To Cheat or Not To Cheat? – West Point Life Lesson #3
As a Cadet at the United States Military Academy, I was required to memorize a lot of “Plebe Knowledge”. I was issued a small black book affectionately called Bugle Notes. This little book was packed with mottos, mission statements, quotes and other fun facts regarding the history and heritage of West Point. An upper class cadet would quiz me on this knowledge and if I did not know a particular passage verbatim, then there would be “hell to pay” and my life suddenly became miserable.
I did what I had to do and memorized every word of that little book. After a while they just became words to me and were not internalized, except for one sentence that changed how I approached my life, after my first summer at West Point.
“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” A cadet’s life revolves around that statement and is the foundation of daily life at West Point. I was required to memorize this statement and it was hammered into my soul every single day my first summer at West Point.
This simple statement, known as the Cadet Honor Code, is unique in that it is enforced by the Corp of Cadets at West Point. The Corp of Cadets would “police” its own ranks and would run the system effectively to ensure that the Corp remained clean and true to its values and beliefs. It was a major deal if a cadet was accused of an honor violation. If a cadet were found guilty of an honor violation, it would be passed up through the chain-of-command and ultimately to the Secretary of the Army for a recommendation of expulsion.
At first, I followed the code out of fear. I worked hard to get an appointment to the Academy and I was not going to let anything jeopardize my future, but soon I began to internalize it and understood the power of a person’s honor and integrity. I pondered on the power of the Honor Code and came to appreciate the value of trust. I witnessed firsthand the pain of being accused, by your peers, of violating your honor or the trust of others.
I watched friends go through the trial process and the toll it took on their lives and their futures. Many times, violations were usually based on something quite simple. It might be a “little white lie” or someone gaining “unfair” advantage on something very tiny in the overall scheme of things. At West Point, everything is taken to the extreme, because an Officer’s actions on the battlefield could lead to loss of life. In the case of the Honor Code, I was always amazed at how swiftly an honor violation would be handled. One day I would hear someone was accused of a violation and the next day they would be gone!
It wasn’t until after I graduated from the Academy and began to experience real life that I understood the wisdom behind the Honor Code. Trust in a relationship is EVERYTHING; it is the glue that holds the relationship together. Once you violate trust, then it is difficult and near impossible to come back. The institution at West Point did not tolerate cheaters and cleansed itself of such violators quickly and efficiently, but then again so does the institution of life. If you cheat in life, it catches up to you, and even though there is not a formal system of weeding out the cheaters, like West Point, cheaters ultimately lose and suffer the consequences of expulsion from the good graces of society. Those who cheat may gain short term success, but are never prosperous in long term, just ask Pete Rose, Mark McGuire, or Lance Armstrong.
I am grateful that my experiences at the Academy taught me the importance of my honor and integrity and showed me how to conduct myself as an officer and a gentleman. I used to believe that the Honor Code was a unique calling for the West Point Graduate, but now I know it is a foundational principle to be internalized by all.