- Historic Sites
What’s Happened to the Long Gray Line
June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
No monument or institution has more power to stir the patriotic emotions of Americans, or evokes more poignintly the martial virtues of self-sacrifice and discipline, than the United States Military Academy at West Point. In the view of General George S. Patton, Jr., of the class of 1909, whose statue now belligerently confronts the academy library, West Point was “a holy place and I can never think of it without reverence and affection.” A general less given to extravagant speech or gestures, Lucius D. Clay, who commanded United States troops in Europe in the late 1940’s, said he regarded each trip back to West Point as “a pilgrimage to seek inspiration which renews faith.” In times of domestic disarray, academy graduates have gone so far as to suggest that if Americans were to be saved from themselves and their enemies, they would have to look to West Point for their salvation. “The time has come when … only the military virtues hold the key to national and governmental authority and obedience to law,” an elderly alumnus, Abbott Boone, told a West Point founder’s dinner in 1969. “We do not know when the great fountain of honor, duty, and love of country as stored in the hearts and minds of the some twenty-five thousand graduates of West Point … will be the granite strength which will preserve this country from the evil forces now seeking to undermine it.” In the film MacArthur Gregory Peck tells the cadet corps that “the Long Gray Line has never failed us,” and adds, “Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their crosses thundering those magic words—Duty—HonorCountry.” The voice, vibrant with feeling, is Peck’s, but the words are Douglas MacArthur’s own.
Graduates of West Point are not alone in regarding it with awe and patriotic pride. Even in the early 1970’s, when the Army and the academy were buffeted by perhaps the most powerful wave of antimilitarism in the nation’s history, some two and a half million people visited West Point each year. Obviously they did not come to sneer or demonstrate. Rather, as they wandered among the granite-faced Gothic buildings massed on a shelf of land high above the Hudson River, or entered the cadet chapel, which dominates West Point like an impregnable ecclesiastical fortress, and looked up at the battle flags that hang along the nave, or watched the cadets marching on the enormous parade ground called the Plain, it is safe to assume that many were stirred by evidence that there is more to America than political rancor and tawdry commercialism. As one visitor, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, has written, West Point is “a different world. There is ordered serenity. … Beauty and utility are merged in gray stone. … a gray island in a many colored sea, a bit of Sparta in the midst of Babylon.”
But the cadets parading in their long-tailed, gray dress coats, fashioned after those worn by General Winfield Scott’s troops at the Battle of Chippewa in 1814, are not simply actors in a patriotic pageant. From their ranks are expected to come a significant fraction of the Army’s company and battalion commanders and, in time, most of its three- and four-star generals. And so Congress reacted with predictable bafflement and outrage when it was disclosed in 1976 that there had been an epidemic of cheating at West Point—not the first by any means—in which several hundred cadets might have been infected. Many congressmen, and some generals, understandably wondered how good a job West Point could be doing. They had reason to wonder even more when an investigating commission headed by Prank Borman, the president of Eastern Airlines, and a former astronaut and West Point graduate, filed its report. Noting indications that many cadets habitually cheated on examinations, the commission suggested that the academy’s leaders were partly to blame because they allowed cadets too little time for study while forcing them to take courses that most of them found boring and irrelevant.
The Army, no doubt with an eye to heading off a full-scale investigation by Congress, thereupon set in motion an investigation of its own. Three generals, two of them graduates of West Point, were named to head a body designated as the West Point Study Group and were told to take a long, hard look at the academy. When their findings were made public in September, 1977, it was clear that the generals had been disturbed and even outraged by much of what they had seen. To be sure, they chose not to pursue one possibly important line of inquiry. They said nothing about the implications for West Point, and its cherished honor code, of the moral lapses which many of America’s military leaders—West Pointers not excluded—were guilty during the Vietnam War. Indeed, Vietnam and its lessons were nowhere mentioned in the 181 pages of the study group’s report. But within the limits they set for themselves the generals were wide-ranging and tough in their criticism.
In blunt terms they complained that cadets were being trained in “harsh and insensitive patterns of leadership,” and suggested that upperclassmen exercising their traditional privilege of harassing plèbes might be driving potential leaders right out of the Army. They accused the faculty of “intellectual inbreeding” and of relying far too much on standardized procedures for dealing out knowledge in “lesson-sized bits.” They said cadets were not being taught to think critically, to write clearly, or to cope with problems that have no single correct solution. Cadets, they noted, had been overloaded with busywork and too many courses, and had good reason for feeling that “the system never stops pulling them apart, never ceases making demands, never allows them periods of reflection and consolidation.” The generals also said that the cadets they had met seemed rather grim and humorless, a charge that one group quickly moved to refute by digging a fake grave outside their barracks with the word “Humor” on its headstone.
