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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 16

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
West Point

Elizabeth D. J. Waugh

published by
The Macmillan Company,
New York, 1944

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p229  Chapter XVII
Our West Point

Since West Point trains a cadre of officers who in turn are dedicated to training the United States Army, West Point is important to every American. This is true even when its influence may not be apparent. West Point seeks to make tangible that which frequently seems intangible: Americanism. The same spirit which held fast to the Highlands during the Revolutionary winters holds our far-off battle fronts today.

After the first World War the mission of U. S. M. A. was thus restated:

The function of the Military Academy is to give, in addition to that character-building for which it has long been famous, and in addition to the necessary military and physical training, such a combination of basic, general and technical education as will provide an adequate foundation for a cadet's subsequent professional career.

At this time economics and government were added to the curriculum and greater time devoted to English. Later a more comprehensive course in history was introduced. These progressive changes were all matters of debate and in 1939 it was found that a detailed statement of the mission and objectives of the Military Academy would be advisable to clear the air.

This document was tentatively approved by the War Department in 1939. It follows:

 p230  I. Mission

The mission of the United States Military Academy is to produce officers of the Army having the qualities and attributes essential to their progressive and continuing development, throughout their careers as officers and leaders.

II. General Objective

The mission is accomplished by education and training directed toward the inculcation and development of the requisite moral, mental, physical and professional qualifications and attributes upon which graduates may build as commissioned officers and readily acquire the technical and professional proficiency commensurate with their duties and responsibilities.

III. Specific Objectives

1. The development of character, high ideals and mentality with particular emphasis upon: high standards of honor and personal conduct; moral courage; loyalty; devotion to duty; inherent conformity to the will of authority; judgment; force; cooperation; acceptance of responsibility; clear, rapid, analytical thought, leading to logical conclusions; power of expression; application; self-reliance, initiative and resourcefulness.

2. The development of physical qualities and attributes including: good health and sound physique; endurance; alertness; coordination; military bearing; ability to participate in and to conduct sports; high sense of sportsmanship.

3. Accomplishment of academic and professional fitness through:

(a) A balanced and liberal education in the arts and sciences, embracing: knowledge of the social, economic and political history of mankind; basic principles and applications of the mathematical and physical sciences; knowledge and use of  p231 English and foreign languages, and appreciation of literature; fundamentals of law.

(b) A basic military education embracing: military history; theory and application of military art; essentials of leadership; the principles of construction and operation of weapons and equipment; the powers and limitations of the various arms; the principles of organization, maintenance, training and utilization of military forces in peace and war.

(c) Individual proficiency in: soldierly conduct; dress demeanor; customs of the service; ceremonies; military hygiene; elementary equitation and marksmanship; tactical employment of small units; ability to instruct.

It is these specific objectives, the building of character with emphasis on honor, which become intangibles before we know it. These things cannot properly be taught. They must be inculcated so that they appear to rise spontaneously within the individual. Nor is there, at West Point, much time for this process — in war especially, when the normal four-year course is shortened to three years with flying added to the crowded curriculum.

Yet the seemingly impossible is accomplished — by West Point itself. It has been said that the very physical location and topography of West Point contribute to the development of character, that the rugged granite hills of the Hudson Valley from which West Point is hewn enter psychologically into the soul of the cadet. Perhaps this is so. Certainly the folklore, tradition, and history of West Point, the contributions of its graduates toward both the building and the defense of this country, can provide the cadet with great inspiration — and inspiration has much to do with the development of character.

Certain phases of character development can be calculated to a degree. The Spartan life of the cadet conditions him not  p232 to rely for fulfillment on creature comforts or on the acquisition of goods. The Corps of Cadets is absolutely democratic. Background or family are no consideration. The Corps judges the cadet from the moment he enters on his own merits and accomplishments. The spirit of professional and social impartiality is drilled into the future leader — the feeling that an officer of the United States Army who is one's equal or one's superior got there by no other method than his own efforts and abilities.

The cadet honor system may seem a bit incomprehensible to the average civilian, whose customs and sense of values are frequently at variance with those of the military. That one cadet while temporarily in an official capacity, such as Cadet Officer of the Day, is required to turn in another for an infraction of regulations or for infractions of the honor code at all times in matters involving moral turpitude, such as cribbing in examinations, may seem strange. The potential officer must be taught that this isn't "squealing." He must be conditioned to consider such an action a duty, because someday he may find that as a commander he must discipline or relieve from duty his best friend for the good of the Service or for the success of an operation.

