June 21, 1976
New Orleans, La. – I have come to this sweat-stained city on the Gulf Coast to interview a classmate, and to think about the honor scandal which over the past two months has cracked the granite upon which rests the United States Military Academy. Somehow the two mesh comfortably for me, the heat, a ground-fog of steam on Ursulines Street, below my wrought iron balcony in the French Quarter, and the idea of confronting that which we were taught was never to be questioned, the honor code, the “conscience of the Army,” generals keep calling it in interviews on TV and in the newspapers. I feel at home here in my dinky room in the French Quarter. It’s about the size of the room I had at West Point when I first arrived in June of 1965. For some reason, the heat feels good. I guess on a basic level I equate sweat with work, not a revolutionary notion, but one which has its parallels with the story I’m about to tell.
I have watched the West Point honor scandal unfold in the newspapers with great interest, as have the classmates I have interviewed, and I would imagine, most Academy graduates still alive. In fact, over the past months I have been asked a recurring question: When is someone going to give you an assignment to “cover” the honor scandal? For a token West Pointer in the world of journalism, the question is logical enough. Yet so far as I am concerned, there has been no burning need for a graduate to go up to West Point and “cover” the story in the traditional journalistic sense. I have watched reports on local New York City TV, and have followed the stories in the New York Times and in the newsweeklies. In addition, I have functioned as a kind of consultant to Myra Friedman, who will soon publish a New York Times Sunday Magazine article on the scandal. From her, I have learned a few facts which lie just slightly behind the news. On the whole, the articles published by the New York Times have been accurate, with a few minor exceptions which have to do with certain truths Academy graduates understand, and outsiders simply do not.
Academy officials, their backs against the proverbial wall, have been remarkably forthcoming, especially in view of the performance of former Superintendents of the Academy when confronted with similar, but lesser, scandals. Suffice to say that the scandal which has uncovered itself at the Academy this year has been virtually drenched in the sunlight of news attention, and from that perspective, nothing I could do as a reporter on the scene could conceivably add in a significant way to the information available in the mass media.
It is a perspective behind the current scandal that TV reports and newspaper stories have lacked, a sense of history, that what is happening in 1976 at the Academy is really nothing new. Most reports on the scandal dutifully recount the famous 1951 scandal involving most of the football team. One reporter even dug up a minor (40 cadets expelled) scandal from 1966, on which at the time there was nary a line to be seen in the press. This was because, and here I must digress for an instant, we were hauled into company-sized meetings and told not to write to parents, friends, or girlfriends about the scandal, for fear rumor would become news.
The West Point honor scandal has become a kind of post-Watergate test of the national consciousness, as if God were pulling the big dipstick and checking out oil, to see if we are serious about the post-Watergate morality which has gotten heavy play on editorial pages and political tongues alike. The scandal has turned into a tragi-comic drama played out against the sexual foibles of Congress, the very folks who appoint cadets to West Point in the first place. The Corps of Cadets, it seems to me, are caught in a modern Catch 22, between a rock and a hard place, they’re damned-if-they-do-and-damned-if-they-don’t. Meanwhile around the country motel doors are opened and national leaders scamper for the bushes trailing behind them the musky scent of lust and greed. On TV they can watch a convicted felon, John Erlichman, and an ex-Vice President, convicted of a charge reduced from a felony, shilling their half-baked novels to an audience apparently as hungry for cheap self-abuse as they are for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The spectacle of America in the year of its Bicentennial must be a tough nut to swallow up at West Point, the only place in America where lying is officially and effectively speaking, illegal; where you are not just your brother’s keeper, but his accuser, prosecutor, and jury as well, under the so-called “toleration” clause of the honor code. It’s one of the great ironies of West Point history that the last bastion of forced church attendance in America (it was eliminated by the Supreme Court in 1971) does not have a statue of Judas next to that of George S. Patton.
Ah, rambling, rambling again I see. We must get down to basics. None of the long, convoluted introduction to this report is intended to excuse any genuine violations of the honor code by cadets. At the risk of sounding self-serving, I must say here that in four years at the Academy, I never lied, cheated, or stole, and never had first-hand knowledge of others who did. I always considered that to cheat was to take advantage of others, and while I may be guilty of many offenses, including a few private felonies of my own, I have striven over the years to abide by this primitive definition of the code I lived under for four years. At this point, however, I must say that by the time I graduated, if given the choice between turning in a close friend or “tolerating” an honor violation, I would have opted for the latter, and have become a code-violator myself, for reasons which I will try my best to make clear.
You must understand that nothing in this report will be “perfectly” clear, for to talk as I will about the honor code and various discoveries I have made over the past few years, is to invade a place of almost total secrecy, a closed society verging on a pyramidal cult. The very fact that the honor code has remained shrouded in secrecy as long as it has, makes discussion of the arcane regions of life beneath the code – the regions which count – like speaking in strange tongues. So to the best of my ability I will try to distill excess to essence, the unreal to the understandable.
To this end, I will pursue two notions, no, I will attack two notions in this report: (1) That so far, the only persons perceived as having done anything wrong at the Academy have been cadets. (2) That an impression has been conveyed in the press that with few exceptions, the honor violations allegedly committed at the Academy this year are unprecedented. Both of these notions are sheer horsehockey, a public relations smokescreen created by Academy officials eager, not to cover-up the scandal, but for it to simply run out of gas and be gone.
In brief, it is my perception that the honor code has been in a state of gradual disintegration over the past 10 years. As part of my work for the Alicia Patterson Foundation, I have uncovered, in interviews with graduates, the existence of two cheating rings in the classes of 1967 and 1969 which appear to equal, if not surpass the outlines of the current scandal in scope and overall grandiose design. That’s the news in this report. Now for some background.
