At the United States Military Academy at West Point last week, the drums were rolling, the bugles blaring, the flags flying.
The graduating class, stiff, starched, and pressed, was going through its farewell ceremonies on the manicured grass parade ground as a thousand or so cadets prepared to end their four-year term and graduate as Army second lieutenants.
But times are changing at this elite military institution, as they are at the Naval and Air Force Academies. The pool from which cadets are chosen is different from what it has been through most of the academy's 194 years. "Today," one critical military observer says, "we're recruiting from the MTV generation." Says another: "West Point's new cadets are coming here from a society that is in a moral vacuum."
Problems at the service academies - particularly at the Naval Academy, where there have been recent scandals with car-theft rings, drug-dealing, sexual harassment, and cheating - spotlight changing moral standards, and what to do about them.
Though West Point's challenges are nowhere near as severe as those at the Naval Academy, styles here have been changing over the years.
Cadets need only show up for dinner in the mess hall once a week. On other nights they can order in pizza and fried chicken from fast-food eateries in the nearby town of Highland Falls, N.Y. Church attendance is voluntary, not mandatory. Off-post privileges are more lenient than in previous years.
Longtime residents of the area say that today's cadets are less respectful. Some wives of officers who have long played "mother" to some cadets have stopped offering hospitality because cadets are less polite, less thoughtful.
If all this adds up to a somewhat less courteous generation at West Point, the problems at the Naval Academy are far more critical. At Annapolis there clearly has been a serious failure of discipline and a collapse of moral values.
Laxity at Annapolis
Many West Pointers argue that different standards at the Naval Academy encourage moral laxity rather than the enforcement of military discipline. Some naval officers agree.
They point out that the "non-toleration" requirement in the Naval Academy's honor code for its cadets is laxer than that at West Point. Army cadets swear not to cheat, lie, or steal, but are required to turn in fellow cadets guilty of such transgressions. According to a spokesman at Annapolis, the Naval Academy's honor code offers, instead of turning a fellow cadet in, the option of "counseling."
That, say some West Pointers, simply lets the erring naval cadet off the hook. "It's a convenient excuse for doing nothing," says one military officer.
Indeed, Army, and some Navy, officers say there is a different ethos at the Naval Academy. Says one Army officer who lectured at both places: "The primary loyalty at the Naval Academy is to your peers. That's why there was widespread lying after Tailhook to protect each other. Such a thing would be unheard of in the Army."
Experts say the Air Force Academy, the newest of the three service academies, studied Naval and Military Academy systems and honor codes and opted to follow the latter's example.
Says one former Army officer: "It doesn't surprise me that McFarlane, Poindexter, and Ollie North - all Naval Academy graduates - got into trouble and covered up for each other when they worked at the White House. That wouldn't have happened with a bunch of Army guys at the National Security Council."
Critics of the Naval Academy also point to the high ratio of civilian instructors versus naval officers on the faculty. According to a Naval Academy spokesman the overall ratio is about 50-50, with higher ratios of civilian instructors in some departments.
At the Military Academy, civilian instructors make up less than 15 percent of the faculty. West Point argues that military officers are better able than civilians to instill the code of honor and duty in cadets who come from a society where honor and duty are now held in less regard.
Observers of both institutions also point out that in the Army, academic duty is a plus on an officer's record, whereas in the Navy sea duty is the road to promotion and academic duty a diversion.
Naval Academy reforms
If the Naval Academy, as the evidence suggests, is in trouble, what are the remedies? Officers at Annapolis say many lapses are being rectified. But some things may still need to be done. The Navy's promotion policy should be reviewed to encourage some of the Navy's best and brightest to serve on the Naval Academy faculty. The ratio of civilian to Navy instructors might be reexamined. The non-toleration clause in the academy's honor code should be made more rigorous.
As one former naval flier says: "When I went to the academy I came from a society that didn't know drugs and metal detectors. But that's the society that cadets come from today. The civilian universities have abdicated responsibility for moral education. At the service academies we've got four years to mold them."
What we are hearing is a wake-up call to the service academies to do better.