And now, an interlude with Hunter S. Thompson

by Craig Hooper on April 4, 2011

If you have not read any of Hunter S. Thompson’s essays, then you are missing something. For all the drug-tinted, hard-living hyperbole of Hunter S. Thompson’s image, the guy wrote like a fiend. And he was an amazing observer.

For me, one Hunter Thompson essay particularly resonates–an essay about Air Force test pilots, entitled, “Those daring young men in their flying machines…Ain’t what they used to be.” Originally published back in 1969, Hunter republished the piece in “The Great Shark Hunt: Strange tales from a strange time.”

(As an aside, the test-pilot essay is really quite good; in fact, I suspect Tom Wolfe used it as a point of departure for The Right Stuff, a landmark exploration into the U.S. space program.)

Anyway. Hunter’s essay was one of the first to explore how the demands of high-tech weaponry were forcing the Air Force to move away from it’s old barnstorming, rules-breaking image. In the piece he notes, “the Air Force still benefits from the romantic pilot myth that its personnel managers have long since destroyed.” He caught the drift of a cultural trend.

Hunter Thompson didn’t like it–After Hunter rants about the risk-averse, family-friendly culture of the late-sixties Edwards Air Force Base, he finds one of the last remaining “old school” test pilots, and gets to hear tales about how this hold-out from the era when “men were Men” saved a plane with…a paperclip.

To some extent, Hunter’s observations ring true today. At NPS, I taught a lot of Air Force people (I approved my last thesis advisee, Col. W., late last year!), but the best pilot of my NPS Air Force student cadre was one of the best students–a delightful straight-A, want-to-be-called upon-every-time academic. Great guy…for high-level graduate study. But his piloting skills were, however, top notch–he (like every other good pilot out there) had his tales of saving a malfunctioning new-model aircraft by the thinnest of margins–only miraculously recovering moments before certain catastrophe.

So I feel a little conflicted. Here we are, today, still having to grapple with this idea that our “image” of an ideal “warrior” has to be something out of a Tom Cruise movie–while, in reality, there are some real gawky bookworms out there doing some amazingly crazy stuff in the sky (and seas and elsewhere).

Maybe it’s time we give credit to where it is due, and encourage the folks in the Pentagon’s image-making department to move beyond the idea that real war-fightin’ heroes are rule-breakin’ misogynists (like, say, CAPT Honors) and embrace the notion that there are lots of

average “Joes” out there in the national security community who, as professionals, do crazy, gutsy stuff.

And then drive Toyota minivans home to the wife, no less.

Let’s put the old Tom Cruise as Top Gun image to pasture, and work to reach beyond the easy stereotype.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig Hooper April 9, 2011 at 1:21 pm

This is gold:

That being said, there is a difference between rules and laws, and good officers know when they’re breaking what and the associate motivations/mission needs that might require adaptability.

And it transcends specialties, too.


Alpha April 9, 2011 at 10:20 am

No, point missed. The psychology is very different between services. Look no further than the Dash-1 versus NATOPS. The entire psychology is different. A get things done, rule breaking attitude defeats bureaucracy, and the enemy. “I’m not flying unless I get 12 hours uninterrupted,” loses wars, and turns it into a business instead of the dirty difficult thing that it is. Book worms are great, scientists are great, but the psychology is VERY different.

Captain Honors was a long tail issue, citing extremes is about as helpful as comparing people to Hitler. Knowing when the rules are a guide, and what makes good leadership is difficult, and messy. Knowing when to council a subordinate of give guidance is what happened to CAPT Honors. It was a failure of his leaders to correct him. Leadership is lonely when you’re not just following a guidebook, but are exercising judgement and adapting.

That being said, there is a difference between rules and laws, and good officers know when they’re breaking what and the associate motivations/mission needs that might require adaptability.


Craig Hooper April 5, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Yeah, well, ok, point taken–maybe we can ignore a few irritating zoomie traits…


Alpha April 5, 2011 at 4:30 pm

You gotta love straight A, brown nosing zoomies. They’re so motivated for the mission that they won’t even fly if you disrupt their crew rest, let alone have a dirty aircraft.


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