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Published Airpower Journal - Summer 1996



Professional Military Ethics: What Do We Want?

WELL, AT LEAST we know what we don't want. That has been made clear to us over these many months of public affairs and media coverage concerning the accountability initiatives of the chief of staff of the Air Force (and everyone else).

What we don't want is the status quo, the ethical paradigm, the way we've always done it: standard end-of-tour medals for airmen overcome by extraordinary circumstances, commanders held less than accountable for their commands, and performance reports that fail to document . . . everything. What we don't want is a mind-set that rationalizes taking a government pen home for personal use, which in turn mutates to a government software application finding its way onto a home computer, which in turn rationalizes using government computers for home businesses or more graphic enterprises.

What we don't want is the siren song of the "me" generation, the fruit of youthful arrogance, the dross of every precommissioning program, and the subtly altered license that was once a beautiful liberty. Ours is an opulent society. Similar cultures in history lasted long beyond their expectancy because their defenders held to higher moral and ethical standards longer than the populations they defended. Alarmingly, our society today differs in that we find that many of our defenders are unwilling or unable to make that distinction--much less draw the lines for themselves. The spillover effects for officer conduct and behavior are evident. That's why so many of us vehemently defend our "right" to totally assimilate into our culture during off-duty hours.

What are we--the greatest air force in history--afraid of? There's nothing wrong with our core values. As a service, the Air Force has stepped up to the plate regarding ethical conduct for its members. That's not bad--especially considering that some others are having trouble finding the ballpark. Unfortunately for us, we're discovering that we're playing with only a few bats for the whole team. We have devised great infrastructure already (witness the Department of Defense's best program, described on page 35). Still, our ethical "push" lacks any definitive thrust, and the standards we live by--the tapestry of our character--still elude us as a service. Yet, they are the engines that get character development off the ground. As long as we remain confused over what set of moral and ethical standards to use, we won't be able to budge. Concerning matters of the heart--of both our service and ourselves--each of us will be confronted with a set of standards that will inevitably force us to find ourselves wanting--ethically and morally. Apparently, many of us are afraid to look into that mirror. Until we all make character development a matter of the heart, we place our collective futures at risk.

Our four headliners--Colson, Toner, Wakin, and White--offer some much-needed perspective and, if only by implication, invite us to define our ethical bounds. Their perspectives include new ideas concerning where we might look for ethical standards, directly addressing one of the greatest struggles to beset our service. Longtime fans of the Air Force professional dialogue, we're convinced that their articles are as good as any that have ever appeared herein. Read them, though, because they point each of us to the mirror and encourage us to stay there for a long look.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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