My Graduation Speech to the Air Force Academy

With great power comes great responsibility

W.J. Astore

Twenty years ago, I left the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for my next assignment. I haven’t been back since, but today I travel there (if only in my imagination) to give my graduation address to the class of 2022. So, won’t you take a few minutes and join me, as well as the corps of cadets, in Falcon Stadium?

Congratulations to all you newly minted second lieutenants! As a former military professor who, for six years, taught cadets very much like you at the Academy, I salute you and your accomplishments. You’ve weathered a demanding curriculum, far too many room and uniform inspections, parades, restrictions, and everything else associated with a military that thrives on busywork and enforced conformity. You’ve emerged from all of that today as America’s newest officers, part of what recent commanders-in-chief like to call “the finest fighting force” in human history. Merely for the act of donning a uniform and taking the oath of office, many of your fellow Americans already think of you as heroes deserving of a hearty “thank you for your service” and unqualified expressions of “support.”

And I must say you do exude health, youth, and enthusiasm, as well as a feeling that you’re about to graduate to better things, like pilot training or intelligence school, among so many other Air Force specialties. Some of you will even join America’s newest service, the Space Force, which resonates with me, as my first assignment in 1985 was to Air Force Space Command.

In my initial three years in the service, I tested the computer software the Air Force used back then to keep track of all objects in earth orbit, an inglorious but necessary task. I also worked on war games in Cheyenne Mountain, America’s ultimate command center for its nuclear defense. You could say I was paid to think about the unthinkable, the end of civilization as we know it due to nuclear Armageddon. That was near the tail end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. So much has changed since I wore gold bars like you and yet, somehow, we find ourselves once again in another “cold war” with Russia, this time centered on an all-too-hot war in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, instead of, as in 1962, a country in our immediate neighborhood, Cuba. Still, that distant conflict is only raising fresh fears of a nuclear nightmare that could well destroy us all.

What does this old light colonel, who’s been retired for almost as long as he wore the uniform, have to teach you cadets so many years later? What can I tell you that you haven’t heard before in all the classes you’ve attended and all the lectures you’ve endured?

How about this: You’ve been lied to big time while you’ve been here at the Academy.

Ah, I see I have your attention now. More than a few of you are smiling. I used to joke with cadets about how four years at a military school were designed to smother idealism and encourage cynicism, or so it sometimes seemed. Yes, our lead core value may still be “integrity first,” but the brass, the senior leadership, often convinces itself that what really comes first is the Air Force itself, an ideal of “service” that, I think you’ll agree, is far from selfless.

What do I mean when I say you’ve been lied to while being taught the glorious history of the U.S. Air Force? Since World War II began, the air forces of the United States have killed millions of people around the world. And yet here’s the strange thing: we can’t even say that we’ve clearly won a war since the “Greatest Generation” earned its wings in the 1930s and 1940s. In short, boasts to the contrary, airpower has proven to be neither cheap, surgical, nor decisive. You see what I mean about lies now, I hope.

I know, I know. You’re not supposed to think this way. You eat in Mitchell Hall, named after General Billy Mitchell, that airpower martyr who fought so hard after World War I for an independent air service. (His and our collective dream, long delayed, finally came to fruition in 1947.) You celebrate the Doolittle Raiders, those intrepid aviators who flew off an aircraft carrier in 1942, launching a daring and dangerous surprise attack on Tokyo, a raid that helped restore America’s sagging morale after Pearl Harbor. You mark the courage of the Tuskegee Airmen, those African American pilots who broke racial barriers, while proving their mettle in the skies over Nazi Germany. They are indeed worthy heroes to celebrate.

And yet shouldn’t we airmen also reflect on the bombing of Germany during World War II that killed roughly 600,000 civilians but didn’t prove crucial to the defeat of Adolf Hitler? (In fact, Soviet troops deserve the lion’s share of the credit there.) We should reflect on the firebombing of Tokyo that killed more than 100,000 people, among 60 other sites firebombed, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that, both instantly and over time, killed an estimated 220,000 Japanese. During the Korean War, our air forces leveled North Korea and yet that war ended in a stalemate that persists to this day. During Vietnam, our air power pummeled Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, unleashing high explosives, napalm, and poisons like Agent Orange against so many innocent people caught up in American rhetoric that the only good Communist was a dead one. Yet the Vietnamese version of Communism prevailed, even as the peoples of Southeast Asia still suffer and die from the torrent of destruction we rained down on them half a century ago.

