Character Matters

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mathew W. Ramstack
  • 422nd Air Base Squadron

For Fathers’ Day some years ago, my mother sent me a framed document. As a child, I told her a lie. On November 17, 1982, she made me write a page (a whole page!) on the subject, “Why it is good to be truthful.” That page was in the frame. Of course, I had forgotten about this, but she saved it for when I had children of my own. This now hangs on the wall in my office by the door. My 11-year old self asserted one tells the truth “so people can trust and depend on you.” Right on 11-year old self! If an individual oath or an oath of office can’t be trusted, this society thing just doesn’t work.

In 2012-13, I was deployed to Afghanistan assigned to a NATO unit at Kandahar. The commanding general had a multinational staff. Therefore, most of my coworkers were European military officers.

In 2011, General David Petraeus was the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander. That same year, President Obama nominated him to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), so Petraeus resigned from active duty and assumed that position in September. He then resigned as the CIA Director in November, 2012 when it came to light he had an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, as well as improperly providing her access to classified information while working at the CIA. Petraeus eventually plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information.

So there I was in 2012, surrounded by European military officers, when this scandal broke. The most common reaction from my coworkers, presumably out of respect for Petraeus as an accomplished military leader and a cultural difference in how seriously Europeans (I suspect mostly male Europeans) view marital infidelity, was, “What’s the big deal? So he slept with another woman! You Americans are so uptight about that sort of thing.” They asked me different versions of this question, mostly just to give me a hard time, but I sensed there was some genuine inability to understand why this was such a big deal. In my usual way, to deflect the issue with humor, I said it was Europe’s fault, mostly the English, for kicking all the Puritans out of Europe in the seventeenth century and allowing them to set up shop in North America. After all, most Americans go through school taught to revere the Puritan work ethic, admire their piety and aspiration to build a “city upon a hill” as a model for the rest of the world to emulate. Therefore, Americans being a bit stern about sexual impropriety is our Puritan roots showing. So there.

But my European counterparts’ questions did make me think more seriously about this issue. Is it such a big deal? My fellow NATO officers certainly didn’t think so. Does cheating on your spouse mean you can’t be honest in your job? During the Clinton/Lewinsky issue, some defended the President as being able to “compartmentalize” different parts of his life. Therefore, cheating was different than being trusted with the nuclear command authority for example. Are Americans just puritanically uptight? No one was really talking about the sharing classified material with Broadwell; just the affair. Images of Broadwell and Petraeus dominated the US news networks’ coverage and the pundits speculated endlessly about where they might have been together in Afghanistan and Washington DC.

I finally came to this conclusion: character matters. When it comes to Petraeus I am less concerned with his promiscuity and more concerned that he lied (a lie of omission) to his wife, his family, and as a public servant, to us, the American public, until he got caught. Never mind granting access to classified information to an unauthorized person. In broader terms, character matters because it is foundational to basic human trust, whether between individuals or an individual and a larger group which he/she is supposed to serve.

Professional organizations define themselves through standards and modes of behavior and ethical principles because what they do matters. The Air Force Core Values come to mind. They all have at least one in thing in common: they serve others in a meaningful way. In an all-volunteer service, choosing to serve (this includes everyone in the Armed Services, military and civilian alike) is a recognition of the obligation we owe our fellow citizens in order to make society work. That’s why who chooses to serve is important and why they must have character. It matters.