By Lt. Col. Pat Dabrowski
314th Operations Group deputy commander
We are all familiar with many of the recent negative actions of the few Airmen and service members whose moral compasses were not guided by our Core Values and who are consequently no longer serving their country in the military. Both the Air Force and the entire Department of Defense have been impacted by their wayward actions. Yet the remaining 99 percent of Airmen maintain the principles of General Douglas McArthur’s famous closing words from his farewell address to the cadets of West Point: “duty, honor, country.” Two of those words still endure in the U.S. Army’s seven current core values: duty and honor. As Airmen, it is our duty to maintain our Core Values; our “moral compass”; our “keen sense of right and wrong.”
The Air Force Core Values of Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence In All We Do have become the pillars of our service, whether we learned them in basic training, read them at the bottom of every PowerPoint slide sent from Headquarters Air Force, or repeatedly spot them on a poster in our unit’s hallway. The understanding of these values is so fundamental to how we conduct ourselves as professional Airmen that the Air Force took the effort to further define them in an Air Force Instruction: AFI 1-1 “Air Force Standards.” According to former Secretary of the Air Force, Sheila Widnall (1993-1997), the “Core values make the military what it is; without them, we cannot succeed. They are the values that instill confidence, earn lasting respect, and create willing followers. They are the values that anchor resolve in the most difficult situations. They are the values that buttress mental and physical courage when we enter combat. In essence, they are the three pillars of professionalism that provide the foundation for military leadership at every level.”
If I think back far enough, I still remember as a young Airman standing before a group of Senior Non-Commissioned Officers as a candidate for the wing’s Airman of the Quarter board. One of the board’s interview questions was to list the Air Force Core Values and explain which was the most important and why. In a world where seemingly few things are black and white, I thought it obvious that if there was a greater among equals then Integrity First was clearly the correct answer. Somehow I stumbled my way through explaining to the board that in my view Service Before Self and Excellence In All We Do can be arguably somewhat subjective and situationally dependent. But to me, Integrity is an absolute. In listing the Core Values it is designated as “First” and the principal value named. Former Vice Presidential candidate, Vietnam War Veteran, and Hanoi Hilton Prisoner of War Admiral James B. Stockdale described the power of refusing any compromise in integrity when he stated that “In 1965, I was crippled and I was all alone (in a North Vietnamese prison). I realized that they had all the power. I couldn’t see how I was ever going to get out with my honor and self-respect. The one thing I came to realize was that if you don’t lose your integrity you can’t be had and you can’t be hurt. Compromises multiply and build up when you’re working against a skilled extortionist or manipulator. You can’t be had if you don’t take that first shortcut, or ‘meet them halfway,’ as they say, or look for that tacit deal, or make that first compromise.” As AFI 1-1 explains the characteristic, it is “the willingness to do what is right even when no one is looking.” It is “the basis for trust” and many would agree that it is difficult to “sort of” trust someone; either we have faith in them or we don’t. We ourselves are either trusted or we’re not. Either our actions are right or they fall short. We either have integrity or we don’t. And any violation of that flawless standard can result in others questioning our reliability and should lead to our own self-reflection of our actions.
Freshman cadets at the United States Air Force Academy are issued a pocket-sized handbook of general USAF history and knowledge. Contained within is a vivid quote by British General S.L.A. Marshall that has been memorized by future officers for decades, which gives practical application to the term Integrity. Marshall stated that “a man has integrity if his interest in the good of the service is at all times greater than his personal pride, and when he holds himself to the same line of duty when unobserved as he would follow if his superiors were present.” As with any good quote, this one stands on its own words and clearly articulates the unconditional behavior that sets what we’ve been called to do as professional Airmen, apart from labeling what we’ve been called to as just a job or an occupation. At times, however, overshadowing the personification of the Core Values by the 99 percent of adherents is the 1 percent whose actions show that they have failed to internalize the concepts. And most commanders and supervisors will say that it’s the 1 percent that take up a larger portion of their time than they should.
Comedian Groucho Marx was once quoted as saying that “the secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Everyone knows that doing the right thing won’t always be easy. We can all think back to times when being the voice of integrity resulted in internal strife or alienated us from our peers as we followed our “moral compass” in the pursuit of what we knew to be right. In some instances the issue was a small one and at other times it may have been life-changing.
One individual from deep in our pre-USAF history who stood for what he knew to be right was Brigadier General Billy Mitchell in his aggressive advocacy of airpower for future wars. Following his experiences in World War I, Mitchell was eventually court-martialed and forced to resign from the Army for his insubordination while trying to do what he knew to be right, to campaign the War Department for the increased investment in airpower. His battle cry for the need for military airpower in the 1920s generated government and civilian action that was a catalyst for the development of combat aviation that we’re all part of today. The moniker that many attach to Billy Mitchell is that of a maverick, but his outspokenness aside, one person’s maverick may not be far from another person’s “Airman, fueled by innovation” doing what they know to be right. Many of General Mitchell’s peers advised him against his dissident and unconventional views. But think of where we as an Air Force might be today if not for the integrity of one man to champion a radical idea against a sea of traditionalists. While many of us will not be called on to defend our integrity in a congressional committee, in today’s fiscally constrained environment we must ensure all Airmen are innovatively doing the right thing for the right reason while still being willing to take calculated, bold risks to lead us to success. While outright insubordination toward our supervisors and commanders will most likely not achieve the goal we are advocating (Mitchell’s situation was arguably a one-time “good deal”) we must all be willing to put our Integrity First to do what we know to be the right thing.
Despite some of the distressing headlines on the cover of Air Force Times as a result of the actions of the 1 percent, the 99 percent continue to demonstrate, preserve, and propagate the Air Force Core Values. To survive as a service, the Air Force must take some valuable and actionable lessons from the transgressions of the 1 percent: those who do not practice mutual respect, professionalism and trust. The 99 percent must move forward with discipline on our quest to become “The World’s Greatest Air Force powered by Airmen, fueled by innovation” and built on the unwavering foundation of our Air Force Core Values of Service and Excellence, led by Integrity. In deference to Benjamin Franklin’s famous quip that “honesty is the best policy” General Robert E. Lee countered that “the trite saying that honesty is the best policy has met with the just criticism that honesty is not policy. The real honest man is honest from conviction of what is right, not from policy.” With or without AFI 1-1 enlightening us to the Air Force Core Values, we are blessed as a service that the 99 percent already get it.