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Opinion: The need for courage

Jun. 15, 2014 - 05:23PM   |  
'Courage should be explicit, not implicit, in our core values,' Col. Christopher Sage writes.
'Courage should be explicit, not implicit, in our core values,' Col. Christopher Sage writes. ()
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Over the last year, the Air Force lost two towering heroes: Col. George “Bud” Day and Brig. Gen. Robinson “Robbie” Risner. Anyone who reads their autobiographies or their respective Medal of Honor and Air Force Cross citations will conclude these men were airmen who personified the Air Force core values of integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do. Their heroic acts also clearly communicate what it means to display personal courage, both physical and moral.

Courage is an essential trait within our armed forces, both at the individual and organizational levels. It is therefore time to expand the Air Force core values to explicitly include courage.

Former Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman and former Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall deserve much credit for their efforts to codify our core values in the late 1990s. In an effort to distill the core beliefs that unite us and guide our daily actions, they settled on the core values that we still espouse today. Interestingly, an earlier attempt to codify Air Force core values by then-Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak included courage (as well as integrity, competence, tenacity, patriotism and service). However, the Fogleman-Widnall initiative was first an effort to restore institutional integrity, and also an attempt to fix what some saw as an institutional culture of compromise.

The original United States Air Force Core Values Pamphlet (“The Little Blue Book”), published Jan. 1, 1997, states: “Our first task is to fix organizations; individual character development is possible, but it is not a goal.” It goes on to say: “If a culture of compromise exists in the Air Force, then it is more likely to be the result of bad policies and programs than it is to be symptomatic of any character flaws in our people.” While initial efforts targeted organizations, there is no doubt that the Air Force focus on core values has shifted since 1997 to include personal character and character development.

The trait of courage was absorbed under integrity in the 1997 construct, and only briefly described as “doing what is right.” The Little Blue Book stated that the three main core values “are the common bond among all comrades in arms, and they are the glue that unifies the force and ties us to the great warriors of the past.” Widnall stated the core values are the three pillars of professionalism that “buttress mental and physical courage when we enter combat.”

Agreed, but courage should be explicit, not implicit, in our core values. It is time to elevate courage to its proper place. Every commander talks in depth about the need for courage. Whether it is putting ourselves and our mighty machines at risk over enemy territory, running a convoy through dangerous terrain, protecting a fellow airman from sexual assault, or speaking truth to power in the halls of the Pentagon, airmen have displayed courage since Sept. 18, 1947. An uncertain future will require nothing less.

The Air Force should emphasize courage as an essential and leading core value, not a supporting trait. Sir Winston Churchill said, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others.” The other Defense Department military services agree and have made courage a primary core value.

As Day and Risner fly into the eternal sunset, it is time for the Air Force to honor their courage and the courage of countless airmen before and since by expanding our core values: Courage, Integrity, Service, Excellence.

Col. Christopher Sage is the former Operations Group commander at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. He is currently a fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

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