This article is from the archive of our partner .

David Petraeus made a joke at the expense of the Air Force at a recent event, sparking controversy over inter-branch feuding. But the ensuing debate reveals that the real controversy may be the Air Force's swiftly changing role in the future of the U.S. military. Here's the joke:


A soldier is trudging through the muck in the midst of a downpour with a 60-pound rucksack on his back. This is tough, he thinks to himself. Just ahead of him trudges an Army ranger with an 80-pound pack on his back. This is really tough, he thinks. And ahead of him is a Marine with a 90-pound pack on, and he thinks to himself, I love how tough this is. Then, of course, 30,000 feet above them an Air Force pilot flips aside his ponytail. Now — I’m sorry. I don’t know how that got in there — I know they haven’t had ponytails in a year or two — and looks down at them through his cockpit as he flies over. Boy, he radios his wingman, it must be tough down there.

An editorial on the official Air Force magazine's website slammed the joke as "beyond outrageous" and "symptomatic of the long-held belief of many ground commanders that airpower is no longer, if it ever was, relevant." Robert Farley said such inter-branch humor "isn't that unusual" and that the Air Force reaction "reveals a certain insecurity." But what would they have to feel insecure about?

  • Changing AF Managment  Wired's David Axe wrote, "I think AFA is missing the joke’s most politically charged implication. Petraeus said aviators haven’t had ponytails in a "year or two." What happened a year ago? Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a clean sweep of the Air Force, removing the air service's two top officials, and clearing the way for a wide range of reforms that have made the Air Force more relevant to today’s ground wars."
  • Video Gamers in a Warrior Culture  "This issue is going to become much more severe in the years to come," Matthew Yglesias wrote, citing rising use of unmanned aerial vehicles. While Yglesias praised UAVs as "a huge win" for their cost efficiency and substantially reduced risk of pilot deaths, he noted cultural hurdles. "A service that consists of guys sitting in cubicles playing video games is going to have trouble holding its head high amidst a warrior ethos," he wrote. Could this affect AF policy? "The Air Force is tending to resist the technological imperative to go more remote," he wrote. "Ultimately, however, that resistance is doomed and it’s not really clear what will come of it."
  • Robotic Revolution Means More War?  Mother Jones' Kevin Drum expressed concern over the changing cost-benefit equation that comes with increased UAV use. "You see the same two-edged sword with police officers being armed with tasers," he wrote. "The fact that they have a nonlethal alternative also means they have less reason to avoid using it. Result: lots of people being tasered." Drum drew a chilling conclusion. "When we get to the point where one side is able to conduct war effectively with virtually no fear of loss of life, does that mean that public pressure against war will start to fade away?" he asked. "When war becomes cheaper, we'll get more war. Right?" In a similar vein, The Nation's Laura Flanders asked if top drone-maker General Atomics could become the next Blackwater.
  • Fighter Jets Still Wicked  Whatever its troubles within the military, the Air Force still has the power to get civilians all wee-weed up. Designs for a proposed light jet, the "Machete," have drawn oohs and ahs from David Axe at Wired and John Noonan at the Weekly Standard. Noonan called the new fighter "wicked" and "sweet."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.