Honor Is a Seamless Garment

By Captain Robert J. Phillips, Chaplain Corps, U.S. Navy

What is the real problem? No definitive answer emerges. The mixture of professional performance and ethical response has too many twists and turns to be captured by a bumper-sticker slogan. This ambiguity, however, has not kept the services from seeking to make a meaningful and effective response—which leads us to core values.

Every service has invested much thought and money into the formation of core values. For the naval service, they are honor, courage, and commitment. Sailors and Marines who embrace these values will be better servants of their country and better citizens by the time their military service ends.

The push for core values developed partly out of the turbulence of recent highly publicized events, but those were not the main impetus. Frankly, any city of 1.4 million young adults with the crime rate of the U.S. military would consider itself exceptionally lucky. Core values also—and primarily—we their existence to a recognition that the ethical tradition provided by families, churches, and civic institutions no longer can be taken for granted in new recruits and officers. Many of today's sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen lack intact families, organized religious backgrounds, or experience with social institutions such as Scouting. The core values package offers them a realistic secular moral framework for doing the right thing. So goes the thinking.

Unpacking Assumptions

Some assumptions underlie the creation of core values. They have not been clearly stated, but they are vital to making this program work. The first is that everyone understands what the key words mean. "Honor, Courage, Commitment" sounds inspiring and solemn. The touchy point is that the words are more descriptive than definitive. What you see is not necessarily what you will get or what someone else will see.

As understood within his own moral framework, Joseph Stalin embodied each of these terms, but no one is pushing him as a poster boy for core values. The behaviors of many inner-city gangs likewise could be understood as the pinnacle of these characteristics within their ethical framework. In short, core values provide the military with a sturdy box and attractive wrapping paper, but they do not come with a content that everyone understands instantly or in the same way.

Lieutenant Flinn contended that the Air Force system overreacted to an affair of the heart and the subsequent disobedience of a lawful order and making a false official statement. "Honor" left at the concept level and not internalized with clear ethical content ceases to have anything to do with particular actions, even for a service academy graduate drilled for four years on its meaning. Values become whatever one wants them to be. Some powerful politicians have joined in the subsequent "Zoomie bashing" arising from the Flinn affair, but it is doubtful that Congress will move to amend the UCMJ and vote "for" adultery.

This leads to a second assumption. If precise definitions of honor, courage, and commitment are still being formulated, an institution's fallback position routinely becomes, "What's legal?" Thus, our annual ethical training habitually winds up in the laps of the lawyers, which is arguably the worst place if the distinction between moral, ethical, and legal behaviors is to be maintained.

Recently my wife and I hosted some single female officers for dinner. In the course of the conversation, one commented that part of her policy for socializing was not to date married men. Another nodded agreement and both then noted their annoyance at how some unaccompanied married officers worked hard to hide their marital status, removed their wedding rings, or otherwise sent signals that their spousal fidelity was negotiable. The two female officers saw these social signals as a violation of core values. At such times, a reminder to the eager Casanova that adultery is a violation of the UCMJ might carry more weight than appeals to core values, religious tradition, or a picture of the kids back home.

But the difficulty here is that not everything that is legal is necessarily right and not everything that is right is necessarily legal. Citizens in occupied Europe who hid Jews from the Nazis were right but not legal, while those who handed over Jews to the Nazis were legal but not right. Briefing a command on what will send someone to Leavenworth is helpful in preventing felonious stupidity but does nothing to internalize the concepts of honor, courage, or commitment. And core values, if they mean anything at all, mean that some moral and ethical standards are worth internalizing.

This points to the third assumption regarding core values. Core values presuppose that ethical leadership is a seamless garment. The old notion that personal behavior and values are irrelevant unless they have a direct impact on professional performance cannot coexist with a serious embrace of core values. Defining honor as selective in relevance is akin to arguing that a woman is slightly pregnant. To suggest that commitment matters when talking of the relationships with one's shipmates but is irrelevant when talking of a promise made in marriage is to sin against the meaning of the word. It is possible to show courage on the battlefield while routinely surrendering one's ethical courage in certain types of wardroom antics, informal audits, misuse of temporary active duty, and the like. This is where the battle for core values is joined.

