April 18th, 2021
“Though I am not naturally honest, I am sometimes so by chance.” ― William Shakespeare
“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” – West Point Honor Code
1951,1976,2021…the cycle of West Point cheating scandals. Somehow these things keep happening. Why?
I graduated from West Point in 1980. I arrived at the United States Military Academy (USMA) in July of 1976, a year marred by a massive scandal. The cheating itself had occurred before I ever showed up, but the aftermath was rocking the institution when I started my four-year sojourn at the school.
Why would a third year cadet cheat on an electrical engineering exam? A large number of students (153 of them) did that in 1976, and then resigned or were expelled from the academy. It may help to look at the way that academics worked at West Point during the years I was there. I will be mostly relying on my forty year old memories, and they may be a bit unreliable, but bear with me.
The vast majority of the courses offered at West Point were mandatory. There were very few electives. There was no way for a cadet to have a major, like any other college student would have. Everybody graduated with a general bachelor of science degree. Few, if any, of the classes had a direct application in the cadet’s life as an Army officer post-graduation.
A cadet had to pass all of the classes that they took. You could not drop a course, or take an incomplete, or substitute another class for one that was troublesome. No, the cadet had to pass each and every class, or they were expelled. This fact caused a frequently stressful environment.
My class (year group) started in 1976 with over 1400 cadets. We graduated with under 900. There was a great culling of the herd during those four years.
Some classes were notoriously difficult. Electrical engineering (also known as “Juice”) was a killer. I managed to finish the course with a “B”, but I still had very little understanding of the subject matter. It was all black magic. The final exam consisted required the student to design a radio.
I made the cut. Other people did not.
Now, let’s say a cadet who perhaps was recruited for exceptional athletic prowess, rather than academic skills, was in his third year of school and knew that he was failing Juice class. If he failed out, then the time and effort he had already expended at USMA would be wasted. Credits from West Point were not easily transferrable to other colleges. Such an individual would be sorely tempted to cheat in order to survive academically. At least 153 cadets did just that.
If I remember correctly, a number of cadets got in deep trouble, not because they cheated, but because they tolerated somebody else cheating. This is a sticky part of the Honor Code. It’s one thing to get busted for lying, cheating, or stealing. It’s quite another to get expelled because you didn’t rat out your roommate for an honor violation.
West Point, and the military as whole, puts great emphasis on unit cohesion. Within any particular group, it is expected that individuals will work together and have each other’s backs. The bonds between classmates at West Point are incredibly strong. I still correspond with former roommates, even after forty years have gone by. Some of these people I haven’t even seen since graduation.
This situation can cause a moral dilemma. Does a cadet stick with a friend, even though the friend is doing something wrong? Or does the cadet, who is duty-bound to do so, turn in his best buddy to the authorities?
What I find ironic is that the Honor Code seems almost irrelevant once a cadet becomes an officer and joins the “real” Army. West Point likes everything to be black and white, clearly delineated. In the regular Army things get a bit more fuzzy and grey.
As an example, let me tell you a story that may possibly be true.
Once there was a young company operations officer who, on a Monday morning, suddenly realized that he had not turned in some important paperwork to the brigade HQ. The paperwork had been due by the close of business on the previous Friday. The captain’s clerk is in the office when the operations officer realizes his problem.
Ops Officer: “Fuck! This is supposed to be at brigade! They’re going to have a fit about this shit!”
Sergeant Teddy Bear (he actually looked like a teddy bear): “Sir, hang on. Let me handle this.”
Ops Officer: “What?”
Sergeant Teddy: “Sir, can I use you phone?”
Ops Officer: “Yeah, sure.”
The sergeant dials brigade HQ.
Sgt. Teddy talking on the phone: “Brigade? Hi, this is Sgt. Teddy Bear. Oh, I’m doing okay. And you? Good. Good. Hey, I got a little problem here. We took those forms to your office on Friday, and now I find the damn things back in my in box this morning. What the hell? No, of course I’m not blaming you, but somebody sent that paperwork back here. Sure, I can run the stuff up to you. I’ll do that right away. Thanks. See you soon.”
Sgt. Teddy grinned at his captain, “I’ll be right back. I have to run an errand for you.”