Honor Codes Gone AWOL

At America's military academies, it seems that integrity itself has gone AWOL. The worst cheating scandal ever to hit the U.S. Naval Academy continues to make headlines. Recent reports say 26 Academy midshipmen have been expelled for their role in the scandal, while several others have received lesser penalties. The students' offense was to circulate pirated copies of an upcoming exam—with some even selling copies of the test for $50. What troubles many Americans is that our military academies have always held to the highest standards of conduct. These cadets are the cream of the crop. Everyone who enters the Naval Academy vows not to "lie, steal, cheat, nor tolerate . . . anyone who does." That last phrase means midshipmen enforce the honor code themselves, turning in anyone who violates it. And in the past, they did enforce it—diligently. Professors giving a test could leave the classroom with complete confidence that students would not cheat. But today that high standard has been thrown overboard. According to an official report, cadets told investigators that the honor code had become an abstract ideal that "simply could not be applied to . . . daily life." As one cadet put it, "You have to understand the kind of pressure people are under here." In other words, the students are reinterpreting the honor code to read, I will not lie, steal, cheat—unless I'm under a lot of pressure in my daily life. What this tells us is that moral relativism has penetrated even the polished walls of our military academies. For many cadets, the operative honor code is simply situation ethics: Make up your rules according to the situation. What a tragic decline from former days of glory. In the past, the military academies were moral fortresses in a stormy sea of relativism. When I was in the Marine Corps, I remember it was the academy graduates who held most firmly to the ideals of duty, honor, and country. The academies built their walls on tradition and group identity—esprit de corps. Students at other universities might lie and cheat, so the reasoning went. But never at the military academies, with their traditions and strict honor codes. No one ever guessed that a full seven percent of the Naval Academy's graduating class would one day take part in a cheating scandal. The lesson for us is that there are no "safe places" in a culture losing its moral base. The last bastions of integrity and honor are no longer holding. If even our military academies are faltering, there can be no doubt that the rest of America is in serious trouble. This means that you and I need to work more diligently than ever at the moral education of our own young people. No one else is going to do the job. The best the secular world had to offer was the strong tradition and esprit de corps represented by the military academies. But even that was not enough. It is clearer than ever that the only real basis for morality are the standards revealed in God's Word. Dostoyevsky has been proved right: You cannot really be good without God.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary