Are You an Eagle?

  • Published
  • By By Lt. Col. Joe Moritz
  • 319th Communications Squadron commander
".... I am now going to my grave with that lapse in moral courage."5
Harold K. Johnson, Army Chief of Staff 1964-1968

Recently, I attended an American Legion Post 95 and 97 combined dinner and had the opportunity to listen to David Shelton, the winner of the North Dakota American Legion Oratory competition. Needless to say, his presentation was tremendous, but it was the topic of which he spoke that struck a chord. His topic was about the Founding Fathers and their choice of the eagle as our national symbol. To use his words, "We did not choose a lesser bird given to flocking and fear. We chose a solitary bird, one that soars alone, for the symbol of a nation designed to be truly independent and supremely self-sovereign."1 His words are inspiring and they made me think about the strength of both physical and moral courage it took the men of the colonies to declare independence from the King of England. We must not forget that breaking their ties from the monarchy to create a Democratic Republic was the first of its kind. It was the first time anyone thought to build a government based upon the rule of law as opposed to the rule of man.

David's speech gave me pause as I wonder if we have the moral courage equivalent to that of our Founding Fathers. Gen. John L. Piotrowski, in "A Perspective on Effective Leadership" wrote, "With regards to courage, the response of Gen. George C. Marshall to the question, 'What qualities were you looking for when you selected the great leaders of World War II, the Eisenhowers and the Bradleys?' is most instructive. General Marshall responded, 'Courage; courage is the most important characteristic of leadership because all others depend on it - not the courage to take out the machine gun or charge the hill, but the courage to do what is right!'"2

As noted by Gen. Marshall, it is not physical courage but moral courage he looked for most. Gen. Robert H. "Doc" Foglesong agrees. In his article "Leadership from Flight Level 390," he wrote, "Courage is the most undernourished of our core values, yet it is the most critical. All the values that we routinely discuss - faith, hope, charity and so forth - don't mean anything unless we have the courage to execute."3 Gen. Hal Hornburg wrote in "What I Believe," that "We are in the mode of minding our own business, which is fine sometimes. However, when you see something wrong, correct it - do not just walk by."4 Do you just walk by a problem or do you have the moral courage to fix the problem on the spot?

We tend to honor physical courage in the military more than moral courage, which we can see in the medals and accolades we pin. However, it is moral courage, which we need to act on almost every day, that defines who we are and what we are about. Do you know of a person who has smoked Spice? Have you seen a security violation, or worse, have you noticed a security violation that was continual, and not corrected the problem or reported it? What about the simple things? Have you ever seen a person continue walking while the National Anthem was playing or reveille was sounding and not corrected them to render honors? Maj. Carl D. Rehberg in his article "Implications of Dereliction of Duty" wrote, "Many people understand that physical courage requires you to do what is right - despite the danger of physical injury or death." Moral courage, on the other hand requires you to face dangers, but the dangers are more subtle. They may be dangers to your career, popularity, your acceptance by your peers, or your next promotion." He continues, however, by noting, "Moral courage is central to whether we can maintain high ethical standards in the military."5

I began this article with a quote from Gen. Johnson, who was quoted by military historian Lewis Sorley that he regretted the decision to stay in the Army instead of retiring in protest for how President Johnson ran the war in Vietnam.6 What decisions do you regret? Can you go back and fix them? As David so eloquently noted, the Founding Fathers chose a national symbol which epitomizes courage. Do you act with moral courage and "soar alone" even at the risk of losing your friends, losing your popularity, or even losing your career? I ask you simply, are you an 'Eagle'?

1. David Shelton, "The Eagle", North Dakota American Legion Oratory Contest, January, 2011.
2. Gen John L. Piotrowski, "A Perspective on Effective Leadership", in AU-24, Concepts for Air Force Leadership, ed. Dr Richard Lester et al. (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, September 2001), 521.
3. Gen. Robert H. "Doc" Foglesong, "Leadership from Flight Level 390", Air & Space Power Journal, Fall 2004.
4. Gen Hal Hornburg, "What I Believe", Air and Space Journal, Spring 2005.
5. Major Carl D. Rehberg, "Implications of Dereliction of Duty", Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics XXII, 28-29 January 2000.
6. Richard Halloran, "Should An Officer Speak Up After He Has Retired?",, April 20, 2006.