Dangers of real world intrude on West Point

Leadership: As the Military Academy celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, its cadets' thoughts turn to the burdens entailed in its motto, "duty, honor, country."

April 21, 2002|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WEST POINT, N.Y. - The austere motto of the United States Military Academy does not include the word "change."

But as West Point celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, change is making a mark inside the academy's somber, gray stone classroom buildings. Retooling its curriculum to fit the needs of a global, open-ended war on terrorism, the academy has added a general course on terrorism and is developing others on cyber and nuclear terrorism.

As for West Point's 4,000 cadets, the academy's motto of "duty, honor, country" has more immediacy than before the terrorist attacks on New York City, 50 miles to the south. The cadets are keenly aware that when they graduate as second lieutenants in the Army, they will become front-line leaders in the new war.

`I'm more motivated'

"Coming in, it seemed more like a college education," said Kirby Atwell, 20, a first year cadet, or "plebe," from the Chicago suburb of New Lenox who wants to be a helicopter pilot. "But now I'm thinking more about my commitment beyond West Point. I'm more motivated to get out there and fight."

His resolution is hardly theoretical. Two West Point graduates were killed in February when a helicopter crashed in the Philippines as part of operations against an Islamic rebel group.

That grim statistic is a measure of how the real world has intruded on this historic spot perched high above a picturesque stretch of the Hudson River, where cadets wear dress uniforms little changed from the early 19th century and follow a daily routine that would have been familiar to President Dwight D. Eisenhower (Class of 1915) or even President Ulysses S. Grant (Class of 1843).

Part of the point of West Point has always been that it does not change very much or very fast. That fact is driven home by the bicentennial banners that hang from lampposts on the academy's campus, which declare, "Timeless leadership."

"Our primary function remains to provide leaders for the country," said Brig. Gen. Daniel Kaufman, who as dean oversees the academy's curriculum.

Famous graduates

A roll call of the "long, gray line" of West Pointers includes two presidents, four of the five men ever to become five-star generals, and many of the most famous names in American military history, such as Robert E. Lee and George S. Patton. More recently, West Point has produced more Rhodes scholars in the last three years than any other American university.

"It's definitely humbling," said Tom Anderson, 22, a senior, or "firsty," from Geneseo in western Illinois, as he glanced at paintings of Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and other towering figures that hang on the oak-paneled walls of a lounge. "To think they were here at my age and then what they did. I'd say tradition is one of the best things about this place."

To celebrate the bicentennial, 3,000 alumni from classes as far back as 1936 recently returned for a recent Founder's Day dinner, and the government took the unusual step of issuing a first-class stamp and a dollar coin in honor of West Point. President Bush will deliver the commencement address June 1.

One constant at West Point is that it does not mold tomorrow's leaders with gentle hands. The demanding four years of classes and physical training begin with "beast barracks," during which plebes are initiated into cadet life with rigorous marches and constant reminders, at high volume, of their shortcomings.

"I know there are things I learned about myself that I wouldn't have learned otherwise," said Erica Watson, 21, a firsty from McHenry, Ill., who will begin a two-year Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University when she graduates in June. "The mental endurance, the spiritual endurance, just volition. I think that's built a confidence in me that a civilian education wouldn't have done."

Founded by Jefferson

The academy was founded in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson, one of the staunchest opponents of a military academy before he became president. In the 1790s, Jefferson opposed the idea because he thought it would perpetuate a military elite, counter to his democratic ideal of the citizen-soldier.

"He never explained why he changed his mind," said Stephen Grove, the academy's historian. "And that's given generations of historians the opportunity to come up with hypotheses for why he did it."

Other historians speculate that when Jefferson became president, he realized he had a chance to shape an academy to his way of thinking, in part by packing the early cadet corps with the sons of his political allies. Its heavy emphasis on engineering - West Point was the nation's first such school - also suited Jefferson's preference for practical education.

In those early years, the academy helped turn a collection of fractious states into a nation, first by bringing together the sons of the South, New England and the frontier West and giving them a common grounding as American officers. Graduates went on to build the nation in a more practical sense, planning and constructing roads, bridges, harbors and railroads.

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