• U.S.

West Point Makes a Comeback

10 minute read
Evan Thomas

The new cadet stands in full battle dress, his face smeared with black-green camouflage grease, sweltering in the August sun. Just two months earlier, David Craft, 19, of Rockford, Ohio, was a high school stud. Now, in cadet slang, he is a beanhead. “It’s kind of degrading,” he allows. “We were the top of our class. Now we’re dirt, scum. They’re always on you. Whatever you do is wrong.” Craft’s best friend from high school, who accompanied him to West Point, has already dropped out. “He couldn’t take the loss of freedom,” explains Craft. “No McDonald’s.” Does Craft wish he were back home at Ohio State, drinking beer? The whites of his eyes grow large. “No, sir!” he exclaims. “This is serious business!”

Serious business, indeed. West Point, said General George S. Patton Jr., class of ’09, is “a holy place.” The academy, said General Maxwell Taylor, ’22, is “not for everyone, only for those with a true vocation.” That calling is to lead in battle. “Your mission,” General Douglas Mac-Arthur, ’03, told the cadets in 1962, “remains fixed, determined, inviolable: it is to win our wars.”

Yet in the years since Viet Nam, critics in and out of uniform have repeatedly charged that too many officers have become cautious bureaucrats, adept at Pentagon politics perhaps, but interested more in advancing their careers than in preparing for the brutal exigencies of combat. In an era of unconventional warfare and low-level guerrilla struggles, military reformers sometimes fear that a rigid military-academy mind-set is geared to yesterday’s wars of attrition. They question whether West Point is turning out the kind of officers that the nation needs.

The 183-year-old academy, which is enjoying a resurgence of popular support and of internal morale, has few doubts about its modern role. During the Viet Nam War, West Point was so unpopular that it was unable to fill its class of ’72 with qualified applicants. Last year, at a time of renewed patriotism, it received 12,644 applications for some 1,400 places. Although only 12% of newly commissioned U.S. Army lieutenants are West Pointers, 37% of the Army’s generals once wore cadet gray. The academy sets the tone for the officer corps; it regards itself as a repository of martial virtue and soldierly professionalism. By its own claim, West Point’s success at imbuing its graduates with these qualities will determine America’s success in future wars.

A West Point education is a curious mixture of drudgery and inspiration. Cadets are deprived of freedom and at the same time given responsibility, encouraged to be creative and at the same time punished for failing to go by the book. It seems a mass of contradictions, until one realizes that the aim of West Point, unstated perhaps, is to produce leaders who are bold yet also reflexively carry out orders. “The mission of West Point,” states General Bruce Palmer Jr., ’36, “is to put iron in your soul.”

Like any high church, West Point relishes pomp. On crisp autumn Saturdays, tourists flock to the vast greensward known as the Plain to watch the corps of cadets parade by in their gray swallowtail coats adorned with gold braid. The essential West Point, however, is never on public display. It is hidden behind stone battlements, in bleak inner courtyards of black asphalt. In these forbidding surroundings, the rite of passage into the Long Gray Line begins every July with a seven-week ordeal that is officially labeled Cadet Basic Training but is better known as Beast Barracks. Plebes are weaned from teen culture (TVs are banned from the rooms) and taught to be “warriors.” “Not savages, but gentlemen,” explains Cadet Captain Chris Borgerding. Plebes are constantly “corrected” by upperclassmen, but hazing is forbidden. For years, plebes were so busy reciting and saluting at mealtime that they went hungry and lost weight. The more famished cadets were known to eat toothpaste for bulk. Now, after a typical West Point reform, plebes are ordered to eat. “It isn’t milk and cookies,” insists Cadet First Captain Timothy Knight, the ranking cadet who is also known as the King of Beasts. “Plebes still feel the heat.” Many find it too much to bear. Almost one-third of each class drops out, or is thrown out, before graduation.

In their first year, cadets “learn how to follow,” says West Point Superintendent General Willard Scott Jr., ’48. “In the next three, they learn how to lead.” Management skills are taught so rigorously that a group of visiting professors from the Harvard Business School, after sitting in on classes last year, pronounced their own institution to be “the West Point of capitalism.” Cadets learn leadership firsthand by giving orders to those they outrank in the cadet chain of command–their classmates as well as plebes. “It isn’t easy ordering your roommate to shine his shoes,” shrugs one cadet sergeant. “But you have to do it.”

In addition to enduring military training, parade drill and required athletics, cadets carry a heavier than normal college course load that is long on engineering and math. Sleep, not surprisingly, is regarded as a luxury. To stay awake in class, cadets who begin dozing off in their seats are permitted to stand up by their desks. After lunch, entire classes are sometimes on their feet by the final bell.

