When convenience trumps honor


Well, here comes another cheating scandal from one of those federal military academies where honor codes periodically belch out post-pubescent youngsters who are unrealistically expected to operate on a higher plain than those who attend the average college or university. Is anyone really surprised?

The Air Force Academy is investigating whether 28 freshmen have been sneaking glances at the papers of the next person over and is determined to eradicate such behavior once and for all. The investigation is being conducted by the academy’s cadet honor board, which is acting on information supplied by whistle-blowing classmates of those under investigation.

For those un-initiated in the ways of the code, it works this way. 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? In that regard, the last major cheating affair at the Colorado Springs institution that I can remember took place in the mid-’60s when more than 100 cadets were caught in the wholesale distribution of purloined tests and information. At that time, however, a congressional member of the school’s Board of Visitors confided that more than 300 cadets actually had violated the code to one degree or another, many in the unreported knowledge category.

It is reasonable to ask why they all didn’t all get tossed out. The military is nothing if not willing to bend some rule in the interest of practicality. To have sent that many cadets off into the wild blue yonder would have destroyed one whole class and threatened the very existence of the academy. So the powers at the time decided to ignore a great many of the violations despite the fact a story revealing this sensational statistic caused quite a stir.

Things have not been all that sanguine around the academy’s campus in the last few years. A whole bunch of kids were downloading pornography and lost their Internet privileges; there were incidents of alcohol abuse; and grade levels have been lower than usual, with a higher rate of failure. That comes on the heels of a serious problem with evangelical cadets and faculty members who seemed to think the academy was a Christian school, resulting in mandatory religious diversity training for all.

All this sounds like any normal, mostly still teen-age student body doesn’t it? And perhaps that is why along with similar scandals at the other major federal academies, Army and Navy, there has been continuing debate about the efficacy of these anachronistic institutions and the soundness of their cherished honor codes. At one time the overwhelming preponderance of the nation’s admirals and generals and certainly the chiefs of these services came from these institutions. A trick question used to be: Who was the only Army chief of staff who did not graduate from West Point? Answer: George C. Marshall, Virginia Military Institute. That is no longer true with ROTC programs now supplying a growing number of leaders.

Certainly cheating can’t be condoned under any circumstance. But 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.

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. Besides, contradictory to the honor code is the one guiding rule for all from general to buck private: Do what you want, just don’t get caught. Having watched this principle up close in a headquarters full of military academy graduates, I can attest to its observance.

It is silly and naive to expect young men and women with raging hormones who are thrown together in the confined, almost prison-like atmosphere of these universities not to act like any of their peers in a civilian institution. So downloading pornography, or getting caught in (gasp) sexual escapades or drunkenness now and then, while not recommended activities, are not surprising, military discipline notwithstanding.

The Air Force Academy to its credit has begun an extensive look at itself and perhaps it is time for the same thing to occur at its sister schools. There are reforms that could bring them into the 21st century without destroying the traditions that have made them great.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)