Friday, October 20, 2006

The Destruction of Conscience and the Betrayal of the Honor Code from the Top Down

In an article written in 1966 ["The Destruction of Conscience in Vietnam", Originally published in Dissent (Jan.-Feb. 1966) and Reprinted in Culture and Practice: Selected Essays by Marshall Sahlins (Pp. 229-260), Zone Books (2000)] Marshall Sahlins, anthropologist then at Michigan, voiced a concern about the corruption of values among American troops during the Vietnam war. In an article written in 2005 ["The Not-So-Long Gray Line" New York Times, June 28] Lucien K. Truscott IV, a former Army officer who graduated from West Point in 1969, expressed his concern that the misrepresentations of truth in the Iraq war were, as in the Vietnam war, weakening the moral fabric of the American military, especially in the officer corps. I am struck by the similarity of their observations on the corrupting effect of dishonest leadership in war. They were talking about the same subject, only from different reference points, one a professor opposed to the war in 1966 (Sahlins), the other a former officer worried about what the betrayal of the honor code in the military - from the top down - will do to the integrity of the American military in 2005 (Truscott). Here are excerpts from their respective statements:

Sahlins (1966, p. 240-241 in 2000 edition):
I had a number of experiences of this kind, times when I heard a Vietnamese or an American in the presence of another American official report something compromising to American ideals, policy, or the Washington line on Vietnam. …. I was interested in the reaction of the American who was thus suddenly confronted with damning information on which he would have to make some reckoning …. If not exactly a moment of truth, the American's response gives subtle intelligence of the critical battle of this war - of how much of America, of what America has meant to us, can be consumed in Vietnam. The Americans I have seen in this predicament were good men and intelligent; but they blanked out, every one of them. Intellectually, they refused to come to terms with it. Morally, they passed. Some said nothing. Some spoke of Vietcong crimes, as if to justify our own or our South Vietnamese agents'. Some glossed over the reported incident as exceptional, as not happening most of the time. And some shrugged, referred to the feudal-oriental character of the country, then asked what one could do since "we're only advisers here." It is, I repeat, an important point. If we are whored by our commitment, if we must lose ourselves in Vietnam, we lose the war - whatever the military outcome.
...[T]he American military adviser who turns his back on the torture of Vietcong prisoners by South Vietnamese soldiers is the khaki counterpart of the VOA civilian who closes his mind to compromising information. But these seem advanced stages of moral decay, people now dangerously close to a final plunge into brutalization. …

Truscott (2005, June 28, New York Times)
My class, that of 1969, set a record with more than 50 percent resigning within a few years of completing the service commitment. ... And now, ... we may be on the verge of a similar exodus of officers. ...
[M]y classmates were disillusioned with more than being sent to fight an unpopular war. When we became cadets, we were taught that the academy's honor code was what separated West Point from a mere college. ... We were taught that in combat, lies could kill. But the honor code was not just a way to fight a better war. ... 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?

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