Air University Review, September-October 1983


the military professional and society

Major W. H. Margerum, Jr.

Integrity is one of those words which many people keep in that desk drawer labeled "too hard." It’s not a topic for the dinner table or the cocktail party. You can’t buy or sell it. When supported with education, a person’s integrity can give him something to rely on when his perspective seems to blur when rules and principles seem to waver, and when he’s faced with hard choices of right or wrong. 1

Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, USN

Integrity is a primary element of military professionalism and the hallmark of the professional officer. Without it, the profession loses the trust of the society it serves, and lack of public trust ultimately threatens the nation’s ability to maintain the force levels necessary for peace and security. In other words, a lack or perceived lack of integrity can have a devastating effect on the military profession and its relationship with civilian society.

Society expects and requires integrity of its leaders. The official policy of the United States government addresses the subject of integrity in these words: "Where government is based on the consent of the governed, every citizen is entitled to have complete confidence in the integrity of his government."2 Air Force Regulation 30-1 states, in part, that ". . . a member of the Air Force . . . must practice the highest standards of integrity. . . . [His or her] ‘sense of right and wrong’ must be such that . . . behavior and motives are above suspicion."3 Both statements imply a relationship between integrity and society’s expectations. Can a relationship be established between society’s perception of institutional integrity and its acceptance of the military institution? An answer to this question should help the military professional clarify his relationship to his profession and to the society he serves.

A Concept of Integrity
and Professionalism

Most military readers undoubtedly feel that the meanings of integrity and professionalism are well known. But even though officers know the meaning of professionalism, the officer corps apparently has no common understanding of the term. For example, a survey conducted at Air University in 1981 suggests that

Air Force officers should clearly define what they mean when using the word "professional." Since almost all officers consider themselves to be professionals, the use of the word, without clarification, is meaningless. The key is to zero-in on the specific behaviors that, in the eye of the beholder, are positive or negative influences on the profession of Arms.4

Each officer’s definition of professionalism is shaped by his education and experience. Similarly, integrity is a well-known but not completely defined term. A common reference point is essential to understanding the relationship between integrity, the profession, and society.

According to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, integrity is "an uncompromising adherence to a code of moral, artistic, or other values: utter sincerity, honesty, and candor: avoidance of deception, expediency, artificiality, or shallowness of any kind . . . the quality or state of being complete or undivided." The words "utter sincerity, honesty, and candor" imply that a person of integrity is truthful in all things, that he can be trusted, and that his word is his bond. Integrity is the very essence of one’s life. Major General Henry F. Meade stated that "integrity is the state of my whole life, the total quality of my character."5 Thus, integrity is the foundation of the professional officer’s character: it determines all that he is or ever can be. Having integrity requires ethical behavior and correct actions.

Courage—physical and mental—is also an important element of integrity. A person of integrity insists on doing what is right at all times, not only when he knows that a superior or subordinate is watching him. It is the courage to complete a bombing run when one knows full well that the chance for survival is poor or nonexistent or the courage to admit failure rather than falsify a report. It is the determination to take the proper course of action at all times, not merely when it is expedient. Lieutenant General John P. Flynn, whose personal integrity under extreme pressure was proved as prisoner of war in North Vietnam, defines it in these terms:

Integrity is complete honesty in any situation. We must determine what is really right and really wrong. Right even transcends the violation of regulations. You must oppose what is wrong and support what is right even if it costs you your life or your career.6

In other words, integrity means more to the professional officer than the dictionary definition. It means honesty, truthfulness, reliability, impartiality, sincerity, openmindedness, trustworthiness, and courage. It means totally ethical behavior at all times and in all situations, regardless of the consequences. It cannot be turned on and off as desired; it is the focus of the professional’s life.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines professionalism as "the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person . . . the characteristics, standards, or methods of professionals." And profession is defined as a

calling requiring specialized knowledge . . . [and] maintaining by force of organization or concerted opinion high standards of achievement and conduct, and committing its members . . . to a kind of work which has for its prime purpose the rendering of a public service.

