David H. Hackworth
21 May 1996
DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR
Last Thursday morning, I gave a lecture to a college class in Texas by telephone. Just before I signed off, I said, "I'm working on a big story -- can't give you the details, but you'll read about in next week's Newsweek." My parting comment to the class of aspiring journalists was: "Remember, as reporters you must always be true to yourself."
Two hours later, I filed my story about Adm. Jeremy Boorda, the Chief of Naval Operations, wearing valor awards he had not earned on the field of strife. At around 2 p.m., Adm. Boorda committed suicide after being told there were press inquiries concerning his decorations.
My personal credo about being true to oneself has again been put to the test.
In battle, a leader's most awesome responsibility is that his orders frequently mean the difference between living and dying. I have ordered soldiers to fight more times than I care to think about and seen too many good men die.
Adm. Boorda's suicide has once again reminded me of the possible grave consequences of our actions.
I pursued the story because for a soldier or sailor there's no greater disgrace than wearing unearned valor awards. Combat ribbons -- awards for which so many brave warriors have bled -- are the ultimate status symbol to warriors. They bring a special recognition and respect.
And with military leaders, from corporal to four-star rank, there's a larger issue: integrity. The very bedrock of any military organization is honor, doing the hard right over the easy wrong and standing tall in everything that's done.
Midshipmen at Annapolis, cadets at West Point, the Air Force Academy, all the ROTCs and other officer-producing schools in the land are taught the code, "I will not lie, cheat or steal nor tolerate anyone who does."
These sacred rules don't only apply to cadets, NCOs or junior grade officers, but to every leader who wears the uniform, from cadet to general, midshipmen to admiral.
In recent years, there's been an epidemic of violations of these rules, many by senior officers. These offenses range from lying under oath to stealing to misusing government property.
Maj. Gen. Jarvis Lynch, USMC retired, says younger officers and cadets have been trashed for these misdeeds. He writes, "It's an odd situation. The elders work from the belief that the young have no abiding standards -- they lack integrity: they don't know right from wrong. And the young think that they have encountered hypocrisy in high places and may be drawing conclusions not intended by those who are spreading the gospel."
So I chased the story because I believe the feet of the top brass must be held to the fire just as well as those of the youngsters. They especially must set an honorable example, and integrity is not negotiable. It's the price an officer or NCO pays.
Generals and admirals make awesome decisions. Not only about billions of defense dollars that have been put in their trust, but also in matters of life and death. Too, they advise the president, who as commander in chief must rely implicitly on their judgment when acting upon their recommendations concerning war and peace.
During the Vietnam War, generals and admirals did not act with virtue. They lied and deceived about the course of the war, not only to the President and Congress, but to the American people. As a result, a generation of young Americans was doomed.
Adm. Boorda was a caring leader who genuinely looked after his sailors. But by wearing false awards, he lived a lie. He was not true to himself.
Joan Kuehl, an eminent New York psychoanalyst, told me, "Your story may have triggered his suicide, but there probably was something else going on. Whatever caused him to wear awards he did not deserve could have been symptomatic of a larger flaw in his character."
Don Graham, publisher of Newsweek's parent company, The Washington Post, called me only hours after Boorda had shot himself and said, "Hack, don't feel guilty. You were doing your duty."
I was also doing my duty when my orders caused young men to die on distant battlefields, but that doesn't lessen the pain of their -- or Adm. Boorda's -- dying.