Turning to more recent events, the U.S. military enjoyed total air supremacy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other battlefields of the war on terror, yet that supremacy led to little but munitions expended, civilians killed, and wars lost. It led to tens of thousands of deaths by airpower, because, sadly, there are no such things as freedom bombs or liberty missiles.

If you haven’t thought about such matters already (though I’ll bet you have, at least a little), consider this: You are potentially a death-dealer. Indeed, if you become a nuclear launch officer in a silo in Wyoming or North Dakota, you may yet become a death-dealer of an almost unimaginable sort. Even if you “fly” a drone while sitting in a trailer thousands of miles from your target, you remain a death-dealer. Recall that the very last drone attack the U.S. launched in Afghanistan in 2021 killed 10 civilians, including seven children, and that no one in the chain of command was held accountable. There’s a very good reason, after all, why those drones, or, as we prefer to call them, remotely piloted aircraft, have over the years been given names like Predator and Reaper. Consider that a rare but refreshing burst of honesty.

I remember how “doolies,” or new cadets, had to memorize “knowledge” and recite it on command to upper-class cadets. Assuming that’s still a thing, here’s a phrase I’d like you to memorize and recite: Destroying the town is not saving it. The opposite sentiment emerged as an iconic and ironic catchphrase of the Vietnam War, after journalist Peter Arnett reported a U.S. major saying of devastated Ben Tre, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” Incredibly, the U.S. military came to believe, or at least to assert, that destroying such a town was a form of salvation from the alleged ideological evil of communism. But whether by bombs or bullets or fire, destruction is destruction. It should never be confused with salvation.

Will you have the moral courage, when it’s not strictly in defense of the U.S. Constitution to which you, once again, swore an oath today, to refuse to become a destroyer?

Two Unsung Heroes of the U.S. Air Force

In your four years here, you’ve learned a lot about heroes like Billy Mitchell and Lance Sijan, an Academy grad and Medal of Honor recipient who demonstrated enormous toughness and resilience after being shot down and captured in Vietnam. We like to showcase airmen like these, the true believers, the ones prepared to sacrifice everything, even their own lives, to advance what we hold dear. And they are indeed easy to respect.

I have two more courageous and sacrificial role models to introduce to you today. One you may have heard of; one you almost certainly haven’t. Let’s start with the latter. His name was James Robert “Cotton” Hildreth and he rose to the rank of major general in our service. As a lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, Cotton Hildreth and his wingman, flying A-1 Skyraiders, were given an order to drop napalm on a village that allegedly harbored enemy Viet Cong soldiers. Hildreth disobeyed that order, dropping his napalm outside the target area and saving (alas, only temporarily) the lives of 1,200 innocent villagers.

How could Hildreth have possibly disobeyed his “destroy the town” order? The answer: because he and his wingman took the time to look at the villagers they were assigned to kill. In their Skyraiders, they flew low and slow. Seeing nothing but apparently friendly people waving up at them, including children, they sensed that something was amiss. It turns out that they were oh-so-right. The man who wanted the village destroyed was ostensibly an American ally, a high-ranking South Vietnamese official. The village hadn’t paid its taxes to him, so he was using American airpower to exact his revenge and set an example for other villages that dared to deny his demands. By refusing to bomb and kill innocents, Hildreth passed his “gut check,” if you will, and his career doesn’t appear to have suffered for it.

But he himself did suffer. He spoke about his Vietnam experiences in an oral interview after he’d retired, saying they’d left him “really sick” and “very bitter.” In a melancholy, almost haunted, tone, he added, “I don’t talk about this [the war] very much,” and one can understand why.

So, what happened to the village that Hildreth and his wingman had spared from execution by napalm? Several days later, it was obliterated by U.S. pilots flying high and fast in F-105s, rather than low and slow as Hildreth had flown in his A-1. The South Vietnamese provincial official had gotten his way and Hildreth’s chain of command was complicit in the destruction of 1,200 people whose only crime was fighting a tax levy.

My second hero is not a general, not even an officer. He’s a former airman who’s currently behind bars, serving a 45-month sentence because he leaked the so-called drone papers, which revealed that our military’s drone strikes killed far more innocent civilians than enemy combatants in the war on terror. His name is Daniel Hale, and you should all know about him and reflect on his integrity and honorable service to our country.

