[January 3, 2021] In 1978, I was promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army. Part reward, part professional development, several sergeants from my unit toured the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY. We were impressed. Standards of ethical behavior were clear in their Cadet Honor Code.
“A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”1
How could I ever achieve such a high standard? It would be a challenging path to follow. Their honor code serves as the foundation of character development and a baseline of honest behavior. And, in doing so, the code encourages a culture that supports character growth.
It was as if a light had switched on in my head.
Speaking with many cadets, they were proud of their reputation and the fact that others take cadets at their word because of their adherence to the most strict ethical code one could ever imagine. Cadets, I was informed, strive to internalize their honor code’s to become unquestionably trustworthy.
Much of the USMA tour still stands out in my mind. Late on the first day, we visited cadets in their barracks. Upon entering, we passed a soda machine. A cadet was getting a Root Beer and was placing several coins on top of the machine. I asked him why he would not keep the change. He told me that the money did not belong to him and that taking it would be stealing.
Such honor codes only exist and remain relevant when leaders fully support and defend them. This would mean that those who violate such codes must be strictly punished. The punishment is best implemented impartially but quickly and publically.
Recently, the Academy’s Superintendent Lieutenant General Darryl A. Williams released a letter to The Long Gray Line2, which speaks to a major cheating scandal at the Academy. A copy of the letter’s content can be found here (see link). Read the letter for yourself. I’m personally embarrassed for Gen. Williams and his weasel words justifying leniency. Student cadets in the past would have been dismissed from the Academy for this behavior. That should be the case now.
Lt. Gen. Williams offered a laughable explanation in a memo to the faculty at West Point. He wrote that the Academy’s honor code “has resulted in an inequitable application of consequences and developmental opportunities for select groups of cadets.” Clearly, Williams is concerned that the honor code has a “disparate impact” on some groups of cadets. That’s why he is deviating from past practice. His explanation is twisted logic and, of course, a non-starter.
When I attended the U.S. Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, GA, in 1983, two Lieutenants were caught cheating on a Chemical Weapons exam. By that afternoon, all had been forced to resign their Army Officer commissions and were sent home. The message was brutally clear, no cheating allowed. If an officer – or any leader – cannot be trusted, then they cannot be counted on as a leader.
- The Cadet Honor Code (westpointadmissions.com)
- In its simplest definition, the Long Gray Line is the continuum of all graduates and cadets of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY.