The Importance of the Non-Toleration Clause and Codes of Conduct in the Ethical Education of US Military Cadets

by Dr. Davida Kellogg,
Department of Geologic Sciences and Institute for Quaternary Studies
University of Maine
Orono ME 04469


A paper prepared for presentation to the Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics XVII Washington, D.C. January 25-26, 1996

 (The views presented herein are entirely those of the author, and do not repres ent the official position of the JSCOPE Conference or the Department of Defense.)

If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country
-E.M. Forster, What I Believe

 I have chosen to begin this paper with the above quotation as a foil for my own strong belief in the virtue of its near-antithesis in military training and education, the Non-toleration Clause of the Cadet Code of Conduct.

 All Cadet Codes of Conduct state in part that "A cadet will neither lie, cheat, nor steal." The most problematical part of the Cadet Code, the so-called Non-toleration Clause still in effect at West Point and the Air Force Academy, states that, in addition, neither will the cadet tolerate those who do. It is not an explicit part of the Honor Concepts currently in effect at Annapolis and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, although it is strongly implied. Critics have condemned this provision especially as unreasonable, anachronistic, unrealistic, and overly harsh. They claim that it is honored mainly in the breech or otherwise elided, that we are fooling ourselves if we expect cadets to suffer the very real effects of silencing and worse for the sake of an intangible like personal honor, and that all cadets learn from their dealings with Honor Boards is to ferret out loop-holes and to quibble. In the wake of highly publicized and embarrassing Academy cheating scandals, the tendency is for regulations and procedures to be reformulated so as to effectively relieve (some would say rob) the cadet of responsibility for making his own moral decisions. Or else the cry goes up for the scrapping or watering down of frequently broken regulations such as the Non-toleration Clause, if not the entire Code , as though the regulation, and not the cadets who break it, were the problem. In this paper I wish to put forward arguments to the contrary, for the retention of this often disregarded, but morally instructive provision, and to suggest ways in which we can support our cadets in their efforts to live up to their Codes.


Argument 1: Keeping Faith With the Nation

One reason for not abandoning Cadet Codes is analogous to Rule 7a of the Navigation Rules, which states that "Every vessel shall use all available means a ppropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions to determine if risk of collision exists." The Cadet Code of Conduct, even when generally disregarded, happens to be the best, most appropriate means available to us for socializing our students to the degree of moral responsibility that will be required of them by the civilian population of the United States, to whom they will soon give their solemn oath. When we throw up our hands in disappointment and frustration and turn off this moral radar, we do not relieve them of that responsibility any more than turning off a ships surface search radar relieves a vessels captain of the responsibility to see that a proper look-out is kept. All we do is set them up for collision with their duty, their honor, and the legitimate expectations of their country.

 As instructors concerned with the moral education of U.S. military officers in training, we spend a great deal of time discussing the necessity for military ethics to be in concert with American societal values. Some of us may even introduce the subject with arguments to the effect that, contrary to the facetious claims of some critics, the term military ethics is not a contrad iction in terms. But our students cannot have helped noticing that, while we are at such pains to demonstrate why and how military ethics measure up to societal norms, they often find themselves held to standards of behavior which exceed the marks their civilian counterparts are expected to toe. It may seem to cadets that, with the ascendancy of cultural relativism and other apologies for no-fault behavior, ethics have become a moot point on their campuses altogether, that all actions are acceptable, except for where the military intersects the academic.

 For myself, the Armory is the one place on campus where I can leave an open purse, or a folder of exams, or a classroom of cadets taking one of those exams unattended, where it would, in fact, be insulting to take the everyday precautions against lying, cheating, and stealing which I have found so sadly necessary outside those precincts. And in the real world outside of Academia, where its become a standing joke that the motto on our legal tender should be expanded to In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, the gulf between expected military behavioral standards and those actually prevailing in civilian society is, if anything, wider still. The moral hook here is that the greater the discrepancy grows, the more important it becomes that military officers hold the line our society has drawn for them, and not allow their moral flank to be turned. And for good reason.