It was June of 1965, and we were the cream of the crop (or so we were told) and West Point on an early summer sunny day was a lush green wonderland. Soon we would move into brown stone barracks, built in the 1850’s, in use at that time, (now torn down), relics of an age which oozed a tradition one did not simply learn about, but felt in the marrow of his bones. The war in Vietnam was over 10,000 miles away, tiny, a “brushfire war” they called it in those days, and it would be weeks before we would become aware of the obsession with the war which hung over the Academy like a gray cloud, gray like the buildings and our uniforms and by then, our moods.
But on that first day, on that first morning, we were both jubilant and frightened, “high” we would call it today, shot full of the pure speed which is 18-year-old adrenaline, entering that grand old institution on the Hudson which we had read about in books, seen on the late movie, heard our fathers discuss in words steeped in awe and bewilderment. It was the first day of Beast Barracks, so-named because Plebes, new cadets, were so rank, so untrained, so quintessentially from the jungle of the world outside that we were (variously) beasts, smacks, beans, crots, dullards, a sub-human breed apart. And by God, on West Point’s terms, we were.
We had been there only that first day, and we were in a huge auditorium – it would become known as “South Aud” – sweating and freezing at once within the air-conditioned cavernous confines of the place, located as it was in what was once the old Cadet Riding Hall, a piece of the 20’s and 30’s, of polo practice and the brown-shoe Army. The place was drenched in tradition, with an overpowering air of those who had come before: the long gray line. The odd thing was, we didn’t know who the long gray line was, with the exception of a few heroes like Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton, Pershing. Who were the rest of them, and what did they do to earn our respect, indeed, our devotion? We didn’t know, but awash in the whirlpool suction of the place, willing passengers on a white-water rapids ride which ended we knew not where, our reddened ears were the hungry victims of whomever stepped before us, starched as stiff as cardboard, speaking in tones which carried the echoes of the old riding hall itself.
It was that first night at West Point, just after we had signed papers which made us cadets, which inducted us formally into the Army, when we were introduced, as a class, to the cadet honor code. Most of the class knew about the code in advance, having read in the West Point Catalogue that “A Cadet does not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do.” That seemed simple enough? Or was it?
Behind the code, we found that night, loomed a monster known as the honor system, the mechanism by which the code was put to work. The lecture we received was delivered in general terms. We were told that now we were full-fledged cadets, we would be expected to abide by the code from that day forth.
“This is your code; it belongs to you,” the honor committee chairman told us. “In the next two months, you will attend many squad, platoon, and company meetings on the code, where its workings will be described and explained to you in detail by your company honor representative and others.”
Then, to my growing amazement, the honor committee chairman told us of the real reason for his lecture. Because the code was ours, we were to talk about it with no one outside the Corps of Cadets. Outsiders had no business knowing how the Corps governs itself, he said, and his implication was clear. By entering West Point and becoming cadets, we were bound by a solemn trust to reveal to no one the most important details of our life there. He went on to suggest that we not even discuss the code among ourselves. We would receive adequate instruction on the honor code and the honor system, and if we had any questions or doubts, we should bring them up with our company honor representative. Talk between roommates, confidences and insecurities expressed between boys-not-yet-men could only lead to uncertainties, unknowable not just to us, but to the Academy as well. Nothing raises hairs on the backs of military necks the way uncertainty does.
It was a narrow, dangerous path along which we would move.
On either side lay evil and sin. Yet it all seemed easy. All you had to do was not lie, cheat, or steal, and you were – assured passage into that great far-away void known as graduation. No one questioned the secrecy requirement, or the cautioning against discussing the code among ourselves. It was apparent in a subtle way that the key to the honor code was obedience. What had actually been presented to us as a code was a set of rules, and we were to follow them. Any ghost of a time long past, when perhaps the honor code was a code, a bond of trust between men, had long since disappeared and been replaced by a code which had been distilled to the thing which implemented it, the honor system, a quasi-legal administrative process under which one could suffer great consequences with few procedural rights at one’s disposal. Violation of the code, proven by allegation, testimony, or pure discrimination, was punishable by expulsion from the Academy, and nothing less. The honor code, one came to suspect, was inquisitional in nature.
In fact, a peculiar religious aura surrounded the code and the way it was taught to us. There was a holiness in the manner of the cadet honor committee chairman and the company honor representative. They were guardians of a sacred trust, and it was a trust which the proles were to be made aware of, but about which they were not to be educated. The teachings of the honor committee were supplemented by the preachings of the Protestant Chaplain, who gave the nondenominational cadet chapel service each Sunday just over the edge of Trophy Point, in a natural amphitheater overlooking the Hudson. To the chaplain, the world was black and white, the good guys versus the bad guys, and in coming years, he would reduce the war in Vietnam for us to Biblical terms, as if an Executive order from the Commander in Chief was insufficiently consecrated to send West Point graduates into a holy war in defense of democracy. For the time being, however, the chaplain gave credence to the idea that it was our duty to turn in even our best friends or roommates should they commit an honor violation.