What was his “crime”? He wanted the American people to know about their military and the innocent people being killed in our name. He felt the burden of the lies he was forced to shoulder, the civilians he watched dying on video monitors due to drone strikes. He wanted us to know, too, because he thought that if enough Americans knew, truly knew, we’d come together and put a stop to such atrocities. That was his crime.

Daniel Hale was an airman of tremendous moral courage. Before he was sentenced to prison, he wrote an eloquent and searing letter about what had moved him to share information that, in my view, was classified mainly to cover up murderous levels of incompetence. I urge you to read Hale’s letter in which he graphically describes the deaths of children and the trauma he experienced in coming to grips with what he termed “the undeniable cruelties that I perpetuated” while serving as an Air Force intelligence analyst.

It’s sobering stuff, but we airmen, you graduates in particular, deserve just such sobering information, because you’re going to be potential death-dealers. Yet it’s important that you not become indiscriminate murderers, even if you never see the people being vaporized by the bombs you drop and missiles you’ll launch with such profligacy.

In closing, do me one small favor before you throw your caps in the air, before the Thunderbirds roar overhead, before you clap yourselves on the back, before you head off to graduation parties and the congratulations of your friends and family. Think about a saying I learned from Spider-Man. Yes, I really do mean the comic-book hero. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Like so many airmen before you, you may soon find yourself in possession of great power over life and death in wars and other conflicts that, at least so far in this century, have been all too grim. Are you really prepared for such a burden? Because power and authority, unchecked by morality and integrity, will lead you and our country down a very dark path indeed.

Always remember your oath, always aim high, the high of Hildreth and Hale, the high of those who remember that they are citizen-airmen in service to a nation founded on lofty ideals. Listen to your conscience, do the right thing, and you may yet earn the right to the thanks that so many Americans will so readily grant you just by virtue of wearing the uniform.

And if you’ll allow this aging airman one final wish: I wish you a world where the bombs stay in their aircraft, the missiles in their silos, the bullets in their guns, a world, dare I say it, where America is finally at peace.

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore. Originally at TomDispatch.com. Please read TomDispatch.com, a regular antidote to the mainstream media. Thank you!

25 thoughts on “My Graduation Speech to the Air Force Academy

  1. Beautifully written. I’m 84 and spent 2 years in the USMC, 1956 – 1958. Never came close to combat. But I got a closeup view of military incompetence. That we’ve lost all major conflicts since WWII is no surprise to me.
    Keep up your great work. Our world needs a reality check.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Outstanding, Colonel; nailed on all cylinders.

    And Heh, i’m having a good time trying to calculate when in Your rant the power to Your mike would have been cut, and how You would have then been first escorted from the podium, then the stage, then the stadium, and then the Academy grounds.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. precisely as chris hedges was, who suffered the same mortification, ignominy, obloquy, and banishment in may 2003 at the rockford college/uni commencement stramash in illinois…. hardly supervenient, given its ecclesiastical germination as a seminary for femmes.

      WJA, your fantasized commencement address to the imaginary AFA graduates is the most arresting, breathtaking, and heart-rending allocutions i have yet had the privilege to read. it should serve as a prolegomenon to an anti-war treatise that a publisher should be honoured to divulgate to the hoi polloi.

      during my years teaching in japan [’62~’64] and our family’s years in cambodia [’97~’99; 2011~’13], i/we witnessed the unspeakable crimes and dispiteous consequences of the US military’s atomic bombs and bomb-strafing horrors levelled on the civilians of those 2 countries.

      during one of our marine biological research investigations offshore of kompong som in 1997, we stayed in a small guest house whose owner was an elderly woman so psychologically damaged by the heinous murders of her entire family that she was incarcerated in an emotional prison out of which she was unable to break in order to live as a sane person in the real world. in 1973, while she was selling her farm produce in phnom penh, the nixon/kissinger war criminals, along w/ their complicit US military’s bomb-crazed crwth, shredded all 8 of her children, her husband, her mother, and her extended family.

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      1. an addendum: mdm voeun remained so traumatized from the US-bombing slaughter of her family that even after 25 years, she was catatonic, only able to stare at us w/ blank, black, unfocussed eyes, inarticulate grunts, and meaningless badinage.

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  3. Between 1965 and 1975, the United States and its allies dropped more than 7-million tons of bombs on or near North Vietnam.

