Chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel, Ken James Stavrevsky
United States Air Force
112 Luke Ave Bolling AFB DC 20332-9050
DSN 297-4577




The momentum of interest in character development and the inculcation of core values has perhaps reached a point of frenetic quandary. The "what" and "how to" debates have taken over the discussion to a degree that only an outsider might raise a trembling hand skyward and dare to say "stop!" Is it not appropriate, indeed wise, to pause occasionally and ponder the foundations upon which we are building? That is not to diminish the fact that outcomes do mean a great deal. I do not suggest that the military services are erroneously chasing after incorrect values and the character thus formed. To the contrary, it is my observation that the core values identified by the military services have great appeal. Officially endorsed "core values" can potentially serve several noteworthy functions. They are great mottoes, evoke ethical thinking, offer ample fodder for philosophical discussion, and – please excuse the chaplain jargon – they’ll preach. The Air Force "Core Values" (Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence in All We Do) have been aptly manipulated to fit into all of these functions. The goal is noble: to create a culture in which character is developed, nurtured and sustained consistent with the military function and the profession of arms. Simplistic as this summation may be, it is clear that the military has a rekindled conviction and awakened responsibility to the requisites of leadership within its ranks. No doubt, there are various ways of interpreting the character development movement in the military. I admit that there are noteworthy permutations that will not be discussed in this paper. What will be discussed here is not limited to, or even primarily directed toward, the values identified by the Air Force as "core." Nor is the subject matter that of application and successful implementation of a character development strategy. Rather, I hope to approach the entire question from the most basic – "simple" in the purest and most profound sense – vantage point. What is it that causes us to believe, let alone assert as fact, that there can be any such thing as "core values" in the first place? What if our assumptions are wrong?

Perhaps I am the only person who is bewildered by the effort being expended, out of necessity, to describe and implement values that are identified by the character development practitioners as "core." If the core values are truly "core" to that which we have come to identify as axiomatic to military character, why is there any confusion whatever? Is there an aberrant void in the inner core of those whom we seek to influence? Are the men and women entering military service as officers "values impaired?" How do we account for the lengthy papers and scholarly discussions – both theoretical and pragmatic – about the cultivation and actualization of these "core" values? I will address these questions with specific reference to the Air Force, but it seems to me that the observations and conclusions are applicable to the other services as well.

The undertaking commences with a reflection on the language used in the core values enterprise. We encounter a language clothed by a military cultural mindset. This comes as no great revelation and is far from unfavorable. It is also true that there are inherent limitations. The language deliberately chosen for this discussion comes out of a warrior mindset. No champion of the military wants to be accused of softening the hard-hitting, boldly militaristic tones upheld by words like honor, courage, duty, excellence, service, and so on. There is a "toughness" standard that needs to be recognized in matters of war and warriors. Thus, the language of Air Force Core Values seeks rational identification with the profession of arms. As the language gives birth to the ongoing discussion, a most important observation ought to be made. The framework of the discussion is constructed in a contextual setting twice removed from the "core language" – basic, human, intuitive – common to all human persons. It is once removed in the attempt to give that which is perceived in the spirit an incarnate form in verbal or written expression. That which originates out of an indefinable experience of human nature seems to be beyond adequate description. Efforts to appropriately express universal human experiences (love, hope, sorrow, compassion, etc.) continually fall short, requiring various utterances, similes, metaphors and analogies to at least touch upon that which is well known yet inadequately described. It is, furthermore, removed a second time as the language – far from sufficient and satisfying – is woven into theories, methods, and applications for addressing the matters of the heart and spirit. The result is the formulation of "core values programs" that misfire in sparking and inspiring the one in whom the values – the character -- must reside and live.

Our foundation is far from firm if the language fails to communicate at the appropriate level of human understanding. As an example, we might consider the default position often pursued in the character development movement. That is, an appeal to the purely cognitive side of the human equation. The approach seeks to rationally describe the core values, instill the logical skills for decision making, and rely upon the right decision on the part of the one targeted for character development outcomes. The approach ought to work. We are, by our own admission, supposedly talking about values at the core of right human behavior. The audience is comprised of men and women who have been adequately educated in the use of reason and critical thinking – having proved themselves to the extent that an academic degree or professional military education diploma might verify – and worthy of commissioning. Yet, there are disconnects in sorting out the core values. Almost frantically, well intentioned and committed practitioners of character development try to rework the phrasing using the same language. Some dare to ask whether it may be true that character cannot be changed after the age of seven … or five … or, God help us, three. The answer becomes somewhat clearer if we look to the limitations of the very language used. To be more accurate, it is time that we understand the failure of this language to speak effectively to the whole person whom we are attempting to influence. It speaks, but to only one dimension of the human understanding. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf offered an interesting insight: "The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it."




