The Other Side of This Life

Eggheads in Wonderland

GERRY KELLEY'S COMPANY was getting up at 4.25 that Saturday morning. It was dark, raining and cold where they woke up, but they moved quickly to wash, dress, eat, and enter the waiting buses. They were going to Syracuse to watch Army's week football team play the equally feeble Orangemen. "No one says you have to go to football games." Gerry explained. "It's sort of optionally mandatory. If you don't go you might find yourself getting lower grades from some professors."

Gerry didn't have to get up to go to Syracuse that morning, and had the luxury of sleeping until 7 a.m. He was one of 150 cadets chosen to participate in SCUSA XXIV, the United States Military Academy's 24th Annual Students Conference on United States Affairs, and for the four days of the conference, he was excused from all regular West Point duties. Like everything else at West Point, participation in the conference involved competitive selection. The Academy wanted outsiders to see its brightest and best. The Cadets at SCUSA were chosen for their interest and ability in the social sciences, and for their congeniality and outgoingness.

"I've never really lived anywhere," Gerry says. "My dad's gone around from military base to military base, never really staying in any one place long enough for me to call it home. I've got relatives in Pittsfield. Mass., though, and what I'd really like to do when I get through with this commitment is settle down there and may be get into politics, run for mayor or something."

Gerry is a yearling, which is what they call second year students at West Point. He will be at West Point for four years, and will face a five-year military commitment after that. He's sanguine about his future.

"Don't blame us for the war. We hate it even more than you. We're the guys that have to go. But look at it this way, there are always going to be wars, so there have to be guys who know how to fight them. That's what we're doing here. Who starts the wars sad why is politics, and we're not interested in that. We just carry out the orders."

For Gerry Kelley and a lot of people like him. West Point has meant commitment, dedications, self-sacrifice, and above all, the chance to become a man. He knows he's given up a lot to go there. Sitting in the basement of the Hotel Thayer at two in the morning, he tried to explain what it was like.

I THINK WE ALL feel what we're doing is important. You're put in a situation where you have to get along with people or it's all over. You learn how to work together, how to take orders, and how to give them. Hell, I know we miss a lot, but in the end we all pretty much think it's worthwhile."

West Point is a world unto itself. Approaching it, New York State Highway 9W winds through the sleepy town of Highland Falls, perhaps 60 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. Downtown Highland Falls consists of a lot of bars, a few little stores, and signs directing visitors to the West Point entrance 200 yards to the right.

Unlike Highland Falls, West Point is neither sleepy, nor unplanned, nor does it have lots of bars or nightspots. The students don't come here to play or indulge in flights of intellectual fancy, or to broaden their cultural horizons. They come here to learn how to be soldiers.

"Put your bags over there, sir register over there, sir, the bus leaves for the library at four o'clock, sir." At the Hotel Thayer, SCUSA headquarters, cadet leaders have organized themselves to greet the conference delegates coming in from 100 schools all over the country. Cadets greet the delegates courteously, tell them where to go, give them schedules, tell them which forms to fill out, and tell them where they have to be when. This isn't like other colleges, they seem to be saying, we don't leave anything to chance here. Everything for SCUSA is carefully planned in advance, scheduled to the minute, organized to perfection. There is one way to do things at West Point, the right way.

The United States Military Academy (West Point) is set on a 16,000-acre plot of land on the west bank of the Hudson River. To many it is an anachronism, a throwback to a straiter-laced era of American values, an institution out of time and place. Most college students, if they think of it at all, shudder at the though of wearing uniforms, being forced to follow a rigid schedule, saluting officers, participating in mandatory parades and formation. But to the cadets of West Point it is something very much more: a place where you get the discipline to be a men and a leader.

SCUSA IS PURPORTEDLY a conference to discuss foreign affairs for four days, but it is really more a chance to establish diplomatic relations between West Point and the 100 schools that send representatives to the conference. The conference offers outsiders a chance to explore military life, and gives cadets a chance to find out what's happening in a world where "sir" and uniforms and salutes are not a part of everyday life. It's designed as a kind of mutual culture shock.

The title of the meeting is deceptive. For the purpose of the Conference, "United States Affairs" don't involve housing for New Yorkers or drug treatment centers for Chicago junkies. What the planners of SCUSA really care about is how the United States is to make it in the world outside its borders.

If culture shock is the prime purpose of the conference, "complexity shock" is an important secondary goal. Over and over again participants were reminded that "our purpose is not to formulate conclusion." that their purpose was to gain "as appreciation for the vastness and complexity of the policy making process."

AND YET IT WOULD be wrong to say that the whole exercise was designed simply to mystify the foreign policy making process, to get conference participants to believe that the makers of American policy are just nice guys who are trying to make the best of a complex and difficult international situation.