DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR
Death before dishonor is an ancient English phrase no longer used, nor even
understood, today. Unfortunately, a good man and the Navy's CNO, Admiral
Jeremy Boorda, remembered it and forced himself to obey its dictates. We
are all the poorer for his loss.
The Office of the Secretary of the Navy will research its files and
eventually issue an opinion that states Admiral Boorda either was or was not
entitled to wear a "V" for valor on two ribbons. He had earned the ribbons
for combat operations aboard warships that steamed off the coast of Vietnam
during the Vietnamese War. The issue at question is whether or not his
ships came under enemy fire. If they had, the ribbons could be worn with
the "V" on them. A certifying sentence from the Secretary of the Navy
provides necessary and sufficient authority to add the "V"s. That
sentence had not been in his service jacket, and technically, at least, the
"V"s should not have been worn. It may have been nothing more than an
administrative omission or a misunderstanding. In the Admiral's words, it
was an "Honest mistake."
There is little more to add, and all future conjecture is meaningless. The
man is dead.
What is worth pointing out is how many rich, powerful, respected, and
still-living men never had to agonize whether or not they merited a "V" in
ribbons earned by serving our country's military. Certainly, Patrick
Buchanan did not, nor did Senator Phil Gramm, nor Speaker of the House Newt
Gingrich, nor former Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney. As a matter of fact,
neither did our President, Bill Clinton. They were taking advanced degrees,
or received family deferments, or in the case of Mr. Buchanan, had a knee
problem, that kept all of them from serving during the Vietnam War. But
Mike Boorda did, starting out as a seventeen year old enlisted man in 1956,
earning a commision along the way, and continuing a distinguished career all
the way to admiral and the Chief of Naval Operations.
And if the premise is that of inability to live with unbearable shame, it
seems fair to point out other rich, powerful, respected, still-living men
who have managed that burden. At risk of singling out the few and omitting
the many, I cite Senator Edward Kennedy for an unreported accident in which
a young girl was left underwater in a car for twelve hours, Senator Joseph
Biden for a plagiarized speech, Washington D.C.'s Mayor Barry who was
videotaped and convicted of using cocaine during a party in a motel,
Heisman Trophy winner and football Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson, guilty of
spouse abuse, and former President Richard Nixon who participated in the
coverup of the Watergate burglary. Since those events, they have enjoyed or
are still enjoying the best that life had to offer. Nixon is now dead, but
received a pension commensurate with his long service to the United States.
Top jobs sometimes place the holder under tremendous pressure. The Navy has
taken horrible public relations punishment from its misdeeds of the past
decade, beginning with Tail Hook and carrying through sexual harassment and
the recent scandals at the Naval Academy. As a former line officer and
naval frogman, I can state, though others won't, that Tail Hook was an
embarrassment about some naval aviators and their drunken, adolescent,
college fraternity behavior. Remember, the name of that convention wasn't
Anchors Away. Pilots have always considered themselves unique, and often
acted that way.
But the things that went on at Tailhook were wrong, aviators are a part of
the Navy, and there was no excuse whatever for their conduct. As happens in
medicine, banking, industry, government, the military, or in academia, an
old-boy net joined together to make prosecution of individual members
difficult. In the investigation that followed, a number of high-ranking
officers with aviation backgrounds consequently lost their billets, failed
selection, and took early retirement.
I have my own slant on the matter. Without in any way condoning the
irresponsibility of what happened in Tailhook, my own experience is that
sailors who run the ships, the blackshoe Navy, don't function that way.
They certainly don't hold an annual drunken convention in Las Vegas to
discuss shiphandling and entering and leaving port. None of that was part
of Admiral Boorda's life. Nor did he raise the children who violated our
Naval Academy's honor code by cheating, or those who set up a stolen car
ring. Indirectly, though, he took the rap for all of them.
Honor meant something else to Admiral Boorda. America's media don't even
understand the concept of it. Two things are certain. First, he didn't intend
to be the center of another Naval scandal. Second, no-one was going to take
a rap for him. There would be no personal dishonor before death on Mike
Boorda's watch. And there wasn't.