At the time, I saw nothing perverse about a system which required me to subordinate all emotion, logic, and reason to a higher goal. On the contrary, the honor code seemed to insure, that at West Point, life would be easier than “outside”. The tenets of the code were clear, and they were exacting to an extent which we all knew would separate the men from the boys (though in truth we were for the most part still boys). There was something sublimely comforting about the idea that, living under the code, you were better than other people. To the extent that the code would weed out the weak, the insecure, the quibblers and the cheaters, it would purify the Corps of Cadets, until finally, after four arduous years, the better had become the best. The honor code at West Point ingrained in cadets an elitist mentality which is almost incomprehensible to me when I think back on it today. It was an elitism born of supreme confidence in the self, confidence in one’s ability to accomplish any task, solve any problem, indeed confront any foe, alone. We were more than flesh and blood. We were flesh and blood and steel, and the steel shone from our eyes, with a steady glistening gaze which symbolized the word we used to describe ourselves, the word we were taught to worship: professional.
It was not a stated intent of the code, but the honor system removed the necessity, even the desirability, of establishing deep and lasting relationships with others. Many cadets went through West Point virtually alone, almost in silence. My personal experience was just the opposite, yet it is worth noting that the lasting and profound friendships I formed at West Point were born of rebellion against the system, not brotherhood within it. It would not occur to me until years later that West Point was a drug one took daily for four long years, and like any other drug, it could be abused, and it caused a hang-over from which I still suffer today. I am deeply cynical about the nature of man, and my cynicism often leads me to mistrust others, “outsiders,” at the expense of any natural-born tendency I have within me to be trustful and open. Over the years, I have come to call this phenomenon “the fear,” and it explains, perhaps as well as anything else, why I find myself today, in a hotel room in New Orleans, leading only my fingertips across sweaty typewriter keys. The desire to hole-up someplace, preferably in a strange town in a strange state or foreign country, comes over me with increasing frequency these days. Hotel rooms are my mountaintop, and as I peer down from my balcony here at the Old Town Villa at night, I often see not Ursulines Street, but some fetid corner of myself, some secret dark place which conceals – irony of ironies! – truths I have dared not confront.
Anyway, Beast Barracks was only a few weeks old when we learned of the first honor violation in our class. A guy in another company had been expelled for “quibbling,” for not telling the whole truth to his squad leader.
What had he quibbled about? The squad leader had held a manhood session, commonplace in those days, and asked each man in the squad if he was “cherry”, if he was still a virgin. The entire squad anxiously boasted they were not. Later, the man in question confided to his roommates that he was not really a virgin, exactly, but he was “kind of” a virgin, a rarified definition of sexual experience which 18-year-olds were privy to in a lonesome kind of way. His roommate turned him in. He was “found,” or asked to resign from the Academy by the honor committee, which had met in 12-man session, considered his case, and voted unanimously that he had quibbled, he had, in effect, lied. Not long after that, another guy was found for telling one cadet that he was engaged to his girlfriend, and a second cadet that he was going to get engaged. At least a couple of new cadets were found for lying about when they had last polished their shoes.
All of these offenses were considered serious enough to warrant expulsion from the Corps of Cadets, and insured a certain, private disgrace would follow the honor code violator wherever he went, for the rest of his life.
The reason we were given in cases which seemed trivial, or at least excusable, was the combat example. We would be called to a formation in the “sinks,” the basement of our ancient barracks, and within those stone walls the honor representative would explain why our classmates had failed the test, why they were now out on the streets, rank civilians.”How would you like to have to depend on that man in combat?” came the question. “If he lied about a little thing here at West Point, think of what he might do in combat.” The skeletal image of combat hung over our heads like some kind of devilish curse. Combat, which was translatable in those days directly into duty in Vietnam, was never spoken of as desirable, but rather as necessary in a careerist sense. Yet we were too young, too innocent, too busy, too drenched in the sweat of beasthood to discern such subtle outlines of images which later would loom large in our lives.
Whenever the combat example was delivered, Plebes cringed and cowered in its shadow. Combat. It was too heavy to conceive of in any real sense, much less to argue with. The guy who told his squad leader that he had brushed his teeth, when in fact he had not…well, he just might have turned out to be the lieutenant in an apocryphal combat example often cited. A platoon leader was ordered to move his men from one position to another. His men were too tired, and he thought the move unnecessary, so he did not move the platoon. When called on the radio an hour later and asked by the company commander if the platoon were moved, the lieutenant replied, yes, they were. He lied. Subsequently, friendly artillery fire was called in on his position, which the company commander now believed had been vacated, and several lives were lost. Wow. Just one little lie in combat, and look what could happen. All of this loomed before us like a granite cliff which we would scale without aid of ropes or pitons, a toe-and-finger pressure climb which only the best, the very best of us would survive.
Of course C. D. B. Bryan’s new book, Friendly Fire, lets us know what really happened in Vietnam when for one reason or another American deaths were caused by American artillery. Nothing.
And of course three years later, West Point would be delivered with its ultimate combat example, a heavily decorated on-his-way-up young general with a distinguished Vietnam record who was appointed Superintendent in 1968. He was Major General Samuel W. Koster, (currently Brig. Gen. Koster, Retired, reduced in grade one rank and minus two medals) who presided, as commander of the Americal Division, over the massacre at My Lai and the cover-up which followed. Koster resigned as Superintendent when his involvement in the My Lai cover-up was revealed by Seymour Hersch, but for almost three years, he was Superintendent of the Military Academy.
It was under tutelage such as Koster’s that the honor code began a gradual, yet sure disintegration. In 1968 when Koster arrived as Superintendent, we did not know of My Lai, nor did we know of his involvement in the cover-up which had still successfully hidden that unimaginable atrocity. It would be almost two years until we learned of My Lai, and three until we learned that the self-righteous superintendent under whom we had served had nothing, absolutely nothing, to be righteous about. My class graduated in June of 1969, and it remained for later classes to carry forward the disillusionment with the honor code, the Academy, and the country which had already begun to erode the perfect innocence of cadets, the protective shroud within which we were to be transformed from boys to leaders of men. Yet evidently, as the current honor scandal attests, carry forward they did.
