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.
This didn't happen because many of the participants considered the United States the problem rather than a provider of solutions in international troubles.
And it didn't happen because the cadets are too bright to believe that the goals of U.S. policy are always benevolent. They know that self-interest necessarily plays a pare in foreign policy formulation.
Take Bob Potter. A senior at West Point he's very concerned about United States security interests. He doesn't want the United States to become a third-rate power. He consistently challenged the assumptions of his more radical colleagues on the Latin American study group.
But when the crunch came, he ended up backing many of the more radical proposals. He didn't want the U.S. to play a Big Brother role in Latin America. He didn't like what a lot of U.S. corporations were doing there. And despite his misgivings, he felt that the people of Chile will be best served if. President Salvador Allende's socialist government survives.
Potter is not unlike a lot of other cadets. Many of them seem to survive the rigid socialization and occasional indoctrination with their critical faculties intact. They're not all yes-men for the Government which pays them to go through West Point. This is especially clear when the cadets argue among themselves over U.S. strategic policies.
"Hell, we don't need those submarines there," one will say to another. "They don't do anything for our security. They could never do anything anyway."
THIS IS NOT, however, a typical attitude. Most of the Cadets, when pressed, favor maintaining or increasing American military commitments around the world. Most estimate that the West Point vote probably went about 80 per cent for Nixon. The Cadets like to deal is facts rather than speculation, so a political discussion often involves definitive statements of what is rather then musings about what might be. Most of the Cadets can describe each weapon in the American or Soviet military arsenal, predict its strengths and weaknesses, and most still view the world as a battlefield where it is important that the U.S. arsenal be stronger missile for missile than that of the Soviet Union.
But the Cadets are not supposed to spend their time discussing politics, and indeed the rigidity of their schedules leaves little time for it. The Cadets form by company (a group of about 110 men) at 6:13 each morning. Anyone late is "slugged", which does not mean beaten up, but does mean being confined to the barracks room except for classes, meals, and athletics. A person five minutes late for morning formation could be slugged for several weeks. Each Cadet carries at least six courses, often more, so that most have 24 or more hours of classes per week. They are supposed to study two hours for each hour in class and the grading is rigid.
In some courses, like plebe (freshmen) Math, the Cadets are graded daily, and in all classes, lists ranking the students in order of performance are posted monthly. Where the student sits in the classroom is determined by his monthly rank. No one even considers cutting classes at West Point. The students time up outside the classrooms before entering to facilities attendance taking, and the sight of a halfway-in a classroom building filled with line upon line of uniformed Cadets is a strange one for a civilian getting his first look at the Point.
BUT IF THE SCENE in the classroom buildings is strange, that in the dining hall--Cadet Menu It's called- in stranger still. All the Cadets eat together in one huge room. In the middle of the room stands a large granite structure which looks like the front of its Church. In fact, it was formerly the front door of the menu hall before the building was enlarged to accommodate larger classes.
All Cadets eat with their companies, and all march into the hall in groups so facilitate speedy accommodation for the 4000-odd diners. All remain standing still they receives an order over the public address system.
Once seated, the Cadets actions proved along rigid class lines. Upperclassmen are free to met end talk as they like, Plebes have if a lot tougher.
Plebes cannot talk at meals. They must sit rigidly straight. Their backs cannot touch their chairs. They must take bites that are neither too small nor too large. They must place their utensils back onto their plates before they begin to chew.
And it doesn't stop there. The plebes must memories the culinary preferences of their upperclass comrades. They must know who drinks milk, who drinks punch, who likes coffee; and they're responsible for serving their superiors.
There is one time when the plebes can talk. Occasionally, upperclassmen may ask plebes to memorize something or other (say the Communist Manifesto, or Bill Buckley's latest column). At a later meal, they are called upon to recite their lines.
The penalties for transgressing say of these rules are severe; plebes who break the rules can be ordered not to eat their meals.
"Some freshmen used to lose as much as 60 pounds over the course of a year," said one West Point official. In order to prevent outright starvation, a new rule was instituted which required that plebes must be permitted to eat one meal a day.
Outside the dining halls, plebes are required to do other tasks, which include mail delivery.
The plebe rules are among the more controversial aspects of the West Point experience among Cadets themselves. SCUSA participants were permitted to attend classes with the Cadets, and is several section meetings of a course on "The Psychology of Leadership," the outsiders turned the classroom into a forum for debate on the plebe issue, and on the value of West Point itself.
The arguments against the plebe rules were obvious: the rules are unnecessary and degrading, designed primary to rob Cadets of their self respect in order to weaken any will they may have to resist West Point socialization.
The section leaders-mostly captains and majors who went through the Academy themselves-defended the rules on three grounds. In the first place, they agreed that the rules were designed to tear people down. "We want to tear down people in order to build them back up again," one Major said.
"In addition," he added, "the rules lead to democratization. Everyone has to go through plebing, and there's very little you bring in with you from the outside that can help you. Everybody wears the same clothes and has to do the same things."
The third argument for plebing is that it teats people under a "stressful" situation, and makes those who survive it stronger. That many cannot survive-or are unwilling to put up with-plebing is evidenced by the Point's drop-out rate. Thirty per cent of the members of entering classes do not graduate, and two out of every three people the drop out do no before the out of freshmen year.
The Cadets are defensive about the system. "If we were arguing with officers we'd probably be attacking the place," junior Bill Betson explains. "But arguing with you guys makes us want to defeat it, because it really has a lot of good points."
"Only five per cent of the officers in the Army are from West Point." Betson explained "but 95 per cent of the Generals are. The people here are going to be leaders and that's something that's very important to all of us."
The Cadets realize that the rest of the world, and especially the other studies delegates at SCUSA, may look at them as freaks for what they go through. "It's the sprit of the place, the sense of belonging and everyone participating, that keeps as here," one Cadet explained.
The second night of the conference for example a small riot broke out in the Mess Hall at dinner, as the Cadets staged a peprally of sorts to get psyched for the coming Syracuse game. Food was thrown, glasses were smashed, the place turned into shambles. West Point authorities condone such actions, Brigadier General Phillip Feir, Commandant of Cadets, explains. "The sprit these incidents build its worth the cost of the food and broken silverware to us."
One thing SCUSA does do is changer a lot of delegates' perception of, West Point. A student from outside nights approach, the military academy with a sound that it is full of programmed robots, mindlessly following orders in the inevitable march to fascism. One finds instead a group of individuals, most of them bright, friendly interesting, committed people. The system might still seem foolish, perhaps even evil, for what it does to the individuality and humanity of the Cadets. It still remains difficult to justify the rule of absolute silence for plebes in the Mess Hall, for example.
But the Cadets do have their escapes. One is flirtation walk, it narrow path on the campus which is unofficially off-limits to officers, and as such is the only place at West Point where Cadets dare touch members of the opposite sex, and which has also been known to shelter many it liquor or dope party. Another escape route is athletics, which consume a major portion of each Cadet's day.
For the most part, however, the Cadets don't have time to escape. Their days are full, with classes, studying, and attending scheduled functions. Their achievement motivation and dedication are almost Puritan. The Cadets of West Point are constantly being told that they are "the cream of the cream."
Although it tried, West Point did not escape-all the trends of the sixties. It is actively engaged in recruiting blacks, who have not traditionally been represented in large numbers in its ranks. It suffered a severe shortage of applicants, as well as a high dropout rate, during the Vietnam War. In addition, many of the Academy's academics now make a point of demonstrating their open-mindedness, their willingness to criticize government policy.
But despite these changes in style, the Point has not changed in any fundamental way, and it's unlikely that it can. The purpose of the school is to train military leaders ready to do the bidding of political leaders. Assuming one believes that no army is necessary, this isn't a bad thing. But it does mean that the Point must necessarily be an institution where discipline and toughness are the order of they day. That's true of Today's Army as it was of Ulysses Grant's.
Most college students if they think of it at all, shudder at the thought of wearing uniforms, being forced to follow a rigid schedule, saluting officers, participating in mandatory parades and formation. But to the Gadets at West Point it is something very much more: a place where you get the discipline be a man and a leader.