On March 7, 1945, Lt. Karl Timmermann joined a small group of scouts on a rise overlooking the Rhine River and saw that the bridge at Remagen was yet standing. Heroically, he immediately radioed back to his higher headquarters what he had seen.
He had to know what the subsequent orders would be—lead his men into the jaws of death, seize the bridge, and open a path into the heart of Germany. Later that day, he would earn the Distinguished Service Cross for taking that bridge in the face of fierce German resistance
Timmermann was not a West Pointer, but his character and integrity reflected the epitome of the West Point motto: Duty, Honor, Country. He would say later that he only did what was expected of him. He was right.
So too should we expect all West Pointers—indeed, the entire officer corps—to do what is expected of them. Yet cheating scandals at West Point increasingly meet not this unflinching expectation, but excuses and accommodations.
The West Point honor code, the essential character-building element of the Academy’s rigorous four-year program, is clear and straightforward: A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do. It is a code that has existed for decades, held sacrosanct by not only cadets but also the cadre that leads them, and the officer corps in which they will eventually serve.
Or is it? The last seven decades have seen three major instances of cheating rings: a football team-centered academic scandal in 1950-‘51, an engineering one in 1976-‘77, and a Plebe (freshman) math one in 2020. The traditional sanction for such behavior was expulsion, but of the three noted above the first was partially overlooked, the second resulted in a year-long dismissal for those involved (of whom most returned to graduate a year late), and the latest—under a system “reformed” in 1977 and again in 2002 giving more discretion to the superintendent of West Point—is yet to be determined.
In late December when the latest scandal broke, USA Today summarized it this way:
More than 70 cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point were accused of cheating on a math exam, the worst academic scandal since the 1970s at the Army’s premier training ground for officers.
Fifty-eight cadets admitted cheating on the exam, which was administered remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them have been enrolled in a rehabilitation program and will be on probation for the remainder of their time at the academy. Others resigned, and some face hearings that could result in their expulsion.
The academy’s original statement in response expressed its “disappointment,” a comment often rendered to misbehaving children by a parent. A subsequent letter from the superintendent promised to deal with the matter thoroughly and pledged devotion to a strong honor system.
I trust West Point will do so, but even in that letter, the superintendent cited the default position toward honor violations (and other egregious violations of character and discipline) as the “developmental model.” That model assumes cadets in their early years have not yet had enough time to consider the import of the honor code and its centrality to a cadet’s and an officer’s character. They must, therefore, be educated for the first two years (and perhaps beyond) to ultimately come to terms with it.
Indeed, the letter pointed out that all cadets had been sent home over COVID-19 in March 2020. Although classes continued via electronics, it said, the Plebes who cheated in May (they had entered West Point the preceding July) had been denied the onsite mentoring that would have forestalled it.
Having been given his post the day before, Timmermann had one day to come to terms with his responsibility as a company commander in combat. No one assumed he would need more time. When chosen to command, he was expected to perform, and he did.
West Point still recruits young men and women of talent and character to lead American soldiers in defense of the country. But it now has become a mantra at the academy to point out that society today does not imbue the high standards of integrity for those recruited.
“Eighty percent of high school students today admit to cheating” is a statement often heard at the academy, whose alma mater for more than a century now includes the words “may Honor be e’er untarned.” It appears that the belief in widespread dishonesty among American youth has become an excuse to lower standards to buy time for the presumed gradual “development” of more recently joined cadets to take hold.
Is that not the bigotry of lowered expectations? Is it not an insult to those recruited today—a cohort of young people more reflecting the diversity of the nation—to assume that they do not know at the outset the difference between lying and telling the truth, nor recognize that copying an illicitly obtained answer to an exam question is cheating, nor understand that lack of integrity away from West Point is no less damning than a similar failing at the academy?
Indeed, the final part of the West Point Honor Code (“or tolerate those who do”) is no doubt the most difficult part to comply with. It is one thing to maintain your own integrity, another to report a peer who cheats.
But without that final clause, honor becomes a solitary experience, not an organizational coda. If West Point tolerates those who cheat, it violates its own honor system. What does that teach the cadets it seeks to develop—that words describing an ideal may have a nice ring to them, but it is not necessary to abide by them?
Those who decry contemporary American society perhaps assume that generations ago we were peopled by plaster saints and that it would be impossible to maintain once widespread and impeccable value sets. In my view, citizens of quality remain in abundance. West Point can recruit from the best of those and expect the best from them.
Standards there can be reasonably enforced (and expulsion need not be the only sanction) and thereby maintained. These apply not only to honor, but to matters of discipline, professionalism, and the traditions of commitment to the nation and selfless service. Some of the long-term adherence to all of these has occasionally slipped as well, an indication that if we lower expectations and thereby relax standards, we can expect standards to erode.
To maintain high standards, West Point will need the backing of the Army and its political leadership, as well as the support of the American public, who expect the best of those it pays to put through the four demanding years at the academy. It is the latter whose sons and daughters will be led by its graduates and their peers in the officer corps.
As retired Col. Lewis Sorley, a West Point graduate, wrote in his excellent book, “Honor Bright,” on the history and traditions of the West Point honor system: “As the Military Academy moves through the 21st century, the Honor Code remains as it has always been, a precious thing, fragile, entirely dependent on each new cohort of cadets to adopt it, make it their own, fiercely protect it, and march forward in its service. That this process shall continue in perpetuity is the heart-felt hope and dream of all those—proud and grateful members of the Long Gray Line—who have shared the privilege of living by its inspiring standard.”