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Air Force core values: More than a poster on the wall

Posted 3/28/2014   Updated 3/28/2014 Email story   Print story


Commentary by Gene Kamena
Air War College

3/28/2014 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala.  -- Peer pressure is a powerful force, almost as powerful as command pressure.

The need to fit in, combined with the weight of perfection, significantly contributed to the recent instances of cheating in the Air Force's missileer community.

After considering recent accounts, I asked myself, "Why didn't someone speak up?"

It is important to note that virtues often collide. Virtue ethics, according to Aristotle, emphasizes a person's ability to discern right action (to act virtuously). At the most basic level, virtue ethics is a concept that works to balance extremes. For instance, with regard to courage, a person with too much courage might be considered rash or reckless. Conversely, a person demonstrating little or no courage is called a coward. In virtue ethics, right action depends on the particulars of the situation. I am not referring to situational ethics, but to a person's ability to determine a right and appropriate response to a given situation. For instance, ethical dilemmas arise when balancing loyalty to friends, or the group against loyalty to the institution or the nation.

The Air Force core value of "service before self" reminds us why we serve the nation. Supporting one's boss and working well with peers is usually the right thing to do, except when the actions of the boss or peer are out of alignment with proper and loyal service to the nation.

Single measures of merit can be harmful. Leaders, particularly commanders, should use caution when implementing single measures of merit. For example, if a commander states that everyone will receive a perfect score on a test, people who do not achieve a perfect score will see themselves as failures. It is fine to establish goals that encourage excellence, but when leaders mix goals with standards, trouble ensues.

Moreover, leaders should set goals and enforce standards. Good leaders recognize and accept that not everyone will achieve established goals. If a person fails to meet a standard, however, action must be taken to ensure compliance, such as retraining and retesting. In sum, the boss is not always right. Bosses can and do make mistakes; it is just as loyal, and often more so, to ask for clarification.

The Air Force core value of "excellence in all we do" exhorts us to do our best in all endeavors. A person, however, cannot cheat to obtain excellence. The concept of double effect from John Stuart Mill states that a good outcome cannot be achieved by way of a bad act. So, cheating and excellence cannot coexist.

Character, according to the Air Force Academy, is the ability to do what is right when there is pressure to do otherwise. When dealing with moral dilemmas, character is a person's and the institution's last line of defense. A person's character is who they really are; it is what they do when no one is looking. Character is integral to a person's very being. In Plato's "Republic," Socrates relates the story of "The Ring of Gyges" and entertains the question, "Is it better to be moral or just appear moral?" More than two thousand years on, this question remains pertinent.

The Air Force core value of "integrity first" reinforces a notion by Sir John Winthrop Hackett: "A man (person) can be ... in every way corrupt and be a brilliant mathematician, or a great painter, but there's one thing he [she] can't be and that is a good soldier." The integrity of the Air Force, as an institution, is only as strong as the character of Airmen serving in the force.

As a final point, Air Force core values are relevant only to the extent they are used. Don't just memorize them; bring them to life through personal action.

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