I cannot speak for classes other than my own, and even in this case, I can only speak as one who has carried out a series of interviews with graduates in an attempt to discover if there had been past massive honor code violations, and why they occurred. There had been, and the honor code violations of which I have been made aware occurred for a peculiar reason, and it will be difficult for me to make you understand it. Let me put it simply: Cadets do not cheat for profit. They cheat because it feels good.
In order to understand this brash assessment, it is necessary to tender more background. And here I will rely upon personal experience, and on the interviews previously mentioned. I will omit the names of persons with whom I have spoken, and will disguise their identities as to what company, or regiment to which they belonged. I am doing this because the current honor scandal has received such widespread attention, a very real fear exists among graduates to whom I have spoken that if they admit – by name – to having cheated, they might still suffer, within and outside the Army, for their acts. As a journalist and as a graduate, I respect their desires to remain anonymous sources. One graduate with whom I spoke was willing to go on the record by name, but I’m going to disguise him, too. The only person I’m not going to disguise is me, for I long ago took the gas pipe, and have since been perceived as a rebel. I’ve got nothing to lose. In fact, I’ve come close to making a career of this sometimes accurate, sometimes erroneous image. It is one more in a long list of ironies that I am probably the only West Point graduate well known for simply being one.
It is 1966, and we are on the First Class Trip, a tax-dollar-wasting junket around the country for next year’s senior class, the class of 1967, to visit various Army posts. One cadet, a very, very bright cadet with high class standing, takes another cadet into his confidence. For the past year he has been involved in an elaborate cheating ring linking two regiments at the Academy. The second cadet is astounded. For the past year, the two had been very close friends, and yet the cheating ring was so well organized, so efficiently administered, and so effectively kept a secret, that he had never so much as suspected that his best friend was what amounted to a professional honor code violator. And now he, too, was involved, for under the “toleration” clause of the code, if he did not report his friend, he had violated the code. It was an occurrence which had probably taken place a hundred or more times within his class, the cadet later came to suspect, as the outlines of the cheating ring emerged in conversations with his friend, and later that year, from his own personal involvement. Here is how he explained it:
There were four regiments at West Point, each containing about 200 members of the class of 1967, and various numbers of the other three classes. (The Academy was then around 3,000 strong). Tests were given by the academic departments in a regimental fashion. Two sets of tests were drawn up. One set was given to two regiments, the second to the other pair of regiments, say, one test to the first and the fourth, another to the second and third. On the first day, the first and second regiments would take their respective-tests. On the second day, the fourth and third regiments would take the same respective tests. Thus test answers could be given by members of the first and second regiments to members of the fourth and third. The next time a major test was given in, say, civil engineering, the orders would be reversed. So if as in the example, the first and fourth regiments were taking the same tests, the regiments of cadets could give each other test answers and/or questions on an alternate basis. It’s confusing to explain, but the effect of the system was to make cheating easy at West Point, the general assumption being, of course, that cadets do not cheat.
But cheat they did, and on a massive scale. During the course of the 1966-1967 academic year, the cadet became personally aware of 200 members of his class who were involved in one way or another in the cheating ring. This means he knew the names of 200 cadets who were involved. Counting toleration, cadets who were not actively involved, but who knew about the ring, the cadet figured that 400 of his classmates, over half of the class in 1967, had violated the honor code.
Why had this happened, and on such a massive scale? “I only knew of a few guys who had to cheat in order to pass,” the graduate told me. “A very few. A handful. Most of us were in the middle of the class. We didn’t have to cheat to pass. We cheated out of pure laziness, so we could sleep instead of study. We were almost recreational cheaters . And then there were a few cadets who were really high in the class who were actually involved in the running of the ring. I’m thinking here of one guy who was absolutely brilliant. He was one of the organizers, and he was involved because it was his way of rebelling, of saying ‘fuck you’ to the system. I have never gotten over my involvement with cheating my senior year. To me, it was like a fall from grace. I was incredibly innocent and idealistic. I really believed in the bullshit. To me, the honor code was West Point, and when I violated it, I was violating a sacred trust. I’ve spent the last 10 years coming to grips with having cheated at West Point, that’s why I want to tell you about it.”
There still remains the question: “Why?” And here I’m going to extrapolate both from my interview and from my personal experience, because I knew this man at West Point. I remember those two years well. I was a sophomore, a Yearling they’re called, and I was experiencing my own bout with disillusionment, my own loss of idealism. It was happening to lots of us. There was a rash of resignations in the class of 1969 in my regiment that year. So many classmates resigned, that the Department of Military Psychology and Leadership commissioned a study of my company to determine why this was happening. They sent a major over to the barracks, he interviewed us, and in the spirit of a true Army “study”, assigned groups of us to issue reports on various aspects of cadet life, why there seemed to be such pervasive disillusionment within the Yearling class. I was group-leader of five guys, and we were to study and report on how our classmates felt about the honor system. It was the first time I came face to face with the idea that very few cadets in my class were “buying the farm,” were true believers as we all had been in those first weeks of Beast Barracks.
Our little mini-study revealed that quite a number of classmates were disillusioned with the honor system because they felt that it applied to cadets, but not to the officers who administered the Academy. Thus cadets, held tightly to our absolute code of honor, could be victimized by an officer who didn’t give a good goddam one way or the other. Several cadets had had just such an experience. The phenomenon of an officer “using your honor against you,” was beginning to rear its ugly head at West Point. This is perhaps the most important of those arcane areas I have spoken of previously.
