Westpoint: 1978

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Would-be reformers of West Point, including MacArthur, have found it a tough nut to crack. Among other things, they have had to reckon with the formidable power and conservatism of the academic board, a body made up principally of colonels permanently assigned to West Point as heads of its academic departments. The board’s composition and role have been examined at length by Joseph Ellis and Robert Moore in School for Soldiers: An Inquiry Into West Point , a tough-minded but eminently fair study of West Point in the 1970’s. The authors write that few of the board’s members in recent times have made any claim to serious scholarship; that most of them are quite isolated from the outside academic world; and that, by and large, they consider it their duty to resist any tampering by misguided outsiders with the time-honored pedagogical and disciplinary notions of Sylvanus Thayer.

Yet a visitor to West Point finds a general expectation that most of the study group’s recommendations will be carried out. “It’s not only people outside the Army now who want change,” I was told by a senior faculty member. “People within Army society want it, and the atmosphere is right.” Prospects for reform have been enhanced by steps that the Army seems likely to take to clip the wings of the academic board, and by the appointment last year, as West Point’s fiftieth superintendent, of Lieutenant General Andrew Jackson Goodpaster. A former NATO commander who has a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton, Goodpaster not only has publicly embraced the study group’s proposals, but also is in a good position to implement them. Whereas most of his predecessors have been younger men who saw the superintendency as a brief stage on a journey to higher rank and responsibilities, Goodpaster, who is sixty-three, had already retired from the Army when he was asked to take over atWestPoint,andheis expected to stay onthejobaslongasitmay take to put through the proposed reforms.

West Point has already undergone one highly interesting and significant change which, having turned out to be less traumatic than had been feared, has encouraged those who are rooting for Goodpaster to succeed. In 1975, over loud objections from the academy’s leaders, Congress voted to admit women to West Point. (It also voted to admit them to the other service academies.) The first contingent arrived in July, 1976, and there are now some 170 women at West Point in a corps of nearly 4,300 cadets; by the summer of 1979 the number will rise to around 350.

Men and women live in the same barracks but may not room together, and regulations state that when “cadets of different sexes are together in a room in an informal, unofficial mode, the door of the room will remain open.” (The study group, taking note of “the intensity and proximity of living conditions at West Point,” nevertheless recommended practical sex education for all cadets.) Although women are not required to meet the same high standards of physical performance as the men, they do just about everything the men do, from rappelling down cliffs to going on bivouac. Their uniforms, designed by Hart, Schaffner & Marx, are so exactly like the men’s that, even though they are allowed to wear their hair a little longer, it is not easy to pick out the women when they march past the reviewing stand on the Plain. The women not only look like the men; in many respects they are like them. Cadets of both sexes are likely to be good athletes, to have taken part in many extracurricular activities in high school, and to rate themselves highly as leaders.

Most male cadets were dead set against the admission of women, and their hostility was intensified by the attention the first women got from the media and from officers who made a point of inviting women cadets to their houses for dinner with their families. “Discrimination against women was pretty blatant last year,” I was told by Captain Teresa Rhone, a psychologist who has counseled many of the women. A woman cadet in her second year at West Point agreed: “I remember actually being spit at and called names. I don’t think anyone should have to go through what we did.” This year, she said, women had a much easier time. “I think it’s a sign of things changing for the better that more women in this year’s plebe class are dating their classmates,” she added.