for failing to align with power.
But his input, which inspired healthy reflection and response across the officer corps, carried no such risk. Goldfein famously offered Stark a role on his direct staff to put some of his reform ideas into practice.
Earlier this week, Stark unmasked himself in a 49-minute podcast, exposing the actual identity of Jason “Chops” Lamb, an intelligence colonel with 24 years of impressive and varied service in the field, on staffs, and in the schoolhouse. I recognized Chops as a well-regarded thinker in the intel community and a fellow graduate of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies … an insanely selective and rigorous graduate program which guards the flame of critical thinking in a service often inclined to extinguish it.
I listened to Lamb’s words in the podcast and found myself impressed but not surprised by his nimble mind and the depth of his deliberation on the issue of promotion reform.
But when Lamb was asked about those who paved the way for his contribution, he was less charitable and more simplistic than I would have expected.
Asked specifically about JQP (start at 35:00), Lamb encapsulated four years of my work with a few terse, topline views. He felt the blog was too negative, that it lost credibility, that people tuned out, and that it was more a “cautionary tale” about how not to go about reform — an implicit contrast with his own approach. Lamb implied that JQP was about throwing spears, which is destructive … while his genuine urge to “help” was much more constructive.
This recommends to suspicion that Jason Lamb’s got a shorter memory than Ned Stark, who had been around long enough to see winter come and go.
When JQP started six years ago, the environment in the Air Force was not receptive to ideas. We were in top-down, shut-up-and-color mode. The problems Lamb has been addressing since May 2018 were not yet acknowledged by the service, and even suggesting they existed was grounds for vilification.
We were still miles short of problem identification. Getting the Air Force to admit everything wasn’t perfect required … well … chucking spears. Walls needed to be brought down before those on either side could discuss solutions.
In fact, the reason I switched to writing under a pen name (after initially using my own name) was that the personal attacks visited upon me for daring to call out the service’s leaders — even in muted tones — made opposition to my views too easily and lazily achieved, inviting too many idiots to participate.
Making JQP the author shifted attribution to more of an idea than an individual, weeding out intellectual layabouts and nudging the resistant into closer collision with the actual ideas rather than the delivery.
But contrary to Lamb’s false dichotomy, negative critiques are not always destructive. This is a common intellectual fallacy among USAF officers, who are conditioned in their formative years to be aligned and compliant. Mere disagreement traditionally carries a perceptual risk of not being seen as a team player — the ultimate sin in a culture of camaraderie.
But the fact is sometimes sharp and even negative critiques are necessary to provide constructive impetus for cultural change. There are some issues about which there is no room to be positive and still be correct.
When generals wrongly mark captains with the stain of treason for exercising their civil liberties, there is no room for compromise. When colonels use sacred powers of investigation and punishment to collect the pelts of junior officers in an effort to advance their own careers, there is nothing positive to be said. When commanders fire their subordinates without providing a testable cause or falsifiable evidence, abuse of power is demonstrated and must be challenged. When the service’s most senior officer lies to Congress about service morale, this must be challenged without compromise.
Fighting abuse by corrupt generals and colonels cannot be done by saying “gee, guys, can’t we all just get along?”
Certainly Lamb is correct to say that JQP spilled over into unhealthy negativity from time to time. That’s fair. But if that’s all he got out of the blog’s four years and more than five hundred articles, he wasn’t reading. On the big issues, there was balance. Even when negative, the writing was fair and accurate.
And if Lamb really believes the influence of the blog diminished over time, he’s just wrong. Based on the data, my conversations with senior leaders and affiliates, and with the rank and file, JQP continued to make a huge mark and remained a water cooler fixture until I laid it down.
I stopped writing the blog when I saw things were gradually turning to the right heading, which was coincident with the arrival of Gen. Goldfein, Sec. Heather Wilson, and CMSAF Kaleth Wright. These three immediately reset the tone, and I knew the conversation percolating for four years as an insurgency movement would soon be legitimized and spill into the mainstream. That’s exactly what has happened, and the policy changes have followed close in trail.
