It's not just the Navy the problem's all of us

February 01, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

In Annapolis, a senior midshipman is explaining to me the Navy's concept of honor. He is a clean-cut young man, earnest and well-spoken. He is one of the student leaders at the Naval Academy.

"Honor comes down to personal integrity," he says. "When I say something, or when I do something, or when I make a decision, there can never be any doubt in anybody's mind about my word or about my motives.

"Honor means sacrificing my personal interests to the best interests of the unit," he continues passionately. "It means going above and beyond the letter of the law -- it means taking personal initiative to do the right thing."

The Navy's "Honor Concept" seems simple: "Midshipmen are persons of integrity. They do not lie, cheat or steal." Yet the midshipman says the principle goes beyond those simple words to include loyalty, duty, personal integrity, moral courage and courtesy. He says naval midshipmen and officers are required to internalize those ideals until they become a way of life.

Such ideals notwithstanding, two recent reports suggest that a significant number of the midshipmen at the academy do not understand the "honor concept" and have not lived up to its principles. A December report to the secretary of the Navy by an honor review committee found "an increasingly cynical attitude . . . toward honor" among midshipmen and warned of "a drift off course" from the importance of honor as an aspect of character and leadership.

And last week, the Navy inspector general's office found that 133 midshipmen cheated on an electrical engineering exam in December 1992, leading to the largest cheating scandal in the academy's 149-year history. Many other midshipmen knew about the cheating of their classmates but failed to report it to proper authorities -- also in violation of the Navy's "honor concept." Moreover, investigators found that the academy's commanding officers are perceived by many midshipmen to have been more interested in limiting the scope of the investigation than in uncovering the truth.

The scandal has damaged morale at the academy and led to a review of the "honor concept" by both the secretary of the navy and Congress. On Thursday, a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing.

But this scandal is not just about the Naval Academy -- it is about all of us. It is about the moral climate that prevails today.

Three things leap out at me from the reports of the inspector general and the honor review committee: First, investigators found that midshipmen did not feel compelled to honor the ideals embodied in the "honor concept" because they perceived that their superior officers at the academy did not do so. Second, midshipmen felt that crime pays: Those who told the truth about their involvement in the scandal were "hammered." Those who lied, got off. Finally, midshipmen tended to see the "honor concept" in terms of penalties to be avoided, rather than as a positive code of conduct.

Those same perceptions undermine concepts of personal integrity and honor in the workaday world: None of our leaders seem to exhibit personal integrity, cheaters seem to prosper, honor is enforced by penalties rather than by our conscience.

In the workaday world, many people choose the Law of the Concrete Jungle: Look out for No. 1. Try not to hurt or be hurt.

Has the world grown too complex and corrupt for honor and integrity?

"I'm 20 years old, which means I grew up after Watergate," the midshipman at the academy was saying. "Since then, no public servant has achieved the status of hero. No one has gained the spotlight who wasn't yanked down. This creates a cynicism in my generation toward [older people]. Fact is, there are no role models out there.

"But personal integrity is about doing the right thing, regardless of what those above or below you are doing," he continues. "And winning isn't about making a lot of money or moving up in rank -- winning is about getting to old age with self-respect and a feeling of self-worth."

I agree. The military, and military men, may frequently fall short of the ideals of honor, loyalty, integrity. But ideals are worth pursuing nevertheless. By all of us.

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