The language we need to learn and employ speaks to the human spirit. It is paying attention to the whole person – a holistic approach – that offers the only hope in character development. It ought not be reduced to a narrow-minded appeal to religion, although religion (as we shall discuss later) has a rightful place as a way in which spirituality takes tangible form. Spirituality in this context refers to the dimension of human reality that coexists with body and mind in the whole person. The language of spirituality reveals the inspirations, intuitions, and devotions that reside in the spirit (soul, inner life, core, subconscious) of human beings. This is the realm in which ontological questions are discussed yet defy the limitations of the spoken word. A human touch, a smile, the shedding of a tear, the embrace of persons in love, a silent prayer of the heart; these are the expressions of a language in which all fully developed persons need to be fluent. This is the powerful dimension of humanity that is sadly, and too often, disregarded or cast aside as sentimental; of inferior importance to the rational mind. My assertion is quite simple: the failure of a discussant to appreciate the fullness of the human experience – mind, body, and spirit – is a disqualifier in the pursuit of creating effectual character development strategies. This is not to say that each and every participant in such a pursuit must be "expert" in a holistic understanding of personhood. It does suggest, however, that the end product of a collaborative effort reflect a profound appreciation of the whole person. It demands that no one enter the process in militant rejection of the synergistic composition -- spirit, mind and body – operative in a human being.

Simply stated, my conviction is that all people (yes, even those who accept the profession of arms) journey to find meaning and purpose in their lives. Everyone ultimately seeks to identify that which inspires them and, from the inner core of their being, allows them to endure the challenges of life. My assertion is that those who have the internal fortitude to lead and succeed in the United States Air Force are those who have faced the question of "who" they are and for what causes they are willing to commit themselves wholeheartedly. They are those who have gone far beyond a purely cognitive recognition of which "values" ought to be embraced, and have entered a process of personal integration of these values. They know there is a resource in every person that lies deep within, where one "digs down deep" to overcome obstacles that otherwise seem insurmountable. In their identity as persons, they understand values committed to their inner life and core are truly bonded to who they are and offer a puissant source of strength and courage. They appreciate that inspiration occurs within individuals in varying ways and that it is the true task of leadership to inspire all those responsible for accomplishing the mission; and who, in the most extreme case, may face the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. Spirituality is the realm in which we are able to enter into a conversation asking whether or not the core values of the Air Force have indeed become integrated into the lives of our leaders. Specifically, are we nurturing and empowering leaders capable of inspiring those who are under their authority? This is, arguably – in my opinion certainly – the most critical attribute needed in our officers and leaders. Whatever the background, belief system, or particular expression of self-identity, their formation as persons of spiritual depth is essential to their embracing of the core values on a level beyond the merely cognitive. Those who have dealt with the issues of ultimate concern and meaning are those capable of applying all of the desired character development outcomes in their personal and professional lives. They are leaders capable of displaying character in the midst of the chaos and fog of war.

I admit the remainder of my discussion cannot be upheld if the above stated premises are flatly rejected. What I accept as a given may -- and it saddens me greatly to admit this -- be renounced. If one wishes to deny my premise in favor of wholesale materialism, reductionism, or other alternatives incompatible with a spiritual component to the discussion, then I submit to silence in reply. However, I do so fully confident that my critic will find no serenity in attempts, splendid as they may be, to build a functional foundation for core values.

