Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Rot Starts From The Top

I liked this whole editorial, but one part struck me as especially nice:

When we became cadets, we were taught that the academy's honor code was what separated West Point from a mere college. This was a little hard to believe at first, because the code seemed so simple; you pledged that you would not lie, cheat or steal, and that you would not tolerate those who did. We were taught that in combat, lies could kill.

But the honor code was not just a way to fight a better war. In the Army, soldiers are given few rights, grave responsibilities, and lots and lots of power. The honor code serves as the Bill of Rights of the Army, protecting soldiers from betraying one another and the rest of us from their terrifying power to destroy. It is all that stands between an army and tyranny.

However, the honor code broke down before our eyes as staff and faculty jobs at West Point began filling with officers returning from Vietnam. Some had covered their uniforms with bogus medals and made their careers with lies - inflating body counts, ignoring drug abuse, turning a blind eye to racial discrimination, and worst of all, telling everyone above them in the chain of command that we were winning a war they knew we were losing. The lies became embedded in the curriculum of the academy, and finally in its moral DNA.

By the time we were seniors, honor court verdicts could be fixed, and there was organized cheating in some units. A few years later, nearly an entire West Point class was implicated in cheating on an engineering exam; the breakdown was complete.

The mistake the Army made then is the same mistake it is making now: how can you educate a group of handpicked students at one of the best universities in the world and then treat them as if they are too stupid to know when they have been told a lie?

The West Point Honor Code as "The Bill of Rights of the Army", as not just an ideal but a necessary checks-and-balance system, is a very good way of looking at it.

Anyway, his larger point is also spot-on. This is what our side means by "demoralisation". An injust war, a war built on lies, demoralises and degrades not only the vanquished but also the victor. True, one can't corrupt the already corrupted, and so the rule doesn't apply to the civilian leadership that told the lies and started the war, but it certainly does apply to the troops that have to fight it. As matters of moral consequence, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo were probably inevitabilities.