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Are we raising crippled leaders?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Joseph Burns
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing director of staff
"In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger" -- President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 20 January 1961
In his excellent commentary on the importance of the Air Force's principal core value, Integrity First, (Thunderbolt, 12 October 2007), Lt. Col. Kevin Bannister highlighted that the Air Force's original core-values handbook defined integrity as "the willingness to do what is right." 

That's a good definition, but what is "right"? After all, we live in a culture that says "what's right for you may not be right for me." And if everyone's definitions of right and wrong are different, integrity becomes a variable rather than the unshakeable constant it must be to stimulate the trust needed to preserve America's freedom and security. 

To understand what's right requires us to consider the basis for right and wrong: moral truth. And truth is where the debate begins. Remember in "Return of the Jedi" when Luke Skywalker asked Obi Wan Kenobi why OWK didn't tell him the truth about Darth Vader being Luke's father? Obi Wan's explanation: truth depends on one's point of view. Really? 

While many today confidently nod their head to OWK's belief that there is no such thing as absolute, unchanging truth, it wasn't always that way in America. Our founding fathers' words in one of the most important documents of the modern age trumpeted the belief that true truth is unconditional and enduring using the simple, powerful declaration "We hold these truths to be self-evident." 

In reality, there are many things we know instinctively to be right and others we have always known to be wrong. C. S. Lewis, Oxford professor and author of "The Chronicles of Narnia," used this illustration in his classic book, "The Abolition of Man:"
"Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five." 

This cross-cultural agreement implies a fixed standard of right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood. After all, as Lewis says, "a man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line," a straight line acknowledged for centuries to be fashioned by God. So why the moral confusion today? 

As University of Texas professor J. Budziszewski explains in "What We Can't Not Know," "our problem is not that there isn't a common moral ground, but that we would rather stand somewhere else." In other words, we often shun the truth because it inconveniently undermines our selfish interests. 

Those interests tempt us daily to exchange what we know to be black-and-white borderlines for broad bands of gray. It's especially easy for us to justify those gray zones in "little things" that "everyone does" like "shading the truth" to avoid endangering our career self interests or compelling subordinates to write their own performance reports. 

Ultimately, these "minor" lapses slowly cripple our moral authority and thereby our ability to correct subordinates violating similar rules. Likewise, these indiscretions erode our moral courage making it easy to abandon our responsibility to confront seniors who may be walking a crooked line. 

Worst of all, personal moral corrosion often leads to ridicule of those striving to follow the moral law, thereby urging them to cross into the gray. Pretty soon, what is unmistakably wrong becomes acceptable while what is obviously right is thought unattainable.
All these things methodically reinforce a culture perpetuating and ultimately widening moral confusion among those whose decisions will shape our nation's might tomorrow. The consequences of this course are extensive. 

During his stirring 7 November 2007 speech before a joint session of Congress, French president Nicolas Sarkozy praised America for time and again turning back global tyranny spread by the likes of Hitler and the communist Soviet Union. The strength to do so, Sarkozy testified, "is first and foremost a spiritual and moral strength." 

If we are to sustain an American force capable of overcoming the tyranny of our terrorist enemies, we must avoid crippling that singular strength which enables us to choose right over wrong. To do that, we have to acknowledge and submit to those timeless truths and moral laws that define right and wrong--just as clearly as a straight line defines a crooked one--and help those who will follow us to do likewise. 

In short, we must truly put integrity first in all things--large and small.