West Point In Review

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Each year most of West Point’s three million visitors enter the U.S. Military Academy through the Thayer Gate. They drive past the cluttered main street of Highland Falls, which the historian Samuel Huntington described as a town of a sort “familiar to everyone … a motley, disconnected collection of frames coincidentally adjoining each other, lacking common unity and purpose.” A moment later the visitors are in, as Huntington put it, “a different world [of] ordered serenity…. Beauty and utility are merged in gray stone” in “a bit of Sparta in the midst of Babylon.”

For Huntington, writing in 1957, this contrast dramatized the inescapable conflict between the military mind, with its devotion to order and singleness of purpose, and the wayward, often self-indulgent spirit of civilian America. Today Highland Falls remains a model of small-town clutter, although the names on many of the storefronts have changed. But contemporary West Point has aspects that might give Professor Huntington—and certainly would give a Spartan—pause.

On a hot day last August, as I walked along Thayer Road, with its superb view of the Hudson, two captains approached me. One was male; the other, female. The female captain’s blouse was outside her trousers; that struck me as odd until I got close enough to see that she was pregnant. As they passed, I heard her say: “Frankly, the first two times I jumped, I didn’t remember a thing. But I must have done everything right.”

 

This pregnant captain was a paratrooper. Moreover, she was only one of some five hundred women in the cadet corps—a most un-Spartan phenomenon. At the Visitors Information Center, near Thayer Gate, there is a model cadet room. In it stand plastic dummies of two cadets, male and female, giving the casual observer the unsettling thought they might be rooming together. Sexual fraternization is, of course, strictly forbidden, although female and male cadets live in the same barracks. More to the Spartan point, the model room is luxurious compared with accommodations in early West Point, when cadets slept on the floor. Also, the model shows a plebe (freshman) room; upper-class cadets are permitted to have such un-Spartan privileges as pictures on the walls and stereos. In one corner sits an IBM computer.

Without the slightest effort, you can imagine that morning when Benedict Arnold rushed away.
 

But it is history, not the novelty of computers or women cadets or the serenity of the twenty-five-hundred-acre campus, that makes West Point a fascinating place to visit. The post is drenched in echoes, mementos, plaques, memories of America’s military past. It played a central role in the American Revolution before it became a school for soldiers. As Fortress West Point, it was the pivot on which the shaky alliance between militant New England and the lukewarm Middle and Southern states swung.

By coincidence, Lt. Gen. Dave Richard Palmer, the man who wrote the best book on Fortress West Point, The River and the Rock, is now the superintendent. In this handsomely illustrated volume, Palmer narrates the story of how and why the site was selected in 1775 as the best place to block the expected British attempt to seize the Hudson River Valley and strangle the infant Revolution. Not only does he narrate the story with a wealth of detail, but as a general he analyzes the British strategy, which did indeed contemplate capturing West Point and the rest of the Hudson Valley by conquest or chicanery, and concludes that the strategy might have worked.

The attempt by conquest failed twice. In 1776 a British invasion fleet was stopped at Valcour Island in Lake Champlain by an impromptu general turned admiral named Benedict Arnold; in 1777 Gen. John Burgoyne’s army surrendered at Saratoga, thanks largely to a headlong charge led by the same man, unquestionably the Revolution’s finest combat commander. The attempt by chicanery failed in 1780, when a combination of luck and shrewd guesswork by American intelligence officers uncovered the British plot to bribe Arnold into surrendering West Point.

The best place to recapture those Revolutionary days can be reached by taking a sharp left turn a few hundred feet after passing through the Thayer Gate. Up steep winding roads the visitor will grind his gears to a parking lot from which an arduous climb will take him to Fort Putnam, the restored stone bastion on Mount Independence, 451 feet above the Hudson. The restoration, paid for in part by academy graduates, is a model of its kind. Gleaming brass cannons and mortars line one wall; grim, blue-black eighteen-pounders frown from another. In a central barracks, maps and an excellent taped commentary explain how and why the fort was built.