Moral courage and developing combat-ready Airmen

Commentary by Col. Gary Goldstone
375th Airlift Wing commander

2/4/2009 - SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill.  -- Part of my responsibility as commander is to ensure we are properly developing combat-ready Airmen who understand, embrace and execute the joint expeditionary mindset and mission. 

Combatant commanders, those who are leading our men and women at the battlefronts, are trusting that our Airmen have the training and equipment required, and that they are physically and mentally ready to support them. They are also trusting that our Airmen have the fortitude and moral courage to perform their mission, especially when under heavy strain or in difficult circumstances. 

That places a heavy burden not only on my shoulders, but for all those in leadership positions who are assisting in this effort. There are many aspects of training that are vital, but none more so than creating an atmosphere in which men and women understand and develop ... and then exercise the moral courage necessary to perform the mission. 

Moral courage is not something we talk a lot about or may not even know how to define well, but we know it when we see it. There's no checklist, no processing line or computer-based training module where Airmen go to "get" morale courage. How then do we instill or encourage this quality in our servicemembers? 

There are many examples we can look to that guide us, and since President's Day is approaching, it's appropriate that few examples be gleaned from them: 

--When all seemed lost and public faith in the Revolutionary War effort waned, George Washington rallied his beleaguered army during extreme winter conditions to cross the Delaware and capture the Hessians at Trenton and two days later expel the British from Princeton. 

--As a young lawyer, John Adams, defended the British soldiers who were accused of the 1770 massacre of innocent men, women and children in Boston. In his legal summation we have his famous words: "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." He took an unpopular case and brought out the true events of that evening and saved several soldiers from being unfairly punished. 

--Abraham Lincoln was despised and persecuted for his efforts in saving the union. Even some top generals disrepected him, but the president used their skills because he knew they could effect the change he sought. Only when these generals refused to engage in the battle did he remove them from their posts. 

--With tensions mounting in October of 1962, President John F. Kennedy faced down the Soviets as they tried to bring in missiles to Cuba. The world waited and watched ... and saw a president who had the moral fortitude to defend the people of the United Stated from this encroaching threat. 

Examining their lives and how they found the strength to do the right thing can inspire us to do the same. These leaders, and many more, faced difficult circumstances and we all can, and must, learn from them. 

Moral courage also means there is something worth standing up for. Something worth fighting for. There's a poignant quote from John Stuart Mill, which states: "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing he cares about more than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."

We organize, train and equip men and women to deploy anywhere in the world, at anytime, in any environment, against any adversary. This is so they can defeat these adversaries who are elusive, unconventional and often borderless. We all need to be reminded often of the price that has been paid, and that continues to be paid, for our freedoms today. 

Let us honor those who've set the example, and in turn be a team welded together in our resolve to perform our mission with duty, honor and courage. Only then can we be truly combat-ready.