August 19, 2009—"Joking" comments of Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US Central Command, during his presentation at the Marine Corps Association Foundation dinner on July 30 belittled the contributions of the Air Force to the joint force.
In his prepared remarks, Petraeus said: "Then, of course, 25,000 feet above them [soldiers and marines], an Air Force pilot flips aside his ponytail and looks down at them through his cockpit as he flies over. 'Boy,' he radios his wingman, 'It must be tough down there.' "
We reviewed the video to get his actual remarks and found he embellished his "joke," changing the altitude to 30,000 feet and saying, "… an Air Force pilot flips aside his ponytail—I don't know how that got in there; I know they haven't had ponytails in a year or two—and looks down … ."
Petraeus, as leader of CENTCOM, the joint force charged with running operations in Southwest Asia, should have known better than to make such disparaging remarks, even in jest. Certainly, his handlers at CENTCOM finally realized the effect they would have—they excised that part of his remarks from the version on the CENTCOM Web site. (We found the original version—along with the video—still posted on Aug. 19 at the Marine Corps Association Web site.)
In all fairness, early in his actual remarks, Petraeus did offer this joint praise, saying, "The best examples of true importance have been found in our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who have deployed in harm's way."
However, those words do not alleviate the offensiveness—and un-jointness—of his later comments. They are symptomatic of the long-held belief of many ground commanders that airpower is no longer, if it ever was, relevant. (Read Fraudulent Flak from the September 2000 Air Force Magazine.)
Here's the entire section from Petraeus' remarks with the "joke" as given at the dinner:
"Come to think of it, in fact another bedrock element of the Marine Corps is unquestionably having the best recruiting ads on television. [Laughter] But this concept is not just an advertisement. The marines' sense of toughness permeates the Corps' lore as well as its reality. To recall an illustrative story, 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. [laughter, applause] Then, of course, 30,000 feet above them — [laughter] — 30,000 feet above them an Air Force pilot flips aside his ponytail. [laughter, applause] Now — I'm sorry. I don't know how that got in there — [laughter] — I know they haven't had ponytails in a year or two — [laughter] — and looks down at them through his cockpit as he flies over. Boy, he radios his wingman, it must be tough down there. [laughter] Well, TV commercials and all joking aside, we've all seen that marines truly and consistently live up to their reputation."
Petraeus' remarks as prepared
Link to revised remarks on CENTCOM Web site