The Late, Great Notion of Honor

COMMENT

February 06, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

"Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is that word, honor? Air. . . . Therefore I'll none of it."

-- Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1.

The story of 133 midshipmen who thought more like a Shakespearean buffoon than like John Paul Jones has made the front pages of every major newspaper. But I suspect it doesn't mean all that much to most people.

Military academies are such isolated little worlds. Their rules and rituals are foreign, their trials and tribulations irrelevant to our own experiences.

Plebe summer is a curiosity to us. We read of its rigors every year in the newspaper and thank heavens we never had to go through that.

We see the young men and women walking around City Dock, all spit-and-polished in their crisp uniforms, and see nothing of the blue-jeaned students we used to be.

The Naval Academy is a different universe. Whatever goes on there can have nothing to do with us.

And yet, when trouble arises in Annapolis we invariably find that the little, separate world is not as separate as we thought.

The story of the midshipmen who cheated on an electrical engineering exam in December 1992 has been billed as an indictment of the academy's commitment to honor, a hallowed ideal among military officers since the birth of the nation.

If that were all this story is about, then it truly would have little relevance for ordinary citizens (except, of course, to the extent .. that they worry about entrusting the national security to liars and cheaters). But this is not just about the academy.

It is about us. For what are those 133 midshipmen, really, but products of a culture that has come to view honor as Falstaff did -- as "a word," as "air," a nice notion too impractical for real life?

Once upon a time, men killed each other in duels rather than suffer an insult to one's honor. Today, we have gone to the opposite extreme. We are a nation that doesn't tell the waitress who forgets to put the drinks on the tab.

We learn early that coming out ahead matters more than doing the right thing, and that coming out ahead sometimes requires underhanded methods. Surveys show that most American teen-agers would cheat on a test.

Winning is everything. The Olympian who makes a valiant, honest effort to finish third never makes it on the Wheaties box.

Even good people cut corners in the honor department.

Decent, law-abiding citizens will rationalize that it is okay to keep mum when Macy's forgets to bill them for one of the shirts they bought.

Occasionally, a story comes over the wire -- a Washington radio station carried one just the other day -- about an armored truck whose doors accidentally swing open, allowing thousands of dollars to spill onto the highway. Every time, motorists pull over and scarf up the money like dogs after meat in a garbage bin.

These are not bad people. But for some reason it doesn't occur to them that this is someone else's money. Or if it does, they don't care.

This is the kind of world that spawned the young people at our service academies. Are they among the best and the brightest the nation has to offer? Undoubtedly.

But it is foolish to think that even scholar athletes and student government presidents will be unaffected after growing up in a society that has dulled its collective conscience. It is unrealistic to expect them automatically to embrace a code of absolute honor when they have spent the better part of their lives not seeing what true honor is.

Consider what the Navy inspector general found in his investigation of this cheating scandal:

He found many midshipmen who "viewed the honor concept [which says midshipmen do not lie, cheat or steal] as an ideal that simply could not be applied to many of the problems that arise in daily life."

He found midshipmen who "repeatedly lied until confronted with irrefutable proof of their involvement . . . A common reaction was something like, 'Okay, now that I know you got me, I'll tell the truth.'"

He found midshipmen whose parents advised them to lie.

He found midshipmen who "tried to rationalize their actions by denying that they really knew they had the actual exam. . . . Some reported speculating that it couldn't really be the exam, but the clear import of their message was that they certainly hoped it was."

He found midshipmen who reasoned that "cheating on the exam was justified because it was unfair of the Academy to require midshipmen to take the course."

What the inspector general found is a student body that reflects, not ideals of absolute honor and integrity, but the watered-down, half-baked, excuse-ridden philosophy of right and wrong that has become this country's creed.

Does real honor still exist? Can it still exist?

I believe so. The forgotten figures in this story are the midshipmen who did the hard thing, the right thing, by refusing to participate in a lie. There still are plenty of those kind of people in the academy and in the real world.

But the spirit of Falstaff is alive and well. The academy should be fighting it. So should we all.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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