- Historic Sites
What’s Happened to the Long Gray Line
June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
In addition, a plebe may be called on at any time to give “the days,” that is, to recite in a strictly prescribed sequence and form a list of upcoming athletic and other events, including, in the fall months, a statement of how many days remain “until Army beats the hell out of Navy at John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in football.” Learning and reciting plebe poop takes up a lot of time, and so does the performance of special barracks duties—collecting laundry, policing the orderly room, announcing how many minutes remain before everybody has to fall out to march to the mess hall—that plèbes must carry out to the satisfaction of their exacting upperclass masters.
The generals responsible for the study group report did not conceal their unhappiness about the fourth-class system. They had little to say in its defense, noting that while stress may be good for plebes, it is not necessarily a good idea to have it applied “by upperclassmen who do not understand stress, how it operates, or its potential for harm.” They observed that the system has encouraged “harsh and abusive behavior,” training upperclassmen in a style of leadership that is totally inappropriate in the real world of the Army. In this connection, they cited a survey of field commanders and noncommissioned officers indicating that young West Point graduates have a hard time talking to enlisted men and show a lack of concern for their welfare. The generals even challenged, indirectly, the traditional argument that coming down hard on plèbes is a good way to rid the academy of individuals who will never make good cadets or good officers. “A young man or woman who decides not to put up with the stress induced by negative, abusive leadership and purposeless activity,” they wrote, “may be, in fact, demonstrating the qualities of intelligence, independence, and maturity that West Point and the Army want.” The study group nevertheless concluded, without saying exactly why, that the system is worth keeping, provided it can be thoroughly purged of the features they found so objectionable.
This view is shared by many people at West Point. They include General Goodpaster, whom I talked with under the eyes of Robert E. Lee, whose portrait, along with portraits of fortyeight other former West Point superintendents, hangs high up on a paneled wall of Goodpaster’s office. A slender, handsome man with silver hair, whom it is impossible to imagine being worked over as a beanhead, he said that he had benefited by the fourth-class system when he himself was a plebe at the academy more than forty years ago. “I think it does make a contribution in gaining control of yourself, requiring yourself to perform to very, very high and exacting standards,” he said. Most cadets with whom I spoke tended to agree. “Your whole plebe year is a stressful situation, and you’ve got to learn to handle it,” a plebe said. “And you’ll be a lot better for it in my opinion. I’m already better for it. I used to be a kind of nervous person; I’m no longer nervous at all. I came close to crying a few times, but you just learn to handle it.” Other cadets said they had learned, as plebes, to do things fast and to budget their time, and spoke of how close they felt to their classmates as a result of their common ordeal. A plebe said that he and many of his friends had felt rather let down when a rumor went around last fall that the fourth-class system was to be abolished by Christmas.
But there are dissenters. One plebe asked disgustedly, “How can you say you’re going to learn self-discipline by keeping your eyes down on your plate?” A junior, whose father is a colonel, and who spoke about West Point and the Army with a certain irony, said that, so far as he knows, British and Russian military academies turn out good officers without putting them through the wringer of a fourth-class system. He said if it were up to him he would abolish the system at West Point. “Did it do anything for me directly?” he asked. “Well, I stand taller, I can stand at attention better—maybe.” A senior who holds a fairly high-ranking job in the cadet chain of command said he had got nothing out of the system, either as a plebe or as an upperclassman. “The system is a crutch for people who can’t really communicate with others on a superior-subordinate level without having a structure there for them to do it,” he said.