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Remarks to the National Character & Leadership Symposium, United States Air Force Academy
As Delivered by Deputy Secretary of Defense John J. Hamre , United States Air Force Academy, Colorado, Thursday, March 04, 1999

I do appreciate being invited to this enormously important event and conference that you are hosting. Your theme this year is "Integrity First." You have had a very interesting cross section of presentations, and I would venture to say that most of them are probably focusing on the notion of integrity as a personal code of values and how one lives.

There's actually another definition for the word integrity: a state of unimpaired soundness. It's probably used often in your engineering classes. In the lexicon of an engineer, integrity refers to the overall design of a structure, the constituent elements of a structure and how well they interrelate. If there's failure in one of the components of the structure, it basically represents the failure of the integrity of the structure.

Engineers and ethicists therefore have a very different concept in mind when they talk about integrity. Tonight, I'd like to talk to you more from the perspective of the engineer than from the perspective of the ethicist, and to talk to you about the structure of American democracy.

Any discussion on the structure of American democracy must start at the starting point of the American political experience, the American Revolution. American history, of course, goes back a good deal further that. Most of those who were at the Constitutional Congress when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 were actually third and fourth generation Americans. They had been in the United States, then American colonies, for several scores of years. Harvard University, for example, had its 125th anniversary before the Declaration of Independence.

When the founders gathered in Philadelphia, it was more than just plantation owners who were upset with the royal crown in England. A much larger event occurred, a colossal confrontation between competing world views. Up until that time, most governments around the world were characterized by monarchies. What connoted and gave authority to a monarch? Most monarchs attained power on the battlefield. They won the fight, defeated an opponent and named themselves king. But that didn't give them legitimacy. Their legitimacy came from a meeting with the bishop, who on behalf of the Pope, coronated them as the king.

That view was not shared by the founding fathers of American democracy. They had a very different perception of what constituted legitimacy of government. Their view was that government derives its authority from the people who live there; that inherent rights belong to you and me as individuals; and, that we must be willing to give up some of those rights to a government to act on our behalf. This debate is still going on in American society today. You hear it every day in Washington. It's very much a part of the backdrop of American politics.

You see this debate in the words of the Declaration of Independence: "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation."

This is a very rational concept of government. Government grew out of the authority of the people who were gathered together and chose to form a government. If they didn't like the one they had, they formed a new government.

The Declaration of Independence continues with another phrase that is well known to everyone: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." You are no doubt familiar with the words. The founding fathers were not talking about "man" in an anthropomorphic sense; "man" meaning "mankind."

The founding fathers were not talking about women. Nor were they talking about all men either. They did not mean men of color. They meant all white men were created equal. Moreover, they did not even mean all white men were created equal. They meant all rich white men were created equal because at that time, their concept of democracy was that only property owners could be trusted to form a government. So this Constitution was based on a premise that human beings are very rational. Yet, in this case, the rich white men didn't trust the rest of the public.

If the words of the Declaration of Independence had said, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all rich, white men are created equal," I dare say American democracy would have died long ago. Men and women of all races would not have put on the uniform of this country, picked up arms and fought on distant shores for a goal that fell one inch short of the true meaning of the words in this Declaration, which is that all people are created equal.

Ironically, because the people who formed our government did not trust other people, they created a democracy that was unlike any other form of government in history. They created a government that was deeply divided and intentionally inefficient. They created a democracy that decreed that no one individual would have enough power to ever do to us what we just lived through in the Revolutionary War. So they profoundly divided the government. They divided it between a President and a Congress. They divided it between a House and a Senate.

The founding fathers said that the President will be commander-in-chief, but the President as commander-in-chief cannot declare war by himself and cannot spend a penny without getting the money first from Congress. The President is authorized to appoint other individuals to act on his behalf. My boss [Secretary of Defense William Cohen] is one of those individuals. I am one of those individuals. But I cannot have this job without the permission of Congress, in this case the Senate.

You might ask yourself how we get anything done. This is a government unlike anything else. It was not designed to separate the functions of government so that one organization does one thing, another organization does something else. Every single function of the government is divided among different bodies. And we can't get anything done unless we all work together.

At its core, ours is a government that is deeply skeptical about human nature. Human beings are not born naturally courageous or honest or with integrity. If they were, we wouldn't need to hold conferences like this. In their natural state, human beings tend to cheat. They cheat on their exams. They cheat on their taxes. They cheat on their spouses. That is true human nature. Character and integrity and the values that we cherish in our armed forces are learned attributes. They are things that we study. These are characteristics that we emulate by watching and learning from others.

Here is where I want to bring together these two definitions of integrity. This form of government that we have created would collapse if it doesn't have people of integrity at every level. By that, I don't mean just me, I also mean you.

Let me give you an example. About a year ago, I was in Bosnia and awarded a citation to a corporal who personally could have involved the United States in a shooting war, but had the discipline and the good sense and the courage to hold back and do exactly the right thing. That one soldier could have involved the United States into a shooting skirmish and I don't know if it could have evolved into a bigger war.

That character, that sense of courage and integrity, is a structural component that we have to have in this government. In the Air Force we need people of character because so much depends on it. I know you may think that you are one of, in this case, 4,000. You may be one of 400,000 when you graduate. "What's one person?" you may ask. I absolutely assure you that you will be in positions at some point in your professional career when you will be tested mightily. We cannot afford to have someone who is not up to the job. It is essential for us as a democracy to have people of genuine talent because otherwise our structure of democracy will collapse. That is true from the very top of our government to the first entry level in the Department of Defense.

So it is crucial that you take advantage of the time here, not just here at the Academy, but to study deeply and think about these last two days. The United States is going to depend on your personal character to make sure that the integrity of American democracy is solid into the next millennium.