How is one’s honor used against him? The process itself is instructive as to the atmosphere of mistrust which had been created between cadets and officers by the years 1966-1967. We didn’t know what it was, but there was something vaguely off about certain tactical officers, the captains and majors assigned to each company in the corps. When one’s honor was used against him, one was placed in a position, invariably by an officer, where to tell the truth would incriminate oneself and possibly others in an investigation of an offense committed under the disciplinary system, the set of laws, separate from the honor system, which governed cadet life. The disciplinary system was our little system of military justice. There was a kind of unwritten law which had come down through the ages at West Point, that held as dishonorable an officer asking a cadet if he had committed an offense. Example: Drinking in the barracks was illegal. Your honor was being used against you if the tactical officer called you into his office in the morning and asked: “Mister, did you drink in the barracks last night?” If you had, you could only reply yes, the officer could report you, and you would be severely punished. The unwritten law held that an officer had to catch a cadet in the act, in order to report him, for the cadet to be punished. Having your honor used against you was a little like going to trial in the civilian world for a criminal offense, and not being permitted to plead innocent.
I was never made aware, in 1966-1967, of an outrage like the above example, but it was in this obscure yet important area, where the honor and disciplinary systems intersected; that many cadets had distasteful experiences. They ranged from the level of an officer, noticing a marginally shined pair of shoes, asking the cadet, “Did you shine you shoes last night?” then reporting the cadet for “failure to shine shoes, intentional” upon receiving a reply in the negative. Consider this far more gross example: One night two or three cadets were caught drinking in the barracks by the Officer in Charge, the major on duty as brigade duty officer at night. The evidence, strewn about the room, was such that it was obvious more cadets had been in the room drinking earlier. The cadets who were caught were asked for the names of the other cadets, then ordered to give them. They refused. The case became an issue, and an appeal was made to the cadet honor committee to intervene in the cadets’ behalf. This eventually came about, but the cadets who had made an issue of the fact that their honor had been used against them were labeled as rebels and trouble makers by the Tactical Department, the officers who administered cadet daily life, and it was obvious over the next two years to the rest of us that they were the targets of discrimination by the officer corps at the Academy.
The irony here – perhaps this is of dimensions larger than mere irony – goes back to the lecture we were given that first night in Beast Barracks, which was repeated in countless honor meetings thereafter, that we, the cadets, owned and ran the honor code. It became increasingly obvious that this was not the case. Officers and cadets continually ran up against each other where the honor and disciplinary systems intersected, and as years went by, it took an increasingly vigilant honor committee to insure that cadets were not victimized by officers bent on running their companies under their own notion of our honor system.
The examples of this abuse of the honor system by the officers who ran the Academy, of which I am personally aware, are too numerous to go into in detail here. Yet it is worth noting that many cadets, myself, and many of those with whom I have spoken, began wondering back in about 1966 what, exactly, was going on? We knew there was something wrong, but we could not quite put our collective finger on what it was. It seemed strange to me then, that a place as steeped in idealism as the Academy would have just the opposite effect on many cadets, leading us to question the basis upon which our idealism was founded, and finally, to lose it. To many reading this report, the process may seem familiar enough: Freshman idealism, leading to sophomore cynicism, to the junior doldrums, to senior (relative) adulthood. You must remember, however, that we are not talking about a regular civilian college. We are talking about a place which goes out of its way not to identify itself simply as a college, but rather as a way of life. That was the phrase they used in the West Point Catalogue, and in countless lectures invoking the names of the great West Point graduates of the past. MacArthur, Patton, and the rest of them. Only a way of life could produce such men, we were reminded time and time again.
Now seems as good a time as any for me to deliver my own peculiar vision of West Point as a way of life, and the relationship of cadets to the Academy as represented by the honor code. In every interview I have conducted so far, even with the most cynical and bitter graduates, every one of them has eventually come around to saying that the honor code was the thing which made West Point what it was. I can identify with this idea, because it reflects a common feeling among graduates, that the honor code somehow protected us. My own perception of the honor code didn’t go much beyond this until 1973, when I was writing an article in the Village Voice about General Alexander M. Haig, Jr. and several experiences I had with him at West Point when he was my regimental commander, and later, when he was the deputy commandant of cadets. I finished the piece, and Dan Wolf, then the Voice’s editor, thought there was a hole in the piece somewhere, an unrealized idea, which if it were found, would tie the whole thing together. Wolf pumped me on the subject of West Point and honor, for it was my judgment that Haig acted dishonorably as an officer at West Point. Why was this so important, Wolf wanted to know.
Well, it was important because what West Point as a way of life boiled down to was the nation’s most perfect totalitarian society. At West Point, upper-class cadets had almost supreme control over the lives of others. If your company commander wanted you to line your books from left to right by alphabetical order, it was done, no questions asked. If a squad leader wanted a Plebe standing in the corner of his (the squad leader’s) room 30 minutes before reveille every morning, it was done. In the same way, officers had almost total control over the lives of cadets. We were not permitted to leave the grounds of the Academy, except on authorized leaves and trips, which were few and far between. We were not permitted to drink on Academy grounds until we were seniors, and then only at the invitation of an officer. I once had a tactical officer who insisted that every cadet in a platoon have the same color toothbrush, toothbrush holder, and soap dish, and that cadets in the same room use the same brand of shaving soap. The extent to which control could be exercised over the lives of others went from the miniscule to the ridiculous, and at times, to the sadistic and criminal.
