The Honor Concept of the U.S. Naval Academy
Midn 1/C Ostwind and Midn 1/C Dunlap
Honor, personal integrity, and loyalty to the service, its customs and its traditions, are fundamental characteristics essential to a successful Naval Officer. Any midshipman unable to conduct himself at all times in a manner indicating the highest standards of honesty, integrity, and manliness, is unfit to hold a commission in the Navy or to enjoy the privilege of being a member of the Brigade. Therefore, any midshipman guilty of offenses of a dishonest nature, such as Falsehood (including any form of deception or attempt to deceive) or Fraud (including false muster- answering for another at muster, or any form of cheating) or of offenses indicating Moral Turpitude, is an individual intolerable to the Brigade, and becomes immediately subject to a recommendation for dismissal from the Naval Service.1
In 1953 Midshipman 1/C H. Ross Perot completed his task of formulating an honor system that best reflected the ideals of the Brigade of Midshipmen and the Naval Service. His outline defined many of the problems facing the academy at the time and continues to serve as the reference for our honor concept today.
In studying the current Honor Concept it is important to know the foundations upon which it has been built. These foundations provide not only the heart of the honor concept but provide continuity throughout many changes at the academy.
Central to the theme of an Honor Concept is the idea of doing what is right not out of fear but because it is the right thing to do. Perot addressed this when he wrote, A "defect of quite a few honor systems that seem to be working quite well to the casual observer is that the system is founded on fear. The persons under this type of system keep their standards high out of fear of dismissal, etc...Our committees are not founded on fear, nor is fear used at any time as an agent, because to make a man afraid to lie, cheat, or steal does not make him a better man. If he has these tendencies, he will give way to them again as soon as the source of fear is removed."2
The logic behind this thought holds true today. Take for example current honor codes where the witness must report an offense under penalty of committing one himself. This may be successful while students are under the honor code, however upon graduation they are no longer responsible to the code and therefore must make decisions on their own. To its credit, the indoctrination does serve as a guiding force in how many live their lives. However, it is expected that many, free from the honor code, mark their graduation with a sigh of relief and conduct their lives as they had before entering the academy.
The creators of the Honor Concept sought to avoid this by creating a system free of loophole plagued rules and to instead form a concept which was based on a midshipman’s conscience and desire to do the right thing. Over the years as offenders and their lawyers have challenged their separations it has become necessary to codify the Honor Concept into a written text which is similar to an honor code in its established rules and procedures. As unfortunate as this evolution is, the difference behind the Honor Concept and an honor code has remained the same. To this day at the U.S. Naval Academy, it is not an honor offense to not report another’s offense.
Some may ask why we feel this is such an important part of our Honor Concept. Personally I feel it can be answered by a question often posed at the academy: What serves the nation better, officers who blindly follow a code or those who chose the harder right in a free decision?
As members of the military we realize the necessity of adherence to orders, yet we also acknowledge that it is our responsibility to make sound decisions when little or no guidance is provided. If we train our future officers to adhere to principles of honesty and integrity because they are punished for not doing so at what point do we encourage their individual responsibility?
The Naval Academy is a training environment. In everything we do we are being prepared for our role in the fleet. We naturally refer to the bathrooms as "heads," the floor as the "deck" and the intercom as the "1MC." Many would argue that the spartan lifestyle itself is designed to prepare us for shipboard life. Deck watches that seem irrelevant, limited liberty, and taps all serve as preparation for the Navy.
In the same manner that we are being prepared for life in the Navy so too are we being prepared for our role as ethical officers. To deny this and limit the decision making ability of midshipmen by not enabling them to make their own choices concerning issues of integrity is to hamper their development as officers and to restrict their future actions.
This being said, the academy is also a time of great development for many midshipmen. Many past and current midshipmen attribute the academy with shaping their character and instilling principles that have served them well in life. It is not expected that all candidates enter the academy having been raised in the same manner or imbued with the same ethical principles. For that reason our honor concept establishes a minimum standard to which all are required to live by. That minimum standard is that midshipmen will not lie, cheat, or steal. However it is stated in our honor concept as "Midshipmen are persons of integrity. They stand for that which is right." By placing the emphasis on the positive aspects of midshipmen, the Honor Concept affirms the principle that midshipmen are honorable and encourages them to do what is ethically sound.
While these values remain at the core of the Honor Concept, they have been challenged by recent societal changes. Midshipmen today often forget the military aspects of the academy and instead see themselves as college students in an institution with many restrictions. Gone are the days of Vietnam when the portraits of company mates killed in action were displayed in the entrance to the Midshipmen dormitory, Bancroft Hall. Often midshipmen can identify much better with their college age friends from home then they can with the soldier in the field or the sailor on the ship. They identify so well that frequently the principles of honor, courage, and commitment are replaced with societal standards that don’t measure up.
As scandalous events in past years have demonstrated, we can no longer expect that the academy is going to remain unaffected by changes in society. Nor can we expect our midshipmen to remain unexposed under the protection of the academy. Our challenge is to produce a realistic system which encourages individuals to chose the harder right and provides retribution for those who do not.
We feel the Honor Concept is the most effective way to accomplish this. Through midshipmen ownership we have been able to create a foundation of trust on which our lives are based. We realize that trust blindly given leads to the breakdown of the established foundation and therefore we must encourage the honor concept through honor training and enforce it through honor boards.
We know that we are not going to catch all honor offenses and in many ways that is not our goal. Our goal is to expose midshipmen to the standards expected and to challenge them to live up to them.
