Navy teaches ethics, reinforces points of honor Academy program emphasizes choices

January 29, 1996|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

The commander of a submarine receives an order to launch nuclear missiles, but a second message is garbled. Should he follow the first and risk killing thousands in a nuclear inferno? Or -- should he wait for clarification and risk the lives of his crew?

In the Navy, where officers are expected to carry out orders, the thought of future officers being encouraged to question authority is anathema. But new seminars created by Adm. Charles R. Larson, the Naval Academy superintendent, are to help young men and women answer ethics questions and deal with the dilemmas raised during the worst cheating scandal in the school's history.

"We are starting from day one talking about what honor is and doing what is right," Admiral Larson said.

Teaching ethics at the academy is a priority for the admiral, who last week announced a $1.5 million endowment that would create a position for a first-class ethicist to oversee ethics training in the school's Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law for the next three to five years.

Two Virginia businessmen, William K. Brehm and Ernst Volgenau, donated the money that Admiral Larson said is the first step to opening a center of ethics at the academy.

Admiral Larson's monthly ethics sessions are the centerpiece of his leadership curriculum. They represent a return to "what was the tradition in the late 19th and early 20th century when universities were seen as training grounds for good citizenship," said Kevin Ryan of the Center for Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University.

Character development programs at the college level fell out of favor after World War II, but education experts say there is a return to those studies in American universities, especially the service academies.

"In general, service academies are probably leading the charge for character development in higher education," Mr. Ryan said.

Cadets at West Point are given similar ethical training over their four years and are required to take two ethics classes.

"We try to make them understand this is not a personal set of values or ethics," said Col. Patrick Toffler, a West Point spokesman. "It's a professional set of values and ethics."

In Annapolis, all midshipmen are required to attend the monthly seminars in which officers or civilian faculty members lead groups of about 20 midshipmen through informal discussions of issues raised in "Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life," a collection of essays by Lawrence Kohlberg.

Cmdr. Fred McKinna, a gruff 15-year veteran who is leading the sessions, jokingly describes the essays as a "prescription for insomniacs."

The submarine crisis cropped up in a session with midshipmen from the 8th Company in a bare classroom on the third floor of Michaelson Hall.

The midshipmen, seated at a round table, nodded in agreement as Commander McKinna discussed Mr. Kohlberg's six stages of moral development. The sixth stage, independent thinking based on a set of personal values, led to the submarine crisis in the movie "Crimson Tide."

Should officers be as independent as Denzel Washington's character, who took over a submarine rather than obey his captain's order to launch the missiles?

"It could have gone either way," said Midshipmen John Chau, a sophomore from Bolivar, Ohio. "Every order, you have to think about, not just blindly follow it."

The room grew quiet when Commander McKinna asked how many of the midshipmen, "as junior officers, want your subordinates to be free thinkers."

Midshipman Paul Campbell started cautiously. "The Navy is looking for people who are thinking, not just robots following the orders," said the sophomore from Chillicothe, Ohio. "They have to have people who are thinking to assess the situation. But at the same time, the person has to have the respect and loyalty to follow the order even if you don't understand it."

But a Navy officer who is too independent, can pose problems, others said.

"If we come to a conclusion that the Navy doesn't like, they wouldn't appreciate that," said Midshipman Robert Geiger. "So if they think their rules are perfect, they probably don't want us to reach a conclusion that they don't agree with."

When they are in the fleet, there will be times when they will be faced with equally difficult choices, said Midshipman Katherine Evans, a junior from San Diego. "Then you have to decide which is more important."

Preparation for these seminars begins during plebe summer. The Class of 1999 was the first to be tutored in Admiral Larson's 14 lessons on honor, loyalty, character and human dignity.

During a class last summer, about 50 plebes watched an episode of "Star Trek -- The Next Generation" in which a cadet pilot from the Star Fleet Academy is killed while flying with his classmates in a forbidden formation.

The squad members are loyal to each other and protect their leader and the dead pilot by not telling their officers about the illegal formation. The officers, focusing on other aspects of the crash, do not think to ask them that question.

Where should the loyalty of the Star Fleet Academy cadets lie? To the academy? The squad leader and dead pilot? To each other?

The squad leader was "convinced that it was more important to have squad loyalty rather than loyalty to anything else," Midshipman Aaron Massey said.

In the last minutes of the episode, one of the cadets tells the officers about the formation.

"He knew the star burst formation was wrong," Midshipman Lynch said. "It is a lack of moral courage to not have come forward immediately."

The plebes murmured in agreement.

Ship, shipmate, self. That is the order of priorities they are being taught.

"Classmate loyalty comes after loyalty to the Constitution, the institution and the Navy," said Capt. Glenn Gottschalk, head of the character development curriculum.

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