In George W. Bush’s home state of Texas, if you are an ordinary citizen found guilty of capital murder, the mandatory sentence is either life in prison or the death penalty. If, however, you are a former president of the United States responsible for initiating two illegal wars of aggression, which killed 7,000 U.S. servicemen and at least 210,000 civilians, displaced more than 10 million people from their homes, condoned torture, initiated a global drone assassination campaign, and imprisoned people for years without substantive evidence or trial in Guantanamo Bay, the punishment evidently is to be given the Thayer Award at West Point.
On October 19th, George W. Bush traveled to the United States Military Academy, my alma mater, to receive the Sylvanus Thayer Award at a ceremony hosted by that school’s current superintendent and presented on behalf of the West Point Association of Graduates. The honor is “given to a citizen… whose outstanding character, accomplishments, and stature in the civilian community draw wholesome comparison to the qualities for which West Point strives.”
The Thayer may be one of the most important awards that hardly anyone has ever heard of. In a sense, it’s a litmus test when it comes to West Point’s moral orientation and institutional values. Academy graduates around the world — in dusty GP medium tents as well as Pentagon offices — all sit at the proverbial table where momentous, sometimes perverse decisions are regularly made. To invade or not to invade, to bomb or not to bomb, to torture, or not to torture — those are the questions. As the Trump era has reminded us, the U.S. military’s ability to obliterate all organized human life on Earth is beyond question. So it stands to reason that the types of beliefs pounded into cadets at West Point — the ones that will serve to guide them throughout their military careers — do matter. To the classes of cadets now there, this award will offer a message: that George W. Bush and the things he did in his presidency are worth emulating. I could not disagree more.
The United States Military Academy is, or at least should be, a steward of American military values and yet the presentation of the Thayer Award to our former president represents an unprincipled lapse in judgment. In what it condones, it has committed a brazen violation of West Point’s honor code, which instructs that “a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”
George W. Bush deceived the nation, cheated noncombatants of both their bodily autonomy and moral significance, and waged unjustifiable, unnecessary wars, which misallocated trillions of dollars that would have been better used to ensure the prosperity and well-being of Americans. And he once described his messianic mission as “this crusade.” Is the world’s premier military academy not then honoring the dishonorable?
As I recall from my time wearing cadet grey, West Point regularly indulged in talk about doing “the harder right rather than the easier wrong,” about exhibiting “moral courage,” and about “Army Values.” Our ethical compass was given to us, standard issue, early on, often in the form of quaint military parables.
These were meant to set the ethical standards for behavior in war. Despite serious transgressions of those values by West Point graduates in these years, I still believe that the majority of West Pointers, even in the most stressful situations, are challenged by a nagging little voice asking what West Point would do. In a sense, we have all been hard-wired to follow the ethical protocols we learned at the academy. As far as I’m concerned, however, this award shifts the goal posts. It establishes a new moral paradigm for what should be considered acceptable behavior in war and foreign policy.
As someone who also fought in one of those wars, let me just say that presenting Bush’s leg