 We may lose money, face, or faith through the actions of a dishonest car salesman or investment broker, corrupt public official, or hypocritical televangelist. But Americans instinctively sense that Academy cheating scandals, incidents of gross sexual impropriety involving military personnel, untruthful reporting of military operations or expenses, and attempted cover-ups of the same, pose an intolerable threat to our continued existence as a nation of free and independent men and women. The special trust and confidence we, in the person of the sitting President, repose in our newly-commissioned officers is neither lightly nor freely given. We do so only as a choice of evils between almost certain foreign and possible domestic threats to our sovereignty, the devil we know and have endeavored to instill with the ethical standards we wish them to have over the devil some enemy society has raised. Every commissioning is, therefore, an act of considerable faith, because we are entrusting these selected young people with access to information and firepower we could never allow in the hands of the general population. So as a nation we build a moral fence around that power we give our new military officers a commission through their profession in the form of a positive demand to give us national defense/security against foreign enemies. Then we append the limited permission that they do what is necessary to give us the national security we desire, but only in a manner consistent with other national imperatives and objectives, if not necessarily with actual civilian norms and practices.

 Is this, as one of my students asked, fair? Certainly, the burden of ethical behavior does not seem to be equally distributed on civilian and military shoulders. But Americans do seem to feel that this disproportionate moral burden is both reasonable and necessary. Ever since Washington managed to extract the meager beginnings of a regular standing Army from a grudging Continental Congress, the American citizenry has insisted on holding its military to standards it may feel quite safe, if not entirely justified, in flouting itself. This expectation of higher standards of behavior, at least among officers, harks back to the 18th Century British prejudice that only members of the upper classes had the breeding necessary to fulfill the duties of military office. Our need to reconcile this insistence on high standards with our new nations greater social mobility is the origin of our custom of creating our newly commissioned officers gentlemen (and ladies) by act of Congress. In this sense, military rank is a form of shorthand for "keeper of the Code," and to abandon Cadet Codes of Conduct would strip the Office of Cadet of its greatest meaning.


Argument 2: Keeping Faith With the Profession

To the present-day outside observer, such customs and Codes by which the military strives to socialize a democratically mixed sample of American youth to the responsibilities of officership may seem quaint, even antiquated. Even the honorific Gentlemen with which we greet our students at the beginning of each class, or the very name Non-toleration Clause, is tainted with social distinctions no-longer acceptable in a campus atmosphere of political correctness. But since the advent of the television war, in which viewers can judge for themselves, almost in real time, how surgical an air strike is or how humanely POWs are treated, and literally everybodys a critic, the double standard American society insists upon has become an increasingly burdensome and inescapable fact of military life. In this age of effectively instantaneous communications, we can no longer allow our cadets to continue in the false confidence that time and distance and unreliable communications can still shield their conduct, if they ever really did, from the judgment of the American public and History (and popular lip-service to relativism aside, the reality is that both are very judgmental). In such an atmosphere, Codes of Conduct, far from being unrealistic anachronisms, serve real and timely purposes in cadet training and education. Exceptional provisions like the Non-toleration Clause, which hold the cadet to standards of behavior above and beyond societal norms, provide concrete and constant, if not always gentle, reminders of the extraordinary nature of their moral duty to the people they have freely chosen to serve. The minimum moral standards promulgated in Cadet Codes may be viewed as constituting a moral PFE (physical fitness exam). Like the PFE, unless the cadet passes, and continues to pas s throughout his military service, he cannot be considered fit to continue in that career. There is no way to pass this test but to exercise ones moral judgment on a daily basis. The way to be is to do. And unless the cadet can do, and ultimately be, all that is required of him morally, he will be no more use to his Service than he would be if he were fifty pounds overweight, hypertensive, and winded.


Argument 3: Keeping Faith With the Corps

Having established that the Non-toleration Clause may be viewed as making extraordinary demands on the cadet, I can hardly proceed now to argue that it is not harsh. As generations of cadets can attest, it can be the very devil; it has ended promising careers. But what is it, really, that makes it seem so harsh, as some critics have claimed, that it would be unrealistic and unreasonable to expect cadets to actually honor it in anything but the breech?

