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Document created: 1 September 2007
Air & Space Power Journal - Fall 2007
A Pyrrhic Promotion
Lt Col Donald G. Rehkopf Jr., USAFR*
Lt Col William J. Ott’s “Maj Gen William ‘Billy’ Mitchell: A Pyrrhic Promotion” (Winter 2006) is a well-researched, balanced, timely article, but does it go far enough in relating a meaningful message to readers of the professional journal of the Air Force? In today’s “zero-tolerance” service, Mitchell’s conviction by general court-martial would have doomed more than his career. His subsequent resignation would have been approved—but under “other than honorable” conditions. Even had he not resigned and had a benevolent chain of command allowed him to remain, he would have received (a) a referral officer performance report (further damaging his career), (b) an unfavorable information file, and probably (c) a special security file, which would have revoked (at least temporarily) any security clearance/access he might have had. Absent a pardon, no one in today’s Air Force would (or could, if he or she valued his or her career in the “judgment” category) support a subsequent promotion. Indeed, today Mitchell also would almost certainly face a “grade determination” by the secretary of the Air Force prior to acceptance of his resignation or approval of his retirement.
I point this out, not because I advocate lowering the standards expected of officers but to put things into context. Regardless of Mitchell’s accomplishments, both in combat and in the development of air doctrine, it is simply inconceivable today that a man convicted under a general court-martial—who would lose his right to vote in some states, among other legal restrictions—would have a building at a service academy named after him. After all, does that not amount to rewarding crime in general and insubordination in particular? Indeed, in 2005 the former judge advocate general of the Air Force, a major general, was relieved of his duties, punished under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and “retired” at the grade of colonel.1 How could an intellectually honest officer support a belated promotion for Mitchell—validly denied him while on active duty, as Colonel Ott aptly demonstrates—yet at the same time support (or even just live with) a zero-tolerance standard for our current officer corps?
But this is not an either/or dichotomy. Ensign Chester Nimitz’s conviction by general court-martial for dereliction of duty occurred at the beginning of his illustrious career, but, although it placed a bump therein, this setback obviously did not prevent him from ultimately becoming admiral of the Navy. Like Mitchell’s, Nimitz’s career probably would not have survived in today’s military either. Compared to Mitchell’s conviction, however, Nimitz’s does demonstrate the value of “individualized justice” and the need for placing such matters in the perspective of the service. Thus, although we may have our own opinions about the propriety of legislation that authorizes Mitchell’s promotion, Colonel Ott’s article serves a vital purpose in both educating readers about this issue and demonstrating that “honoring” our heroes involves more than a successful public-relations campaign in Congress. We can only hope that the people charged with giving advice in this matter take into account the ramifications of their recommendations.
Rochester, New York
*The author is presently assigned to the Inactive Ready Reserve. He previously served on active duty for five years and as an individual mobilization augmentee for 21 years as an assistant staff judge advocate.
1. Air Force Print News, “AF’s Former Top Military Lawyer to Retire in Reduced Rank,” 10 January 2005, Air Force Link, http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123009569 (accessed 8 March 2007).
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University
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