Air Force Core Values: A Note on Integrity

In 1995, the Air Force selected “Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence In All We Do” as its core values to instill in new airmen. While I believe that integrity, service, and excellence are all good qualities, there is something slightly amiss about how these characteristics are actually taught and enforced. I was recently asked to teach a class to other airmen about the Air Force core values. I was curious to see how the Air Force defined such qualities as Integrity, Service, and Excellence. As I went through the syllabus, certain phrases kept catching my eye – “rule following,” “faith in the system” and other such platitudes. I immediately decided that I could not teach the class as prescribed, and proceeded to alter the syllabus. I’ll explain why below…

But first, what is integrity, and why is it important? The typical response is that integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking, and this is undoubtedly true. What is not said, however, is that integrity is also doing the right thing even when it comes at high personal cost. The military is uniquely designed to be able to inflict ‘costs’ on a person, ranging from the benign (moving you to Clovis, New Mexico), to the severe (sending you to war), to the utterly ridiculous (getting paperwork for wearing your uniform incorrectly). For these reasons, airmen are sometimes hesitant to address issues of integrity – especially if an assignment, promotion, or retirement can be compromised.

Most importantly, however, integrity has to do with morality – right and wrong. Integrity matters most when morality is at stake. I can think of no higher stakes than life and property; the decision to destroy either should not be taken lightly. Unfortunately, rather than teaching integrity as doing the right thing, the military structure teaches obedience and rule-following. “Doing the right thing” has become synonymous with following rules and following orders. Integrity has nothing to do with correcting someone’s uniform, or making sure to salute sharply when Col Warfighter drives by. There are no moral stakes in that case. Integrity has to do with when you are asked to kill someone (or facilitate the mission) just because someone, somewhere has decided they should die (for reasons you can’t know and don’t understand). Integrity has to do with dropping bombs on villagers who have done you no harm, and are no threat to your freedom. Integrity has to do with asking why, and discovering the answer.

Confusing right and wrong with compliance and non-compliance is a dangerous superstition with drastic consequences. Military members are in a unique profession, and integrity is precisely the quality they need first. Unfortunately, the concept itself has been distorted into respect for authority, rule-following, and obedience. These are not the metrics upon which life should be taken.

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