The honor code, I realized in 1973, had functioned as a kind of rudimentary Bill of Rights within our closed, totalitarian society, protecting us from the far edges of abuse of the system. Just as the Bill of Rights of our Constitution protects us and insures certain rights under our democracy the honor code performed a similar, if less effective, task under totalitarianism as represented by our way of life at West Point. When the honor code was violated, either by officer or cadet, the violation itself had more profound implications than the gaining of advantage by the telling of a lie, or cheating on a test for a higher grade. An honor code violation, I like to argue, was comparable to abuse of the Bill of Rights. The worst abuses of the honor code took on Nixonian proportions when it came to creating what civil libertarians call a “chilled” atmosphere. The atmosphere at West Point by 1968 was not just chilled, but positively icy, so far as I was concerned. It would not occur to me until years later how profoundly the war in Vietnam had affected West Point, for nearly every officer serving at the Academy by 1968 particularly in the Tactical Departmen – had served one or two tours in Vietnam. The way of life of the Army in Vietnam – falsifying body counts, illegally barraging hamlets and villages, covering-up atrocities, covering-up what would eventually be revealed as a massive drug problem among American troops over there – that way of life was carried back to West Point on the shoulders of graduates and translated this way: If you could lie, cover-up, and generally do bad in combat in Vietnam, then why not at West Point? The combat example had, within three short years, come around full-circle and bitten itself on the ass.
This is not to say that a large number of officers at West Point, in retrospect, can be identified as having had a deleterious effect on the Academy because of the combat example in reverse. On the contrary, I would have to say that the number was small, yea, even tiny. Some of the best officers I ever knew in my 20-odd years as an Army brat were instructors or tactical officers at West Point. In fact, the tactical officer I described earlier by his obsession with toothbrushes and shaving cream turned out to be the best “tac” I ever had, if only because he was as impeccably honest as he was obsessed with neatness. But even a solitary officer could, with a solitary misdeed, a single dishonorable act, affect the attitudes of hundreds of cadets, and by extension, the lives of hundreds of graduates. It was not until 1968 that this came to pass on a large scale in my class, and I will tell that story in a moment. But first, on a personal note, I would like to describe several incidents, involving two officers, one well-known, which had a profound affect on me, and on others with whom they came in contact.
Major Stilson (a pseudonym), a graduate of the class of 1960, was a tactical officer in the Third Regiment with a distinguished Vietnam career behind him. In 1965-66, he served in the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, for which he received a Bronze Star and a Combat Infantryman’s Badge. In 1967, he served with the lst Cavalry Division (Airmobile) where he received two Silver Stars, two more Bronze Stars, two Air Medals, and a Purple Heart. In 1968, he came to West Point. Major stilson was the kind of officer who made a big deal of his Vietnam career (he would return for a rare third tour in 1971). He also made a big deal of his rather conservative politics, of which I became aware on the Sunday night following the Navy Game Weekend in 1968.
During September, October and November of that year, I had been involved in an administrative challenge to the regulation which required attendance at chapel by all cadets. This did not tend to make me popular with the powers of the Tactical Department at the Academy, who were determined that the regulation would not fall, but it made me some friends “across the street,” in the academic departments. Little did I know, however, that I had come to the attention of Major Stilson, who, having volunteered to take Officer in Charge duties over Navy weekend, decided that he would pay a visit to my cadet room in the barracks, and ransack my personal papers in an attempt to discover something “subversive,” which could be used to expel me from the Academy.
I was made aware of this patently illegal search of my room by a cadet of my acquaintance, who on cadet guard duty that Saturday night, accompanied Major Stilson on his little search and seizure mission. On Sunday night, this cadet stopped by my table in the mess hall and told me how shocked he was to watch Major Stilson sit at my desk and meticulously go through my personal papers and letters, which were arranged by alphabetical order in a file drawer, making comments like “We’ll get this bastard,” as he went along. Major Stilson, according to the cadet guard, spent the better part of two hours in my room, finally deciding that he would not confiscate any alleged “subversive” materials because of the legal issues involved, but would rather report their existence to my tactical officer.
So I was prepared the following morning to find my tactical officer in my room during a mid-period between classes. The tac asked me for certain file folders from my drawer. We sparred about the legal search and seizure issues involved for a few moments, and then I told him I would only obey a direct verbal order, in the presence of others, if he wanted my personal papers. He issued the order, and I turned over the files. Then I told him I knew about Major Stilson’s illegal search of my room, and warned him that both he and Major Stilson were placing themselves in potentially dangerous positions, should anything come of the illegally searched and seized files.
The next day, the files were returned to me by a sheepish tactical officer, who apologized for the entire matter. I told him I was not interested in his apology, but that of Major Stilson, and said that if such an apology was not forthcoming from Major Stilson, I would consider bringing administrative or criminal charges against him. The tac went back to his office and told Major Stilson, who was enraged. On the following day, Major Stilson called me up to his office, where he dressed me down for my appearance (I was never too spiffy), generally yelled at me for being a communist of unspecified breed and origins, and finally threw at me a piece of paper, addressed to me, which in a general way apologized for nothing. The illegal search was not mentioned on the apology. I asked Major Stilson for a specific apology for the incident, and he refused to give it to me, telling me that if I took the matter beyond its present level, he would lie all the way to the top about the whole thing. On that rather interesting and illuminating note, I left his office, never to return.