    By comparison between 1940 and 1945, U.S. and British air forces dropped only(!) 2.7-million tons of bombs on Europe in WWII, half of that amount on Germany.

    During the Vietnam War, America dropped about 1,000 tonnes of bombs for every man, woman, and child living in Vietnam.

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    1. Here are the stats that grab me, Dennis.

      In Southeast Asia, the U.S. dropped roughly 7,662,000 tons of bombs. The yield of the Hiroshima bomb in 1945 was 15 kilotons, or 15,000 tons.

      That means the U.S. bombing campaign amounted to 510 Hiroshimas over the years.

      In SE Asia, the U.S. acted like a crazed and petulant giant that believed it could and should get its way simply by smashing and killing things. We still refuse to reckon with the violence we unleashed and inflicted on so many millions of innocents.

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        1. All that ordnance — who knows? But let’s say it’s $2000 a ton. What’s that? More than $15 billion. That’s a lot of money in 1960s dollars. It was probably double or triple that. Maybe $30 billion?

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          1. The Vietnam War cost $168 billion, or $1 trillion in today’s dollars. That included $111 billion in military operations and $28.5 billion in aid to South Vietnam.

            Compensation benefits for Vietnam veterans and families still cost $22 billion per year.

            Surviving spouses qualify for lifetime benefits if the veteran died from war wounds. Veterans’ children receive benefits until age 18. If the children are disabled, they receive lifetime benefits. Since 1970, the post-war benefits for veterans and families have cost $270 billion.

            “Vietnam War Facts, Costs, and Timeline”
            https://www.thebalance.com/vietnam-war-facts-definition-costs-and-timeline-4154921

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            1. What do military historians say to those that argue that the US military would have won the Vietnam war if Congress had not of cut off funding the war? Didn’t Westmoreland say that the military would have won the war if Congress had given him what he requested?

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  4. Bill, a much better and more truthful relevant speech than the one given by Defence Secretary Austin who reminded the cadets, “So that means a love of service—to your classmates, to your community, and to your country. It means that you’ll never lie, cheat, or steal. It means that you treat everyone with dignity and respect. And it means a lifelong passion for our core values of democracy, liberty, and the rule of law.”

    He then proceeds to lie saying, “Putin’s war of choice is an affront to the rules-based international order. And it’s a challenge to free people everywhere,” leaving out so many SINS of Historical OMISSION the US dominated NATO forced this War on Putin.

    https://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech/Article/3044274/remarks-by-secretary-of-defense-lloyd-j-austin-iii-at-the-us-air-force-academy/

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  5. Hopefully, at least a few recent Academy graduates will have an opportunity to read your speech and take it to heart.

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  6. @WJASTORE Thanks Bill I read your blog on “Westy”. Interesting.

    One sentence that interested me in that blog……..”The amount of weaponry, ordnance, materiel, just plain bombs and bullets, expended by the U.S. in Vietnam was gargantuan.”

    What do I say to lifers in the US Military who argue vehemently that the US lost the war not because of its military inferiority, but because the US was not willing to provide ENOUGH bombs, bullets and weapons to get the job done. They say DC politicians had too much say in what was provided, and the military was fighting the war with one hand tied behind its back.

    An example: They say we should have provided more than(!) the 950+ F-105 “Thuds” deployed, (with nearly 400 lost!) And argue that the troops were not adequately supported in all equipment and asset areas. In other words, that if the politicians had just stepped aside, and be politicians, and let the military take over, and 100% run the show, the US would have prevailed easily. They were “interfered” with in trying to do their job.

    I’m not sure I buy this. The amount of aircraft alone deployed in this war was staggering. Your take on this please.

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    1. Here’s a response: If we had wanted to bomb them back to the Stone Age, to turn Southeast Asia into a parking lot, to “nuke them until they glow,” we could have “won.”

      Is that how you define winning? Genocidal bombing? Killing them all and letting God sort them out?

      If so, explain today why Vietnam is a quasi-U.S. ally against China.

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      1. That’s easy: China has ALWAYS been the primary enemy of and threat to Vietnam. That’s why Vietnam’s first war after they kicked the Americans’ asses was against China’s Boy in Cambodia, Pol Pot, and then against the Chinese themselves.

        The Vietnamese people did not want that war with America. They had hoped that their defeat of the French
        ~ even with all that American aid and assistance ~ had taught somebody in Washington the following: That Vietnam will NEVER be under anybody’s control except the Vietnamese.

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    2. The other and usually bigger reason those folks give for having lost that war is because the NLF and NVA had untouchable sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos.

      And, of course, we saw how that all worked out when we learned that Nixon’s “Secret Plan” to end the war in Vietnam was to expand it into Cambodia in 1970nand the ARVN’s later foray into Laos in 1972.

      But at least invading Cambodia accomplished something very notable: With Kent State, it killed the American anti-War movement.

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  7. NVA/NLF Sanctuaries and/or Insufficient Firepower ~ as excuses for why America lost what the Vietnamese People term “The American War” ~ is complete and total Bullshit.

    America lost that war for two reasons:

    1. The Vietnamese do not lose wars. Never have and, in all likelihood, never will. Sort of like the People of Afghanistan.

    2. Far more importantly: What America was trying to do in Vietnam ~ let alone what it did and how it went about doing it ~ was, is, and will ever be totally and completely EVIL and WRONG.

    That started when we brought the French back to Indochina and then bankrolled their futile [see Reason 1] attempt to regain imperial control of their colony in Southeast Asia. And then refused to even acknowledge ~ let alone honor ~ the so-called “peace agreement” that ended what the Vietnamese term “The French War.” Thus setting the stage for the American War.

    It then continued on a back burner until this government lied thru its teeth about an “incident” in the Tonkin Gulf that sold the American People [or at least their politicians, bureaucrats, pundits, and other propogandists] on a dandy little War in a place the overwhelming majority of Americans could not find on a map of the world.

    And it continued to continue as that same government and its legions lied thru its teeth about how “Well” the War was going [Body Counts, new Pacification Villages, Etc]; and would no doubt be going even better ~ if not victoriously concluded ~ if we had just a few more troops in country and a wee bit more firepower on land, sea, and in the air. Which is exactly what happened [except for the “Victory” part].

    The perpetrators of the EVIL and the WRONG that America inflicted upon the Peoples of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos should have been brought before a Nuremburg-type War Crimes Tribunal; and all the architects, engineers, and project managers ~ starting in the White House and Congress ~ should have faced what the Nazis faced after World War II. And treated in exactly the same fashion.

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  8. Powerful distinction between real American Patriots (those with demonstrated fidelity to the principles of the nation as explicated in the Declaration of Independence) and misled patriots (those who buy “my country right or wrong”). America is America only when it stands (fights?) for the inalienable rights of all humans. We all have feet of clay, but wisdom such as this can assist each to discern the path to follow. Thanks for it.

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  9. I sort-of marched onto the terrazzo in June 1962, following the instructions of an A1C to find the check-in building in order to get uniform, shots and squadron assignment. The first day or so was low-key orientation with a sergeant and a Warrant Officer. Then, of course, the First Classmen arrived, and basic training started.

    Didn’t take long to figure out the simple purposes and simplistic psychological tricks of our indoctrination. I was more embarrassed by the process than pissed off. I was in quite good physical condition, so it wasn’t that difficult to hack. I even helped a couple of the guys who were really hurting.

    The seniors in 24th were pretty good actors, but it wasn’t more than a couple of weeks before we had a good relationship with the first contingent. Then the second crew took over and turned out to be flamers. Toward the start of the semester, we were exposed to the other upperclassmen and a couple of regular AF officers. Most of them turned out to be a variety of assholes: fanatic Christians or fanatic military or stupid or neurotic, etc. I was disenchanted.

    The big disillusionment, though, was an episode in the context of the Red Alert due to the Cuba crisis. Waiting for a class to leave my next classroom, I overheard 3 secondclassmen talking excitedly about their optimistic assessment of the situation. They figured that they would be contingently graduated early, be given 30-day wonder pilot training, and would be dropping bombs from 40,000 feet with hazardous-duty pay by Spring. Something about lots of women, too. That cut it for me. It was so callous and cavalier that I just wanted out.

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    1. I suppose a few of those dreamers eager to drop bombs would do so excitedly in Vietnam, complete with hazardous duty pay and lots of women.

      Who said dreams don’t come true?

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      1. Indeed. Two from 24th Squadron Class of 66 died there. One particular friend was rescued but suffered years of repairs and therapy. Good ending though – became a medical doctor back in his home state of Maine.

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