- Historic Sites
What’s Happened to the Long Gray Line
June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
But plebes continued to be abused, notably during Beast Barracks, when incoming cadets are initiated into military life by upperclassmen serving under a cadet leader known as the King of Beasts. In 1970, for example, a report by physicians at the West Point hospital revealed that bracing—forcing a plebe to stand with his shoulders thrown back until the blades met, and with his chin pulled against his windpipe—had caused nerve damage and temporary arm paralysis to 138 cadets over a sixyear period. Plèbes were also routinely sneered at and insulted. Among the cadets I talked to was Patrick G. Landry, a black senior who is captain of the 1978 Army baseball team and who, as deputy brigade commander, holds the number-two job in the cadet chain of command. Landry told me that when he was a plebe he had had an operation on his knee that kept him from walking naturally for a while. “Many, many times I was accused of walking like a pimp, and punished for it,” he recalled. He went on to say that abuse of this kind was not directed only at blacks. “The norm, the sanctioned norm, was to be cruel. It was like playing a game. You’ve got to understand the power that an upperclassman has over a plebe. They could do almost anything.”
Since Landry’s plebe year a new campaign has been mounted to do away with systematic abuse. Officers responsible for leadership training at the academy, some of whom have enthusiastically taken up current psychological theories about the ineffectiveness of autocratic managerial styles in business and other large organizations, have been drilling upperclassmen in the techniques of “positive leadership.” This means explaining things to plèbes instead of shouting at them, and occasionally giving them a pat on the back instead of holding to the traditional position that a plebe, or beanhead, can never do anything right. Landry, who was co-chairman of a cadet committee that drew up new rules for the fourth-class system in 1977, said there is now little real harassment of plèbes, and this was confirmed by plèbes with whom I talked. Some said there was still a lot of yelling, but that they didn’t really mind. As one plebe put it, “If we can’t take going down a hallway and getting yelled at—like, I’ve seen kids cry because upperclassmen were yelling at them—well, when we get out of West Point, and we’re leaders, we can’t start crying when we’ve got to make a decision.”
As this comment suggests, plebe year is still an ordeal. John P. Lovell, a West Point graduate and the author of a scholarly study of the socialization of cadets at the academy, wrote some years ago that plèbes are “totally enveloped in a new world—an impersonal world of multitudinous rules, of impossible demands, and of endless days.…” It is pretty much the same today. Plebes are untouchables, who may not ordinarily call an upperclassman by his first name, or even speak to him unless spoken to—though the rule does not apply to plèbes who are on intercollegiate athletic teams that also include upperclassmen. During Beast Barracks, when cadets are taught such basic skills as how to salute, march, and fire a rifle, plèbes repeatedly are given orders—to run back to the barracks to change their uniforms, to get all their gear ready for inspections—that cannot conceivably be carried out in the allotted time, thereby exposing them to harsh “correction” from the upperclassmen in charge. Bracing is out, and so—at least for the time being—is the traditional mess-hall pastime of keeping plèbes sitting at attention and answering questions at meal after meal, without allowing them time to eat. (One cadet told me that some plèbes subjected to this treatment had resorted to eating toothpaste.) But during the first few months of the year, plèbes are still required to sit erect at table, “one fist’s distance away from the back of the chair, feet flat on the floor, head up and eyes confined to the physical boundaries of the table.” On entering his barracks, a plebe must stand rigidly at attention while scanning the bulletin board, and he must double-time up the stairs. The slightest deviation from required standards of appearance and deportment, such as turning an insufficiently “square” corner on a stair landing, or failing to look an upperclassman directly in the eye while answering his questions, can bring down the wrath and scorn of his seniors.
Plebes also must memorize, and recite on demand, a huge assortment of information known as fourth-class knowledge, or plebe poop. Some traditional items recently have been discarded. This year’s plèbes did not have to know the answer, for example, to the question “How is the cow?” to which the required response was, “Sir, she walks, she talks, she’s full of chalk, the lacteal fluid extracted from the female of the bovine species is highly prolific to the nth degree.” But they have to be ready to respond, without faltering, to such questions as, “What is Nike-Hercules, and what is its effective range?” “How do you answer a formal wedding invitation?” and “What was General [John] Schofield’s definition of discipline?” (Answer: “The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment.…”)