It's an aspiration, not an end state.
Like all services, the U.S. Air Force has a list of core values that help guide each Airman in the absence of formal guidance. The belief holds that if you follow all of these, you'll do the right thing, even if you do it the wrong way. They're pretty simple: Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do. Some break down as simply: Integrity, Service, and Excellence. In each of those, there are messages to explore. The first one is easy, the second one is a little harder, and the third one is the sources of eternal office arguments. Let's unpack them.
Integrity and Service
The first two core values are pretty straightforward. Merriam-Webster defines integrity as "firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values," though I like to say that it's merely your willingness to do the right thing even when nobody else is looking. That this value explicitly states that it's first, helping to reinforce the other two. After all, if you're not capable of adhering to a code of values, how much are the other values?
Service Before Self is a little harder to grasp than it used to be. There was a time in the military where it was routinely and openly expected that your responsibility to your uniform subverted every other duty, even your family. The running joke used to be, "if the military wanted you to have a spouse, they would have issued you one!" While the modern military still expects you to be willing to lay down your life if necessary, it also leaves room for you to be a normal human and have a real life. Where Service comes in is those rare moments where you must decide. "I want to take a vacation with my family this summer, but instead, I need to deploy." "I'd love to sleep in this morning, but I need to do some physical training."
We all strive for a balance between the profession of arms and maintaining our personal lives. I'm proud that the modern military aims to get closer to this ideal, though there are certainly still folks working extraordinarily long hours under challenging conditions, even at home. We still have a ways to go. Service Before Self is not about sacrificing until you've got nothing else to give; it's about being willing to sacrifice when necessary. I'm reminded of two great quotes:
"No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." - General George S. Patton, 1944
"When the masks drop, put your own mask on first, then help others." - Secretary of Defense James M. Mattis, 2018
Having personnel on your team that are willing to sacrifice themselves for the mission is an asset to be treasured, but not abused. Before the end of attrition-style warfare, militaries wantonly abused this obligation, with one of the most notable modern examples in Japanese conduct during World War II. One of the contributing factors of their success and failure was their willingness to die, which was most notoriously exemplified by the Kamikaze pilots flying their decidedly one-way trips into American ships. Less notorious were the stories of entire ship crews who would willingly go down with a ship rather than swim to another ship to fight another day. Brave? Certainly. Effective use of limited human resources? Probably not. General Patton reminds us of the importance of focusing on the destruction of others before you turn on yourself, while Secretary Mattis paraphrases every airline safety brief demanding you take care of your own immediate needs so that you can better help others.
Service Before Self is a powerful message, but it carries some footnotes. I like to remind my Airmen that if you don't take care of yourself, you won't be able to serve to your utmost. At a critical moment, our Air Force may ask everything of you, and you must be mentally, physically, and emotionally up to the task. Don't mistake every moment for that critical moment. The rest of the time is about getting yourself and your teammates ready for that moment.
This is the one that starts arguments and begs complaints. Integrity is apparent, and Service bears explaining, but I've seen Excellence in All We Do abused, mishandled, and misunderstood. Returning to Merriam-Webster again, they define excellence as "the quality of being outstanding or extremely good." Notice that it doesn't mean perfect.
I have heard far too many Airmen express contempt at the notion of Excellence, scoffing that "it can't be a standard; it sets the standard too high!" Even accepting the false assumption that the word means perfection, I think it's essential to remind people that Excellence is an aspiration, not a standard. It's a goal post that continually moves.
For many years, our Enlisted Performance Reports (EPRs) allowed supervisors to rate their personnel on a scale of one through five. Despite that, an overwhelming majority received a five rating (cheekily labeled as "Truly Among the Best"). Airmen with relatively minor disciplinary issues received four ratings or "Above Average", while those that had severe disciplinary issues and were likely due to be discharged soon received threes or "Average." Let's be honest: nobody with a disciplinary infraction is "Above Average," while the other 95% are not "Truly Among the Best." Since these scores were directly tied to an Airman's score for promotion for the next several years, many supervisors didn't feel strongly enough about someone's performance to want to "kill their career with a four or worse." The best excuse used for these shenanigans played up our core values: "all of my Airmen are embodying Excellence!"
I'm reminded of my first deployment, where at the end of six months, I thought I knew everything about the work I was doing. I was the epitome of Excellence! Little did I know, I had just started climbing a mountain (of skill). Then, I went out for another deployment and learned more... so now I have figured it all out (for real this time) and am living the value of Excellence. Alas, I was still climbing the mountain. It wasn't until the fourth deployment that I finally felt like I summited that mountain, but not because I had learned everything. Standing at the peak and full of hard-earned knowledge, skill, and experience, I could look out into the valley and see all of the things I had yet to learn. Excellence, in this case, wasn't about perfection. It was about learning how much you don't know and informing the direction you'll learn next or aiding you in asking productive questions. Eleven years later, I've never been more aware of how massive that valley is, even as I march ever forward toward Excellence.
To me, Excellence is something we'll never achieve, but must always strive for. It's like bringing world peace or ending crime; they aren't realistically attainable goals, but the value is in the struggle of trying to get there.
Like all services, the U.S. Air Force's core values are fraught with conflicting interpretations and confusion. Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do are useful ideals to follow in the absence (or sometimes in replacement of) further guidance. Integrity is straightforward, but Service and Excellence bear further meditation. As a concept, Service has evolved to a healthier perspective that leaves room for you to take care of yourself so you can better care for others and the mission. Excellence is often misunderstood to be a standard but is better treated as an aspiration.