Topic: Professions & Institutions

"Pappy" Boyington and the Student Senate

People do not usually think of competence as a matter of ethics, but it is. Taking on the responsibility to do a job without acquiring the knowledge and skill necessary to do it is profoundly unethical, and professions such as medicine, law, financial management, education and business recognize this. But competence, and its related value, diligence, are ethical imperatives for all of us, and not just in our jobs. One has a duty to be a competent parent, a competent student, and a competent citizen. One has a duty to be a competent voter: if you won’t take the time to learn enough about the issues and where candidates stand on them to cast an informed vote, then your contribution to the democratic process can only be negative. And one has a duty to know what one is talking about before denigrating those who have been competent, responsible and ethical.

The Student Senate of the University of Washington botched this duty spectacularly when it recently considered the following proposed resolution:

Be it resolved … that we consider Col. Gregory Boyington, United States Marine Corps, to be a prime example of the excellence that this university represents and strives to impart upon its students, and, That we desire for a memorial for Col. Boyington be commenced by the University of Washington by 11 January 2008, the twentieth anniversary of his death, which will be publicly displayed, so that all who come here in future years will know that the University of Washington produced one of this country’s bravest men, and that we as a community hold this fact in the highest esteem.

Col. Gregory Boyington, as anyone with access to Google can find out in about 30 seconds, was a World War II hero, a flying ace, the leader of the famed “Black Sheep Squadron,” and a prisoner of war who endured months of torture at a Japanese prison camp. Still, the student senate rejected the resolution with a combination of ignorance, bigotry, arrogance and naiveté that should make any parent of a student there wonder exactly what their tuition payments are purchasing.

For example:

  • Student Senator Jill Edwards, said that she “didn’t believe a member of the Marine Corps was an example of the sort of person UW wanted to produce.”

    Here is one of many descriptions of the official values of the U.S. Marine Corps, as described in the book “Warrior Culture of the U.S. Marines” by Marion Sturkey:

    Honor:  Honor requires each Marine to exemplify the ultimate standard in ethical and moral conduct.  Honor is many things; honor requires many things.  A U.S. Marine must never lie, never cheat, never steal, but that is not enough.  Much more is required.  Each Marine must cling to an uncompromising code of personal integrity, accountable for his actions and holding others accountable for theirs.  And, above all, honor mandates that a Marine never sully the reputation of his Corps.

    Courage:  Simply stated, courage is honor in action — and more.  Courage is moral strength, the will to heed the inner voice of conscience, the will to do what is right regardless of the conduct of others.  It is mental discipline, an adherence to a higher standard.  Courage means willingness to take a stand for what is right in spite of adverse consequences.  This courage, throughout the history of the Corps, has sustained Marines during the chaos, perils, and hardships of combat.  And each day, it enables each Marine to look in the mirror — and smile.

    Commitment: Total dedication to Corps and Country.  Gung-ho Marine teamwork.  All for one ,one for all.  By whatever name or cliché, commitment is a combination of (1) selfless determination and (2) a relentless dedication to excellence.  Marines never give up, never give in, never willingly accept second best.  Excellence is always the goal.  And, when their active duty days are over, Marines remain reserve Marines, retired Marines, or Marine veterans.  There is no such thing as an ex-Marine or former-Marine.  Once a Marine, always a Marine.  Commitment never dies.

    Hmmm. I wonder which of these values student senator Edwards rejects. If there are any that she rejects, it is her ethical compass and not that of Marines that is unworthy of endorsement by the University. Meanwhile, her flippant and ignorant comment impugns the character of, among others, astronaut and former Senator John Glenn, F. Lee Bailey, U.S. Senator Conrad Burns, best-selling author James Webb, actor Gene Hackman, Congressman John Murtha, children’s television icon Bob Keeshan (“Captain Kangaroo”), UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, John Phillip Sousa, golfer Lee Trevino, baseball great Ted Williams, Drew Carey, Montel Williams, M*A*S*H star and progressive advocate Mike Farrell, and the Everly Brothers.

    Gee, Jill, what a disgraceful bunch!
  • Student Senator Karl Smith suggested that the resolution honoring Boyington be stripped of any mention of “destroying 26 enemy aircraft.” In this way, he suggested, Colonel Boyington’s “service” could be acknowledged, but “not his killing of others.” Thus did a student safely pursuing his studies in a free country imply misconduct and shame in the service of U.S. soldiers called upon to put their lives at risk to resist the advances and atrocities of two totalitarian empires determined to conquer the world by force and genocide.

  • Ashley Miller, yet another senator, declared that “too many monuments at UW already commemorate rich white men.” There is great bigotry, unfairness and disrespect inherent in this fatuous statement, for if a person’s achievements warrant recognition, his or her race, gender or economic background should be irrelevant. But the statement was also spectacularly and inexcusably incompetent, for Colonel Boyington was not only not rich, he wasn’t white either! Boyington was a Sioux Indian, and any student who bothered to look up one of the many photos of him available on the web would have had good reason to suspect that he was a Native American. Ms. Miller was probably thinking of actor Robert Conrad, who portrayed Boyington in a popular TV series. Perhaps she also thinks that Leonardo DiCaprio is Howard Hughes, and John Travolta is Bill Clinton.

This would all be laughable, if it wasn’t so offensive and commonplace. Opinions unmoored to any consideration, information, research or analysis are the sludge of today’s public discourse, and those who want to wallow in it are welcome to do so. But when individuals have a duty they are bound to perform, such as evaluating a proposal to honor Medal of Honor recipient who fought and suffered for freedom, they must to do it competently. Instead, the University of Washington student government relied on bumper sticker ideology, careless assumptions and misinformation, violating ethical principles of competence, diligence, care and fairness. The students were disrespectful to the memory of man who, whether he deserves to be memorialized at his alma mater or not, absolutely earned the right to have his life’s accomplishments known and understood by those who presumed to judge them.

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