West Point has a very famous Honor Code: “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” Its effectiveness and genius lies in its brutal simplicity. Over the past two hundred years, it has evolved and been clarified. In 1922, West Point Superintendent MG Douglas MacArthur formalized the process with the formation of the Cadet Honor Committee. Since then, it has been further ‘tweaked.’
It also offers the Three Rules of Thumb to aid cadets in their moral journey:
Superficially, it seems straight forward. Similarly, its necessity is very apparent. Cadets (and Army officers) must be trustworthy to have an effective fighting force.
The Superintendent of West Point is the ultimate adjudicator of the Honor Code. He/she alone decides the sanctions against cadets found guilty of Honor Code violations. The importance of this responsibility cannot be understated. It follows, intuitively, that the Superintendent, then, must be the most ethical of officers to serve in this sacred role. For years I opined that I could never be Superintendent of West Point because the requirement is to be second only to Jesus in terms of ethical conduct. So, what happens when the keepers of the Honor Code violate the very precepts that they enforce? The answer to this question is a part of the reason why the foundation of West Point and the Army is crumbling before our very eyes.
In March 2022, (then) Superintendent LTG Darrly Williams sent a letter to the Long Gray Line on 14 March 2022 stating, “Initial reports indicate that four Cadets were transported to nearby hospitals in various conditions while on spring break in Florida after allegedly being exposed to a substance that may have contained Fentanyl.” On the surface, the letter seemed genuine and informative. The problem is that on 11 March 2022, news outlets reported that the “substance” was in fact cocaine and that the other substance ingested was fentanyl. ABC’s local affiliate on abcchicago.com released a story called, “West Point cadets among group of spring breakers hospitalized from fentanyl overdose in Florida.”[i] The discrepancy could not have been unintentional. Surely generals are in the “know.” Why would the Superintendent make a false statement to 40,000+ West Point graduates? The answer comes from the Supe himself. In the same letter, he said, “I ask that you refrain from speculating or commenting on the details of any ongoing investigation.” Clearly, he violated not only the honor code, but also violated the 3 Rules of Thumb by “deceiving” graduates and by gaining “advantage” by minimizing risk to the reputation of West Point (and to himself). Cadets who did this would likely be “found” by the Honor Committee.
In 2021, former USMA Superintendent LTG (ret) Robert Caslen gave the following commencement speech at the University of South Carolina where he served as President:
"Know that life is not fair and if you're like me, you'll fail often," Caslen said. "But if you take some risks, step up when times are toughest, face down the cowardly bullies and lift up the downtrodden — and never, never give up — if you do those things, the next generation and the generations to follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today."
The speech was soon ridiculed for plagiarizing a speech made by ADM (Ret) McRaven’s speech in 2014:
“Know that life is not fair and that you will fail often. But if take you take some risks, step up when the times are toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the downtrodden and never, ever give up — if you do these things, then the next generation and the generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today.”
This is obvious plagiarism. Cadets would likely have been found for committing this offense. Worse, after resigning in disgrace, Caslen was honored by USMA by speaking at a USMA Alumni dinner (Founder’s Day) in 2023 on behalf of the West Point senior leadership. In his speech he stated:
“For those who thought West Point is not what it used to be, or has gone Woke – or whatever you want to call it – nevertheless, there are some pretty impressive things going on and coming out of there. West Point’s mission is to educate, train, and inspire leaders of character who will live honorably, lead honorably, and demonstrate excellence as Army officers.”
This quote comes from Caslen’s own website – (www.robertcaslen.com). West Point’s leadership selected the man who was guilty of an honor violation as a retired general officer and former Supe to represent West Point. He task appears to have been to deflect concerns that West Point had “gone Woke” and to speak, ironically, about Honor.
For years, under the tenures of LTG Williams and LTG Gilland, graduates, politicians, and other concerned Americans have submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to West Point personnel to answer concerns about scandals, honor code proceedings, Critical Race Theory, and other problems. The list of FOIAs ignored by West Point is lengthy. In 2022, Judicial Watch had to sue to successfully obtain evidence that contrary to West Point leader’s assertions, its professors were actually teaching Critical Race Theory to cadets. West Point is not alone. Last week Judicial Watch posted more CRT materials from US Air Force Academy classes.
The Cadet Prayer mirrors the honor code: “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.” Withholding information, equivocating or outright denying truths is at best a “half truth” and at worst a lie. How are cadets to emulate honorable behavior is this is what West Point’s general officers are doing?
This is a problem because West Point is traditionally the moral bedrock of the Army. Its graduates are disproportionately promoted to general and lead the nation in its wars. Perhaps this is why the US hasn’t won a major war in 78 years. Honor is important. When it becomes less so, the military becomes less effective. The end state is 20 years of general officers (many of them West Pointers) deceiving Congress and the American people on the progress and chances for success in Afghanistan. The end state is the disaster in Kabul in August 2021. The end state is the endless string of scandals plaguing the modern West Point. Why would generals lie about the status of America’s wars? For promotion? For lucrative board positions with defense firms? For book deals?
It is time that West Point’s leaders begin to live up to the Honor Code that they purport to enforce. Maybe current Superintendent LTG Gilland is trying to turn the corner. A 9 JUL 2023 search of the West Point website shows that the famous Robert E Lee quote in West Point’s Honor Walk is still present despite direct orders from higher to remove it after the Naming Commission’s controversial report. Perhaps it has been removed, but West Point’s IT personnel have not removed the image from West Point’s recruiting page yet despite the announcement it would be removed 7 months ago. Perhaps LTG Gilland is making a stand and recognizing an honorable warrior from the past that cadets can emulate. It seems far too many general officers today are not worthy of such ethical adoration by cadets. Time will tell.
John Hughes, MD
West Point, Class of 1996 (#1 grad)
Supporter of STARRS.US
President of the MacArthur Society of West Point Graduates