Ultimately my take on Jason Lamb is that he’s overestimating his own influence and underestimating that of those who preceded him. The conversation he believes he triggered was already happening. He helped fuel and push it along, but others had already paved the way.
Col. Donnie Grannan wrote virally contrary words a few years earlier. Col. Mike Pietrucha wrote several articles with explicit and implied critiques of the USAF’s procurement system and its command relationships. Several officers penned pieces for JQP critiquing command selection and removal from command. Countless airmen from all ranks provided inside information and documentation to JQP. These people moved the dial so that by the time Ned made his debut, many senior officers had publicly acknowledged institutional maladies and were publicly commenting about it on social and traditional media. Change was in the air.
I’m also of the opinion that Lamb didn’t take near as much risk as he imagines. No one hunted Grannan nor Pietrucha, and in fact Grannan went on to wing command selection. Many others who commented publicly saw no career consequences, even when risk was higher. By the time Ned stepped on scene, risk was lower … chiefly because the door to conversation had been battered open by others.
Had Lamb written his articles during the tenure of Mark Welsh, when there was real danger of career consequences for disagreeing with the establishment, he could perhaps be considered a renegade in the Ron Keys or John Boyd tradition, if not in the stylistic mold of either. Surely Lamb did not come to his conclusions overnight, so he presumably had the impulse to speak out back then.
But setting aside that Lamb had the implicit sponsorship and presumable grant of amnesty from generals like Stephen Kwast and Goldfein, he surrendered any claim of roguery by saving his words until the cultural winds had shifted.
Lamb made himself a supportive contributor to a difficult conversation others had already done the heavy lifting to instigate. This is how he should be understood. The idea that he risked his neck is mistaken, and in fact his use of a pseudonym diminished the weight of his words while making an unfair statement about the safety of open debate in the Goldfein USAF.
All that said, the idea that he has contributed substantially to issues of core importance to the future health of the Air Force is spot-on. The discussion is enriched by his presence in it, and I sincerely hope he stays dialled in whether he is promoted or retires.
It would have been nice if Lamb had been nearly as balanced in his assessment of my own contributions, and even better if the journalist interviewing him had challenged his counterfactual downplaying of the role of the JQP blog. I won’t get baited into a point-by-point defense of JQP, but I will take issue with Lamb on one of his statements.
“I love the Air Force,” says Jason, introducing a series of thoughts framing his contributions as trying to help and not about “dumping” on the Air Force.
This statement implies that those who take a different approach to debate somehow don’t love the Air Force. On the contrary, the willingness to absorb the criticism that comes with speaking unpalatable truths without generously sugar coating them is a demonstration of love, as Robin Olds or John Boyd or Hap Arnold would attest. To truly love a thing is to be willing to speak the truth about it … to play a passionate and proactive role in helping it see itself accurately. This is the first step in creating change for the better, and the energy it requires is not trivial.
I left the Air Force with a lot of runway left in front of me. I did this because I was out of step with it and didn’t feel I had any business inhabiting a senior command role given that misalignment. But I wasn’t done loving it, and had some things to get off my chest to show and prove that love.
Knowing that what I had to say went beyond saccharine platitudes and into a place where I would be accused of threatening good order and discipline to say such things while commanding airmen, I waited until I was free to speak, then spoke in a way designed to embolden the rank and file to hold their leadership to account.
My love isn’t for the idea of the USAF, but for the airmen who personify that idea. They needed a channel, and I was privileged to help provide it.
Eventually I knew it was time to let others, such as Jason Lamb, do the talking for a bit. It was the right decision, and I credit the Lambs of the USAF for their role in helping turn things around, whether or not that acknowledgement is fairly credited in the other direction.
It will take a long time, and headwinds may mean the Air Force can never regain all of the altitude it lost in the last two decades.
But the intent is there now, and that makes all the difference.
Tony Carr is an American writer, manager, veteran, and strategist. He is a former combat pilot and squadron commander with an M.A. from George Washington University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Tony is the founder of The Colosseum Blog and writes from Manchester, United Kingdom.