Ethics and Professional Conduct

Our service succeeds only because of the integrity of our Airmen…
– Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne

Ethical challenges are a virtual certainty in the military.  While some instances are “obvious,” like temptations to steal or cheat, some situations are unique in the military environment.  For example, a variety of Air Force members—including one general officer—were recently punished for inappropriate influence in regard to a $50 million contract for the Thunderbirds.  It is unlikely that many of those involved considered themselves to be overtly “cheating” or “stealing,” yet the actions were treated just as severely.  A few years ago, two Boeing executives (one a recent Air Force retiree) were sentenced to prison for unethical conduct with respect to ongoing government negotiations.  Because the Air Force—and the military as a whole—depends on the public trust, it cannot allow appearances of impropriety to prevail.  No one must ever be given a reason to doubt the integrity of the military, or its officers.

Both of the previous examples dealt with military contracting, a section of the military which has its own host of unique rules, but “gray areas” in ethical boundaries exist in all specialties in the military, including Security Forces, engineering, personnel, and operations.  In his address to the cadets at the Air Force Academy, Secretary Wynne acknowledged that they will face temptations that could challenge—or compromise—their character.

Character, defined by integrity, service and excellence all “define the culture that lives within the Air Force.”
– Secretary Wynne

While such statements may seem trite, officers will continue to hear encouragements to maintain indisputable ethics, and they will continue to hear scandals of fellow military members who have not done so (as occurred recently).

Beyond personal conduct, though, what influence can a military Christian have on his peers or profession?  The quickest answer is that he should strive to the highest moral standard, but he cannot become the moral monitor of his peers.  He can express displeasure with someone if they pencil whip, backdate, use bad gouge or otherwise act with questionable ethics, but if he falls on his sword for every occasion, he’ll quickly wear himself out with all the falling down and getting up.  If people with situation ethics see their actions as inconsequential, a Christian will be hard-pressed to convince them to act a more difficult way just because he thinks it’s more ethical. In short, he should choose his battles.

It’s also fairly ineffective in most situations (and potentially inappropriate, depending on the circumstances) to address issues in religious terms.  While the ultimate moral basis for an ethical action may be found in the Bible, it’s generally more effective to frame it in terms of safety and legality, to which even an unchurched person can relate.  As previous examples have shown, ethically questionable actions may not only significantly impact an individual’s career, but also the reputation of the military as a whole.  Thus, in the military there are even good “non-religious” reasons for making morally and ethically correct decisions.

Most importantly, a Christian should strive to ensure that his reputation is of one who doesn’t need to compromise his ethics to accomplish his job well.  With that reputation his mere presence may strengthen the ethics of those with whom he works.