 I think the difficulty lies in the tension the Non-toleration Clause seems to set up between two goods, the cadets personal honor and his loyalty to other cadets and to the Corps. Both of these goods are required of him as conditions of his service. But he is not without guidelines on how he is expected to sort them out. Despite Robert Timbergs bitter comment that "Few strictures hold as much sway over Annapolis men as the unwritten rule from Academy days; never bilge a classmate," the Non-toleration Clause is quite specific on how a cadet is expected to prioritize these obligations honor before loyalty. The dilemma for the cadet is that the consequences of putting honor second (bad conscience etc.) are largely personal in nature, and may be kept private. Bilging a classmate is a public action and draws public opinion, much of which may be negative. The cadet may fear becoming the victim of physical or verbal abuse or silencing, and in an institutional setting where conditions are set so that very few get by without the help of classmates, ostracism can be the kiss of death. In this situation, it helps if the cadet can recognize the pressure of his peers to go along with what he knows to be wrong and his own fear of their disapproval for what they truly are extortion and a too desperate need to be loved. And it helps to remember what VADM James B. Stockdale (1982) had to say about the relationship between the two that "The man who needs to be loved is an extortionists dream. That man will do anything to avoid face-to-face unpleasantness; often he will sell his soul for praise. He can be had."

 The man who will not compromise his honor to save himself may still do so out of misplaced loyalty to friends or to the Corps and its image (Johnson, 198 2). E.M. Forster was apparently such a man, and proud of it. But look again at his quotation, with which I began this essay. Here is a man who would, without considering the merits of the case, sell out his country for the sake of a friend. There may be situations in which the choice of individuals over governments would be the moral one (One might in all good conscience have chosen, for instance, to shelter Hitlers generals, had their attempt on that moral monsters life succeeded). The proper decision criterion here is a r ational one as to whether ones government or ones associate holds the moral high ground. Sadly, our friends and our family members are not all the people we would have them be. And here is where doing what we know to be right can become intolerably painful. For while the choice is morally and intellectually the same in both cases, the decision to denounce a liar or a cheat or a thief is very much harder emotionally when he is someone we feel somehow bound to than when he is someone we hardly know. Forster takes the moral cowards way out by declaring perversely that he will make his choice solely on the closeness of the principals relationship to him, and hang all principle! Moreover, he wishes us to think highly of him for that. Add to the credence such high-minded sounding but irrational and self-serving pronouncements are given in our society, the strong sense of Family military institutions traditionally foster in its members. Family is an American icon of the first magnitude. It is a commonplace that nothing is more important than ones family. Blood is thicker than water, we preach at our child ren. When we say such things we have in mind a very idealized notion of family. But there are all kinds of families Mafia families, crooked corporations and political organizations, perversely dysfunctional biological families in which innocent victims are kept silenced in order to protect (and enable) addicts, drunks, and child abusers not all of them are worthy of loyalty.

 Neither is a military institution whose real nature must be screened from public view. The words Service and Corps are two more of those American icons like Family, that are so culturally and emotionally loaded they can cause good people to lose all moral discretion. But like families, they are really nothing more than a collection of individual people, and like families they are no better as collectives than the individuals who comprise them. If the Academies constitute a family, it is an elite one, a meritocracy into which no one, no matter what his biological lineage, is born, and to which each cadet must earn his own right to belong.

 The popular modern sensibility is that families should be all-embracing, all-accepting, that as Robert Frost wrote Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. This is relativistic psycho-blither. Nobody has to do any such thing. Our romantic longings for security aside, the truth is there is no bond of blood or sworn brotherhood that cannot be broken by breaking faith. And there are breeches of faith so destructive of the unit and so deeply hurtful to the individuals in it that the transgressor has no right to expect to be taken back in.

 The effect of such incidents on fellow cadets, if you have ever seen it, is depressing. They may feel angry, insulted and betrayed, and they deeply need to see justice done. Still, many cadets hesitate to report honors infractions because they are concerned about the severity of the punishment prescribed for these actions and question its appropriateness in all cases. Sorley warns that, "When the gap [between aspiration and achievement of set ideals] becomes too great, then the ideal no longer serves to motivate performance." There is instead resignation, hopelessness, a feeling that the ideal is so far beyond reach that efforts to achieve it are doomed to ignominious failure. And he points to the sorts of moral breakdowns that occur (false reporting, a body-count mentality etc.) that occur in institutions that set standards so impossibly high members have no choice but to lie in order to cover their inevitable failures. Neither he nor I believe that the gap between the ethical precepts promulgated in Cadet Codes of Conduct and our students ability to live up to them is so great as to inhibit rather than foster ethical behavior. That said, it must be acknowledged that a gap does exist between expected and actual behavior. But attempts to close this gap by calling for the abolition of reasonable, if high, standards sends a message to cadets that is even more demoralizing than that sent by making impossible demands You are all so hopeless that we no longer expect anything of you. It does not matter whether too much is expected of people or too little; the results are the same disillusion, anger, destructive behaviors, apathy, and a moral paralysis that can cripple entire institutions. The middle course which must be steered is one on which we allow the cadet, imperfect as he may turn out to be, to retain the deck and the conn for his own behavior. The channel is marked on the right-hand side by the red buoy of the Honor Codes I urge we continue to expect them to uphold, and on the left-hand by Academy disciplinary practices we can do our best to ensure are fair, consistent, appropriate, and employed as a means to do justice rather than wreak vengeance. I see no reason why the cadet cannot, as CAPT. Robert J. Phillips proposed in his recent lecture at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, learn from his Academy family two lessons that his family of origin [may not have] taught him, that honor matters and that mercy can be the companion of honor.


