Naval Academy dilemmas Larson's case: Admirals as well as midshipmen fall short of Navy ideals.

September 25, 1996

THE NAVAL ACADEMY in Annapolis is an institution that deserves scrutiny as well as respect. Each year it takes a thousand high school graduates -- proverbially the best and the brightest -- and in four years is supposed to turn them into officers headed to the highest ranks of the service.

To prepare midshipmen for what could be life-and-death tasks ahead,the Navy puts them through a plebe year known as pure hell and a college-length curriculum that is tough academically and physically.

Yet the greatest burden is neither. It is living up to an "honor concept" that, as a West Point grad wrote this paper, "requires an impossible standard of rectitude." Under the current fairly absolutist application of the rules, a midshipman is supposed not only to report infractions of one's classmates and oneself but to tell the truth in such a way that one does not deceive "by withholding, omitting or subtlely wording information." The penalty for violations can be -- and frequently is -- expulsion.

A few years ago, the Naval Academy went through a period of laxness -- some would call it permissiveness -- that led to a cheating scandal every bit as traumatic as the Tailhook episode has been for the Navy as a whole.

The present superintendent, Adm. C. R. Larson, a four-star officer, came in to reinstill discipline. His first year was a success. Then a series of disparate incidents made his life one long predicament. Midshipmen were embroiled in car theft, child abuse, sexual harassment, drug peddling -- and, most recently, in a love-triangle murder. And his response has shown how difficult the Navy's standards can be, not only for would-be officers but for those in top ranks.

Such was the case when Admiral Larson tripped up on a hard case himself. Apprised of the possible involvement of a young woman in a murder that took place months before she arrived as an Annapolis plebe, he had his staff notify Texas authorities but neglected to call in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

When this was reported in The Sun, the admiral widely disseminated a letter complaining of the news story and alleging the "only" message he had received from the chief of naval operations was one of "unqualified support." He then had to issue a sort of retraction, acknowledging the CNO had told him to notify the NCIS -- hardly an example of "unqualified support."

This sad tale reflects not only on a distinguished officer who is highly regarded in Annapolis but on the Navy's troubles in applying its "standards of rectitude" to just plain human beings. Honor codes cannot exclude life's ambiguities. Four-star officers as well as fresh-faced kids can get in trouble. Yet the Navy has to keep striving for its ideals -- even if there are stumbles along the way.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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