Aims and qualities; a calling; high standards of achievement and conduct—all are intrinsic elements of professionalism. Of particular interest is the phrase "high standards of conduct," which implies standards above the norm and beyond the usual. Standards higher than those required of nonprofessionals mark the professional as someone to respect and trust.

Four major characteristics distinguish a profession from other occupational pursuits. A profession is a calling characterized by a certain expertise or specialized area of knowledge, an inherent responsibility to the client to provide the expertise, a formalized institutional identity, and institutional and individual integrity. Samuel P. Huntington identifies expertise, corporateness, and responsibility as the three primary characteristics of a profession, and these characteristics are basic to any discussion of professionalism.7 But Huntington did not include institutional and individual integrity as one of his characteristics.

Of course, one could define integrity in relation to responsibility, but integrity involves more than responsibility. From Huntington’s perspective, the responsibility of a profession stems from the requirement to provide professional service when needed by society. Doctors are responsible for the health of their patients; lawyers are responsible for the personal rights and freedom of their clients; and the military is responsible for the survival of society itself. However, the profession must demonstrate the integrity necessary to generate trust in its competence to provide the service. Trust is critical in all instances.

Integrity is treated as a vital element of professionalism in the writings of a number of authors. For example, Sam C. Sarkesian and Thomas M. Gannon state that "the basic themes of military professionalism are integrity, obedience, loyalty, commitment, trust, honor, and service."8 Army Lieutenant Colonels Zeb Bradford and Frederic Brown speak of integrity thus:

The professional officer must be an unconditional servant of state policy; he must have a deep normative sense of duty to do this. . . . One cannot do his duty unless he has courage, selflessness, and integrity. The military profession must have these group values as a functional necessity.9

General Maxwell D. Taylor wrote that ". . . an ideal officer is one who can be relied upon to carry out all assigned tasks and missions and, in doing so, get the most from his available resources with minimum loss and waste." In describing the traits displayed by the ideal officer, he added: "Without priority in importance, I can identify the following: justice, patriotism, reliability, integrity, sense of duty, self-discipline, human understanding, loyalty, strength of will, and inspirational power."10

The traits described by General Taylor, Bradford and Brown, and Sarkesian and Gannon all have one characteristic in common: the one that implies the highest standard of ethical behavior— integrity.

Integrity—A Critical

The professional must either live up to the professional code of ethics or accept the status of nonprofessional. The doctor who maintains his expertise through constant study, practices his skills, maintains active membership in professional organizations, but overprescribes drugs to satisfy the habits of certain patients is no more a professional than the doctor who fails to keep abreast of the advances in his specialty. The lawyer who provides the best possible service to his client, maintains his expertise, actively participates in professional organizations but cheats on his income tax is no more a professional than the lawyer who consciously fails to defend his client to the best of his ability. The military officer who excels in his specialty, unhesitatingly volunteers for the most difficult and hazardous duty, actively promotes esprit de corps in his unit but falsifies a report to cover up a deficiency in his unit’s training records is no more a professional than the officer who blames and punishes others for his own failures. The military officer who fails to live up to the ethical standards of the profession violates the principle of integrity and thus lacks professionalism.

Numerous studies from 1970 to the present suggest that integrity is a significant problem for the military profession. A report entitled "Study on Military Professionalism" by the U.S. Army War College highlighted integrity as a problem among Army officers. Representative comments illustrate some of their concerns:

Major: The Army talks about integrity . . . an officer’s word is his bond or it should be . . . yet a bank or a store will accept my checks but I have to show an ID card and fill out a personal history form on the back of a check to cash it at the PX…

Captain: Nobody wants to make waves. The name of the game is cover-up. Get a 240 on your OEI and move out smartly . . . protect yourself and protect your boss.

