Midshipmen learn to navigate ethical dilemmas through DVDs

Ryan Burke listens to Capt. Owen Thorp during a discussion of an interactive DVD series being used at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Ryan Burke listens to Capt. Owen Thorp during a discussion of an interactive DVD series being used at the U.S. Naval Academy. (James A. Parcell For The Washington Post)
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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

Could Aristotle handle a drunk buddy in a bar? Would Socrates remain loyal to a friend in trouble, or honor his duty to Athens? And could Plato embrace a noble lie that put his future at risk?

Could they decide within 10 seconds, when faced with an interactive DVD?

Twenty-four centuries behind the learning curve, the great thinkers would no doubt be baffled by computer technology and its intersection with their philosophies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Generations of midshipmen have judged case studies about personal conduct and wartime decisions through the prisms of those wise men of old. Now they're also testing their fitness to be leaders with a series of interactive DVDs that demand snap decisions in 21st-century dilemmas.

Each video presents a scenario with several critical forks. There's no time to philosophize: Click one of the buttons, then deal with the consequences as the rest of the story unfolds.

Your buddy is drunk and argumentative in a bar, and tomorrow is a big day for your unit. Wait to get him home safely, or grab some precious sleep yourself?

Morning comes, and he's drunk on the couch. Persuade him to stay home and face the consequences, or let him report for duty and risk getting caught?

After vomiting in the base parking lot, your buddy wants you to pledge to help cover up his drunkenness. Promise to back him up when he claims a case of the flu, or alert the captain before the admiral arrives to inspect the unit?

To six groups of midshipmen 1st class (senior year) who viewed this DVD last month, the issues put into conflict three of the fundamental obligations taught since their first day at the academy: the bond of loyalty to shipmates, the mandate for truthfulness and the sanctity of naval service.

"Ship, shipmate, self," said Midshipman 1st Class Kyle Rosen, repeating a Navy mantra. "Keeping that straight is one of the toughest challenges."

Alcohol is a common factor in most judgment lapses by naval officers and enlisted personnel, and it looms large in the DVD series.

The Navy is working to escape the legacy of the Tailhook scandal, a 1991 incident in which some of the more than 4,000 officers gathered for a convention in Las Vegas engaged in drunken debauchery that tarnished the careers of more than a dozen admirals and 300 naval aviators.

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