The cadet is expected to report himself for an infraction of the honor code. He is conditioned to report facts fearlessly, no matter how injurious they may be to his reputation or personal ambitions. He is conditioned to know that the Service comes first. When a cadet enters the Academy the first thing he learns is to obey — to obey without question any order given by a superior.

The cadet learns humility. This combination of obedience and humility is indispensable to a leader. Not merely must he know how to obey the orders of his superiors; he must avoid arrogance. An arrogant bearing covers a closed or a timid mind.

The discipline which produces the West Pointer is undoubtedly  p233 speeded by the wisdom of placing the cadet's instruction in the hands of West Point graduates. When, after the first World War, Major (now Lieutenant General) Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Buckner was chosen as Commandant it was not because of his ability to pick daisies. Due to the upheavals of war it was felt that a strong hand was at that moment needed. The cadets, however, determined to teach Major Simon Bolivar Buckner a lesson. Tom Jenkins was then and for many years afterward coach in wrestling. The cadets picked two outstanding champions, who were then specially trained by the coach. While their men were considered in fighting shape Major Buckner was challenged. The cadets knew that Buckner would not refuse the challenge, but they did not know that he, too, had recently had the benefit of Tom Jenkins' coaching. Both cadets found their shoulders pinned to the mat. Perhaps it had taken a West Pointer to outwit a West Pointer?

It is West Point's major mission today to supply the professional officers to train, manage, and direct the continuing strength of our army. Civilian institutions will provide our industrial producers; our doctors, lawyers, scientists, agriculturists, and legislators. It is West Point's job to provide the nation with its professional military leaders.

In carrying out its mission West Point has an advantage over most civilian educational institutions. In the first place, the men who enter West Point have been carefully selected from applicants who above all else wish to devote their lives, if necessary, to the service of their country. When a man enters West Point the Academy knows what he wants to do; the man knows what he wants to do. The young men of America come to West Point because they intend to make the army their career, much the same as other men of college age attend a civilian engineering school because they intend to make building bridges their life's work. The West Pointer is America's  p234 professional soldier, charged with indelibly impressing upon his fellow officers and soldiers the traditions and trusts of the American Army just as they have been ingrained in his own mind at West Point.

West Point must then discover whether the new cadet is qualified to fulfill such a mission. If he is qualified, it is West Point's job to show him how to do it. So the second advantage which West Point has is that it can design its curriculum to train men, during the every moment there, for a specific task, a specific future, a specific way of life. Upon graduation the cadet receives the degree of Bachelor of Science.

The Academy does not confine its teachings to military subjects alone. In addition to his military studies, the cadet receives the liberal education he would receive at one of the better civilian colleges. He must be prepared, as a citizen, to become a member of the social community. The fact that the Academy provides an excellent liberal education is shown by the successful careers of those who leave the regular army to go into the reserve and follow civilian pursuits.

There are many reasons why the soldier must know more than weapons. He must be a citizen as well as a soldier. He has a stake in his nation as well as the man who follows any other profession. He must assume the responsibilities of citizenship, in directing his nation's destiny as well as in protecting it from attack. And he must know people, not only that he may live harmoniously among them but that he may command them. During wartime, armies are made up mostly of partly trained civilians who are temporarily in uniform but whose emotions and values remain essentially civilian. To properly organize, train, manage, and command these men, the professional soldier must know them. He must know their backgrounds — social, economic, and geographic — and their essential motivations in life. A soldier who knows nothing but weapons and tactics lives in a vacuum.

 p235  It may come as something of a surprise to the cadet or to his parents to find that West Point abhors war. At no time is the cadet taught to glory in combat. War is regarded as the greatest of all evils, but West Point recognizes that it has not yet been outlawed. The cadet is taught that his country stands for a sacred thing — the right of man to freedom. He knows that in the present state of the world's development his country can be assailed; he knows that someone has to fight and he had solemnly made up his mind long before he entered West Point to dedicate himself to his country's preservation. There is no record to show that St. George was particularly fond of the dragon, but once he had slain the beast he probably felt a fleeting sense of satisfaction.

It has been said that, considering the frequency and ferocity with which we Americans make wars, our assumption between conflicts that peace will be permanent — at least for us on this continent — is a little strange. In one hundred and eighty-six years we have had one hundred and one wars, eight of which have been major wars. Each has found us more or less unprepared and to each the country has risen magnificently. We are accustomed to this seeming miracle. For one hundred and forty-two years West Point has trained a cadre of officers in such a manner that when we were threatened an army was raised and trained in time — sometimes in no time.

