After the Army's court-martial of Leon Davis had been concluded, I said somebody in the hierarchy had made an unwise decision: Davis shouldn't have been prosecuted.
The Army admitted that it had made false recruiting promises. Expressing neither shame nor regret, it shrugged off its falsehoods as harmless puffery.
Reader reaction to my comments was moderately heavy and at times puzzling. One letter, from an old friend of this column included a sentence that said, "Perhaps the Army did mislead doctors into signing up, but I do not believe this."
Her refusal to believe the Army did what it admitted it did is a good illustration of a human being's ability to believe what he wants to believe.
Several Army and Air Force men wrote to tell me about "even worse" decisions in personnel matters. In each case, however, the criticized decision happened to involve my correspondent, and that made me wonder how objective a report he was giving me.
One man asked, "How could Davis have gotten a fair trial from a lieutenant colonel after a two-star general had already announced that Davis had to be punished?" The reference must be to a news story I didn't see.
The letters that were easy to understand were the ones from career people for whom one issue overshadowed everything else: In the armed services, people must be conditioned to respond to orders quickly and unquestioningly. Any deviation can be calamitous.
Col. Robert H. Cole of Annandale put it this way: "Since 1962 when I retired from the U.S. Army and moved to this area, I have been a faithful reader of your column. During these 16 years I have enjoyed and appreciated and your good sense and your willingness to look at all sides of a problem.
"Thus it was a surprise to me to read your 7 November column, "Court-Martial "Victory" Will Cost Too Much," because of your one-sided view of the controversy. In my opinion you missed the overriding principle involved.
"The military is not a democracy, nor can it be compared to a commercial sales organization. If an individual in the military were permitted to disobey an order simply because he had a grievance or the government had not kept its promise, the result would be chaos.
"People in the military are often required to carry out orders or perform tasks with which they are not in agreement. However, the sanctity of legal orders must be maintained if we are to retain a disciplined organization.
"Military doctors are subject to orders to the same degree as are others in the military service."
"For the U.S. Army to have failed to court-martial Capt. Davis would have been shameful and most unfair to others who must comply with orders. I agree that Lt. Col. Hanft demonstrated good sense in softening the charges, and this is not uncommon in cases of this kind. However, the sentence is not so important. What is important is that no individual be allowed to choose which orders he is willing to follow." Or, as a general wrote: "Every man must develop the habit of obeying at once. Lives depend on it. The security of the nation demands it."
That point is not lost on me. I accept its validity. I did not defend what Davis did; I questioned the wisdom of the Army's reaction to what he did.
I said the Army would have been better served if it had quietly permitted Davis to resign and then had taken a hard look at the promises its recruiters and advertisements were making.
A respected organization run by men of honor - and the Army is all of that - should not be put into the position of having to admit that it makes promises it doesn't keep.
There was a better way to deal with Davis, but the Army flubbed it.