Thoughts on the Cadet Honor Code and Moral Failure, 20 Years In

It occurred to me recently that it was twenty years ago this summer that I entered West Point as a new cadet.  I don’t know why, but I started reflecting on the Cadet Honor Code in light of my time there and perspectives I gained since then.

First, a brief history of the Honor Code.  The Honor Code grew from the Corps of Cadets, and until the 1970s, was completely cadet-administered. The Honor Code says,

A cadet shall not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do.

Violations of the Honor Code were reported to the Honor Committee, who would hold a hearing to determine whether the violation was more likely than not.  Cadets who were found in violation were subject to the Silence–no one would speak to them except for in execution of official duties.  Very few could bear the ostracism and would therefore resign from the Academy.

In the 1970s, however, there were several cases where the Silence was broken because the cadets’ friends couldn’t bear to impose such a punishment.  Additionally, there were questions raised as to the legality of such a system.

Fast forward to the late 1990s, while I was a cadet: the Honor Code had become a formalized feature of Academy life.  Violations of the Honor Code were still examined by a panel of cadets (which, thankfully, I was never a part of on either side). However, a cadet who was found in violation would then be referred to the Superintendent (a 3-star general) who would develop a program for rehabilitation that might include a stint in the Army as an enlisted soldier, or some kind of service, or (in some cases) expulsion.

For the most part, these changes have been good.  A part of the process that got ugly, though, was the inclusion of lawyers in the process. One particular case involved one of my classmates who was caught on-camera our senior year shoplifting watches from the Post Exchange.

This case was about as open and shut as it could be–she clearly had stolen something.  The attorney assigned to the case insisted that the “charges” should specify the number of watches stolen, and insisted that the burden of proof was “beyond a reasonable doubt” rather than “more likely than not”.  When it was not clear in the video whether she had stolen four watches or only three, the attorney threw the case out. When the Honor Captain appealed to the Commandant of Cadets, the Commandant refused to re-start the case for fear of putting somebody in double jeopardy.

This case, among others, caused many cadets to be cynical about the Honor Code. “Don’t believe the hype.” “A cadet shall not lie, cheat, or steal, as long as you can prove it.” We all felt that honor was important, and were frustrated that the true state of honor at USMA didn’t match the facade.  Many, many cadets yearned for a return to the days of the hard line drawn on honor violations, the Silence, and total cadet ownership of the process, including me.

My opinion has changed though.

What happened in the shoplifting case was really bad and unhealthy. But so is an atmosphere of zero-tolerance. In zero-tolerance environments, faults and failures are not caught, are carefully covered up, and there is no room for growth and development that come with repentance.

Cadets in the “good old days” were no more honest than they are today. In fact, the dishonest ones were probably better at hiding their lies because of the catastrophic consequences of being found out. Those bad habits and moral failings remained under the surface, only to found when the stakes were much higher: names such as Jefferey Sinclair, William Ward, and David Hale probably don’t resonate much with the public, but certainly the high-profile failures of David Petraeus do.

Petraeus in particular was a perpetually shooting star: top 5% of his class at West Point, top of his class at Command & General Staff College, commander of some of the most prestigious units throughout his career–the man, most believed, could do no wrong.  In light of his recent misconduct, one is left to wonder: what other moral failings did he have that he successfully hid away?

I hypothesize this was not the first time he acted badly; it was only the first time he got caught. How might things have been different had he been caught doing this kind of thing as a lieutenant or captain? I would argue he may have been forced to recognize his own flaws and develop personal safeguards when confronted by temptation.

A healthy organizational climate recognizes that people can and will fail morally–that all people are sinners–and that a moral failure can be costly, but recoverable. It is in this kind of climate that develops leaders who are robust to failure when it counts most.

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