This is not the first time in its long history that the question of West Point’s proper role has been debated. As early as 1776, General Henry Knox was calling for the establishment of “an Academy … where the whole theory and practice of Fortifications and Gunnery should be taught,” and in the postwar years other Revolutionary War veterans, including Baron von Steuben, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, who had seen firsthand the value of skilled engineers and artillerymen, made similar requests. But Congress dawdled, and it was not until 1794 that it established “a School for Artillerists and Engineers” on the site of the New York Revolutionary fort that Benedict Arnold had tried to betray and that Washington had called “the key to America” (it was at West Point that a massive iron chain was stretched across the Hudson to keep British ships from moving up the river).
The new “school” was authorized to train fifty-six cadets, but the military education they actually received was minimal: cadets served as apprentices to troops garrisoned in the fort; one early “cadet” was only ten years old.
It was Thomas Jefferson who officially established the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1802. According to Thomas J. Fleming, a historian of the Point, it was Jefferson’s hope that the academy would produce a corps of engineers better versed in science than in soldiering. But even with presidential backing, West Point was treated by Congress as a troublesome stepchild, and in 1812 the corps for a time actually dwindled to one lone cadet. Five years later President James Monroe visited West Point, and what he found there, one historian has written, drove him into “a towering rage. The place was in poor shape, its curriculum had unraveled, examinations were unknown, and discipline was non-existent.”
Monroe insisted that the academy must have a new superintendent, and that the position should go to a young West Point graduate named Sylvanus Thayer, who had studied European military training abroad. Under Thayer, who stayed on the job sixteen years, and whose West Point monument bears the inscription, “Colonel Thayer, Father of the Military Academy,” West Point flourished. (See box on page 9.) But toward the end of his regime the school came under heavy fire from Jacksonian Democrats. Quoting a pseudonymous pamphlet by a former West Point superintendent, they argued that the academy was “a monarchial, corrupt, and corrupting” institution, unconstitutionally engaged in building up “a privileged order of the very worst class—a military aristocracy—in the United States.” Similar arguments were heard from officers of the state militias, who couldn’t bear, according to New York Military Magazine , to see “the public funds wasted upon a bloated, proud and partial institution, instead of being equally distributed for the better improvement and encouragement of our militia.…”
In time the attacks died down. First the Mexican War and then the Civil War, in both of which West Pointers held many important commands, put an end to the notion that America could get along without a professionally trained officer corps. Critics in this century have been interested mainly in reforming the academy, rather than abolishing it, and they have included a good many Army officers. In 1919 the Army Chief of Staff, General Peyton C. March, noting that West Point was “forty years behind the times,” picked thirty-nine-year-old Douglas MacArthur to be the academy’s superintendent, and ordered him to modernize the place. (MacArthur soon concluded that even March had not grasped the true dimensions of the problem. “How long,” he asked his West Point adjutant, “are we going to go on preparing for the War of 1812?”) Since World War II, there have been several mildly critical in-the-family reviews of West Point performance.
But the report filed by the West Point Study Group in 1977 went far beyond these in the breadth of its findings and the weight of its documentation. Its 152 recommendations touched on almost every aspect of life at West Point, and were based on the kind of research—i.e., massive—that commands respect in the military. (“The Group also interviewed nearly 600 cadets.… Questionnaires were administered to nearly a thousand newlycommissioned lieutenants and over 700 of their commanders and subordinates.”)
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.
Captain Rhone mentioned other signs of improvement. More women now feel free to wear skirts instead of trousers when the regulations permit—skirts may be worn in class, for example, but not on parade—and fewer women in last summer’s entering class quit during the first two months of training, traditionally known as Beast Barracks. This decline may have been due in part to the admissions office having made a special effort to tell prospective women cadets just what they were in for, going so far as to include in a pamphlet mailed to women candidates statements by several women who had tried West Point and concluded it was not for them. “If I were a man I’d still be there,” one woman wrote. “I quit because I felt I was being forced to play the role of a man, being de-feminized. I guess I’m too much of a lady for the military.” But the women whom I met seemed to feel no conflict between being a woman and being an army officerthough some said they would not want to become combat leaders even if the law allowed them to, which it doesn’t. Rather, they seemed exhilarated by their ability to hold their own in a man’s world. One woman, admitting that some men still ride women cadets pretty hard, said tolerantly, “We sort of hurt their egos, I think, their male pride. But there are a lot of guys who have learned to respect us when we show them that we can do what is expected of us.”
When cadets are asked why they chose to go to West Point, they very often mention its good academic reputation. But critics, including the study group generals, have questioned how well that reputation is merited. Classes at West Point seldom consist of more than fourteen or fifteen cadets- the size Thayer liked—and they are almost all taught by Regular Army officers, typically by captains or majors in their late twenties or early thirties. Instructors, who are referred to by cadets as “P’s” (for “professors”), may require cadets to leap to attention when they come into the classroom, and in mathematics classes a cadet who has worked out a problem on the blackboard, and is called on to explain what he has done, may be expected to begin his recitation with the words, “Sir, I was required to prove.…”(Some P’s favor a democratized version of this formula, which dates back to Thayer: “ Gentlemen , I was required to prove.…”)
What sometimes troubles visitors to West Point classrooms is not the military atmosphere—many instructors run their classes in a comparatively relaxed and informal fashion—but the meagerness of the intellectual fare. This is not necessarily the fault of the individual instructor. An officer who comes to West Point hoping to initiate his students into the joys of intellectual discovery is almost certain to be frustrated. As the study group pointed out, cadets don’t have time to think.
The trouble is not just that cadets have to carry more courses than ordinary college students. Parades, inspections, and physical training all eat into their study time. So do intramural athletics; athletics have been compulsory since MacArthur was superintendent, and when classes end at three o’clock, West Point’s main street—its name, predictably, is Thayer Roadfills with hundreds upon hundreds of cadets double-timing in formation out to the academy’s vast playing fields. Cadets also spend a lot of time on what are known as chain-of-command responsibilities. These may include such tasks as drawing up a company duty roster or “burning” a plebe whose hair appears to be a millimeter too long.
In these circumstances, which preclude asking cadets to do much reading in any one course, many instructors settle for what is known as passing out the poop: supplying cadets with a sufficient stock of key phrases or formulas to get them through their examinations. “In the classroom,” a former instructor told the authors of School for Soldiers , “we present the cadet with pre-packaged increments of bite-sized knowledge that he can digest within the constraints of the system, because we know that’s the only way he will be able to handle the material.” Several cadets told me that in one or more courses they were simply memorizing the textbook. One senior, a slow-speaking Southerner who said, “I just love it here so much, I really do—I love it,” nevertheless added, “I’d like to see more classes where they make you think, instead of just regurgitating what you read the night before.” More than half the cadets questioned in a recent survey listed one or more of their courses “as offering knowledge they would not retain beyond test time.”
One reason for this is that most cadets see no point in many of their courses. Until 1957 no électives were offered, and most members of the class that graduates this June were able to take only six or seven électives in their four years at the academy out of a total of forty-eight courses. Many cadets find it particularly hard to choke down the required courses in engineering, which, together with the required science courses, make up close to a third of the core curriculum. The emphasis on applied science is a holdover from Thayer’s time, when West Point was the country’s principal source of professionally trained engineers, both military and civilian. Much of the American West was first explored and mapped by topographical engineers trained at the Point; other academy graduates were responsible for technological marvels ranging from the Panama Canal (dug under the supervision of Major General George Goethals, class of 1880) to the Trans-Siberian Railway (begun by George Whistler, class of 1819, and completed by Thompson Brown, class of 1825).
Today, only about 10 per cent of the academy’s graduates go into the Corps of Engineers, and compulsory engineering courses are now justified partly on the ground that they teach future combat commanders how to make decisions. This rationale fails to impress many cadets. A member of the electrical engineering faculty told the Borman Commission he suspected that not a single cadet would take the junior-year course in electrical engineering—this was the course in which so many cadets turned out to have been cheating in 1976—if he didn’t have to.
Many cadets take pride in being able to thrive in an environment where learning is often seen as a difficult and tricky board game. The smooth adjustment they have made is no doubt due in part to the rigorous conditioning they undergo as plèbes. “We teach cadets to be obedient, conformist—to be good organizational players,” a senior faculty member told me. But the relative ease with which cadets often adapt to the system is also a measure of the kind of young men and women who go to West Point and stick it out there.
Their academic qualifications are reasonably good, the average cadet having scored better on the Scholastic Aptitude Test than the average American college freshman, though not nearly so well as freshmen at, say, Columbia or M.I.T. More significantly, most of them have been “A” students in high school—as a rule, one out of ten entering cadets has been class valedictorian or salutatorian—and many have held such jobs as class or student-body president. In June, 1977, when the present plebe class was sworn in, 209 of its 1,467 members were Eagle Scouts. As everybody tells you at West Point, cadets tend to be overachievers.
