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

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.

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.

Of all the armed services, only the Air Force bases its readiness reports on objective data developed through a strict system of operational-readiness inspections. House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin has been seeking to extend such a system to the other services - so far in vain. Palmer was asked if extension of the Air Force system would help create an ethically more wholesome atmosphere for the young officer.

``Yes. Sure,'' Palmer replied, recognizing that such action could have profound implications not only for military force structure but for national strategy as well.

Data from such an operational-readiness inspection system could also lead to more-honest officer-effectiveness reports, Palmer agreed. He said some improvement can also be anticipated from a plan to rate lieutenants on a developmental basis rather than under the more-severe performance criteria applied to captains and more-senior officers.

A major target of active and retired officers who are critical of ethical practices in the current military system is the military inspector-general system. This is the only recourse within the service structure for service members who believe themselves under pressure to participate in or acquiesce to illegal or unethical actions.

The inspector-general system, says one such critic, ``acts as a sort of `fink,' identifying the `troublemakers' and faking them out so that their evidence can be countered before it endangers the commander, who writes the inspector general's efficiency report. The general is always exonerated.''

In recent weeks, Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio and Defense Department Inspector General June Gibbs Brown have criticized the services for long delays in acting on reports of misdeeds by generals and admirals.

Palmer and others dispute the more extreme criticism.

``If the allegation is [against] me,'' Palmer said, as an example of how the system operates in all commands, ``the [West Point] IG immediately bypasses me and goes to the Department of the Army, and there is an agency there that checks up on generals.'' He challenged the charge that ``the general is always exonerated,'' citing instances of punishments, including dismissal from the service. Coherent set of values needed

But whatever improvements can or should be made in the military system, Palmer says - a belief given substance by his own refusal to falsify a battalion readiness report - none can substitute for men and women with a coherent set of values who are willing to put their careers on the line in matters of principle.

The Posvar panel report sees the honor code, with minor modification of language and administration, as of increasing importance in forming such a system of values, especially for youth coming from a ``diverse and troubled'' society.

The panel has urged Army Chief of Staff Vuono to establish the code as the standard of conduct expected of all Army officers and to support adoption of the code throughout government.

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