Let me be very clear in regard to the significance of religion in this discussion. The common mistake is to equate spirituality only with religion. Religion is borne of the spiritual nature of human existence; there is a consequential relationship. Therefore, it is inappropriate to assume that a failure to embrace a particular religion is a rejection of spirituality. Religion confirms the spiritual nature and is evidence of the yearning to attain spiritual meaning. There are other ways and paths by which persons seek such fulfillment. Heated discussions and fervent appeals occur when people discuss (or argue) such matters. Tragically, hostility and war have resulted over such issues and religion has been a factor played out by persons in conflict. The wrong cannot be ignored, but it is evidence of a particular kind of prejudice when one attempts to lay all evil at the feet of religion. People of religious faith and conviction have done more than their share (and I speak with outrageous understatement) of praiseworthy deeds as well. What is important to this discussion is the perspective that religion points to a spiritual character of human existence. Arguments may rage on various fronts, but an honest reading of history forces us to deal with the fact of religion. Too many people and cultures have embraced religion for us to ignore it. Personal opinion should not cause us to marginalize its reality. By the same token, it is clear that any application beyond the particularities of specific "religions" needs to focus on the requisites of religion. It must, in other words, arise from a "meta-religious" perspective. Why, we ought to ask, are so many people drawn to religious expressions of reality? What are the alternatives if religion is not pursued? How might religion point to an appropriate language for the core values discussion?

Religion blossoms from the human condition. To embrace core values one need not establish a direct or indirect linkage to a particular "religion." Such an effort would be highly problematic and inappropriate in our American context. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, while guaranteeing all persons the "free exercise" of religion, clearly prohibits the governmental "establishment" of religion. It is simply wrong to follow a narrowly defined path of a religion-based ethos for military core values. But it is also true, and too often neglected due to political correctness or mere timidity, that military members often find ultimate significance to their core values in religious faith. It is likely that the majority do. Rather than interpreting this as a crisis of conflicting allegiances, we do better to understand the human context and common yearning to make sense out of the most essential characteristics of our being. Here we find that it is the human reality that leads to – and demands – expression in thoughts, words, and actions consistent with that which is undeniably familiar deep within. The external form often manifests itself in religious faith and the "exercise thereof." When the external form is manifest in character development initiatives, core value development, and conferences on professional ethics and values, the same human search for ultimate meaning is at cause. To reduce the claims of philosophers and educators to a particular facet of this human endeavor and the religious experiences of believers to yet another facet is to miss the point. We gain little, and lose more than a lot, by imposing such a dichotomy upon the human experience. At worst, it points to a prejudice in regard to religion and the phenomenological actuality of life in human form expressed in religious faith. At best, there seems to be a failure (at times analogous to blinders consciously applied) to affirm that the quest of the human spirit seeks meaning of ultimate substance. Beyond the obvious and irrefutable limitations of flesh and blood, the human spirit seeks this ultimate meaning. Beyond that which can be known and expressed cognitively, human persons require knowledge (intuited, heartfelt, revealed, self-evident, reflective). Beyond the scientifically observable, human persons require insight into that which lies underneath the data ("why" questions, metaphysical explanations, limits of science). Beyond the seen, the measured, and all that is subject to physical analysis, human persons require a way of making some sense of existence and their unique place within the cosmos. I cannot imagine formulating a meaningful approach to human character development – and the extraordinary concept of proclaiming "core values" – that fails to recognize this most essential nature of what it is to be human.

There are virtues of the spirit remarkably woven throughout religious thought. The notion that these spiritual virtues offer the most fitting foundation to the core values of the United States Air Force may result in mixed reactions; from scandal to an enthusiastic "Amen." I must be very clear in my assertion that the spiritual virtues should not be understood as the copyrighted property duly owned and operated by any religion. Nor is it my goal to amalgamate some religions-of-the-world goulash of values. My conviction is that these spiritual virtues are properly overlaid upon our understanding of the human person because the evidence points to a consistent (over time and location) inclination of people to embrace and affirm them. I will not attempt to offer the voluminous body of evidence that could be offered to make this point. To the thoughtful reader, I ask only that reflection be given to works of poetry, art, prose, music, dance, theater and the myriad of expressive means through which faith, hope and love are revered as extraordinary human conditions. Indeed, it is in these three spiritual virtues – faith, hope, and love – that a foundation may be envisioned for Air Force Core Values.



