West Point Takes a Look at Its Ethics
Panel recommends keeping tough code and urges US officials be required to adhere to it, too. MILITARY CONDUCT
WEST POINT, N.Y.
WHILE an ethics storm lashes Washington, the United States Military Academy here has not only reaffirmed its stringent cadet honor code but is urging that it be extended to the Army and the whole federal government. The reaffirmation is stated in the report of a 13-member commission, headed by Wesley Posvar, president of the University of Pittsburgh. The panel was appointed by Army Chief of Staff Carl Vuono to review the honor code and its administration.Skip to next paragraph
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West Point and the other service academies, all of which mandate variations on the West Point code, are by no means unscathed by Washington scandals. All three of the senior military officers convicted or under indictment in the Iran-contra scandal are service-academy graduates.
Reflecting the soul-searching that has been going on at the academies, Lt. Gen. Dave Palmer, West Point's superintendent for the past three years, says the academy (and by implication all the academies) may be partly at fault in failing to provide graduates with a means to bridge the gap between cadet life and the more complicated world they enter after graduation.
General Palmer expressed concern that the honor code - ``A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do'' - tends to create a graduate who sees the world in terms of ``absolute right and absolute wrong.'' When that cannot be sustained in the ``world with its normal hurly-burly mixture of people and pressures,'' the graduate may be left adrift.
Taking note of that problem, the Posvar commission has recommended that West Point place ``more emphasis ... on case studies involving challenging ethical decisions in real public and private life.''
Case studies ranging from the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war to the more recent refusal by an Israeli battalion commander to participate in repression of Palestinians have been discussed in West Point classrooms during the past academic year, but only on the initiative of individual faculty members. Palmer admits that a more formal method of including such studies in the curriculum must be developed.
Not just a checklist
On the other hand, Palmer says, ``We don't want to, and we couldn't reduce integrity, honesty, to a checklist of right and wrong. We want people to check out of here able to make judgments, and their judgments should be made from a basis of moral, ethical principles....
Some of those pressures, say critics, who including West Point and other service-academy graduates, are generated by a readiness-reporting system that demands inflated judgments to sustain military force structure and budget objectives, and an officer-effectiveness reporting system that trains military officers in obfuscation and circumvention.
Palmer himself was almost a victim of the readiness-reporting system. Pressed to falsify the readiness of his tank battalion in Germany, then-lieutenant colonel Palmer refused. He escaped being forced out of the Army only through the intervention of then-Army Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams. Yet General Abrams mandated retention in the post-Vietnam era of an Army force structure that, in the view of many critics, can be sustained only by false readiness reporting.