In yesterday’s post on military medals and integrity, I mentioned that embellishing one’s credentials is a fairly common failing.   A case in point is U.S. Senator John Walsh (Democrat, Montana), who has in past tweaked his resume to make it sound more impressive.  According to today’s New York Times, Senator Walsh’s congressional bio once said that he was a graduate of the University of Albany, State University of New York, when “he actually earned his B.S. degree from what was then known as Regents College, an adult learning institute that issued degrees under the umbrella of the University of the State of New York”.  That may not seem like a big deal, and Senator Walsh amended his bio (without comment) when a political newspaper looked into his credentials.  

A bigger deal, reported today, is that when Senator Walsh was an officer in the US Army, and was a student at the US Army War College in Carlisle, PA in 2007, he appears to have plagiarized the final paper for his Master’s degree.  The NYT piece offers numerous examples of how Walsh included the material of other authors in his essay without quotation marks, often changing a word or two.  While some of these sources were footnoted, the absence of quotation marks is crucial.  Any undergraduate knows (or should know) that quotation marks tell one’s reader that the words and thoughts are not one’s own, and any attempt to suggest otherwise is a serious instance of academic dishonesty. A War College faculty member is quoted in the NYT article as saying that the importance of academic honesty is something that is made quite clear to the students – “We drill that in incessantly”. 

A postgraduate degree in contemporary western militaries is a significant rung on the career ladder to senior rank, or, in military slang, a “check in the box” necessary for promotion.   While any university instructor will tell you that academic fraud is a serious problem on college campuses, one would hope that military officers would have a sounder understanding of personal and professional integrity than a callow undergraduate.

Senator Walsh has told the Associated Press that his war experience in Iraq led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which affected his judgement.   “I don’t want to blame my mistake on PTSD, but I do want to say it may have been a factor.  My head was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment”.   In the same interview, he said that he “didn’t believe” that he had plagiarized his paper.

It’s tempting to think that in the hyper-partisan climate of US politics, Senator Walsh’s opponents will try to exploit this story.   A Montana Democrat is already using the words “smear campaign”.   However, to be fair, the Senator’s military credentials, including his War College degree, doubtless made him an attractive candidate in the first place.  At some point the voters will decide, but the story does raise a troublesome question about whether PTSD can be used as a defence for lapses of moral judgement, even if, as in the Senator’s case, it is a curiously high-functioning form of PTSD.  

It would be interesting to hear the Senator comment on the following hypothetical scenario.   A young veteran, attending college, is sitting in his or her professor’s office.  They are discussing the student’s  paper which, like the Senator’s, uses other people’s ideas without properly acknowledging them.  The veteran pleads PTSD.  What should the professor say?