Support: October 22, 2003


The 5,000 U.S. Air Force personnel in Iraq are living much better than the 100,000+ army troops, and that is causing some friction and morale problems. In some cases, army and air force personnel are in the same base, and army troops are barred from entering any of the more lavish air force facilities. Army troops are not happy about this.

The higher standard of living for air force personnel goes back to World War II, when it was the "U.S. Army Air Force." Some of this was unavoidable, as most air force bases were located in peaceful areas, far from the ground war. The air force men, much to the chagrin of the army infantry, enjoyed quite civilized living arrangements (including beds with linen) and an absence of enemy fire. But the ground troops also recognized that combat aircraft crews were taking heavy casualties. While the air crews were only a small percentage of the U.S. Army Air Force personnel, so too were infantry and other ground combat troops a small part of the entire army. It was generally accepted that, since it was possible to provide the air crews with good living conditions, that was justified because many of them were getting killed or maimed on a regular basis. Today, however, aircrews take very few casualties, but they are still very well taken care of.  But old habits are hard to break.

Right after World War II, when the Air Force became a separate service, the higher standard of living for air force personnel continued, and the gap with army troops widened. But this was peacetime, and it was just accepted that air force troops lived better. Of course, the air force had a practical reason for spending the extra money. The air force needed smarter and better educated recruits. It also needed people who would stay in uniform longer, to help keep down the cost of training air force personnel for all those technical jobs. Until 1972, the military drafted people, but the draftees only stayed in for two years. If you volunteered, you had to stay in three or more years. The higher living standards in the air force attracted more volunteers, and the air force rarely had to accept any draftees. Most of the draftees were in the army, and their attitude was that the air force guys could have all their goodies, because draftees were going to be out of uniform sooner. 

Even Vietnam didn't cause any problem, for those air force bases in Vietnam were regularly subjected to guerilla attacks. There, the attitude of the army troops out in the bush was that the air force guys could have their nice barracks and swimming pools, because the "zoomies" (as air force personnel came to be called), got their share of Viet Cong bombs and bullets.

The Gulf War didn't last long enough for their to be any problems, and Afghanistan mostly puts the air force and army troops in different bases. But Iraq is different, and that's where the troubles begin.

The air force has always been ready to rapidly fly their warplanes, ground crews and air base equipment to far off places and set up shop. This has been going on for decades and the air force have it all organized quite well. For example, once the air force has set up a foreign air base in, say, Central Asia, and has the warplanes or transports coming and going smoothly, they bring in pre-packaged (in shipping containers) "housekeeping sets," that provide better living conditions and amenities like more elaborately equipped kitchens, gyms and computer centers (for email, surfing the net or playing games). When the air force and army bases are separate, these differences in living standards are not such a big deal, because the air force also has it's own light infantry force for protecting bases. But in Iraq, most of the air force bases are inside, or part of, larger army bases. It's army troops who are providing most of the security. But the air force won't allow the army soldiers to use the air force amenities. There's a practical reason for that, as there are far more soldiers than airmen in these bases and the air force facilities would be quickly overwhelmed if anyone in the U.S. armed forces were allowed in. So army troops can risk their lives guarding the air force facilities, but cannot enter them without special permission (or if there are hostile troops in there that the army infantry have to go do battle with.) This situation has created a bit of tension between the troops of the two services. 

Both the army and the air force recognize that the better the living conditions in a combat zone, the better the troops perform. And it's also recognized that as units enter a combat zone, some will set themselves up more comfortably than others. In the past there have been cases of one army unit, for a number of reasons (including better leadership and a few sergeants who are really good at "scrounging"), fix up superior living conditions. But what has happened with air force and army units in the same base is a bad combination of different priorities, capabilities and poor leadership. 

Some air force commanders have tossed the rules aside and let as many army troops in as possible (without there constantly being a long line to get into the gym or computer center.) But these air force officers risk censure from their own commanders. The fault lies farther up the food chain, and something either happens soon or a bad morale situation will fester and get worse. 


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