Hey, Tom, the punishments of the West Point rugby players are in fact appropriate
By Jim Gourley Best Defense all-star guest columnist team This week’s revelations of improprieties committed by the West Point Rugby team catalyzed diverse and heated arguments. Passions reached their apex when propelled by references to how harshly the cadets were punished and the transparency of the institution’s administration of justice. Tom himself was challenged on ...
By Jim Gourley
By Jim Gourley
Best Defense all-star guest columnist team
This week’s revelations of improprieties committed by the West Point Rugby team catalyzed diverse and heated arguments. Passions reached their apex when propelled by references to how harshly the cadets were punished and the transparency of the institution’s administration of justice.
Tom himself was challenged on the dual proposition that the cadets should have lost the privilege of graduating on time with their classmates and that not conferring this punishment indicated that West Point is somehow failing in the character-development component of its mission. In his words, there is perhaps a mentality of “boys will be boys” rather than “We turn boys into men, and insist that they be gentlemen.” The most fundamental and vital principles of the discussion were subsequently lost in the hail of slings and arrows — specifically, the development of character in a group of young men who are now serving as front-line leaders in an Army that is still very much at war.
The official West Point statement on the matter is as innocuous in its characterization of the offenses as it is sterile in its description of the punishment. On the surface, it’s fodder for both conspiracy theorists and detractors of the service academies. But we too easily forget that official statements are supposed to be no more than a surface treatment. As people who have lived the service academy experience know, still waters run deep. Those depths conceal a current of shame that runs through the character development and disciplinary systems. By this I do not mean that the service academies hide something that they feel ashamed of, rather that shame itself is a force so potent and entrenched in the system that it may well qualify as the greatest unspoken tradition of these institutions. There is no greater exhibit of this than the iconic punishment of “walking tours,” forcing cadets to march in dress uniform with their rifles in public.
What most people outside of the academies don’t realize is that, for every case in which a cadet or midshipman is discovered to have broken with the institution’s principles, there are several more in which no wrongdoing is found. Some investigations even find fault with the accusers for making specious allegations. “Revenge accusations” and witch hunts are not common occurrences, but they are not uncommon, either. The standards of conduct and the threshold of suspicion are so sensitive that one need not hold a civil engineering degree to make a mountain out of a molehill. Investigations are therefore necessarily thorough and extremely uncomfortable processes. Compounding matters is that the guarantees of confidentiality in these schools are constructed of wicker. To paraphrase Churchill, rumors are able to get from the barracks to the chow hall before the truth can put its dress greys on. In institutions where the scripture of character is written in such absolutist verse, the court of public opinion can be less forgiving than a firing squad. For a first classman preparing to graduate, it ruins what ought to be a rare celebratory period in a cadet’s life. Much care is and absolutely should be taken in these investigations as a measure of damage control, because damage is an unavoidable consequence of the process.
Though not clearly present, these intangibles nevertheless represent a genuine danger to the mission of character development. The sense of dread that your graduation is threatened, the public humiliation of being investigated, the awkward phone call home to your parents warning them of the situation and their consequent disappointment and worry contribute to an overwhelming sense of shame. It becomes a dynamic unto itself in these cases, and consequently must be considered as carefully as the existential circumstances by those in authority. Much has been written about the principle of shame in military culture, but of recent notoriety and also exceptionally relevant to this discussion are Steven Pressfield and Nancy Sherman. They take dynamically opposing views of shame. Pressfield is a zealous advocate of shame’s utility in successful military units as “the shadow version of honor.” He believes it is the stick of a loss of face to be used when the carrot of esteem fails. Sherman also sees a relationship between the two, but characterizes shame more as honor seen through a glass darkly. The polarity of their views highlights the unifying idea of crucial relevance. Whether you believe shame is a force for good or ill, its power cannot be taken for granted. It is a punishment unto itself, and can lead to other forms of self-castigation.
This leads to a more constructive view of the punishment as described in the context of character development. The postponement of graduation was suggested without an explanation of what end it would serve. A punishment should necessarily be instructive and inform better future behavior. According to the press release, the guilty parties received thorough attention. Like “hell,” an “intense respect rehabilitation program, involving self-assessments, reflective journals, and role-model interviews, supervised by a mentor” is just a phrase. The reality is much worse. To be sure, no weekends were spent outside the cadet area in the making of these boys into men. Adding a delayed graduation on top of that is excessive, and ensures the wound inflicted by shame never heals properly. It makes for bitter graduates. In effect, you punish their receiving units more than them.
The effect of shame undoubtedly went even further. The impression made upon them by their officer leaders and how they handled the punishment will be indelible. That may be the most important lesson they learn out of all of this, because they will assuredly face the burden of administering punishment to future subordinates who commit grave offenses. How will they balance punishing the act and improving the person, and how will they negotiate these dilemmas in environments where reputation is as vital as body armor and shame mows down formations as easily as a mortar round? That should be the greatest measure of the institution’s success or failure in “making men out of boys,” for what other purpose is there in making them into men if not to maintain good order and discipline in a fighting force through a considerate application of justice? For those who were admonished, this was a profound — indeed, the penultimate — moment in their character development. It was the last influence West Point had on how they were shaped into leaders. How they were shaped into men will greatly inform the methods by which they go about shaping the boys (and girls) given to them: America’s sons and daughters.
Jim Gourley is a 2002 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy . He now works as a journalist and writer. His first book is due out in July.
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