Argument 4: Keeping Faith With the Cadet

Still, the system is open-ended; the possibility of failure has been built into it, as it must be built into any training for the exigencies of warfare. And this goes as much for training in ethics as in tactics, seamanship, weapons, or logistics. For, as Michael Walzer put it in his seminal book, Just and Unjust Wars, war is the hardest place: if comprehensive and consistent moral judgments are possible there, they are possible everywhere. In the microcosm of the Academies and our ROTC units, the hardest place, the most realistic moral fire lane we can set up for our students may be the Non-toleration Clause of their Codes of Conduct, one that puts the cadet under a type and intensity of stress his high school classmates back at State U. may never have to deal with.

 To those who think the stress built into cadet training is cruel and unnecessary, I can only suggest that they read VADM Stockdales (1981 and 1987) accounts of the value of this pressure cooker education to him. My life, he wrote, has been that of a military man, and pressure has been my constant companion. Stress is perhaps the single unchanging distinguishing characteristi c of the Profession of Arms. Nobody tells the parents of new cadets about that stress before they deliver their sons and daughters into an Academys keeping on Report Day. But they can watch it being laid on when the new cadets are told to look to their right and look to their left, and to absorb the statistical probability that the new classmates who are occupying those spaces will not be the re on Commissioning Day. They will hear it in their childrens voices when they call home during Plebe or Swab Year. And if they are wise as well as loving parents, they will be grateful for every bit of that stress, because, as ADM Stockdale wrote from personal experience that included eight years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton, that "[Plebe] year of education under stress was of great personal survival value to me."


Argument 5: Keeping Faith With Ourselves

The Academies are morally obligated to train their cadets for emotional as well as physical survival. Anyone who knows many Vietnam veterans is acquainted with the emotional casualties of this war. This year, a remarkable book was published by a psychiatrist who treats Vietnam veterans with PTSD (Shay, 1994), and his insights into the root causes of the terrible psychological wounds suffered by his patients are perhaps the strongest arguments I can summon for continuing to hold our cadets to a rigorous Code of Honor. If Shay is right (and my own interviews with Vietnam vets fairly scream that he is) that the origin of the greatest and most lasting psychological trauma suffered by these men lay in having watched or participated in the betrayal of whats right, then the recognition of the etiology of their disease suggests preventative measures, if no cure. That is, as educators of cadets, we may actually have it in our power to prevent, or at least minimize, this suffering by teaching our cadets to uphold whats right, even under severe stress. I submit that, there are onerous moral obligations inherent in being the teachers of students we must equip to go in harms way. In all good conscience, we can no more withhold from them vital moral survival training to be gained by adhering to their Cadet Code of Conduct than our medical personnel could refuse them inoculation against physical disease.


Some Famous Last Words, a Rhetorical Question, and a Parting Challenge

For the sake of both symmetry and argument, I would like to close with another quotation, this one attributed to Abraham Lincoln and expressive of what I believe. What Lincoln, no mincer of words, had to say on the subject of turning a blind eye to avoid unpleasantness was this: "To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards out of men." Moral cowardice is a harsh judgment, but I would have our cadets put aside all self-justifying quibbling long enough to consider toleration as though it were someone else's action (or inaction) and ask themselves whether it does not fit Lincolns definition of the word. While an explicit Non-toleration Clause has the potential to put cadets in a very difficult position vis a vis other cadets (conversations with CDR Patrick Kelly), there is a viable alternative to meekly knuckling under to what VADM Stockdale labeled as the demands of blackmailers. I would challenge our students instead to conceive of their institution as a place where cadets really do own their own honor, where the harder right is the path most taken, a nd it is the silencers who are silenced, and then to make and keep it so.


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