April 1, 2008  

Flyboys: The 21st-century Air Force is insecure in its femininity

Words have a utilitarian function in the uniformed world. We have checklists ringing with verbs, notes and warnings, and military evaluations are brimming with superlatives and exclamatory punctuation. Words are, as everywhere, formative of the culture: “lead,” “defend,” “fight,” “break things and kill people,” “take care of your wingman.”

The unlearned often argue that language simply flows from the reality — from “the brotherhood,” “male bonding,” and “barracks life.” Keen observers, however, know that language forms a world that it subsequently reflects. That this is so receives no argument from students of the sounds, structure, semantics and science of language: linguists. If you want to change attitude, then change the language; this, it seems, is the strategy of some in the Air Force who are rushing to camouflage the service’s female presence and its arguably feminine endeavors.

Words build upon their own history in an ongoing conversation, resounding with the meanings they have carried before. Words and meaning, however, also have tangible manifestations in the world. As I say or write the word “rifle,” an image quickly and distinctly comes to mind, though there is absolutely no direct correlation between the object and the name. The name we ascribe to the machine is random. However, the word and our personal manifestation of the object create our reality — our socio-cultural associations between word and object. The same is true of categories with grander implications, like gender. For example, when you read the words “burglar,” “criminal” and “thug,” what images come to mind? Male images, I suspect. That is the socio-cultural reality our society creates.

I’ve long had a sensitivity to male-gendered words that some chauvinistically purport to represent me, a woman. I regularly hear references that imply all military members are men — at least all of those who are serving overseas — so I recently searched Defense Dialogue archives to get a feel for the frequency with which interviewees refer to the “boys” and “men” dying and fighting with the American forces in Iraq. While I certainly found many, more often than not politicians and senior-ranking military members showed their adeptness with inclusive terminology: “service members” or “service men and women” or “men and women in uniform.” “She” may be a “good soldier” or “good sailor” and “he” may be a compassionate nurse. Nevertheless, the dominant image of the military member is a male image — but not “male enough” for some.

The leaders of the Air Force, which has long prided itself on being a well-educated and technological service, apparently feel threatened by a lower combat profile in the war in Iraq. In the battle for Defense Department dollars, the Air Force leadership seems neither content nor secure with the fact that its busiest functions are indisputably support functions. Space assets under Air Force control put sight where the eyes cannot see and keep compass for Americans on land and at sea, and critical cargo is delivered by the aircraft with the highest rates of deployment other than special operations forces — C-130s and C-17s. And while these aircraft are shot at, they can’t shoot back. Our air medical personnel are transporting the sick, wounded and dying and will be, perhaps, the last persons to look into the eyes of someone’s child. Our young crew chiefs and loadmasters have become, regrettably, airborne pallbearers. Our logistics troops — mostly enlisted — are increasingly finding themselves in the line of fire on the ground. But the leadership apparently is waxing nostalgic for a bygone era, when the enemy was equipped for dogfights and there were no armed uninhabited aerial vehicles that can both spy and carry weapons at less than 1/100th the cost of a piloted fighter. Aviation is now 104 years old and the “new weapons” reside in space and cyberspace. But, unable to move out of the past, the Air Force is clinging desperately to its adolescent “flyboy” image. How best to overcome the femininity associated with support functions and regain the masculinity of bygone heroics? The weapon of words.


In 2006, I was required to watch a video depicting an airman raping an airman, the lesson being that it is the wingman’s job to make sure that the airman doesn’t rape the airman, or, in the video, that the staff sergeant doesn’t rape the senior airman. Semantically, this suggests a homophobic scare tactic. Perhaps the “wingman,” as a combatant (since the term is one originating exclusively with fighter pilots), should take violent corrective action with the rapist?

The video implores its viewers to “take care of your wingman.” Apparently the leadership didn’t know that they’d perpetrated a double entendre of the grandest proportion. In the parlance of today’s 20-somethings, a man who knows that another male is a sexual predator and facilitates that predatory nature is known as a “wingman.” Enter the term into your search engine of choice and you will learn that a “wingman” is a man who occupies the attentions of less attractive women so that his “pilot” can target, as it were, the attractive ones. In the Air Force video, the airman rapist, a man, is known by a friend, a man, to be a sexual predator — the enabler is thus the “wingman” of popular American culture.

