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NEWS | June 3, 2015

The “Little Blue Book;” still provides the words to serve by

By Lt. Col. Warren Brainard 628th Security Forces Squadron commander

A few weeks ago, base shred day encouraged me to do a bit of spring cleaning.  That's when I ran across my original copy of the Air Force "Little Blue Book" I received as a lieutenant in 1997.   Thumbing through the yellowed pages reminded me of three powerful core values that inspired me and thousands of other Airmen to uphold a standard of conduct as part of a "Profession of Arms".   It also helped me recall and admire the numerous noncommissioned officers who, over the course of my career, demonstrated these core values and taught me what to expect as the bedrock standard from my Air Force family.  

Most people already know what Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do mean.  However, when the original blue book was published, many asked why we needed to write down what was already expected in our oath and actions as professional Airmen?  General Ronald Fogleman, the Air Force's fifteenth Chief of Staff, is credited with creating the original "Little Blue Book" in the wake of several Air Force ethical and moral challenges. He recently stated the primary reason he did it was so "You can remember them ... and that they (core values) are the price of admission to the Air Force itself."  

According to the original "Little Blue Book," the core values are intended to inspire us to do our very best at all times.  They are our common bond among all Airmen and a unifying force that helps keep our ethical compass pointed in the proper direction. Core values drive us to make moral and ethical decisions as an integral part of the way we live and work.  The Core Values are more than minimum standards.  They remind us what it takes to get the mission done. 

The "Little Blue Book" has grown over the years into an official instruction (AFI 1-1) on Air Force Standards.   However, the Core Values, as fundamental principles, remain relevant today because they are timeless truths tying us to a proud and honorable heritage.  They remind us of the importance of the profession we have chosen, the oath we have taken and the demands placed upon us as members of a profession of arms.

A recent report by the Army on ethics and values indicated that soldiers entering the service in recent years often belong to a "generation" of enlistees who hold values and beliefs that sometimes diverge from traditional military norms.   The report suggests some ambiguity in values is instilled as a result of trolling social media sites and participating in violent online video games.  The authors suggest that in the virtual world, many service members believe it acceptable to act in any way they wish because their actions don't result negative consequences for which they may be held responsible.  Over time, these beliefs can collide with military ethics when faced with tough values choices in the "real world." 

While gaming technology has become a major entertainment venue and our ability to communicate instantaneous, I'd argue the attitude exhibited by these young service members is nothing new. What is new perhaps is a fresh pretext to rationalize why someone failed to uphold the core values as part of a shared obligation to protect and defend our country.   I believe most people realize that unlike the virtual world, failing to adhere to the core values in the physical world carries tangible, if not catastrophic, consequences.  

All of us have heard about recent ethical failures and scandals across the military--officers and NCOs cheating on tests, mishandling classified materials, cutting corners in training and certifications,  abuse of authority, preying on recruits, dishonest travel voucher reimbursements and failing to properly account for government property.  It is apparent that these damaging incidents didn't just happen in isolation and they weren't always caused by immoral people acting only on impulse.  Anyone with the slightest unease about how these failures occurred might ask: Why?  How can Airmen who call themselves members of a Profession of Arms not be troubled by this trend?  Frequently, the people involved knew the difference between right and wrong and they knew what being a professional Airman demands in these situations. Yet, they chose to ignore their obligation to act honorably or to step in and stop it.          

Nearly 20 years ago the "Little Blue Book" noted that all too often, breakdowns of the core values have grown out of a climate of "ethical corrosion."    Over time this corrosion decays loyalty to standards because we believe our operating procedures or the duties levied upon us from headquarters are outdated, silly or pointless. There is an impulse to cut corners, pencil whip a certification or simply ignore rules when we place our personal desires ahead of the rules or the mission.   This produces a culture where these actions become easier and habitual until one day we wake up and can no longer distinguish between important rules and rules considered trivial.  Hence, cutting corners and fudging the rules becomes second nature allowing an environment where it becomes an accepted practice.  It creates a climate of mediocrity which permits the erosion of duty, honor and respect.  Placing personal interests and needs ahead of our mission and our teammates then appears reasonable when in reality it hurts our people, our Air Force and ultimately our nation.

The "Little Blue Book" is still our basic guide to the core values. It is still relevant if you have the desire to understand and live by it.   In the end, each person has to choose the values they want to live by.  As General Fogleman noted; "the Air Force is not a social action agency.  It's not an employment agency.  We are professional Airmen entrusted with the security of our nation. Because of what we do, our standards must be higher than those of society at large. The American public expects it of us.  In the end, we earn the respect and trust of the American people because of the integrity we demonstrate."

Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do.  The price of admission to our Air Force is our three Core Values. Living by them provides priceless benefits to our people and our nation.   Today the Core Values endure and are taught to all during Basic Military Training--from then on we strive to live them every day in all we do - on or off-duty.  Ultimately, service as an Airman entails commitment to standards and values - the three Core Values are what being an Airman all is about and is what distinguishes our service as a true "profession of arms".