Petraeus Air Force Joke

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, lectures in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan / Getty

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, lectures in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan / Getty

General David Petraeus made a funny at the expense of the Air Force in his remarks at the Marine Corps Association Foundation dinner last month:

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.”

Some ponytailed desk jockey at the Air Force Association got his panties in a bunch, penning an editorial about how these remarks were “Beyond Outrageous.”  Not only does this joke hurt the widdle feewings of our boys in baby blue, “They are symptomatic of the long-held belief of many ground commanders that airpower is no longer, if it ever was, relevant.”

As SFC Hulka so aptly put it, “Lighten up, Francis.”

Matt Yglesias sees this as a “crisis” and foreshadowing a greater problem ahead.  Robert Farley says it shows “a certain insecurity” in the Air Force and Yglesias thinks it exists for good reason.  The service has always operated in relative safety — as Matt says, that’s rather the point of air power — and the increasing use of unmanned drones takes that to the ultimate conclusion.  Naturally, “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.”

But most people in the Air Force have been office workers since its inception as a separate service.  Truth be told, most soldiers and sailors do non-trigger-puller jobs, too.  They maintain a warrior ethos by focusing on the team and the larger mission.  And the non-warriors tend to make fun of the warriors on different grounds entirely, as demonstrated from these comments taken from an Air Force website by TIME’s Mark Thompson:

“What an idiot,” one airman fumed on an unofficial Air Force website. “I vote that we should pack our [stuff] and come home. Let the Army march to where they need to go, use artillery for close air support, and medevac on Fed Ex.” A colleague agreed: “As the Big Guy he should be pulling us together, not widening the abyss.” But one contributor claiming to be a more senior officer dissented. “Believe me, if the military is dumb enough to make me a General, you can bet your ass I will be cracking jokes about homo Navy guys, criminal Army types and borderline retarded Marines,” he wrote. “It’s all in good fun, and I think his was, too.” Another poster concurred: “Remember, he is from the service that has to use comic books to teach soldiers how to do periodic maintenance.”

Petraeus’ joke is straight out of the senior officers’ playbook.  (Some more off-color versions are available in Farley’s comment section.) I’ve heard retired Marine General Jim Jones tell similar jokes at the Air Force’s expense with retired USAF Lt.Gen. Brent Scowcroft in the room, to the approving laughter of the latter.  Why?  Because Scowcroft and Jones obviously hold each other in the highest personal and professional esteem and understand that these jokes are told in good fun.  Let some outsider make fun of the Air Force in his presence, though, and Jones would be sure to set them straight.

The warrior culture is similar to that found in a locker room. It uses brutal humor to lighten the tension and test the mettle of one’s fellows.  Airborne troops make fun of dirty nasty legs. Combat arms troops crack jokes about REMFs, the rear-echelon so-and-sos.  The Army disparages the Marines and vice versa.  In the Air Force, it’s pilots and everybody else.  In the Navy, it’s Line and other.  But anyone much above the level of an entering recruit understands that it’s all one big operation.

Nobody appreciates the value of the support team more than a combat infantryman.  They’re utterly dependent on everyone else for sustaining their lives and achieving their mission.  As a rocket artillery officer during Desert Storm, I can assure you that every soldier to a man I talked to was happy for every Navy and Air Force sortie flying over us during the opening weeks of the war.   Yes, we made fun of them because they got to go back to their air conditioned comfort when their mission was over while we were sweating it in the desert heat.  But every bomb dropped or missile fired saved the lives of countless soldiers and marines.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    As a former USAF officer, and having once worked amongst Army combat arms officers, we always ribbed each other good naturedly. The Air Force types always took pride our lives were cushier than the grunts, no apologies needed. If we’d wanted to sleep outside, we’d joined the Army or Marines. But all these jokes are meant in jest and builds good rivalries (like the Army-Navy football rivalry). It’s all in fun. Anyone that thinks this is bad has no clue. Any Air Force types that are bent out of shape over this needs to get a life.

  2. McGehee says:

    Any Air Force types that are bent out of shape over this needs to get a life.

    I’d make this more generally applicable: Anybody anywhere that gets bent out of shape over anything like this, needs to get a life.

    And far too often the people getting their panties in a wad aren’t even the targets of the ribbing. They assume the authority of schoolyard monitor to prevent other people they’ve never even met, from having their feelings hurt.

    And that hurts my feelings, on behalf of the people they’re trying to keep from having hurt feelings.


  3. Anderson says:

    The jokes have always been reciprocal. Get any USAF guy talking about “Marine aviators” sometime.

  4. anjin-san says:

    This is a complete non-story.

  5. DC Loser says:

    It would figure of all people bothered by this, it’s the Air Force Association. They are the most useless organization for actual USAF members. It’s just a front organization shilling for their defense contractor sugar daddies looking for handouts from Uncle Sugar. Yeah, I guess they’re not in the best sense of humor after watching the F-22 get gutted in Congress. That, and their flyboy rolemodels being relegated to the B Team as UAVs take more and more missions away from the manned aircraft.

  6. Highlander says:

    I think due to the UAV revolution the Air Force Jet Jockey’s are just a wee bit overly sensitive right now. Next up Naval Aviation… then who knows. A robotic “Jar head” some day?

  7. Herb says:

    Of all the jokes to get upset about, they pick this one…


    PS. Having recently gone on a Sam Peckinpah kick via Netflix (Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Major Dundee) I really appreciated the Warren Oates (Sgt. Hulka) reference.

  8. Wayne says:

    “They are symptomatic of the long-held belief of many ground commanders that airpower is no longer, if it ever was, relevant.”

    Total nonsense, almost all if not all ground commanders are very appreciative of airpower and know it is very relevant.

    For once I think most everyone agrees on something. Thank god for air power and respect what the ground pounders do.

    As for the UAV revolution\evolutions, I think many overestimate them. Yes they are good supplemental just like some of the robotics the ground units are using more of. However to get over reliant on them can and IMO will come back to haunt us. Sooner or later someone will figure how to jam the signal and don’t think that is impossible. So call “impossible” are done quite often.

  9. Andy says:

    Personally, this joke was highly offensive to me. Gen. Petraeus didn’t even MENTION the Navy. WTF? I spent seven years in the Navy and the CENTCOM commander couldn’t even come up with a bell-bottoms or homo joke? It’s insulting.

    BTW, I’m kidding, though I really was in the Navy before I crossed over to the dark side (ie. USAF).

  10. I’d heard a variant of this as…

    A marine on manuevers set up camp in the swamp and was overheard swearing, “damn alligators.” A soldier on manuevers set up camp next to the swamp and was overheard swearing, “damn mosquitos.” An airmen on maneuvers reclining in his hotel bed with the remote in his hand was overheard swearing, “damn, no HBO.”

    But really James, you need to stop quoting Young Mr. Yglesias so freely. It is cruel and unusual punishment to make him look so shallow and ignorant with nothiing more than his own words.

  11. steve says:

    Must not have been any Marines in the audience since he didnt need to explain the joke.


  12. AllenS says:

    Matt Yglesias is a boy. Not only that, but a leg REMFing boy.

    ex Army paratrooper.

  13. devildog666 says:

    That was a joke? Sounded like “just the facts”.

  14. sam says:

    I play golf with an Air Force major — endless jokes from me re the Marines and the Air Force. He takes it all with good humor, as he should.

    Why the Marines find the Air Force strange. I pulled a stint as a guard at a naval ammo depot for a bit. Missle dev was one of the things that went on there. One time, one of the experimental missles had to be transported to an AF base for testing. A detail of Marines was sent along to guard the thing in transit. When they arrived and delivered the missle, the AF officer said, “You boys must be hungry. Go to the enlisted mess had get something to eat.” When they got to the “messhall”, they found that the tables sat four, had table clothes, and a vase of flowers set out. Moreover, a young woman came over and took their order. When the detail got back to base, one of the guys said, “Can you believe it! Fvcking table clothes and fvcking flowers! And some chick took our fvcking order!! Jesus H. Christ!!!”

  15. Dodd says:

    And the non-warriors tend to make fun of the warriors on different grounds entirely

    My buddy in the Navy had a simple proof that Navy enlistedmen are the smartest of the four combat services. It boils down to this: When push comes to shove, Army and Marine Corps are riflemen. If you’re close enough to shoot at someone, you’re close enough to get shot.

    Even USAF need ground bases somewhere which, ultimately, might have to be defended by people with rifles, leading to the same problem.

    Navy, OTOH, sit hundreds of miles off the coast and shoot officers at the enemy. If they don’t come back, we just get another one.

  16. davod says:


    The USAF NCOs used to say they were the smartest of all the services. After all. Who else sends the officers off to do the fighting while the troops stay at home.