But overachieving is harder at West Point than in high school, and many cadets settle for collecting, as efficiently and painlessly as possible, the merit badges they need in order to graduate. When an instructor does try to get cadets to think, they may resent what they see as his unfairness in setting up a new and unnecessary barrier on an academic obstacle course that is already tough enough. Cadets quickly fasten on the notion, which underlies many classroom discussions, that there is only one correct answer to every question. Robert Gurland, a professor of philosophy at New York University, who has been a visiting professor at West Point for the past two years, told me that cadets are often very reluctant to commit themselves. “They’re afraid to say whether they like Thoreau,” he said. “They’re afraid there’s a right answer and a wrong answer.” Another faculty member, a young lieutenant colonel with a Ph.D. in psychology, said sadly, “We ought to teach and tolerate more open-mindedness, more willingness to experiment, more tolerance for ambiguity.”
Distrust of ambiguity is an old military tradition whose grip on West Point is strengthened by the fact that the academy’s faculty are usually soldiers first and scholars second. Before arriving at West Point for a three-year teaching tour, they have ordinarily spent two years at graduate school, at Army expense, earning a master’s degree. Many of these young officers with their decorations and their parachutist badges are enthusiastic teachers, moving their students swiftly and efficiently from point to point. But they do not commonly display the intellectual depth, or the commitment to their subjects, of young professors at, say, Stanford or Princeton.
This is not surprising. Teaching is only one of many jobs the West Point instructor ordinarily will have to tackle in his Army career, and officers who have been tapped for teaching duty at West Point sometimes attack graduate school as if it were a military objective. “They really jump in there without much dilly-dallying around,” a West Point dean has said admiringly. ”… you give a guy a master’s thesis to do; and—wham! Boy, he’s in there working at it. He’s cranking that thing out.”
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.
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.…”)
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.
If the reforms the Army has called for are put into effect, West Point will become more like an ordinary college and less like a military boarding school. To list some of the changes that are contemplated, fewer courses will be required of cadets, and they will take more, and more advanced, électives. Many pointless chores will be done away with—the study group noted the absurdity of “the squad leader who consumes precious time going from room to room to announce information which should be posted on a central bulletin board”—and there will be more time for study. Instructors will be less narrowly restricted by course outlines and standardized lesson plans, and there will be more visiting professors. There will be less emphasis on engineering and much more on dealing with questions to which there are no set answers. “Somewhere down the trail cadets may be coming up against problems far more complex than the problems senior officers have to deal with now,” I was told by Colonel Joseph H. Beasley, an erudite chaplain, and a highly regarded teacher, who is a senior member of the Department of History. “Maybe one of the most useful things we can do for them now is to confront them with questions—about the meaning of a poem, for example—that they can’t answer simply by manipulating data.”
Not everybody at the academy is entirely happy about the study group’s proposals. A few think they do not go far enough toward breaking down the walls that separate West Point from the world. They argue, for instance, that what is needed are not just a few more visiting professors, but a massive infusion of scholar-teachers that would shatter the rigid mold in which most instruction is now cast. Many more people worry, by contrast, about the extent to which the Army seems determined to civilianize the academy. They believe that West Point’s main business is not to open up and cultivate the minds of cadets, but to train their characters. As they see it, this is not just a matter of producing officers who will respond in orderly and predictable ways to the demands of military life. West Point graduates must also exemplify, in a way no civilian in uniform can be expected to do, the standards of conduct implied by West Point’s motto, “Duty—Honor—Country.”
The generals heading up the study group did not neglect the moral formation of West Point cadets. Indeed, much of what they had to say on the subject of the academy’s honor code system suggests an uneasy conviction that the moral armor with which cadets are fitted out at West Point may be dangerously brittle. To strengthen it they recommend, among other things, that cadets be given a much bigger dose of philosophy, with emphasis on “Ethical issues of interest to Army officers. …” This may provide an opportunity for officers and cadets to think hard about a question that, so far as I could tell, is not much talked about at West Point. The question is: why, for all the academy’s heavy stress on truthfulness and honor, West Pointers engaged during the Vietnam War in such forms of organizational, or quasi-official, dishonesty as faking body counts, fudging intelligence estimates, and covering up atrocities. It is a question to which there is obviously no set answer, but is hard to think of one that it is more important for West Point, and the Army, to come to grips with.