During the course of the year, I heard various minor horror stories about Major Stilson, finally culminating in a visit from a sophomore in his company, who told me the following story. The cadet had allegedly overdrawn his checking account at the local bank, and it was the bank’s practice to notify both the cadet and his tac about the overdraw. Major Stilson promptly wrote the cadet up for a 15 & 20, which is to say, 15 demerits and 20 hours marching the area on Fridays and Saturdays in dress uniform, rifle planted firmly on the shoulder. The cadet, in his “hell report,” or answer to the charge, displayed arithmetic which showed that the bank computer had made an error. Major Stilson refused to believe the cadet’s math, relying instead on that of the inviolate bank computer, and sent the cadet onto the area to walk punishment tours. Two weeks later, the cadet, and Major Stilson, received letters from the bank to the effect that a computer error had been made, and would apologies be accepted for any inconvenience caused? The cadet was eager to accept the apology, and in writing a “Reconsideration of Award,” the “award” being his 15 & 20, already half walked-off, the cadet asked Major Stilson to rescind the last 10 hours he had to walk off, and all 15 demerits. Major Stilson, afraid of the consequences of his having not believed the cadet in the first place, and knowing that the “Reconsideration of Award,” had to go up the bureaucratic channels to the commandant of cadets, refused the cadet’s request, calling him in to warn him that if he went over Major Stilson’s head, he (Stilson) would “get” the cadet. The cadet came to me to ask me what he should do. Having had previous experience with Major Stilson myself, and having run a savage gamut to get to see the Army Inspector General about compulsory attendance at chapel, only to be slapped down with a one line dismissal of my constitutionally argued complaint, I counseled the cadet to walk his hours and write the matter off to experience. To do otherwise, I said, would be to put his cadet and officer careers in an unknowable amount of jeopardy. The cadet followed my advice, bitterly. Major Stilson finished his distinguished career as a company tactical officer in 1970, and was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for his sterling performance of duty.
The incidents cited here may seem trivial, and I realize I run the risk of seeming obsessive by recounting them in such detail. Yet it is precisely this kind of detail which newspaper stories lack, as they paint a picture of cadets violating the honor code, and Academy officials struggling to uphold the standards of honor and decency which have existed at the Academy seemingly for a millennium. This overly simple and one-sided picture of the Academy is palpably false, the result of public relations machinery to which the Academy officials, but not the cadets themselves, have access.
A final personal experience illustrates the extent to which officer involvement in the administration of the cadet honor code had become pervasive by 1968. This experience involved General Alexander M. Haig, Jr., whose meteoric career is by now well known. Currently he is enjoying himself as commander of all NATO forces in Europe, but in 1968, the general was then a colonel and held the title, deputy commandant of cadets. For the months of September, October, and the better part of November, Haig had held up my paperwork on the issue of challenging compulsory attendance at chapel. He was following the tried-and-true bureaucratic truth: What does not pass your desk and go higher, cannot possibly reflect on your performance of duty at your level. The generic term for this kind of behavior is “Covering Your Ass.” Haig, as his and Nixon’s final days in the White House now show, was an expert at CYA.
In late November, I forced the issue and Haig had no choice but to send the paperwork up. In a classic confrontation of egos, a sweating, seething Haig told an arrogant and ignorant Truscott: “I’ll see you out of here, one way or the other. I’ll get you.” And, he proceeded to do just that. He convened an “aptitude” board to examine my aptitude for the service (later dismissed, when not enough dirt could be exhumed from my file to justify expulsion on aptitude). And he reported me for honor violations at least once that I know of, and possibly, though I cannot prove this, twice. Each time, a cadet honor “subcommittee” was convened to examine the charges like a kind of mini-grand jury. Each time the subcommittee found the charges lacking merit. However, on the occasion about which I have personal knowledge, when the subcommittee report was passed from the head of the honor committee to Haig, he found it insufficient (obviously because it had failed to indict me) and ordered that a second subcommittee, comprised of different cadets, be convened, and re-examine the “evidence.” Again, I was exonerated at subcommittee level. Haig was obviously displeased, yet time was running short. He would leave West Point for the White House in December. Haig continued to needle me in little ways, too minor and too numerous to go into here, but he got in one final, parting shot before departure from the Academy for service in the Nixon administration. I did not find out about this until last year, and the incident was related to me by a cadet having personal knowledge of the facts.
Haig called into his office a high-ranking cadet, who must here go unnamed, and ordered the cadet to “get” me on an honor violation. “I don’t care how you do it,” he reportedly told the cadet. But I want him (me) out of here.” The cadet was understandably shocked. He was being ordered by the deputy commandant to commit an honor violation himself, i.e., fabricating honor charges against me and seeing to it that they stuck, in order to obey Haig’s burning desire that I not be allowed to graduate. The cadet was reportedly horrified at the order, but fearing that if I ever got hold of the information, I’d go to the New York Times (which I definitely would have done), he decided to simply sit on the matter until Haig left the Academy. And so Haig’s order died a natural death.
Haig will deny that this incident ever took place if he is asked about it. What has he got to lose? Hell, he became a national expert at denials as Nixon’s chief of staff in the waning days of the Nixon White House, and the only pains he suffered were occasional editorial slaps on the hand for such matters as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” the firing of Archibald Cox, which we now know Haig conceived of, and carried out with his classical order to Donald Rumsfeld to fire Cox, “You have been ordered by your Commander in Chief.” Well, suffice to say that my little feud with Alexander Haig is by now about as well known as any other feud with him, and at this point, I have begun to sound like a speed-crazed yenta hammering away at him like I do. But to my way of thinking, Haig symbolizes the sickness which had infested the Military Academy by 1968, a strain of swine flu which would nibble away at the honor code, and at the heart of the Academy itself, until finally in 1976, West Point and the nation find themselves confronted with the current honor scandal, which has taken on the tone of a national test of conscience.