Concern with the spiritual character of human existence leads to interest in that which nurtures the spirit. How do I become authentically human? Religions reply inharmoniously in regard to theological statements, creeds, and doctrinal proclamations. However, they consistently reply by offering fervent perspectives of faith (in God, human nature, the cosmos), hope (in human potential, deliverance, salvation, eternity), and love (for others, from others, of God, from God). Judaism is rooted in a covenantal relationship of faith, messianic hope, and commandments of love. "Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man" (Proverbs 3:3-4, NIV). Similarly, spiritual virtues are central to Islam and cultivated through the rule of daily prayer, meditation, reading of the Quran, and disciplines of fasting, washing and other actions whose aim is to nurture a righteous life. Buddhism points toward enlightenment through overcoming the illusion of self and a journey toward the possession of spiritual powers. The practice of Dharma – the code of life – calls Hindus to hold the inner life of spiritual truth which leads from ignorance to Truth. The purpose of life, in the Baha’i view, is for the individual to develop the moral qualities that lie at the core of his or her nature. Baha’u’llah referred to the human being as a "mine rich in gems of inestimable value." Each of these religious traditions express the virtues of the spirit. These, and others to numerous to list, not only call adherents to faith, hope, and love; they also offer prescriptions leading to a way of life in which the virtues are actualized in human experience. We should be clear that there are other spiritual virtues cultivated in these religious expressions. It has not been my intention to offer a comprehensive evaluation of all spiritual virtues. These three – faith, hope, love – however, are cogent to my desire in offering a foundation for Air Force Core Values. The most concise summation of this religious perspective comes from Christianity (the religion with which I, admittedly, am most familiar). The Apostle Paul concludes a rather lengthy discussion of spiritual virtues (and gifts) with a summation. "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love" (1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV). In raising up these particular virtues I believe we touch upon a sound basis from which a suitable language arises in discussing core values. Religion seeks to fulfill the mandates of these virtues (as spiritual imperatives) through worship, prayer, piety, relationships, rites, and so on. In contrast, I now turn to character development outcomes necessary for the successful accomplishment of the military function. That is, values that are may rightfully labeled "core."

FAITH: Integrity First

In whom do we have faith? What is meant by "keeping the faith?" How do we identify one acting in good faith? These are the kinds of questions raised in the minds of leaders and followers. They enter the realm of criticality when the answers relate to life and death in the conduct of war. Time and again I have heard military members express the importance of trust: trust of leadership by subordinates, trust in subordinates by leadership, military trust in civilian leadership, political trust in military advice. Trust is more than a valuable commodity in the military. Failures in trust are potentially lethal. The mere mention of Vietnam in this context is enough to surface thoughts and images of trust misplaced, abandoned and violated. But the broader implications of the trust factor can be framed more clearly in "faith." This is the case because trust can be too narrowly applied. It can miss the mark in expressing the dynamic relationships that occur in the horrific conditions of war. I can trust in my leader’s judgment, and trust that he or she has my vital interest in mind. I may trust that my leader is competent in directing "mission accomplishment." But my human experience – confirmed by my own strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures – tells me that trust is not enough. This leader is capable of doing that which is right and, in the past, he has demonstrated the inclination to actually do that which is right. Committing my trust in this leader to a present or future decision, especially one that may lead me to an ultimate sacrifice, requires the elevation of my response to faith. Faith touches the deepest connotations of integrity. The attributes essential to leadership form a holistic vantage point from which the follower decides the degree to which any leader will be followed. Inspirational leadership is impossible without faith. Faith in itself is, as John Dewey states, "the sole ultimate authority." Leadership is deficient in power if it cannot inspire, and it cannot inspire without faith.

To inspire (enthuse, encourage, motivate) others is a spiritual faculty all leaders should desire, and military leaders must acquire. Faith enables the relationship of leader and follower to attain the inspirational dimension. It opens the door to incredible acts of heroism and sacrifice that are the legendary heritage of military character. Faith is founded in the meeting of human spirits and overcomes the boundaries of rank, position and authority. Faith seeks and is drawn toward authenticity in leaders and followers. It is concerned with the true revelation of self. For this reason, the personal integration of core values, in the deepest sense, is an appropriate concern among those who seek to develop military leaders. Likewise the personal integration of the core values in followers ought to be considered seriously. Lying to the boss, if discovered, leads to a violation of trust. Left undiscovered, it is nonetheless a breach of faith. The relationship of leader and follower disintegrates when faith and faithfulness are in question. Does anyone fail to comprehend the poignancy of the Marine Corps motto, "semper fidelis?" Accomplishing the military mission demands more than physical and mental competence. Faith ennobles, and sparks, the highest standard of behavior in the relationships of trust essential to the military function. Faith resides in the spiritual center of a person. "Integrity First" can – and most would agree, must -- be integrated by our members. When it is integrated, honesty, truthfulness and trust should be anticipated outcomes. Such persons inspire others and are worthy of the faith placed in them. They "keep the faith" – and, although a commentary could follow, we all know what that simple phrase means. We understand it in our spirit. Defeat awaits the military that betrays such faith.


