The need for courage

  • Published
  • By Col. Christopher Sage, 4th Fighter Wing commander
  • 4th Fighter Wing
Over the last few years, the Air Force lost two towering heroes, Col. George "Bud" Day and Brig. Gen. Robinson "Robbie" Risner. Anyone who reads their autobiographies or their respective Medal of Honor and Air Force Cross citations comes away with a simple conclusion. These men were Airmen who personified the Air Force values of Integrity first, Service before self and Excellence in all we do. But one also comes away with the deep sense of what it means to display personal courage, both physical and moral. Courage is an essential trait both at the individual and organizational level. It is therefore time to expand the core values of the United States Air Force to include Courage.

Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman and Secretary of the Air Force Dr. Sheila Widnall deserve much credit for their efforts to codify our core values in the late 1990s. In an effort to distill down the core beliefs that unite us and guide our daily actions, the Air Force leadership at the time settled on our current core values. Interestingly, an earlier attempt to codify Air Force Core Values by then Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak included courage (as well as integrity, competence, tenacity, patriotism and service). However, the Fogleman- Widnall initiative was first an effort to restore institutional integrity and to fix what some saw as an institutional culture of compromise. The original United States Air Force Core Values Pamphlet ("The Little Blue Book"), published on Jan. 1, 1997 states: "Our first task is to fix organizations; individual character development is possible, but it is not a goal." It goes on to say: "If a culture of compromise exists in the Air Force, then it is more likely to be the result of bad policies and programs than it is to be symptomatic of any character flaws in our people." While initial efforts targeted organizations, there is no doubt that the Air Force focus on core values has shifted since 1997 to include personal character and character development.

The trait of courage was absorbed under integrity in the 1997 construct, and only briefly describes it as doing what is right. The Little Blue Book stated that the three core values "...are the common bond among all comrades in arms, and they are the glue that unifies the force and ties us to the great warriors of the past." Secretary Widnall stated the core values are the three pillars of professionalism that "buttress mental and physical courage when we enter combat." Agreed, but courage should be explicit, not implicit, in our core values. It is time to elevate courage to its proper place. Every commander talks in depth about the need for courage. Whether it is putting ourselves and our mighty machines at risk over enemy territory, running a convoy or patrol through dangerous terrain, or speaking truth to power in the halls of the Pentagon, courage has been on display since Sept. 18, 1947. It is needed now more than ever.

Understanding that "three main points" is attractive, it is time to emphasize Courage as an essential and leading core value, not a supporting trait. Sir Winston Churchill said "Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others." The other DoD military services agree and have made courage a primary core value. As Col. Day and Gen. Risner fly into the eternal sunset, it is time to honor their courage and the courage of countless Airmen before and since. Courage guarantees Integrity, Service and Excellence. Therefore it is time to add Courage to the esteemed list of Air Force Core Values: Courage, Integrity, Service, Excellence.