The Military Honor Code: Myth or Mission?

Even if we choose to ignore the numerous cheating scandals that, over the years, have plagued U.S. service academies (all of which adhere to rigorous and well-publicized honor codes), the most compelling reason for questioning (if not totally disregarding) the vaunted “moral rectitude” of these military colleges is the behavior of America’s officer corps during the Vietnam war.

These men may not have cheated on exams as students, but they certainly cheated on their oath of honor once they became commissioned officers and began serving in the field. During that dreadful war, America’s “best and brightest” habitually lied—they lied to their superiors, their subordinates, the public, the media, and the U.S. Congress. A preponderance of those liars were ex-West Pointers. (“A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do.”

That’s why anyone old enough to remember Vietnam won’t be too surprised at what happened to General David Petraeus (arguably the country’s most celebrated and ambitious 4-star general), who recently disgraced himself by being forced to resign as CIA Director after admitting to an extramarital affair. Petraeus has been married to the same woman for 37 years.

To be fair, it’s possible that this whole “marital infidelity” deal is a bit more complicated than it seems. For instance, a husband engaged in an extramarital affair may actually have a mitigating story to share, one that would gain him sympathy. Indeed, the man could have been trapped in a bleak, loveless marriage, and chose to remain in that hellish relationship purely out of loyalty.

But bad marriage or not, one thing is certain. To avoid detection, an unfaithful husband is required to be an accomplished liar. There’s no getting around it. Because he’s living a “double life” of sorts, he’s required to constantly lie to cover his tracks. So, despite Petraeus’ sterling reputation for integrity, his medals, his Princeton Ph.D.—despite his having been molded by West Point’s prestigious honor code—he has demonstrated that, if nothing else, he’s a superb liar. Which makes you wonder what the whole point of that honor code was.

During my tenure as a labor union rep I had occasion to mix socially and professionally with six management employees who were graduates of U.S. service academies. There were three West Point grads (a plant manager, an asset leader, and a staff assistant), two Annapolis grads (an engineer, and a team leader) and an alumnus of the Air Force Academy (a plant manager).

If you didn’t already know that these people (five men, one woman) were products of service academies, you would never know they had military backgrounds because their management style was more or less indistinguishable from that of managers with degrees from civilian universities.

As for their comparative truth-telling quotients, the service academy grads didn’t seem any more honest than the civilian grads. In fact, during my tenure, the two plant managers who stood out as “most honest” were graduates of the University of Mississippi and the University of Tennessee, respectively, and the manager who stood out as “least honest” was that aforementioned team leader from the Naval Academy, whom I will call “Fred.”

As nice as Fred was (and he was very congenial), he was such an extravagant and notorious liar, he’d become something of a legend among union officers. Nobody—not the shop stewards, not the executive board—could trust him, which, as one might surmise, made his involvement in union-management relations untenable. To the company’s credit, Fred was eventually asked to resign.

Fred lied for the same reasons most people lie: to escape punishment, to avoid disappointing others, to aggrandize himself. The truth of the matter was that this Annapolis graduate was so woefully unsuited and equipped for his job, whenever he got buried or came under fire, he did the one thing he felt comfortable doing: He lied. Again, it makes you wonder what the whole point of that honor code was.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: Read other articles by David.