HOPE: Excellence In All We Do

The sources of hope that enable human beings to endure the most dreadful of circumstances are multifarious. Hope always involves a vision, a dream or expectation (often all of these) of good things to come. Looking beyond, toward the betterment of a current situation or experience, underlies the building of hope. It may be based on a belief in divine intervention, confidence in personal abilities, significant relationships, an inclination to optimism, and so on. But it always resonates in the spirit before taking form in rational thought. The seeds of hope are sowed in the heart and reaped in the mind.

The commitment to excellence in all things heralded by the Air Force can unfortunately be misconstrued as a hollow "total quality" mindset devoid of any reasonable connection to reality. Who doesn’t want to be "excellent?" But excellence in all things, literally applied, is an absurd concept and a destructive expectation. Real people make choices and set priorities. They balance career requirements with family commitments; personal needs with numerous demands. Outcomes less than excellent are not only unavoidable, they are often appropriate. Without necessary clarification regarding this core value, military members are sadly thrust into a perplexing penumbra. Military character seems to demand 100% at all times, in every case, without compromise. At the same time, excellence is expected in all that is done. Less than one’s best leads to guilt. Outcomes below the standard of excellence lead to feelings of failure. Guilt and failure consume hope as burnout takes place. Without hope there is no excellence. There is great wisdom the scriptural observation that "Hope deferred makes the heart sick. . ." (Proverbs 13:12, NIV). Cynicism grows, and the "good enough for government work" mantra begins. Most of us have experienced life situations in which hope waned. I have been on teams that succumbed to a losing attitude, the expectation of failure, and the subsequent evaporation of hope. I have worked on a staff that similarly lost hope in enthusiastically pursuing a vision. It sickens the heart. A way out, or rather a way up, is desperately needed. Hope rekindled is the medicine required. The full message of the Proverb is worthy of our reflection: "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life."

Victor Frankl, contemplating the power of hope exhibited in the midst of a Nazi death camp, wrote: "We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances - to choose one's own way." Endurance can be measured in one’s capacity to suffer. The degree of pain one can survive physiologically, mentally or emotionally is not my concern here. Rather, I am deeply interested in the inner inspirations (spiritual resources) that reveal a hope capable of overcoming the overwhelming temptation to admit defeat. What does the Air Force Core Value – excellence in all we do – have to do with fashioning a response to situations in which the going gets tough?

"Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good," according to Czech President Vaclav Havel. To work toward that which is good, regardless of external obstacles, speaks to an internal fortitude impossible without depth of character. Hope arises from a fully formed, completely integrated human person who has neglected neither the spirit nor the mind. In this person, faith and rationality merge. The result is an ability to endure and accomplish – through hope – the most excellent results worthy of praise. Hope, in this context, is the stuff of which courage is made. It is capable of looking beyond the present to aspirations and causes of epic proportions. It allows a person to look even beyond the limitations of his or her own life, entering into a perspective that overrules the most basic concepts of self interest and self preservation. Hope is the spiritual virtue that answers the call to excellence of service. It is the medicine that provides a cure for fear. How liberating it is for us to permit military members to openly admit to the fear that is inherent in the profession of arms. Only dimwits escape fear in the midst of the fog and devastation of war. Only the foolish fail to comprehend the utter corrosiveness of honest-to-goodness combat. Without hope, military members "die" in the flesh or, as is the case with post-traumatic stress disorder, in spirit. The courage enabled by hope was described accurately by General George S. Patton when he said, "Courage is fear holding on a minute longer." Hope holds on that minute longer. There is an applicable formula: "Whatever enlarges hope will also exalt courage" (Samuel Johnson). Thus, the critical character development outcome described by the Air Force as "excellence in all we do" is militarily acceptable language for saying: Let us be a force inspired by the hope of good things to come. Dedication to the doing of the good (moral, ethical, legal) is the cement that gives this hope a hardened resiliency. It is remarkable what men and women so inspired – that is to say, in their spirit – can accomplish.

