Westpoint: 1978

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Moreover, even if a young officer has a true vocation as a teacher, at West Point he is likely to find himself restricted to an extremely narrow pedagogical trail. Each required course is taught by some fifteen to twenty instructors, and in the interest of uniformity—and of fairness to the cadets, all of whom must take the same examinations—the group may be called together for frequent conferences. At these meetings the material to be covered in that week’s “lessons” is reviewed, and an instructor who has been detailed to do some background reading may brief his colleagues on, say, the imagery in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man . The instructors then fan out to their classrooms to perform their assigned mission.

One result of the way West Point recruits, trains, and deploys its instructors is that they sometimes tend to be dogmatic. A sophomore, a slender, curly-haired young woman with an astonishingly straight back, who otherwise had little but praise for West Point, told me that she had recently been handed back a paper she had done on Othello , on which the instructor’s comment was “Well written but wrong.” Another cadet, a senior who was wearing a gold star on his collar, signifying that he ranked academically in the top 5 per cent of his class, said bitterly that, with few exceptions, his instructors had tolerated no real criticism of their ideas, and had appeared to be bent on teaching cadets to trim their views to the winds of authority. He added that most cadets seemed to have learned the lesson. “I don’t think cadets, generally speaking, are very free thinkers,” he said.

Sylvanus Thayer believed, in the words of one historian, that West Point should be “a kind of secular novitiate under Spartan discipline,” and for more than 160 years cadets have had hammered into them the virtue of precise and absolute obedience. Regulations specify how a cadet shall wear his hat and his hair, how he shall arrange the books on his shelf (the biggest ones on the right), and when he can chew gum (not in public). Penalties for breaking the rules are severe. A cadet who neglects to salute an officer may be made to spend up to fifteen hours marching up and down with a rifle on his shoulder. A similar penalty may be imposed—”awarded” in academy jargon—for PDA, or Public Display of Affection, defined as kissing, putting one’s arm around, or holding hands with another person anywhere except in the brushy fastness of the traditional lovers’ sanctuary known as Flirtation Walk. A cadet found guilty of violating West Point’s strict honor code, which reads “A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do,” faces expulsion unless his offense is a very trivial one or there are powerful mitigating circumstances. A brand-new cadet probably would not now be expelled, as one was just a few years ago, for telling his squad leader that he had shaved when he really hadn’t and then turning himself in voluntarily to the Cadet Honor Committee.

The obedience training of cadets takes place mainly in their first year. At one time the hazing of plèbes was a purely unofficial and extracurricular activity, whose main justification was the fun it afforded the upperclassmen. In the decades after the Civil War, hazing became more and more sadistic, and in 1901, as a result of complaints by parents of a former cadet who had died after being forced to drink bottle after bottle of Tabasco sauce, a congressional investigation was held. Among the witnesses who were called was Douglas MacArthur, then in his second year as a cadet. MacArthur admitted that on one occasion he had been put through a particularly strenuous session of “eagling,” an exercise in which a plebe was obliged to do a series of deep knee bends accompanied by vigorous flapping of the arms, for as long as an upperclassman wished him to. But he loyally denied reports that he had gone into convulsions, claiming that he had simply been suffering from “a case of exaggerated cramps.” His testimony was disputed by his tentmate at plebe camp, who said that MacArthur’s legs had been trembling so badly that “he asked me to throw a blanket under them in order that the company officers could not hear his feet striking the floor.… He suggested that if he cried out that we put a blanket in his mouth.”

Sixteen years later, when MacArthur returned to West Point as superintendent, he tried to eliminate the crueler forms of harassment by putting the plebe system under official supervision. In effect, hazing—though, in principle, only mild hazing—was made part of the curriculum, an arrangement justified on the ground that ordering plèbes around is not only good for their development as soldiers, but gives upperclassmen good practice in leadership.