Captain: Junior officers are afraid to use their initiative because they lack support from above. . .11

Although the study does not purport to represent a cross section of the Army’s officer corps, the fact that all interviewers received similar comments from all ranks of the officer corps indicated "widespread and often significant differences between the ideal ethical/moral/professional standards of the Army—as epitomized by Duty-Honor-Country—and the prevailing standards.’’12 In other words, the Army recognized at least a perceived problem with integrity.

Individual officers have also noted problems in the area of integrity. Lieutenant Thomas M. Hall referred to the open-door policy in these terms:

. . . many junior officers I have talked with felt they could not go to their commander or operations officer with problems or suggestions. Maybe it was a fear of reprimand, or maybe they did not want to jump the chain of command. Maybe there is a feeling of distrust. I will not pretend to be able to explain it any further, but it is a problem of integrity that even the most sincere commander must overcome.13

Major C. Anne Bonen’s survey of Air Force officers in 1981 supports the results in the Army War College study already cited. The survey revealed that 63.4 percent of the students at Squadron Officer School, 89.6 percent at Air Command and Staff College, and 69.8 percent at Air War College had felt pressure from their organizations or senior officers to compromise their integrity. These officers also felt that other officers had compromised their integrity. The percentages are striking. The survey included four possible responses (never, rarely, sometimes, and often) to a question on the frequency that other officers compromised their integrity. The percentages of responses under "sometimes" and "often" for the three schools were 62.8 percent, 80.9 percent, and 55.6 percent, respectively. Addition of the response "rarely" leads to overwhelming percentages: 98.2 percent, 99.7 percent, and 97.1 percent, respectively.14 While the sample used for the study cannot be considered a representative cross section of the Air Force officer corps because of the selective nature of assignment to Air War College and Air Command and Staff College, one can at least conclude that the surveyed group perceived a problem of integrity.

These results are not unique: they closely parallel the results of a similar survey conducted by Majors Joseph R. Daskevich and Paul A. Nafziger at the Air Command and Staff College in 1980. In that survey, 88 percent of the officers felt pressure either from their organizations or from their superiors to compromise their integrity, and 100 percent felt that other officers had violated their integrity in varying degrees.15

Although the studies cited made no effort to sample a representative cross section of the officer population, the results indicate at least a perception of a problem among highly select groups of Air Force officers. And lack of integrity equates to a lack of professionalism. Whether the problem is real—a true lack of integrity—or whether officers only perceive a lack of integrity, the issue must be a major concern for the profession. It must be concerned for the internal and external impact of the problem. The internal problem is serious. The external problem is potentially devastating, however, for it reflects the relationship between the profession and society.

Declining Trust—
A Sign of the Times

Social researchers have noted a disturbing trend in American society during the past two decades—a declining trust in American institutions and leaders. Events like the Vietnam War, Watergate, and Abscam have taken their toll. The perceived decline in U.S. power and prestige, economic troubles caused by rising oil prices and government spending, and an apparent inability to control or moderate world events have also had an adverse impact on society and its perception of itself. Society thus tends to judge leaders and institutions in harsher terms as it searches for something or someone to trust and respect. Society’s search for national heroes at least partially accounts for the outpouring of emotion that occurred when the American hostages returned from Iran, but that event did not alleviate the problem. Daniel Yankelovich underlines the severity of the problem:

The statistical record of this growth of mistrust is simple, stark and dramatic: in 1964, seven out of ten Americans believed in the competence of government officials. . . . By 1976, the number of Americans continuing to have this confidence had shrunk to 44 percent. By 1978, it had further declined to 30 percent.16

And in a continuing study of the public’s trust in the federal government, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan found an increasing level of distrust of government, rising from 11 percent in 1958 to 52 percent 20 years later. The data are remarkable because they are consistent across age groups, race, and educational levels. It is not localized but is diffused across the entire population.17

Other sources report similar data. For example, the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan reports: "On a three-point scale reflecting high, medium, and low levels of political trust, 60 percent of voting age Americans indicated distrust of government in general, while only 16 percent gave it trust ratings."18 More significant, a Harris poll identified the following declines in public trust from 1966 through 1980: higher education from 61 percent to 33 percent; medicine from 73 to 30 percent; the press from 29 to 22 percent; and major companies from 55 to 19 percent.19 These figures vividly portray declining trust in national institutions and leaders; the military and its leadership have not been immuned to this trend.