Military leaders who embody absolute commitment to the values and principles of our nation – for which cause he or she serves in the profession of arms – are architects of hope. They know that the horrors of war ought to be endured only for the most important of ends (defending the innocent, freeing the captives, stopping atrocity, defeating unmistakable evil, protecting vital national interests, and so on). They do not glorify the battle, but exalt the noble cause for which incredible sacrifices are made. Robert F. Kennedy said, "Each time a man stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope." Hope builds up courage and excellence of outcome among those who are under the command of such a leader.


LOVE: Service Before Self

It has been suggested that the most powerful force in the universe is love. Human expressions of love are immeasurable. Theological doctrines express the relationship of humans to the divine in light of it, ritualize human interactions founded on it, and have some derivative of the Golden Rule ("do unto others as you would have them do unto you") as a model for exhibiting a pattern of love toward others. Some religions dogmatize love as being in the very essence of the ultimate being; "God is love" (1 John 4:16, NIV). All religions offer a contextual vision by which love can be fathomed and joined to human experience. For the purpose of this discussion, I proceed in the assumption that a prolonged discussion of the centrality of love to our understanding of the human person is superfluous.

The relationship of love, as a spiritual virtue, to the core values of the military profession (most notably, Air Force Core Value: "Service Before Self") is fundamental. We know that in the absence of love, manifested in care and nurture, human life does not thrive. Military members understand the deeply held convictions of love that cause a tear to form in the eye when the national anthem is sung proudly, when the flag is unfurled majestically, or when taps are played in final tribute to a fallen comrade. With a familiar melody, "There ain’t no doubt, I love this land" evokes an unmistakable patriotic response as Lee Greenwood concludes the lyric, "God bless the U.S.A." Love of country, love of freedom, love of God, love of family, love of life – the passions, convictions and commitments springing forth from love inspire that which will endure any challenge, overcome any obstacle, meet any threat. Anyone who has known this passion recognizes its power. Authentic courage, not the "rah-rah" impostor, is impossible without it. "A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave" (Mahatma Gandhi).

Dr. William H. Gibson has taught me (and USAF Academy cadets who have the privilege of attending his lectures) a great deal about the realities of combat and the corrosive character of war. In such circumstances, character really does matter. The sacrificial nature of love really does matter. "In combat, leaders become most effective when their interests become focused entirely (wholeheartedly) upon the leadership and direction of their units with a concomitant lack of concern for themselves" (Dr. Gibson). Leaders who rise above self-centered motivations and self-serving decisions exhibit a leadership that is properly founded; it is genuine love of which a warrior leader need never be ashamed. It is the substance of which courage is forged.

"Service before self" should not, although there is such a tendency, be confined to an admonishment against careerism. Nor should is be the primary weapon touted by personnel specialists and employed to embarrass disgruntled military members reacting to orders to an unpopular assignment. Part of the difficulty in getting a grasp of this core value lies in the vagueness of the concept. It is less than crystal clear except in the most extreme application; that is, the unlimited liability (loss of life) into which military members willingly enter. The translation of this extraordinary peril into a character trait and value that has significance in the daily life of a military member requires thoughtful reflection. For what cause am I willing to offer up my very being? For whom will I lay down my life? Where do I place my wholehearted (intrinsic) devotion? If we acknowledge an ember of truth in the statement made by Jesus Christ, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13, NIV), are we not embarking on a highly profound conception of military service? The notion of service is thereby transmuted into a genuine calling. The actions of service assume the characteristics of a vocation. We clearly exhibit a professional assent to this conviction in the manner by which we honor those heroic souls who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. The highest military honor is bestowed upon those who offered the totality of themselves – their wholehearted devotion – in service. These are the persons elevated to the rank of "hero" and acclaimed a fitting role models for others aspiring to the profession of arms. On the contrary, to sacrifice one’s being for a cause unworthy of love is the greatest tragedy imaginable. It is an act of absurdity and foolishness. Such persons are worthy only of our pity. But truly worthy of our admiration are those who have displayed the love in its greatest form.

