- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I found this essay, which until now has only been available on an internal Army website, quite striking. It essentially asks: How could a place that prides itself on its honor code tolerate sadism?
Just FYI, the author’s own title for this piece is “Cool on Honor: Sadism, Cruelty, and Character Development at West Point.”
By Lt. Col. Peter Fromm, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense department of military ethics
Cool on Honor: Sadism, Cruelty, and Character Development at West Point
I have had one serious unanswered injustice done to me in my life, and it occurred when I was 21 years old. I mean “unanswered” in the sense of reciprocity-there has been no accounting for this injustice. I have always wanted to write about it, not because of self-pity but because of something I learned from it that has grown on me over the years. This personal essay describes it as a snapshot from the Army’s troubled times in the 1970s. The story surfaces one important aspect about leadership and stewardship in the modern Army: the antithetical relationship between gratuitous cruelty and honor and the duty to do something about it. In my experience as an Army ethicist, having been sent to graduate school for that purpose, I have seen this antithetical relationship as potentially the most important ethical failure the institution faces. I say this because the institution puts weapons in the hands of young, inexperienced people and then gives them the power of life and death over others. If we do not do all that we can to get this part of Army culture right (the relationship between cruelty and honor), we stand convicted of hypocrisy of the worst kind.
When the Army educated me to teach ethics (a sign of health in the organization that it actually does such a thing), I developed an eye for institutional moral window dressing. That’s mostly what I want to talk about here. In the Odyssey, Homer says that “the blade itself incites to violence.” I want to rephrase that beautiful observation to say that “power over others incites to cruelty.” When one exercises power over another, if there is a lack of moral sense, of maturity, or of wisdom in the execution, it inevitably becomes entangled with that most basic of impulses, sexual dynamics.
As Jean Paul Sartre demonstrates in Being and Nothingness, this sexual component to power dynamics remains a common denominator in human nature, a basic component of our social-political experience. In the case of power over others, there is a psychological impulse to see the other as an object, to dehumanize the other, and to attempt to take action to literally objectify the other through violence or through institutionalized cruelty. This impulse stems from a need to exert one’s existence at the expense of the other, and in this effort there is a tendency toward sadistic abuse. This dynamic is what happens when adults abuse children, as in the case of pedophiles. In power relationships, like rank hierarchies in the military, sexual impulse arises either overtly or in some sublimated way. If it arises overtly, it often ends in sexual harassment or assault, such as what became known at the Air Force Academy in 2005 when several women came forward to say that had been raped or otherwise assaulted there. Another famous case occurred at the Naval Academy when women were chained to urinals in the men’s latrines. When this impulse arises in some sublimated way, it often finds its outlet in violence vented out in some more or less “acceptable” form, such as hazing. Army leaders have to be knowledgeable of and on guard against this natural tendency and not minimize it, writing it off as, or justifying it as, discipline, toughness, or some other thing not daring to name it for what it is, which is what happens all too often. Such abuses happen primarily at the lower levels, at the young levels of leadership, though we are all too familiar with the abuses of more senior and notorious “toxic leaders” of the past.