Cover: "Over Not Through"

"Over Not Through"

The Search for a Strong, Unified Culture for America's Airmen

Published Oct 29, 2012

by Paula G. Thornhill


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Research Questions

  1. What is the Airmen's culture?
  2. Is there one unifying cultural narrative that underpins all others?
  3. Does total devotion to manned aviation shape Airmen's culture even at the expense of its larger defense responsibilities?

This paper explores the foundations of Air Force culture and outlines five cultural narratives that are tied to major moments in the Air Force's history, especially to critical junctures in the evolution of Air Force culture when the nation or the Air Force institution faced profound challenges. The author identifies five distinct cultural identities and argues that, as the Air Force has matured, these identities increasingly overlap and coexist. The first narrative describes Airmen's culture when aviation emerged as a revolutionary instrument of war in World War I. This, then, morphed into a narrative that marked the beginning of the modern Air Force during the interwar years. A third narrative describes a shift to the concept of victory through air power that occurred during World War II and recurred in the 1990s. A fourth narrative explores the Airmen's culture that emerged in response to the Cold War and the need to deter global nuclear conflict. A final narrative, which emerged during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, focused on the Air Force's enabling roles and shaped many of today's Airmen. The author points out that the fact that five discernible narratives exist suggests that a strong, single narrative that unites Airmen is missing. This absence encourages Airmen to create their own subnarratives and points out that senior leaders are missing an opportunity to imbue all Airmen with a unifying cultural identify that captures their value and place in a dynamic national security arena.

Key Findings

Airmen Lack a Strong, Single Cultural Narrative to Unite Them

  • Individual Airmen tend to adopt a cultural narrative that best explains their own contributions to their Service.
  • Absent a shared cultural narrative, Airmen often create their own subnarratives.
  • Without a unifying narrative, cultural fragmentation will continue and the Air Force will suboptimize what it provides the nation.


  • Senior leaders need to stay focused on the problems they are trying to address on the nation's behalf and leverage Airmen's innovative culture to help address those problems.
  • Senior Air Force leaders should look for ways to highlight military innovation as a vital part of the Air Force's cultural heritage.
  • These leaders should emphasize Airmen's cultural heritage at all levels of Airmen's education and training programs.
  • Curricula and other programs should be restructured to recognize those who brought about innovations as well as those who operationally employed them.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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