West Point's honor code returns to the 18th century

West Point's honor code returns to the 18th century
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While recruiting officers for the new Continental Army in 1776, Gen. George Washington insisted that each individual possessed “just pretension to the character of a gentleman, a proper sense of honor, and some reputation to lose.” 

Over 200 years later, on April 16, 2021, U.S. Military Academy at West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams said much the same of the modern Army’s future officers, “The tenets of honorable living remain immutable, and the outcomes of our leader development system remain the same, to graduate Army officers that live honorably, lead honorably, and demonstrate excellence.” That same day, West Point formally abandoned its five-year-old honor rehabilitation Willful Admission Process and moved closer to an 18th century standard. 

These declarations occurred as West Point announced the sentences of those 61 of 73 remaining cadets implicated in a Spring 2020 cheating scandal, the academy’s most egregious offense in nearly 50 years. Aside from those cadets who were previously acquitted or left voluntarily, eight were “separated” and the rest will repeat an additional six-months or a year of instruction. These proportionately light sentences resulting from the Willful Admission Process have drawn ire from alumni and the military at large. These complaints have historical merit, as such clemency for honor violations would have been unheard of for most of the preceding two-and-a-half centuries. In early America one could not lose a little honor. Honor was an all-or-nothing proposition. Thus, in casting aside this 21st century program, the 1802-founded West Point has signaled a return to an older interpretation of honor. 

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Over many centuries and on many continents, honor has held a variety of meanings ranging from courage to duty to reputation. For the American founders of the Revolutionary Era, it became synonymous with an ethical understanding centered around service to the nation. A singular act of dishonorable conduct, it was believed, could permanently stain an individual and their cause, the organization or the nation. In this way, the admission program broke with long-standing traditions. The Willful Admission Process, enacted in 2015 to promote self-reporting of infractions for first time offenders, was established in part based on the aftermath of a 1976 cheating scandal that resulted in the Borman Report. The report advocated for punishments below removal, plus modern psychological research. Since 1976, West Point has increasingly used “discretion to impose punishments other than separation.” Most civilian colleges with an honor code have followed a similar policy — with the notable exception of Washington and Lee University whose only “sanction” is “immediate dismissal.” But now in reversing course, West Point is moving closer to its founding principles and “the highest standards.”

The goal of the Willful Admission Process and “discretion” was never simply leniency. The intentions were to encourage more cadets to confess or report other’s honor violations. If this was a punishment aside from expulsion and a potentially destroyed career, the thinking was, more people would be willing to police themselves and their classmates. Obviously recent events have proven otherwise to the leadership. Now West Point has formally declared the Willful Admission Process “was not meeting the desired intent.” This doesn’t mean that honor violations at West Point will only have one punishment, like Washington and Lee. Discretion still exists, but it does indicate a shift in thinking.

As each year passes, honor becomes more and more antiquated and loses it’s ethical meaning. This is evident in the fact that military service academies’ honor codes are all modern, having been written during the mid-20th century, whereas informal unwritten codes had existed for generations (complete with cadet policing). A common understanding had previously existed. In the modern era, the honor courts are still run by cadets, but the superintendent maintains final authority. This has led to debate over who technically “owns'' the Cadet Honor Code. Most controversial of all is West Point’s famed “toleration clause,” which demands that cadets will not “tolerate'' (and therefore report) those that “lie, cheat, or steal.” To be guilty, one doesn’t need to actually commit an infraction. The idea of “ratting” as a vice is nothing new, especially in certain groups, think “honor among thieves.” But films like “the Godfather,” “Goodfellas” and “the Sopranos,” have only further popularized informing as the worst betrayal, for as Robert De Niro’s character instructed, “Never rat on your friends and keep your mouth shut.” 

Conversely, student self-policing was commonplace in America’s early colleges, such as at Rhode Island College (currently Brown University) and Dartmouth College, where students were “united” in a desire to rid themselves of those who “would much mar and sully the honor, and entail great and lasting reproach upon this School.” But by the early 19th century, the post-Revolutionary generation students declared it “dishonorable to bear witness,” this morphed into more recent fears of being a “narc” or threats that “snitches get stitches.” 

Conflicted generational understanding of just what honor means and who is honorable is an old story in American history from patriots vs. loyalists in the Revolution, to Unionists vs. secessionists in the Civil War, to Democrats vs. Republicans today. The difference is modern Americans just don’t talk much about honor, and certainly not with The Founders’ understanding. To this point, while it likely wouldn’t have changed the results of cheating or honor scandals in 1951, 1976 or 2020, the West Point honor code could do with an update to better reflect its ethical foundation rather than just listing behaviors to be avoided. Still, even without this update, West Point seems to be making a deliberate choice to abandon rehabilitation and embrace a more historical concept in order to maintain the long desired “highest standards.”

This change doesn’t necessarily mean that every honor infraction will result in dismissal, but it does make it more likely. For many observers, even having this as an option in every case may seem exceptionally harsh, especially in relation to civilian colleges. The goal clearly is to strive to meet lofty ethical ideals and “live above the common life.” Naturally, some will fail and that’s the point — West Point cadets are groomed to choose the “harder right.” Unlike your average undergraduate English or business major, cadets (as future military officers) will often face seemingly impossible moral situations with life, death and international ramifications. Isn’t it better that they falter in a relatively safe environment rather than in combat?

Towards the end of American Revolution, Gen. Nathanael Greene worried about the conduct of his own army, as an ethical failing could undermine “the honor of our cause, the dignity of Government and the safety of the people.” As it has been since the Revolution, our country’s officers and citizen-soldiers’ conduct and honor is not simply their own — it reflects the United States and all of its citizens.

Craig Bruce Smith is a historian and the author of "American Honor: The Creation of the Nation's Ideals during the Revolutionary Era." Follow him on Twitter @craigbrucesmith. All views are the author's.