The Ethics of Gouge

The recent cheating scandal at the Air Force Academy has highlighted, once again, that the temptation to compromise one’s integrity is a continuing threat.  In this case, nearly three dozen cadets are accused of cheating by sharing answers on an ‘inconsequential’ military knowledge test.  Other cases have revealed that the same temptation occurs on active duty.  In 2005 a dozen students were kicked out of pilot training for obtaining the answers to an Emergency Procedures Quiz (EPQ) prior to the test administration; an instructor pilot facing court martial for providing those answers subsequently resigned under less than honorable conditions.  Again, the EPQ was an ‘inconsequential’ quiz. 

Why would cadets or officers risk their careers over such insignificant tests?  Two reasons come to mind.  First, at the time, no test seems unimportant.  Even though failing the test might have only minor consequences, the fear of failure causes the desire to guarantee success—by cheating, if necessary.  Second, the desire for perfection, whether driven by internal or external pressures, makes people seek a ‘sure thing.’ Someone who might otherwise have gotten a 94 on a test might be tempted to cheat to guarantee a 100.  Neither situation is unrealistic.  Officers in training and cadets in college often feel that their careers do ride on the outcome of that test, inconsequential though it may be.  In classes composed of ‘exemplary’ cadets and officers, where average test scores are already typically high, there can be added pressure not to make a single error, as if one’s career rides on a singled missed question.  The Air Force values its top-ranked graduates, and few points may separate the members of a class.  While the temptation is not unrealistic, giving in is inexcusable.  Cheating, in any form, is an unquestionable violation of moral integrity.

The Air Force sometimes uses the phrase “cooperate and graduate” to encourage the members of a class to work together toward graduation, but the intent is not to cheat.  The class should work together when the rules allow; when individual work is required (on a test, for example), only individual work should be done.  In cases where there is doubt whether individual or group effort is allowed, the question must be asked.  Though to the casual observer it may seem unnecessary to include an encouragement not to cheat, it is likely that a Christian fighter pilot may one day face an ethical question of academic integrity, whether as a cadet or officer.  A prior decision not to violate that integrity will shore his moral foundation. 

Another ethical temptation that a Christian fighter pilot will face revolves around gouge.  The term gouge apparently has its roots in Navy history; in short, gouge is the ‘need to know’ or ‘quick and dirty’ of a situation.  Academically, gouge is essentially a previous person’s old work.  Imagine starting a college math class and having a former student hand you his notes, quizzes, homework, and exams.  That information would be gouge on the class.  Possessing it might or might not be considered cheating, depending on the policies of the school and instructor.  At the Air Force Academy, for example, some instructors encouraged cadets to keep their old tests and give them to future students of the course.  Those instructors fully planned to write new tests later and presumably thought that the old tests would help the new students learn the material.  Conversely, some instructors collected the tests after they were administered and said the specific content of the exam continued to be confidential, meaning that if a cadet even wrote down what he could remember and provided it to a future student it would still be considered cheating.  Gouge has a variety of degrees in meaning.  In some cases, gouge is simply a ‘code word’ for an answer sheet to or a copy of an upcoming test. 

Unofficial Air Force gouge is commonly associated with most official training courses and is often handed down from one class to the next.  (In the age of the internet, gouge on virtually any formal training course can also be found on a variety of websites, some less reputable than others.)  Some courses clearly state that no material from previous classes may be used, or that you may only use material you personally produce.  In those cases, use of gouge would obviously be considered cheating.  Other training courses have no such restrictions and may even encourage the production of gouge.  Ethical dilemmas may develop when Air Force members are in courses with no specific guidance on gouge.  For example, an officer may get a “brain dump” of material from a friend who just finished the course and find a copy of a test included.  The officer must then figure out if he can or should keep or use that particular gouge.

I have participated in courses where gouge was encouraged and tests were included in the gouge.  My class was forced to make a concerted effort to make sure our instructors knew we had copies of old tests.  This enabled them to tell us not to use it or allowed them to write a new test if they desired.  If we had not spoken with the instructor and the test they gave us was similar to our gouge, we could easily have been accused of cheating.  (Notably, every instructor had no problem with our possession of old tests.  Since the course encouraged gouge, the academic policy was subsequently rewritten to take the burden of asking the question off of students.) 

Gouge (in either authorized or unauthorized forms) is not restricted to officers or cadets in a student status.  Air Force pilots routinely take tests and face the same pressures, particularly if they feel their flying career rides on the test or if they feel that missing one question may cause them to be ranked lower than a fellow pilot.  A unique aspect of Air Force pilot tests is that they generally come from a Master Question File (MQF).  The MQF is an open source bank of all questions that might be asked.  Studying the MQF (which is often several hundred questions long) is expected and becomes habitual in preparation for testing.  There are times, however, when pilots will take non-MQF tests.  Because a pilot’s habit is to at least have some form of question bank prior to a test, it is tempting to try to “obtain an MQF” for those tests; since such an MQF doesn’t generally exist, “MQF” may become a code word for a copy of the test.

If a Christian ever has ethical doubts about gouge, he should ask an authority figure as to its legality or simply not use it.  A Christian must resist the temptation to access bad gouge or use gouge when it is not permitted.  The temptation may be strong; again, being a top-ranked graduate carries significant weight in the Air Force.  In addition, fellow officers may be using gouge in the class.  Both points are irrelevant.  Success without moral integrity is no success at all. 
Air Force gouge is a veritable ethical minefield; a Christian fighter pilot must step carefully to live his life above reproach.  A Christian fighter pilot must follow the rules and obey the regulations to the letter; he must not even permit the perception that he is stretching the spirit of the law (Ephesians 5:4).  A Christian’s credible witness could be destroyed by even the mere perception of malfeasance or vice without there actually being any fault in him.

Though a Christian’s decisions relating to the temptation to cheat or use gouge are fairly clear, a Christian’s reactions to other Air Force officers who do not hold themselves to the same standard are less explicit…

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