In efforts to aid the midshipmen in choosing the harder right, an honor education system has been put into place. A total of 127 midshipmen take part in leading the academic year education program with jobs ranging from the Vice Honor Chairman for Education to Battalion Honor Representatives to 1/c and 2/c Company Honor Representatives. The midshipmen involved set up the education program, outline the lessons, select training aids such as videos and XYZ formatted cases, and run the training. Overall, the education program takes place in two phases. First there is a plebe summer indoctrination program which is followed by an academic year training cycle.
During Plebe Summer, the Honor Staff introduces the new plebes to the Honor Concept. Because the new recruits enter the academy with a variety of different views and moral standards, the first goal of honor education is to ensure that all of the new midshipmen understand the expectations of the Naval Academy with regards to honor. This is done through the implementation of a series of seven lessons. These lessons emphasize a general understanding of the definitions of integrity, honor, and moral character and eventually lead to detailed explanations of how the honor system works at the Naval Academy. Once the plebes begin to gain an understanding of the standard of honor at the Naval Academy, efforts are made to build pride in having honor while still recognizing the challenge it is to constantly strive towards living with outstanding moral character. At the end of plebe summer, a reaffirmation ceremony is conducted in which the plebes reaffirm their commitment to the Naval Academy and upholding the precepts of the Honor Concept.
The next phase of the honor education program involves academic year training. A variety of lessons are taught by trained midshipmen to their peers over the four year training cycle. These lessons are put into place for two reasons. The first is to remind the Brigade of how the Honor Concept works. With all of the intricacies of the honor system, it is beneficial to refresh the Brigade of how the Honor Concept is being implemented. These training periods also serve as opportunities to present difficult situations in which midshipmen discuss the best course of action to take. They debate over which right is the harder right. These discussions allow midshipmen to look farther into honor than just lying, cheating, and stealing. An added benefit of having regular honor training is that the brigade has an opportunity to ask questions, present concerns, and provide feedback on how they feel the honor system is being administered. By the time a midshipman graduates, he or she will have had 21 academic year honor lessons, 7 as 4/c, 6 as 3/c, 4 as 2/c and 4 as 1/c.
If an honor offense is witnessed by a midshipman, one of the following four options must be taken. First, the midshipman can discuss the situation with the individual and counsel the individual if the violation is admitted and steps are taken to correct it. The second option is to counsel, and if the accused does not admit guilt, to report it to the Brigade Honor Chair to begin an investigation. The third option is to discuss the circumstances of the perceived honor offense and if no violation has occurred to drop the case. The fourth option is to turn the offense directly in to the Brigade Honor Chair. At no time does the accuser have the option of dropping the case if they believe an honor offense has been committed.
By placing the responsibility on the midshipman’s shoulders, they are tasked with taking care of the situation. By using the option to counsel, the accuser is informing another of their mistake and allowing the person learn from the incident without the threat of separation from the academy. Midshipmen ownership is essential to the Honor Concept. Were the Honor Concept dictated to the Brigade by the Commandant, the purpose of doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do would be lost. For the Honor Concept to be effective it must be agreed upon and supported by the Brigade.
Unlike our sister service academies, Army and Air Force, the entire process from accusation to finding of violation or not in violation is handled by the Honor Committee without officer intervention. The process is monitored by the Ethics Advisor and the Staff Judge Advocate, however the Honor Committee is ultimately responsible for the processing of a case.
Once a person has been found in violation of an honor offense they then go before the Commandant of Midshipmen. The Commandant decides whether to recommend retention or dismissal of the midshipman. If the Commandant recommends retention it generally is accompanied by an order to enroll in honor remediation.
Honor remediation is a fairly recent addition to the Honor Concept. A midshipman in the program is provided a mentor, in most cases a senior officer stationed at the Naval Academy, and is required to meet with their mentor weekly. In the weekly meetings they discuss honor issues as well as assignments the midshipman has been required to complete.
In the past an honor offense was practically an automatic separation. Although every honor offense remains a separation level offense, today retention with remediation is often used. This evokes two very different responses. To those who feel any breach of integrity tarnishes the individual, the recent trend is weakening the honor system. To those who feel people should learn from their mistakes, it is strengthening the officers produced from the academy. In truth it is a little of both. By not separating every person who commits an honor offense the deterrent effect of the honor concept is being lessened. At the same time many good people who demonstrated a lapse of good judgement are being retained and strengthened through honor remediation.
As can be expected the system is not perfect. There are individuals who learn little from honor remediation and walk away unchanged. There are others who view it solely as a means to graduation. But, for the most part honor remediation serves as both a wake-up call and an opportunity for individuals who require extra emphasis on honor and personal integrity to learn from their mistakes.
For all the rules we now apply to the honor concept and all the intricate details involved in its enforcement, the goal of the honor concept remains true to its original purpose: for midshipmen to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.
We are proud of our institution and the ideals it stands for. We realize the enormous amount of trust placed on us by the academy and the American people and our obligation to preserve that trust. The Honor Concept is our means of establishing the foundation upon which we base our trust in one another. We believe in its effectiveness and strive to maintain the standards set by our predecessors.
1. United States Naval Academy Regulations, Article 3101 in the 1933, 1938, 1940, and 1945 editions, Article 2502 in the 1951 edition, as quoted by H.R. Perot in his paper entitled "The History of Honor at the United States Naval Academy. From Its Founding to the Establishment of Our Present Honor Committee." Page 2.
2. H.R. Perot. "The Principles Upon Which the Brigade Executive Committee and Class Honor Committees at the Naval Academy are Based." Page 1.