Petraeus Zinger Wounds Air Force Egos

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Justin Sullivan / Getty

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, lectures in San Francisco.

Having seen its prized F-22 fighter struck from the Pentagon's budget by Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who also fired the service's top two leaders last year — the U.S. Air Forces isn't in a laughing mood these days. So, when they recently became the butt of a joke by Army General David Petraeus, now overseeing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, some of the service's macho members felt wounded.

Petraeus, speaking to an annual Marine Corps Association Foundation dinner on July 30, praised the leathernecks while taking tongue-in-cheek shots at both the Army and the Air Force. "A soldier is trudging through the muck in the midst of a downpour with a 60-pound rucksack on his back," Petraeus began. "'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,' " Petraeus said to appreciative cheers from his audience.

"Then, of course, 30,000 feet above them, an Air Force pilot flips aside his ponytail," he added to howls of laughter and applause from the Marines. "— I'm sorry, I don't know how that got in there I know they haven't had ponytails in a year or two — and looks down at them through his cockpit as he flies over. 'Boy,' he radios his wingman, 'it must be tough down there.' "

Although Petraeus quickly added "all joking aside," the collateral damage was already done. Air Force partisans got wind of the Centcom chief's comments and tracked them down to the Marine Corps Association website, which carried both the text of Petraeus' prepared remarks — including the ponytail crack — and a video of his talk. On Thursday, the Air Force Association daily newsletter called Petraeus' remarks "beyond outrageous" and said they "belittled the contributions of the Air Force to the joint force." The association, a non-profit educational group that supports the service, said the comment is "symptomatic of the long-held belief of many ground commanders that airpower is no longer, if it ever was, relevant." A Petraeus spokesman didn't return calls seeking comment.

Air Force personnel were divided over the general's jape. "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."

As the newest of the four services of the U.S. military — the other three boast they are older than the country they defend, while the Air Force, around since 1947, barely qualifies for Social Security — its members often feel they don't get the credit they deserve. True, fighter pilots get an outsize share of attention to match their egos. But it's the flyboys-and-girls ferrying people, fuel and supplies — and piloting reconnaissance flights — around the globe that keep the war machine humming. "Petraeus, as leader of Centcom, the joint force charged with running operations in Southwest Asia, should have known better than to make such disparaging remarks, even in jest," the Air Force Association declared.

The Air Force brass — leery of tangling with the U.S. military's most famous officer — declined to join the fracas. "It's clear the general's remarks were made in jest," says Air Force spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Tatiana Stead. "In that context there's really nothing that requires a response." It's plain the service would like to forget the whole thing. General Petraeus apparently agrees: that may be why the ponytail reference has vanished from the official text of his speech on his own U.S. Central Command website.