Recall the initial—and still lingering—response of many insiders to Tailhook. While not excusing forcible assaults or felonious behavior, many had to think hard about why there was all the fuss. Numerous veterans of focsle's follies, liberty outside Subic Bay, and previous Tailhook conventions felt that nothing was that much out of place, other than the harsh publicity the event received. For example, the last time I sailed out of Subic Bay in 1981, the captain chirped the ancient farewell over the IMC for the crew to "Say goodbye to your loved ones. You're now going home to your wives."

It would be unfair and untrue to imply that all or even most naval aviators or military personnel became bereft of integrity once they moved beyond Point Loma. It is more to the point to note that the social and professional mores once acceptable to an officer are in the process of profound change. Standards are different and not yet entirely clear. Hence, many officers raised under one set of rules are frustrated by being held accountable to another. This feeling is real whether the officer in question has engaged in questionable behavior or not.

In the early 1990s, while serving as a chaplain at the Coast Guard Academy, I participated in an honor forum for the cadet and midshipmen leaders in the honors program at each service academy. At the opening banquet, I offered a prayer that asked God to keep us from the moral mind games that make a shambles out of the concept of honor. For academy students, those mind games could include viewing lying as worthy of expulsion but covering for underage drunkenness as only a rite of passage; cheating as an act worthy of scorn but numerous sexual conquests simply an admirable example of good luck; stealing as a betrayal of trust but gossiping about a classmate as no big deal.

I talked with a number of students from the five academies over the subsequent two days, and most saw no relevant professional connection between those behaviors. Lying, cheating, and stealing were dishonorable because they could get a cadet or midshipman expelled via the honor system. Other types of behavior might get a student in trouble, but since they were not matters addressed in regulations by an honor board, they were not behaviors that had to do with honor, other than in a constricted personal sense.

The academy students are not alone. Articles in Navy Times and national news magazines, and editorial pundits with and without military experience are beginning to mumble about the impractical and unrealistic applications of the UCMJ to certain types of behaviors. References to "casting the first stone" are hurled like a slingshot at the military, which now stands accused of taking the wrong things too seriously and the right things not seriously enough.

The naval service finds itself in a no-win situation. Let it take a seamless-garment approach to core values and it is "uptight" or "Puritan." If sea service leaders send signals, however faint, that certain behaviors are no big deal, the seamless garment hits the rag pile. The service mottoes Semper Fidelis and Semper Paratus are well known. Fidelis (faithful) and paratus (prepared) are functions of professional perspective and excellence. Semper (always) is a function of honor. If honor is not a seamless garment, perhaps these mottoes should be revised to Saepe Fidelis (usually faithful) or Saepe Paratus (usually prepared)?

Modest Proposals

Core values can be propounded and lived by human beings—from the new Generation X to the older salts who have witnessed the changing of the guard and guidelines for behavior. One cannot turn an aircraft carrier on a dime or spin a large institution such as the military in a fresh direction overnight, but genuine, positive change is possible. To that end, I offer these observations:

Define the terms . The point is not to determine moral definitions by Gallup poll but to get a sense of how the target audience understands the key terms. Clear definitions and simple illustrations would help convey the meaning of "honor, courage, commitment." Boot camp, Officer Candidate School, and recruit training offer natural venues to take the moral pulse of those to whom core values will be taught and of whom core values will be expected.

Often the best way to convey an idea is to wrap it up in an example. Recently I gave a talk on moral decision making to Marines in my command element, split into three separate groups. When I asked the 100 Marines of sergeant rank or below if they could identify the name "My Lai," 97 could not do so. When I asked roughly 50 senior enlisted—staff sergeants through master gunnery sergeants—44 could not do so. About 34 of 40 officers could identify My Lai.

Obviously, no one who wears the uniform relishes the retelling of this tragedy, but it can offer valuable lessons in core values. Among them is the example of those who became aware of rumors that something terrible had happened at the village and who insisted on pursuing the truth. They had internalized the meaning of integrity and were able to respond appropriately in the face of powerful peer pressure to leave the rumors alone. One can accept My Lai as a terrible moral anomaly for Americans in combat and still find heroic responses worthy of reflection and imitation.

Define the purpose . Many men and women in the trenches view core values as both an admirable effort to encourage high personal standards and an exercise in institutional "six"-covering. This ambivalence can lead to tongue-in-cheek endorsement and application of the program at a command.

Core values can be more than a ploy to hold Congress, the media, and certain special interest groups at bay. Naval personnel need clear and consistently positive reinforcement on the constructive difference that core values can make in their profession and personal lives.