A Gallup poll in April 1979 rated ten institutions the basis of the confidence expressed by respondents toward each institution. The military ranked third behind organized religion and the banking industry and ahead of public schools, newspapers, and Congress. The biennial survey showed that ratings for the military dropped slightly below the 1977 and 1975 polls, from a high of 58 percent to 54 percent in 1979.20 But opinions of military leadership have dropped significantly. The results of a Harris poll indicate that the percentage of Americans expressing "a great deal of confidence" in military leadership has dropped from 61 percent in 1966 to 33 percent in 1979 and 1980. The magnitude of the drop, alarming as it is, reflects findings of the Roper Organization that ". . . the public has more trust in American institutions than in the people who lead them."21

Society as a whole expresses declining trust in American institutions and their leaders. Our young people are perhaps the most important segment of society to the military because it must depend on youth for its manpower resources, both officer and enlisted. How do young people feel toward the military? The 1979 Gallup poll shows that 49 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds expressed "a great deal or quite a bit" of confidence in the military in contrast to 54 percent of the total sample for the same two measures.22 The Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan polled high school seniors nationwide in 1979 and found that, of those planning to attend college, 44 percent felt that the military had done a good job. The military ranked fourth among 11 institutions behind colleges and universities, the national news media, and churches, but, in contrast, only 5 percent of future college students and 8 percent of noncollege-bound students felt that the military offered a desirable place to work. Fifty percent of college-bound and 48 percent of non-college-bound students rated the services as unacceptable, and 21 percent of the college-bound students perceived considerable dishonesty and immorality in the military.23 Thus, young people express less acceptance of the military institution than members of the larger society. Although I have been unable to find data on attitudes of the young toward institutional leadership, such data would probably indicate levels of trust or confidence slightly lower than other segments of society. Such a conjecture is consistent with available data that indicate a slightly lower level of confidence in the military institution among the young.

Declining trust of the military among young people suggests a similar decline of young people willing to serve in the military. The result will be greater difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified men and women in the nation’s Armed Forces. All other things being equal, the number of volunteers for military service will decline as the economy improves and employment opportunities increase in the civilian community. Declining trust in the military is one more strike against the military as a potential career for young people.

The Professional and Society

Two decades of diverse shocks to American society have brought numerous expressions of cynicism and declining trust toward governmental institutions. In the face of declining trust in institutional leadership, the military profession must approach the decade of the eighties with a rekindled sense of professionalism, and the cornerstone of that professionalism must be integrity. One needs only to mention the word Watergate, and the implications are unquestionable. Many American people have apparently come to believe that success cannot be achieved without resorting to devious or underhanded methods. And on the basis of this belief, declining levels of trust in the leadership of society’s institutions are to be expected.

The military institution is not isolated from these perceptions. But when the members of the profession perceive a lack of integrity in the military institution, one is not surprised that society expresses similar perceptions. Declining trust in military professionals is the sure result. If the military profession loses the trust and confidence of society, it will become increasingly difficult to develop and maintain the consensus necessary to support adequate levels of defense spending. This is the stark impact of a lack, or perceived lack, of integrity.

