- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007

The importance of honor codes

Dan Thomasson’s Wednesday column “Matter of honor or convenience?” (Commentary) reveals what I consider to be a serious erosion in moral standards in our society.

Mr. Thomasson writes of the “continuing debate about the efficacy of these anachronistic institutions,” referring to the nation’s military academies, “and the soundness of their cherished honor codes.” I want to take issue with his use of the adjectives anachronistic and cherished.

I graduated from West Point in 1970 and served on the staff there from 1983 to 1986. When I was a cadet, we used to joke that the academy had close to 200 years of tradition unmarked by progress.

We really sensed the anachronistic nature of rock walls and regimentation. Yet we also saw change even in our tenure as cadets. My class, for example, eliminated the “fourth class system,” an often brutal indoctrination of freshmen that ran contrary to [Gen. John M.] Schofield’s Definition of Discipline, which we were required to memorize: “The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment.”

When I returned to serve as the chief of professional development for the Corps of Cadets, I was pleasantly impressed with the changes made at West Point in a short 13 years. The admission of women in 1976, for example, is certainly an indication of an institution adapting to changes in society, albeit reluctantly at first.

Soon academic majors began to take hold, expanding the curriculum from the relatively restricted engineering-rich program we had to swallow. Even the “cherished” honor code underwent close scrutiny in the wake of a 1976 cheating scandal at West Point. Adjustments were and are constant. That does not qualify as anachronistic in my mind other than on the thin surface of the corps still wearing uniforms born out of the War of 1812.

Mr. Thomasson’s assertion that this sounds like any normal, mostly still teenage student body is faulty on several levels. What is “normal” for the universities and colleges across this wonderful country varies widely.

The service academies are not alone in having honor codes, and, asserting that it is “silly” to expect young adults to adhere to reasonable standards is egregious sophistry. The military is not your everyday run-of-the-mill business. It is a life-and-death business in which a person’s honor and commitment to his and her fellow soldiers simply doesn’t equate to Main Street America. Call it quaint or unenforceable, or, as Mr. Thomasson says, “an excuse for lazy adults not to have to do their jobs,” and you diminish the hallowed — yes, cherished — motto of West Point — “Duty, Honor, Country” — to triviality.

Does he know that the code is of and for the Corps of Cadets and administered by the corps? It is anything but the refuge of lazy adults. There is genuine tension between the so-called adults and the so-called teenagers (of which I’ve been both) when it comes to ownership and enforcement of the code.

I just wanted to set the record a little straighter. No honor code is perfect any more than humans are perfect. Cheating scandals and other indiscipline reflect the extraordinary humanity of the cadets and midshipmen of our service academies.

The fact that these abuses garner so much attention in the press is a direct result of the high standards I think America expects of the academies.

Mr. Thomasson has done some homework and knows a little about the cherished code. He ends the article with a statement of something that has been going on continuously since 1802 at West Point — extensive introspection combined with external reviews like the Bormann Board of the late ‘70s.

I agree with him about not destroying the traditions that have made the academies great. So let’s not start with the honor code. Heaven forbid that anyone should hold our military to higher standards than the cherished nation it is sworn to defend, right?

Fie on that notion.

Let there be some bastions of moral and ethical values set high enough that even our nation’s very select will find them difficult to achieve. Getting closer to high standards beats setting the bar down to the lowest common denominator.


Poquoson, Va.


As a 1996 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, I find Dan Thomasson’s comments about unrealistic honor codes strikingly narrow in scope. Not once did he mention that academy cadets, while indeed young people caught between high school and adulthood, are bound for great responsibility that demands the utmost in integrity from every graduate. No civilian institution can make that claim.

The author seems to insist that taxpayer-funded, freedom-protecting institutions such as the U.S. Air Force Academy should simply swallow the good with the bad and accept the resulting indigestion, as it were. Am I surprised that some of the freshmen were lulled into thinking they could get away with passing around stolen answers? Not really. Am I proud that none of the guilty will serve in my Air Force and carry the responsibility for defending my country? Absolutely.


Bellevue, Neb.


Dan Thomasson in his column first bashes “those federal military academies where honor codes periodically belch out post-pubescent youngsters who are unrealistically expected to operate on a higher plane than those who attend the average college or university, which, of course, implies that the “average college or university” doesn’t much care if you “lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do.” A quick check of my own alma mater clearly indicates that the University of Michigan doesn’t condone cheaters, either.

Then, Mr. Thomasson settles on the portion of the honor code wherein “if you suspect someone of cheating and don’t report it, you are as guilty as that person and subject to the same punishment. Nice business, huh?” I infer that in Mr. Thomasson’s world it is perfectly acceptable to know of an instance of someone lying, cheating or stealing and to feel no responsibility to report the offense. That doesn’t wash in another of those “average universities.” The University of Oklahoma Student Handbook clearly states that fraud includes “Assisting others in any act proscribed by this Code.” It would seem to me that knowing of lying, cheating or stealing and not reporting it is assistance.

Of course, the larger question is: Where does Mr. Thomasson draw the line? If it’s all right not to report lying, cheating or stealing, is it all right not to report assault, rape or murder? Who decides? Where is the responsibility as a citizen? Where is the responsibility as part of the human race? Thankfully, Mr. Thomasson isn’t my neighbor; I wouldn’t count on him to call the police if he saw someone crawling in my bedroom window.

Mr. Thomasson then goes on to bash “these anachronistic institutions and the soundness of their cherished honor codes.” Pointing out that a growing number of today’s officers are commissioned through the Reserve Officers’ Training Program (ROTC), he seems to imply that the military academies are no longer needed. I fail to find the relevance of this line of argument. The military academies have long provided a corps of highly trained junior officers who salt the ranks of lieutenants with knowledge, background and military history not provided by the ROTC or Officer Training Schools (OTS). Their influence on their brother lieutenants is invaluable. All that being said, the “stray round” in the middle of Mr. Thomasson’s column is fodder for a different debate.

Most unsettling of all is Mr. Thomasson’s assertion that “with the pressures to survive and the daily demands on these men and women so enormous, the temptation at times to fudge or cheat outright must be overwhelming, encouraged by a code that seems to leave them on their own.” Is this meant to make me feel sorry for those who are guilty of wrongdoing? Within weeks of graduation, many cadets are training in the cockpit of an aircraft or a tank or behind the wheel of a ship. The pressure to perform there is higher. Many other newly minted lieutenants are walking the streets or hills of Iraq or Afghanistan. No military member can tolerate a liar, cheater or thief — certainly not when the most precious thing in your world is your last pack of cigarettes or the wedding ring under your bunk pillow as you walk some garbage-filled street.

Finally, this odd statement: “Personally, I always have felt the honor code was an excuse for lazy adults not to have to do their jobs, including monitoring their young charges.” The writer fails to understand that there are certain truths. Some things are wrong because they are. There are clear choices in this world; not everything is a shade of gray. These “anachronistic institutions” tell new cadets (cadets, not students) exactly what is expected on Day One.

In a world where there are too few heroes, too few people we admire for their integrity, we should be thankful that one part of our nation still believes in duty, honor and county.


Air Force (retired)

Edmond, Okla.

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