Generals May Excoriate Cadets Over Vaccine Refusal, But The Academy Taught Us Better

By Lt. Gen. Rod Bishop Jr. (USAF ret.) | May 24, 2022

Brigadier Gen. Marty France (ret.), a former Air Force Academy professor and current Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) representative to the Academy, had choice words to say about Cadets who are resisting the COVID-19 vaccine due to religious objections. In a18 May Daily Kos article, Gen. France, an Academy graduate, incorporated almost every aspect of the USAF Academy experience to prove his point. Are cadets, who have lost their commission and risk hundreds of thousands in debt, truly enemies of the values of the Air Force Academy? General France seems to think so, tying together with a quote from legendary Gen. George S. Patton:

“If you can’t get them to salute when they should salute and wear the clothes you tell them to wear, how are you going to get them to die for their country?”

Gen. France asserts the four cadets are insubordinate, and he seems to believe the implications of this will have disastrous consequences. Gen. France claims these cadets’ “Burger King” mentality of having it their way over their firmly held religious beliefs is incompatible with military service — just like wearing a nose ring. False equivalencies aside, it’s rather ironic that a religious freedom representative finds religious beliefs so intolerable. After all, wearing a nose ring is not far from a Sikh wearing a turban in uniform: a practice the military allows.

The assumption these future warfighters won’t die for their country is simply preposterous. There are far more Academy alumni than you would imagine who feel the same as these cadets, and they are risking their careers, retirements, and paychecks to stand for those same beliefs. Among the ranks are squadron commanders, weapons school graduates, members of Air Force special operations, flight test engineers, and others who have seen combat. Gen. France, who spent his career in the safe confines of academia, has no place questioning the resolve of those who have put their lives on the line.

It’s time to ask the tough question: is this mandate about safety, or is it about saving face and insisting on compliance for the sake of it? Gen. France never mentions this mandate exists to protect cadets and airmen. In fact, he doesn’t seem interested in the vaccine as medicine. Instead, he makes it a symbol of compliance and servitude. These cadets went about the religious accommodation process. Is it such an overwhelming price to pay for just four out of close to 1,000 cadets to have an exemption as provided by law?

General France is certainly right about one thing. At the Academy, we were absolutely required to memorize quotes about leadership including that very quote he borrowed from Patton. Gen. France is also correct when he says that Contrails, the book of quotes and knowledge cadets are issued, dictated our lives as underclassmen.

If there’s one quote from Contrails I remember more than any George S. Patton quote, it’s from Lt. Gen. John M. Schofield.

“The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. It is possible to impart instruction and give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice as to inspire in the soldier no feeling but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey.

“The one mode or the other in dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them respect for himself; while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect toward others, especially his subordinates, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.” —LTG John M. Schofield, 1879

The respect of airmen and cadets is earned, not bought through edicts, public admonishment, or humiliation from former faculty. Compassion is the root of this quote.

Schofield’s quote provides much-needed context to Patton’s. Yes, it is true that a disobedient force is not a reliable fighting unit; however, has Gen.France considered that Patton was talking to leaders rather than attempting to scare subordinates into compliance? Perhaps that quote is an indictment of poor leadership and answers the question: “Why won’t my soldiers follow me?”

Maybe it violates their religious beliefs in a way they cannot accept. Moral principles matters and it matters that cadets do the right thing. Integrity matters, and receiving something in violation of religious convictions for personal gain is not an act of integrity.

Our Nation was founded on the principle that all are free to disagree, believe freely, and remain in harmony. If diversity is our strength, then these cadets have something worth listening to. As Patton said: “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

We cannot afford groupthink in the military. These cadets are embodying traits we want in our warfighters by standing for the very constitutional rights they swear to defend. Wishing ill will, punishment, and suffering on then is not leadership.

“In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give up earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose that in any situation, or under any circumstances, is it best for you to do a dishonorable thing.” — President Thomas Jefferson, from a 2015 copy of Contrails.

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