First principles

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jason Armagost
  • 13th Bomb Squadron Commander

The test of character is not 'hanging in there' when the light at the end of the tunnel is expected, but performance of duty and persistence of example when the situation rules out the possibility of the light ever coming.

--Adm. James B. Stockdale, Vietnam POW 

From its founding in 1947, the Air Force was conceived and established as the service most aligned with the application of high technology as a military means to our national ends. Beginning at roughly the same moment in history, the Cold War arms races of the second half of the 20th century were exemplified by quantum leaps in aircraft performance, ballistic missiles, guidance technology, electronic warfare and situational awareness tools. 

The individual and cultural habits of mind formed in the day-to-day forge of these accelerating advancements continue to have far-ranging effects on the organization, training and strategic vision of today's Air Force. 

USAF officers and NCOs in this first decade of the 21st century must attain and maintain almost insurmountable technical brilliance, but as leaders, a breadth of mind must serve as a stabilizing drogue for the essential character of each Airman and the guiding principles of the USAF. This balance of skill and wisdom requires an enduring self-awareness and self-possession - no simple thing. 

There is a natural tendency identifiable throughout the course of history for organizations - "tribes" if you will - to intensify and reward patterns of individual thought and action that comply with the group's customs. Quite often, tribes that achieve this most effectively and quickly have astounding success against competitors. Curtis LeMay and his passionate development of Strategic Air Command is a fine example from our shared past. 

Tragically, once these triumphs of history become entrenched as a compliance frame of mind with a narrow view of circumstance and opportunity, an organization may become decadent and static, ultimately incapable of bold action that is the mark of a professional military order. But for a culture of broadminded leadership and a clear sense of mission, the USAF, and ultimately our nation, could be consigned to memory and history in the face of these tribal bents toward insularity. 

So how do we at the squadron level escape the human perils of strict bureaucratic conformity, the chaotically self-serving obsession with technology, and the struggle for standardization? As an Air Force and, thus, as officers and NCOs, we must commit every day to the systematic deployment of, and expectation of, clear thought, aggressive communication, ethical loyalty, and bold leadership throughout our squadrons. Each of these mainstays loops back to the mysteries of character - the character of individuals and the character of organizations. Character matters because leadership only exists in its shadow. 

Some of history's clearest expositions on character can be found amongst the Greeks of the Classical Age. In 430 B.C., at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, Pericles, the "first man" of Athens, proclaimed to the citizenry in his famous funeral oration honoring the dead warriors: "...what made [Athens] great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard." He also reminded them that their "love of the beautiful does not lead to extravagance," nor does "their love of things of the mind make them incapable of action." Ultimately, Pericles proclaimed that these Athenians "are capable at the same time of taking risks and estimating them beforehand." 

In striving for an ever-increasing balance between technical skill and the wisdom to lead through our own triumphs and challenges, we could certainly do worse than to take the counsel of Pericles and give confidence to these traits in our own squadrons. The honor of our nation and our Air Force requires it.