Once again, however, I am compelled to point out that the alleged violations of the honor code by the class of 1977 do not represent a new phenomenon. They are more accurately reflective of the trend which I have tried to show started ten years ago. As I have previously mentioned, my class was a part of the trend, and the story of how a major cheating ring was formed in the class of 1969 is as representative of why cadets cheat as anything I know.
It was the fall of 1968, and a “re-sectioning” of senior tactics classes was about to take place. This is the peculiar practice at West Point of constantly sectioning classrooms in each subject so that the seating arrangements reflect the academic standing of the class, from top section number one, to the bottom section, to the last man in the class in tactics, or any other subject.
A major teaching one of the tactics classes was eager to get the comments and criticisms of his class at the end of his six-week stint as their instructor. He was open and smiling, friendly, as this incident was described to me by two cadets present. He told the cadets in the class to write comments, criticisms, or questions on a piece of paper, not to sign the paper, and to pass them to the first man in the section, who carried them to the instructor. There would be no reprisals for any criticism or question, the instructor emphasized, so let it all hang out.
One cadet in the class, who was known to be something of a rebel leader among cadets, wrote the following question on his sheet of paper: “How did it feel to murder innocent civilians in Vietnam?” When the instructor came to the question, his face reddened and he flew into a rage. Later that day, he examined handwriting specimens from previous tests, and reported the cadet in question for “gross lack of judgment,” and “insubordination.” He wrote him up for a 22 & 44 & 2, as the punishment was euphemistically called. Twenty-two demerits, 44 hours walking punishment tours on the area, and two months confinement to room. The cadet wrote a “hell report” which outlined the instructor’s pledge that they could let it all hang out, and that there would be no reprisals. To his “hell report” he attached depositions from th entire class, taken by a lawyer in the law department, and attested to by a notary public. The depositions confirmed the facts as the cadet had outlined them in his “hell report”. The cadet was not denying that he had written the question, in fact, he admitted he had. Rather, the cadet was defending himself on the point of honor, the fact that the instructor had not lived up to his pledge of non-reprisal. To the cadets, it was a question of honor, not of discipline – that arcane interface between the two systems, honor and disciplinary.
The upshot of the story is that the cadet was “awarded” his punishment, he served his two months, walked his 44 hours, during which time he concluded that the honor system was finished. Word of the incident spread through his regiment within the class. Cadets became disillusioned and disaffected. When the cadet in question suggested to key individuals that they kiss-off the honor code and form a cheating ring within the regiment, which would eventually grow to encompass certain cadets in another regiment in a fashion similar to the class of 1967 ring, he was listened to. The cheating ring was formed. According to cadets who were part of it, the ring encompassed some 200 cadets, and at least two honor representatives. The disaffected honor representatives functioned as a safety valve for the cheating ring. If anyone was brought up on charges, one of them would insure that he was on the honor board and cast the negative vote needed to acquit the alleged offender. The ring functioned without hitch throughout the 1968-69 academic year. Quite a few of the cadets involved in the ring became so disillusioned with the system at West Point that they turned to drugs heavier than marijuana (which was then in moderate use among quite a number of cadets). Usage of acid and mescaline was not uncommon among these cadets, and they remained until graduation day an unseen, unheard fifth column within the Academy.
As I pointed out before, cadets do not cheat for profit, they cheat because it feels good. It felt good to stick it to the system with which they no longer held faith. It felt good, and there was a certain excitement in the tight-knit secrecy of it all. Those were the days of campus rebellions. Columbia went off with a bang in 1968, so did Harvard and Berkeley and other colleges across the country. Even West Point, we now know, had its secret rebels. A closed, totalitarian society, protected almost as much by its location on Trophy Point on the Hudson as it was by the nearly complete removal of cadets from civilian reality, not even the United States Military Academy could be sealed-off altogether. The seal was broken by officers assigned to the Academy, who brought with them the diseases in the air of the world “outside.” For four years, cadets were by nature followers more than leaders, though they were expected to turn magically from frog to prince on graduation day. Cadets followed the examples set for them by the officer corps. The officer corps at the Academy ranged from the Army’s best and its brightest, the Pete Dawkins’s, and the Josiah Bunting’s, to its Samuel W. Koster’s, and its Major Stilson’s, and its Alexander M. Haig’s. No great institution is immune to the inadequacies, the foibles, the sins of man.
So when you read future reports on the honor scandal brewing at the Military Academy, I would hope that you would remember that behind those great walls, beneath the cloud of long gray line tradition associated with West Point, beyond the public relations apparatus of the Academy – rivaled in its successes only by that of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI – lies a body of flesh and blood, not of steel. The soul of the Academy may indeed reside within its honor code. The whole business, shrouded in mystery and secrecy and cultish worshipfulness, may indeed represent the “conscience of the Army.” But if it does, I would remind those interested in the fate of the honor code, and in the fate of the Academy itself, of an observation made on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times some years back, by my own father. He observed, with some pain, and at risk of retribution and rebuke from his friends and colleagues, that the motto of the Military Academy, “Duty, Honor, Country,” had somehow become perverted over the years. The motto, he said, was now somewhat closer to “Duty, Honor, Country, Self,” than to the idealistic, perfect dream it once represented. I second that notion.
Received in New York on June 21, 1976
© Lucian K. Truscott IV
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a freelance writer and author, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner. His fellowship subject is West Point Men: Attitudes and Experiences of the Class of 1969. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Truscott as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of the Foundation.