The purpose of overloading cadets, says History Professor Lieut. Colonel Robert Doughty, is to “teach them to prioritize under stress, to learn what is important and what is not.” The pressure also teaches selflessness by creating a kind of foxhole camaraderie in the corps. “Cooperate and graduate” is an unofficial cadet motto. The deep bonding between cadets has survived the entry of women, who now make up 11% of the corps of cadets. “At first, a lot of guys say, ‘What are women doing here?’ ” says Cadet Borgerding. “But they become buddies.”

The business of stuffing knowledge into cadets is scorned by critics as “the fire-hose school of education.” Too often, complain some West Point teachers, students just try to skate by with Cs–“2.0 and go,” in cadet slang. “I just feel I’m on a fast-moving train,” says Cadet Captain Lissa Young, the ranking female cadet and a top student. “You find yourself groping and grasping for things you’d like to take more time with. The Army breeds an attitude of ‘Carry out the order with the approved solution.’ Creativity here is stifled by the fear of failure.” Says Joseph Zengerle, class of ’64, now a lawyer in Washington, D.C.: “The schedule is so choked with shoe shining and mess-hall leading that the idea of sitting back and contemplating deeply is ridiculous. Plus, it’s heresy.”

West Point administrators concede that cadets are stretched thin. But, shrugs General Peter Boylan, commandant of cadets, “you can’t become Spartan by living in Athens.” West Point too often produces martinets, charge the academy’s critics. However, acknowledges Joseph Ellis, a retired Army captain and former West Point instructor, “the Army can’t very well have officers ordered to ‘take that hill’ respond, ‘I gave this some thought while I was reading Melville last night, and I really can’t see it.’ “

A cadet will not “lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do,” according to West Point’s honor code. “Here in everything we do, we talk of honor,” says Colonel James Anderson, the master of the sword (director of physical education). When an instructor orders “Cease work” in an exam, cadets literally throw down their pencils, as if they had become instantly hot to the touch. A cadet tennis-squad player who hurls his racquet in a match is off the team.

Such purity of conduct is hard to maintain in a permissive era. In the mid-’70s, West Point was rocked by a cheating scandal; 152 cadets were dismissed or re signed after plagiarizing on a take-home exam. Whole companies of cadets had gone “cool on honor,” an internal investigation found, in part because the honor code had become “trivialized,” used as a tool to enforce petty regulations.

There is, in many ways, an air of unreality about West Point. Says Ted Sullivan, ’79, now a New York stockbroker: “The difference between the regular Army and West Point is light-years.” In the Army, West Pointers are sometimes regarded as aloof and cliquish, called ring knockers for ostentatiously flashing their class rings. Non-West Pointers complain about the so-called West Point Protective Association in the Pentagon that favors and promotes academy grads.

The values cherished by West Point sometimes get twisted or lost on the battlefield. In Viet Nam, the questionable enemy “body counts” served up by senior military leaders–many of them academy graduates–“cut right against the integrity we were taught at West Point,” concedes General Palmer, a deputy commander of U.S. forces in Viet Nam. (His much criticized superior, General William Westmoreland, ’36, was a cadet first captain and later superintendent of the academy.) The Viet Nam War is an awkward subject at West Point. In class, cadets are taught that the military leadership was not blameless, but most subscribe to a “stabbed in the back” theory. Says Cadet Borgerding: “The Army fought well, but their civilian leaders screwed up.”

Some critics question whether West Point should exist at all. In an editorial titled “Is It Time to Abolish West Point?” the editor of the monthly Armed Forces Journal, Benjamin Schemmer, a West Point man (’54), noted that it costs taxpayers $226,190 a year to train and educate each cadet. Tongue in cheek, he went on to suggest that the West Point barracks be turned over to New York State as a prison facility.

West Point loftily answers the critics by summoning up its warrior ghosts: Grant, Lee, Pershing, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton. “These kids,” Commandant Boylan grandly declares of the current crop of cadets, “are the bearers of the crucible of all that is good in the U.S.”

By such flights of self-promotion, West Point invites skepticism, if not ridicule. Yet there is no denying that the institution still succeeds in training officers who are educated about both the world and its wars, and are proud of their vocation. Perhaps most important, today as in the past, is that its graduates endeavor to live the West Point motto, no small feat in a nation often racked with doubts about its military duties and responsibilities. “We really believed in ‘Duty-Honor-Country,’ ” says retired Colonel John Wheeler Jr., class of ’42, “and we still do. The place gets hold of you. When I marched in my first parade I broke down and cried.” Open-minded and unafraid to criticize West Point, Cadet Captain Lissa Young is hardly a military martinet. Yet old grads will not be surprised to learn that when Young takes her place in the Long Gray Line on Saturdays, she too sometimes has to swallow back tears of pride. –By Evan Thomas

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