Each member of the military profession is responsible for the public’s perception of his integrity and the integrity of his profession. Whether on- or off-duty, whether active or retired, he continues his status as a military professional. Any event or condition that tarnishes the image of the military profession or raises doubt about its integrity will have negative consequences. Like all professions, the military profession is judged against higher standards than the rest of society, but since its unique status makes it ". . . responsible for military security to the exclusion of all other ends,"24 society expects the military to adhere to the highest of standards. These standards require the highest level of professionalism and, by implication, integrity. Former Air Force Chief of Staff General John D. Ryan perhaps said it best in these words:

Integrity is the most important responsibility of command. Commanders are dependent on the integrity of those reporting to them in every decision they make. Integrity can be ordered but it can only be achieved by encouragement and example.25

It is time for military professionals to open up that desk drawer labeled "too hard" and take a good look at the principle of integrity. Integrity should be the topic of conversation at the dinner table and at cocktail parties. Above all, it must be the topic of discussion on the stages and in the classrooms of the military professional schools. It must be dissected, discussed, and studied. Integrity must be internalized; it must become second nature for every officer. Anything less is unworthy of the Profession of Arms.

Offutt AFB, Nebraska


1. Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, USN, "The World of Epictetus," Atlantic, April 1978, p. 99.

2. Brenda A. Robeson, editor, Codification of Presidential Proclamations and Executive Orders (Washington: Office of the Federal Registrar, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, 1979), p. 70.

3. Department of the Air Force, Air Force Regulation 30-1 (Washington: Headquarters USAF, 30 September 1977), para. 13.

4. Major C. Anne Bonen, "Professionalism" from Lieutenants to Colonels—A 1981 Attitudinal Assessment among SOS, ACSC, and AWC Students (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air Command and Staff College, 1981), p. ix,

5. Chaplain Henry J. Meade (Major General), "Commitment to Integrity," Air University Review, March-April 1977, p. 88.

6. Lieutenant Colonel Raymond F. Hamel, "Are Professionalism and Integrity Only a Myth?" Air University Review, May-June 1978, p. 60.

7. Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1957), p. 8.

8. Sam C. Sarkesian and Thomas M. Gannon, "Introduction: Professionalism: Problems and Challenges," American Behavioral Scientist, May-June 1976, p. 503.

9. Lieutenant Colonel Zeb B. Bradford, Jr., and Lieutenant Colonel Frederick J. Brown, The United States Army in Transition (Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1973), p. 222.

10. General Maxwell D. Taylor, "A Do-It-Yourself Professional Code for the Military," Parameters, December 1980, pp. 11-12.

11. Study on Military Professionalism (Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: U.S. Army War College, 30 June 1970), p. B-l-27.

12. Ibid., p. 30.

13. First Lieutenant Thomas M. Hall, "A Junior Officer’s View," Air University Review, January-February 1978, p. 73.

14. Bonen, p. 12.

15. Major Joseph R. Daskevich and Major Paul A. Nafziger, The Pulse of Professionalism, ACSC AY 80 (Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Air Command and Staff College, 1980), p. vii.

16. Daniel Yankelovich, "Farewell to 'President Knows Best’," Foreign Affairs, America and the World 1978 edition, p. 671, 245

17. Angus Campbell, The Sense of Well-Being in America (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981), pp. 167, 245.

18. "Declining Faith in Government Institutions," Society, January-February 1980, p. 3.

19. Phillip Shaver, "The Public Distrust," Psychology Today, October 1980, p. 45.

20. "Confidence in Institutions," The Gallup Opinion Index, May 1979, p.1.

21. Shaver, pp. 46 and 44.

22. The Gallup Opinion Index (1979), p. 4.

23. Jerald G. Bachman and Lloyd D. Johnston, "The Freshmen, 1979," Psychology Today, September 1979, pp. 84 and 86.

24. Huntington, p. 15.

25. General John D. Ryan, "Integrity," Air Force Policy Letter for Commanders (Washington: Headquarters USAF, 1 November 1972), p.1.


Major William H. Margerum, Jr. (B.S., Pennsylvania State University; M.A., University of Northern Colorado), is an airborne operations controller for the 2d Airborne Command and Control Squadron, Offutt AFB. Nebraska. Previous assignments include missile crew commander for the Titan and Minuteman missiles and Assistant Professor of Aerospace Studies, AFROTC Detachment, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Major Margerum is a graduate of Squadron Officer School and Air Command and Staff College.


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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