LTG Steven Gilland became USMA’s 61st Superintendent on 27 June 2022. Prior to this, he was a decorated combat officer and had a distinguished career in special operations and in the conventional Army. He assumed his duties at West Point at a very challenging time in the wake of the messes made by prior Superintendents. It is easy to look at his illustrious career and interview prior subordinates who praised his past leadership and ask that public opinion give him a pass with the ethical dilemma of unvaccinated military servicemembers.
Before Disney/Pixar became a woke machine focused on indoctrinating America’s children, it made many movies with sound morals and sage, timeless advice. Its 1998 classic Bug’s Life has a scene where the evil grasshopper Hopper tells the young new ant queen, “First rule of leadership: everything is your fault.”
It is no longer April 2020. Covid hasn’t just arrived in the US. There is not a sea of unknowns about the virus and the vaccine. This is not the Spanish flu that killed over 45,000 servicemembers and nearly imperiled the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 2018, prolonging a war. LTG Gilland has been aware of the DoD vaccine mandate for over a year. He volunteered to become Superintendent knowing that the question of dispositions of unvaccinated cadets was unanswered.
Once a commander assumes the office and issues the first order, he/she owns the position and all of the unit’s problems. It is unfortunate that the confluence of a new Superintendent with a stellar career, a virus that has killed less than 100 servicemembers in nearly 3 years, 6 cadets who value freedom of speech and religion, and a misguided DoD mandate occurred within months of his arrival. His predicament is manifest in the term ‘loneliness of command.’ Commanders/generals are surrounded by staffs, but in the end, they alone must make the decision and they alone own it.
The Superintendent position is bigger than any person. Many excellent officers in history have had careers cut short due to events beyond their control including but not limited to higher commanders who have grudges against lower officers, unlucky circumstances that resulted in damage to equipment or injury to soldiers, and/or a good officer ‘doing the right thing’ and falling on their sword to protect subordinates. With today’s politics in Washington DC that are becoming increasingly hostile to DoD’s steadfast reluctance to eliminate the mandate, it is quite possible that if LTG Gilland resists pressure to separate the unvaccinated cadets, no harm will befall his career. It is improbable given the 2022 election results that the Chief of Staff of the Army or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs will make a public spectacle of rebuking or relieving him. It is also quite possible that doing the right thing could end his career. He may also just opt to separate the cadets and try to wither the storm and also hide behind the above argument to give him an ethical pass because he is the ‘new guy.’
In the end, officers have to find out for themselves what they truly value. If sacrificing 6 cadets to make the flag officer’s retirement shadow box brighter, then they will have to live with the dishonor of what they have done. Conversely, many ethical officers gladly sacrifice a few extra trinkets in a picture frame for the lifelong knowledge that they did the right thing, superiors be damned. Whatever the Superintendent decides, he will own the decision and must not be allowed to have an ethical pass because he had a great career and is ‘new.’ If the keeper of the Honor Code behaves this way, then West Point is obsolete and should be closed as it is failing in its core mission from the top down.
John Hughes, MD
Member of www.starrs.us
1 Bug’s Life. Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar. 1998