To a sailor tired of worrying about having possessions stolen by "shipmates" while on watch, a concept of honor shared by all can be very appealing. To a Marine charging through an endurance course or actual combat, the knowledge that those standing alongside strive for courage can be reassuring. To all sea service members fearful that the system plans to use and drop them, the practical demonstration of commitment to them by the services can engender reciprocal commitment and loyalty. Core values have a purpose—and a payoff—not only to the institution but also to the individual.

This also means we must modify our use of the adjective "good." A "good" ship driver who cautions his department heads to eat casualty reports rather than submit them and embarrass the ship is not a good ship driver. A "good" pilot who is abusive of subordinates and cavalier about standards for flying with a hangover is not a good pilot. A "good" Marine with a reputation for marital infidelity is not a good Marine. Including core values in our definition of a "good" military member can help those up and down the chain of command see the professional and personal payoff of taking the standards seriously.

Remember human nature . Seeking to implement core values by moralisms and threats are two time-honored and easy methods. They take less thought, less work, and make the presenter feel good about what is being said. But such tactics gain only a quick gag and a shrug in the recipient. Human nature is highly resistant to doing anything based on threats of pain.

Recently I saw a commercial on sexual harassment on the local armed forces television station. A stern man walked onto an empty stage and announced that he was giving a presentation on sexual harassment. He then intoned that it is a violation of regulations and will be punished. He concluded by asking with a snarl, "Any questions?" It dawned on me that I had just seen a secular version of a Hellfire and brimstone sermon. The sponsoring agency could feel good about what was said, but there was no attempt to meet the listener's need to understand the reasons why changing behavior are compelling.

The greatest irony in the accusamercial was that at no time did the speaker tell the listener to avoid sexual harassment because it is wrong. Sexual harassment is a threat to career, a path to jail, a summons to court, but not wrong? A healthy and serious application of core values opens the door to using words such as "right" and "wrong" in legitimate ways.

There is a tendency in human nature to flow with peer pressure—it has been said that the two most powerful people in Czarist Russia were Nicholas II and the last person who talked to him—and this tendency can be turned to good. Peers can hold one another to appropriate standards where the scoldings of seniors are shrugged off. Peers can pull one another back from stupid or destructive acts that seniors know nothing about. Unit cohesion is more than an argument over homosexuals in the military or lock-step thinking. At its best, it is the buddy system par excellence. On physical battlefields, it gives troops the courage to be present to a comrade even at great personal risk. On the battlefields of core values, it gives them the courage to stand up for what is right.

Be clear about the assumptions . Unspoken assumptions often are unshared assumptions. The system needs to be clear and repetitive in positive ways about the meaning of words such as "honor," "courage," and "commitment." Admiral Thomas B. Hayward's mantra, "Not on my watch, not on my ship, not in my Navy," may have taken its share of scorn, but it helped establish a climate of honorable accountability that got the upper hand in the military struggle against the drug culture of the late 1970s. That mantra, backed by consistent actions, defined terms that helped to shift not only behavior but also attitudes.

Lectures on core values can benefit from the presence of chaplains, lawyers, and others with professional backgrounds, but the real teaching of these values rests with the junior officers and mid-level enlisted leaders. These are the people with the most active professional contact with the troops. Their presentations and examples will set the stage for core values and determine whether they take hold. The integrity of senior leadership can be the preface to the effective sharing of values or a sorry postscript along the lines of "Do as I say, not as I do."

There are, of course, limitations to the role of core values in the military. When the net is cast by recruiters, all kinds of folks are hauled on board. Some are outstanding. Others will go back into the drink no matter what the system tries. It is for the wide middle range that core values can make a tremendous personal and professional difference. The middle range has been weaned not on the Ten Commandments or the ethics of Aristotle but on notions such as those expressed in the movie Hackers , where the protagonist comments, "There is no right or wrong. There is only fun or boring." And that was from one of the heroes!

It behooves the sea services to create an atmosphere where a healthy character is encouraged. Core values can be a tool in the creation of such an atmosphere. To the thousands of men and women who join the military each year they can offer hope—hope of improvement as human beings, confident of their abilities in their jobs and in their approaches to life. Core values can be a gift from the sea services to the citizens who serve in them.

Captain Phillips is a chaplain with III Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa.

 

 
 

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