An officer has expressed the thought that U. S. M. A. is like a pilot light: in peacetime it is inconspicuous, but in time of war it lights many fires instantly. It is probable that in future years West Point will stand less alone, but its contribution already made will never be forgotten nor will its future be less important because at long last its mission has been recognized.

We live in a skeptical age. We listen whether we want to or not to the inescapable Pollyannaism of advertisers which is sandwiched in with news of war, news of life and death.  p236 Fear of depression was more real to many than is fear of war. It was fashionable to decry the last war as an unnecessary sacrifice. Perhaps a whole generation was deluded by these false conclusions; in a critical moment this generation found itself without a spiritual reason for being.

But West Point rises above this with a strong and simple heart. In words made cheap by too much and too careless use it is hard to convey the meaning of West Point's spirit. But this intangible becomes plainly visible to anyone who looks at the Corps of Cadets. Perhaps the best place to see them is in the faultless setting of the West Point chapel. Perfectly erect, perfectly clean, with brilliant skin and clear eyes lighted from within, the Corps marches past, singing. Each man is strikingly an individual; the uniform, the precision marching, the erect posture, instead of veiling individuality emphasize it. Yet there is something in common, something which throughout life will mark these men; it can only be called the Spirit of West Point. This spirit is plain to see; it shines with a pentecostal brilliance.

Many things have contributed to the flowering of this deep feeling. It has been the purpose of this book to enumerate some of them.

The Corps is not ashamed to express religious feeling. For many years Miss Anna Warner, who gave her inherited estate, Constitution Island, to U. S. M. A., conducted a Bible class on Sundays. It gave genuine pleasure to the cadets who attended it. Miss Warner was accustomed to make pretty little bouquets and present them to her students. The cadets, far from blushing when they received these nosegays, used to put them in a glass of water outside their tents when summer camp was held at old Fort Clinton.

There is something almost monastic about the cadet's bare clean room, without pictures, without rugs, without an easy  p237 chair. Perhaps, too, his cleanliness tends to make him godly. He is always — especially in wartime — just a little too busy. He has not half a minute to spare, from reveille to taps. Alcohol he does without; sports take the place of indoor games. His conversation is masculine, but it is not coarse. In a surprisingly short time, because of the strength of West Point and because of the malleability of youth, the purity of his life shines in his face.

Graduation is a solemn moment in the lives of all; at West Point, for obvious reasons, it is especially solemn. Everything, including this underlying feeling, contributes to make the occasion memorable and stirring. As each familiar song is sung, voices chant "Never Again, Never Again, Never Again." West Point life has ended.

Before the first World War, West Pointers were handed their diplomas before the Battle Monument — around which a pavilion had been constructed of flags. Today the graduation ceremony takes place in the vast West Point Armory. Each man in the Corps sits in place; he will be called to receive his diploma in the order of his academic standing. This is a matter of record for all time. It is also a matter of record that some cadets who graduated near the end of the line achieved heights of fame. As they wait, the cadets realize that they are no longer under the disciplined protection of West Point. They well know the state of the world, and the meaning of their training is apparent.

There will be moments, hours, ahead when these spotless uniforms will be remembered with a kind of sad irony. There will be long tedious months in sweltering camps. There will be monotonous duty. There will be the climates of all the world to endure. These young officers will sweat and itch in the tropics; they will endure the extremes of cold. They will know the heartbreaking fatigue of battle, its filth — and the tragedy in the  p238 eyes of friends who will never reach the dressing stations. West Point will perhaps seem a kind of Heaven in this real Hell. But something is going to carry the West Pointer through, even though he should find himself alone facing an ordeal harder than any other — the ordeal of seeing his comrades lose faith. No one should attempt a definition of this inner strength. To define it would be to defile it. But each West Pointer knows that a strong structure has been built in his heart; he knows that his soul has been fortified. Duty, Honor, Country — West Point!a

[image ALT: A line drawing of a large group of blocky, military-looking buildings, ranging from three to maybe ten stories tall, and including at least three towers. The buildings are clumped together in a narrow space not a kilometer wide on a flat area surrounded by tall hills and fronting on a body of water with a small island toward the background (the Hudson River). In the center of the drawing, in a largish clear space at edge of the river, a tall flagpole flying the American flag. Over the Hudson, seven small planes are flying. It is a depiction of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point in 1944.]

Thayer's Note:

a Some may be tempted to view Elizabeth Waugh's concluding words as the overly romantic prose of an outsider, and of a pre-liberated woman at that: yet eighteen years after her, General of the Army Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Douglas MacArthur, Class of 1903, would say much the same thing, and even in not so different a way.

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Page updated: 5 Feb 17