Is Character Still an Issue?

By Rehberg, Carl D. | Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Is Character Still an Issue?


Rehberg, Carl D., Air & Space Power Journal


MAJ CARL D. REHBERG, USAF*

Character is the bedrock on which the edifice of leadership rests. ... Without [character], particularly in the military profession, failure in peace, disaster in war or, at best, mediocrity in both will result. Zen Matthew Ridgway

HE INTENT OF the current Air Force core values initiative is both noble and vitally important. The initiative consists of the publication United States Air Force Core Values (also known as the Little Blue Book)' and three major strategies: a schoolhouse "weave" (education), a field weave (leadership element), and a continuation phase. It also includes The Guru's Guide and a four-day course that prepares gurus to help with this program.2 Unlike the core values initiative of 1993, the current program does not seem to be in danger of drifting away due to neglect.

Global Engagement: A Vision for the 21st Century Air Force highlights the importance of our core values and sets the stage for the future Air Force.3 With its comprehensive and cohesive architecture, the current program may be one of the best designed ones from an overall policy perspective.4 It also includes some innovative teaching methods and techniques.

Overall, the people involved in the initiative should be commended for their efforts. However, we need to analyze and address several troubling paradigm shifts in order to improve this program, which is so critical to the future of the Air Force.

Historically, character education has always been integral to the military profession in Western culture. Aristotle, the teacher of Alexander the Great, developed a theory of philosophy in terms of excellent character traits or virtues. Aristotle believed that one can become an excellent person by performing excellent actions until doing so becomes habitual. "Over the centuries the profession of arms has developed a number of principles, traits, rituals and codes that have served soldiers, in peace and war, very well."5 In this country, we have combined the great wisdom of the sages and have encouraged the religious and spiritual aspects of life, dating from our first commander in chief.6

In a thesis recently completed at the Air Force Institute of Technology, Gregory J. Dierker identifies significant changes to the most recent Air Force values initiative. On the positive side, changes have occurred that include more commander involvement and a focus on the ethical environment. On the negative side, changes include "a reduced emphasis on character development and the greatly reduced role that the chaplain plays in these values-related initiatives"7 (see table 1).

A Paradigm Shift from Character?

Our first task is to fix organizations; individual character development is possible, but it is not a goal.

-Little Blue Book

With this bold statement, the Little Blue Book declares a decided shift in emphasis. It also notes that "long before we seek to implement a character development program, we must thoroughly evaluate and, where necessary, fix our policies, processes and procedures."8 The Guru's Guide dismisses and muddies the character9 issue even further:

"Character development will probably take place. . . but that will be a happy byproduct and not a strategic goal."lo This is confusing at best, a paradigm shift at worst.

Throughout history, people who have served in the military have always known that effectiveness and success rest far more on the moral quality of officers and other personnel than on technical expertise.ll Gen Nathan Twining, former Air Force chief of staff, wrote that "technical proficiency alone is not enough."12 The best weapons money can buy are literally worthless unless one has people who can think critically and use them properly. One also needs military leaders who are worthy of honor and trust. As Col Anthony E. Hartle of West Point writes, "Persons of strong character are the ultimate resource for any military organization. …

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