I was surprised to see in my Washington Post this past Wednesday morning an eight page "advertising supplement" commemorating "100 Years of Marine Corps Aviation." The material shown was a little interesting: interspaced among sections hyping contemporary USMC drones and, of course, the V-22 and the F-35B, there was some bio material on the Marine Corps' early aviation pioneers.
The latter material had some interesting assertions about what the Marine Corps says air power is for; it is best summarized by the quote on page two from pioneer Major Alfred A. Cunningham: "The only excuse for aviation in any service is its usefulness in assisting the troops on the ground to successfully carry out their missions." To illustrate, parts of the advertising supplement described the Marine Corps tradition for close air support for Marines engaged in ground combat in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan. (An approach very unlike the city bashing and "critical node" bombing the Air Force advocated in World War II and the "shock and awe" it hypes today.) It was interesting, if also a little fluffy in its self-praise for the Marines and its unwillingness to engage in any real controversy with the Air Force-about which it was actually silent-or to present any real history justifying the Marines' unique and entirely justified approach. After all, it was an advertising supplement, even if it was eight pages long.
It was written by someone hired by the Post's "Custom Content" department with the help of the Marine Corps Aviation Association, the Marine Corps itself, and-I am told-the Marine Corps Museum. With eight pages of space, you'd think that they would want to give us some real history, rather than a self-licking ice cream cone interspaced with a few isolated interesting bits. It seemed to contradict the Marine Corps' image of an all pervasive warrior spirit, rather than reinforce it.
As I was reading the advertising supplement, I became a little offended. Was this self-praising fluff paid for by the taxpayers? At what I am told could be somewhere around $100,000 per page; it was surely pricey. I made some inquiries with the Washington Post; to their credit they were forthcoming in response to my questions. No, the taxpayers didn't pay a cent, nor did the Marine Corps Aviation Association. I was confused until I was told that the "advertisers" paid for the material.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin ran two full page ads in the eight page supplement; their V-22 and F-35B are prominently discussed in the text of the supplement, and they appear in a couple of pictures also. That text material in the supplement, not in the Boeing or Lockheed/Martin ads themselves, is what you would expect in something paid for by defense manufacturers: everything is fine with our flawless equipment, which gets to rub elbows with some Marine Corps self-praise for its warrior ethic on air power. Like I said, it's fluff, not history. (A third ad is from what appears to be a credit union, "PenFed." Its ad is an eighth of a page.)
No big deal here. The Post gets some revenue from the advertisers. The advertisers get to show their wares. The Marine Corps Aviation Association gets some ink for the Marines' anniversary and some upcoming related events.
I almost forgot to mention. There are some items that appear as articles in the advertising supplement. They are authored by Lt. Gen. Terry Robling ("Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation") and Gen. James F. Amos ("Commandant of the Marine Corps and USMC aviator"). I find that a little strange. Why would a senior officer on active duty want to have his writing appear in materials paid for by a defense manufacturer? I don't suspect there is anything illegal about it, nor any violation of DOD rules and regulations. But it does make me squeamish: military officers on active duty providing content for something paid for by defense corporations. It's predictable that the fluff would be in an advertising supplement paid for by corporations; it's even unsurprising that some fluff comes from senior officers celebrating the 100th anniversary of something. But put the two together, and I just don't feel right. Can't quite put my finger on it.
Oh, well; that's how we do defense business in this country these days. No big deal. Right?
P.S. A colleague at POGO, Ben Freeman, pointed out that I should not be so sure that "the taxpayers didn't pay a cent" for the advertising supplement. The checks surely came from Boeing, Lockheed and PenFed, but what was the source of the revenue that paid for the ad? What is the relationship between the billions of dollars the taxpayers pay to Boeing and Lockheed each year and the advertising supplement? An audit of their profits and overhead might tell us, but as long as Pentagon leaders like generals Robling and Amos buddy up with corporations to propagate hardware and self-praise, I am betting the green eyeshades will not be unleashed.
A big deal? You bet.