“Wingman Culture” and Military Sexual Assault

For various reasons, sexual assault in the military is both an issue I feel strongly about, and find exceedingly difficult to write about.  At this point, too many layers of misinformation and propaganda need to be scraped away from the topic before any semblance of the truth can possibly be addressed.  My thoughts on the mess this problem has become are best expressed by one of my favorite Moldbug quotes:

“It is impossible to enumerate the full list of reasons behind this belief. It’s like asking you why you prefer a romantic candlelight dinner for two at a simple, yet elegant, French restaurant, to being dragged alive behind an 18-wheeler at highway speed until there is nothing on the rope but a bloody flap of skin.” – Mencius Moldbug, “An Open Letter to Progressives,” pg 121

Accordingly, this post will be short on analysis.  I will merely clarify one point up front: the term “wingman” is commonly used in modern parlance to roughly mean, “a friend who facilitates one’s sexual adventurism.”  In the institutional culture of the US Air Force, however (where I believe, but can’t prove, that the term originated), the term “Wingman” is analogous to the the Army and Marine Corps’ concept of “Battle Buddy” or the Navy’s “Shipmate.”  The understanding is that once you cross a threshold from safety into danger (combat, or otherwise), it’s “game on” and everyone is obligated to be vigilant and pro-actively protect and correct one another.  However, the term has morphed to include not just authentically dangerous situations, but everyday life.  It has gained a connotation of “collective punishment,” or “babysitting,” which is expressed more thoroughly in the article I’m about to link.

So, perhaps you are familiar enough with Air Force culture to see where this article relates to counter-sexual assault efforts.  Perhaps you are not familiar with the culture, but are perceptive enough to imagine how this could tie in to the very public issue of sexual assault in the military.  If so, check out:  The Real Meaning of “Wingman”  (If not, perhaps this post just isn’t for you!)

Wingman. For the Air Force, this has become a loaded word.  For decades, it was a term associated with the long understood criticality of mutual support in combat operations. It stood for the proposition that assertive teamwork was the key to mission success. In recent years, it’s been hijacked by sloganeers who’ve used it as a rhetorical device to saturate bomb airmen concerning their duty to take care of, safeguard, and surveil one another…When I ask airmen what the word  means to them, the answers are mostly negative, with emphasis on the idea that “wingman” and “motherhood” have become too synonymous in the Air Force lexicon…

Here’s what “wingman” means to me.

First of all, it’s not as simple as “take care of each other.”  Sometimes being a wingman requires much more than that.  Sometimes, it requires much less.  Three qualities define a good wingman, and each has its own texture…Mutual Support…Situational Awareness…Individual Reliability

Despite considerable Air Force preaching to the contrary — especially among senior enlisted leaders and especially where off-duty conduct is concerned — a wingman culture is not a tool for collective responsibility.  Individuals are responsible for their actions.  Wingmen are encouraged to step in when things are headed down the wrong path, but they are neither law enforcement officers nor morality police, and in most cases they have no authority in off-duty contexts to tell their teammates what they can and cannot do.  Individual responsibility has always been and must always be the dominant logic governing matters of good order and discipline.  Blaming wingman action or inaction, even perceptually, when an individual does something wrong, transfers core accountability away from the wrongdoer and on to someone else.  Other potential wrongdoers view this as indulgence are emboldened.  Wingmen grow resentful of being blamed for failing to prevent wrongdoing by what amounts to judgment calls in gray areas, and tend to avoid off-duty teammate interactions in the future.  This degrades mutual support rather than enhancing it.

It shouldn’t be too hard to see the connection between the “collective responsibility” definition of being a wingman and the social phenomenon of White Knighting.  There are few things as infuriating as watching unsupportive, unaware, and unreliable “wingmen” place themselves and others in danger, and refuse to learn from their mistakes even after sobering up and hearing a debrief of their misadventures.  Except being held accountable for those misadventures, “even perceptually.”

It’s enough to make a white knight hang up his spurs.

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