"We are shaped and fashioned by what we love" (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). So it is with military professionals. The result must be evident in conduct that is unquestionably characterized by "service before self." General Malham Wakin put in concisely: "Service before self is not a mere motto to impress the gullible; in the military profession it is a functional imperative."

There is parting reflection concerning love that is quite significant. What is the alternative to love as a motivating power in the midst of the chaos, horror and hell of war? I agree that love is difficult to observe in the death and destruction of combat. Looking to the dread consequences of war one might fail to comprehend the opposing seeds of love that allow military persons the internal fortitude to make sense – in the middle of senselessness – of utter human degradation. Can any person endure these circumstances and hope to maintain his or her humanity without a corresponding embodiment of goodness through love? It may be the case that the alternative to love is singular -- hatred. To hate the enemy is not unusual among combatants. When hate becomes consuming, it slowly destroys the individual and may, like a communicable disease, put others at risk. The mission can be compromised. Take as an example the actions of two military men at a Vietnamese village named My Lai in 1968. Lieutenant William L. Calley surrendered to the most evil human inclinations in ordering the murder of defenseless women, men and children. Disregard for the sanctity of innocent life teamed with a decision to act in an utterly inhuman way. Abandoned entirely was any sense of love for others (not only the villagers, but also for those under his command) or even for the self that had become a human distortion. Consumed by hatred, fear blinded this leader to reality and right action. Hate and cowardice may be bound together as love and courage seem to be. In stark contrast, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson, Jr. chose to put himself at risk in order to rescue the innocent. He acted out of love for those he did not know – whom he could have written off as an enemy. He acted out of love for a country that he was unwilling to disgrace through a murderous act. He acted out of love for his comrades in arms who need to see actions worthy of humanity while exposed to the inhumanity of war. I do not know if Hugh Thompson identifies his actions from a perspective of love. He may not be in agreement with my assessment. What I have attributed to love he might label as something else. I would gladly accept his terminology, but in my heart know that I have witnessed an act of love. His story needs to be told in contrast to the tragedy we have come to know as the "My Lai Massacre." While official military recognition of his heroism was too long delayed, his actions stand as a model of virtuous military character and service before self.

CONCLUSION: These three remain

Faith, hope, and love are spiritual virtues that enable a language of the heart to be spoken. They are timeless. So much of our current concern over Air Force Core Values results from fears that these values are yet another in vogue theme that will change each time the battle flag is passed from one Chief of Staff to the next. Are they really "core" after all? It has been my intent to enter into a dialogue about core values that proceeds from the foundations of what it is to be human.

In 1995, the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Ronald R. Fogleman, concluded an article on Air Force Core Values with these words: "If you would be successful in our profession in the United States Air Force, then take your lead from those who have gone before. Make unflinching honesty and integrity the hallmarks of your performance. Aggressively pursue excellence in all that you do. And place service before self." It would have been interesting to see the reaction if he had rather said, "Keep the faith. Be a person of hope. Remember that love never fails." I cannot image the general taking the advice of a chaplain and using this kind of language publicly. There is an image factor to consider, after all. But person to person – military professional to military professional -- I am confident we are speaking about the same core values.

As he reflected upon his life as a highly distinguished military leader, General Douglas MacArthur wrote: "It is my hope that my son, when I am gone, will remember me not from the battle but in the home repeating with him our simple daily prayer." Even the non-praying military member should understand this inner utterance of the spirit that aspires for meaning and hope. It abides in all of us. We might reflect on the content of his prayer; offered by one who deeply understood wholehearted commitment to duty, honor and country. As fellow-warriors dedicated to the defense of our nation, we share the ethos and the inherent struggles of doing the right thing, following orders, and making sense out of chaotic realities. A spiritual basis for the ultimate meaning of life and its challenges – manifested in the profession of arms – seeks actualization as a consequence of our human nature. It is a fact of life. The process may indeed be assisted and nurtured by adherence to publicly endorsed Core Values. It is, when all is said and done, an acknowledgment that "character does count" – especially in the military profession. Character may appear as a simple prayer, or a complex decision in battle. It is undeniably vital at the point where prayer and combat intersect. The best we might offer the men and women who serve – and will serve -- in our armed forces are foundations of faith, hope and love sufficient to the fulfilling of their oath: "I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter, so help me God."