At best, the leadership is out of touch with the societal surround of the demographic at which the film was targeted: 19-25 year olds. At worst, the leadership has created a nefarious subtext. Overtly, the leadership is sending a message of teamwork; covertly, however, the Air Force video invokes a term — “wingman” — peculiar to the overwhelmingly male-dominated fighter aircraft community, thereby reinforcing predatory “work hard, play hard” behaviors consistent with the “flyboy” myth of the fighter pilot. In lieu of the term “wingman,” the leadership could easily have invoked a plethora of more widely known, or at least non-gendered, terms that denote teamwork and mutual concern. Instead, the leadership chose a term from the Air Force community statistically least populated by women, nepotistically retaining delusions of self-made grandeur in hopes of fending off threats to the service’s masculinity.

The fact is that the Air Force is a support service. Its members are more likely to be fired at than to be able to fire back. This is a circumstance with which military women have, historically, been quite familiar. Until 1993, women in the Air Force were allowed to fly only cargo and tanker aircraft, both of which are good strategic targets in terms of disrupting the supply of fuel or materiel. But cargo and tanker aircraft can’t shoot back. Female support and medical personnel have been fired upon since the American Revolution, but rarely have been equipped to return fire. Women have long and proudly served in almost any support function one can name — the types of functions dominant in the Air Force today. In the face of this reality, its feminine implications, and leadership’s sense that “Congress doesn’t see what the Air Force is bringing to the fight,” inhabitants of the E-ring have engaged a stealthy and powerful weapon of choice — language — to consciously instantiate reification of the male elite. Such language cloaks women in the Air Force as assuredly as our enemies and potential enemies cloak their women in conservative Islamic dress. Sadly, the use of the term “wingman” is just the start.


The Air Force chief of staff recently “tasked” that an Air Force creed be composed: an Airman’s Creed. The very term “Airman’s Creed” is problematic on two counts: rank and sex. Historically and traditionally, soldiers have held ranks such as corporal, staff sergeant and captain; sailors may hold the rank of chief petty officer or ensign; Marines may be gunnery sergeants or lieutenants; an airman may hold the rank of airman, airman first class or senior airman. But self-ordained arbiters of language — forgetting, apparently, that terms and ranks are used outside of the Air Force itself — have determined that an airman is an airman, a captain is an airman and a colonel is an airman. Were you to attempt to attract my attention by calling out, “Hey there, airman,” I would assume that a young enlisted member was nearby and I would neither lift my head nor break my stride. Further, as a lieutenant colonel, I consider myself an airman neither by rank nor by sex. The common usage of inclusive terminology like “service member,” “police officer,” “mail carrier” and “firefighter” only serves to amplify the sexed nature of terms like “airman” and “wingman.” The parallel of the increasingly well-worn “service men and women” (and our minds thrive on parallel structure) would be, it seems, “air men and omen” — which I have yet to see put to use.

Having been openly critical of the force-feeding of the term “airman,” I have been challenged to come up with an alternative. I offer the term “flyer.” Semantically, the only significant difference between the terms “airman” and “flyer” is the male suffix. To describe Air Force members as being “of flight” rather than “men of the air” includes not only its female members, but also the missions involving missile flight or space flight. Regrettably this term seems insufficient to the growing importance of the “flight” of digital information across networks — the new medium. Lest those who actually serve aboard aircraft take some offense, we can reserve the terms “aircrew,” “pilot,” “co-pilot,” “navigator,” “air battle manager,” “loadmaster,” “weapon system officer,” “crew chief” and “boom operator,” among others.

Re-masculinizing the Air Force via words in the “Airman’s Creed” has become so critical that in addition to six (including the title) invocations of the gendered term “airman” and incorporation of the problematic word “wingman,” the creed also uses the term “warrior” — a faddish and hackneyed word, particularly when applied to members of a service that actually engages in combat only in very low proportions.

Here I voice my opinion as a 23-year member of the Air Force, as an officer, an educator and an academic with a doctorate in linguistics. Yet, oddly, when I say, “I don’t feel that the creed, the word ‘airman,’ the word ‘wingman’ or the word ‘warrior’ includes me,” some who are superior to me in rank say, “yes, they do” — as if to say, “I order you to feel included in language that excludes your sex, excludes your rank, and excludes you as something ‘other than fighter pilot.’”

Words create our worlds — hostile worlds, gentle worlds, artistic worlds and militaristic worlds. The words “duty, honor, country,” “integrity, service, excellence,” “selflessness,” and “sacrifice” invoke worlds that demand devotion enough, without ranking maleness above femaleness or killing above reluctance to kill. In 2003, the Air Force deemed the sign at the Air Force Academy that read “Bring Me Men” to be inappropriate and rife with opportunity for abuse. But, as if emasculated by severing those words from its loins, the service is in danger of a semantic and semiotic surround that is whispering, loudly, “Bring Me Men Again.”