Why Do We Believe What Our Generals Tell Us?

Prospective jurors in a trial requiring testimony from policemen are usually asked if they think law enforcement officers can be trusted more than other witnesses.  Accordingly, jurors who believe cops don’t lie are dismissed.  It could be argued that this notion of questioning one’s “automatic” integrity should apply to military officers as well, even those who graduated from prestigious service academies.

That whole military honor code deal has always seemed exaggerated.  Even if we ignore the numerous cheating scandals that, over the years, have plagued U.S. service academies (all of which adhere to rigorous honor codes), the most compelling reason for questioning the vaunted “moral rectitude” of these military colleges is the behavior of America’s officer corps during the Vietnam war.

While these men may not have cheated on exams as students, they certainly cheated once they became commissioned officers and began serving in the field.  During that dreadful war, America’s “best and brightest” habitually lied—they lied to their superiors, to their subordinates, to the media, and to the U.S. Congress.  A preponderance of those liars were ex-West Pointers. (“A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do.”)

That’s why anyone old enough to remember Vietnam won’t be surprised at what happened to General David Petraeus (arguably the country’s most celebrated and ambitious 4-star general), who recently disgraced himself by being forced to resign as CIA Director after admitting to an extramarital affair.

To be fair, it’s possible this whole “marital infidelity” issue is a bit more complicated than it seems.  For instance, a husband engaged in an extramarital affair may actually have a mitigating story to share, one that would gain him sympathy.  Indeed, the man could have been trapped in a bleak, loveless marriage, and chose to remain in that hellish relationship purely out of loyalty.

But bad marriage or not, one thing is certain.  To avoid detection, an unfaithful husband is required to be a pretty good liar.  There’s no getting around it.  Because he’s living a “double life,” he’s required to lie to cover his tracks.  So, despite Petraeus’ reputation for integrity, his medals, his Princeton Ph.D.—despite his having been molded by West Point’s honor code—he has demonstrated that, if nothing else, he’s an accomplished liar.  Which makes you wonder what the whole point of that honor code was.

During my tenure as a labor union rep I had occasion to mix socially and professionally with six management employees who were graduates of U.S. service academies.  There were three West Point grads (a plant manager, an asset leader, and a staff assistant), two Annapolis grads (an engineer, and a team leader), and an alumnus of the Air Force Academy (a plant manager).

If you didn’t already know that these people (five men, one woman) were products of service academies, you would never know they had military backgrounds, because their management style was more or less indistinguishable from that of managers with degrees from civilian universities.

As to their comparative truth-telling quotients, the service academy grads didn’t seem any more honest than the civilian grads.  In fact, during my tenure, the two plant managers who stood out as “most honest” were graduates of the University of Mississippi and the University of Tennessee, respectively, and the manager who stood out as “least honest” was that team leader from the Naval Academy, whom I will call “Fred.”

As nice as Fred was (and he was very congenial), he was such an extravagant and notorious liar, he’d become something of a legend among union officers.  Nobody—not the shop stewards, not the executive board—could trust him, which, as one might surmise, made his involvement in union-management relations untenable.  Fred was eventually forced to resign.

Presumably, Fred lied for the same reasons most people lie:  to escape punishment, to avoid disappointing others, to aggrandize himself.  The truth of the matter was that this Annapolis graduate was so woefully unsuited and equipped for his job, whenever he got into trouble or came under fire, he did the one thing he felt comfortable doing:  He lied.

Again, it makes you wonder what the whole point of that honor code was.  Did it only apply to West Point cadets, and not to these same men once they entered the real world?  As for General Petraeus and his mistress, why would we treat their illicit affair any different than that of a fry cook and a waitress?   If we pretend that their dalliance was somehow more noble or elevated, we’re fooling ourselves.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd Edition), was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net


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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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