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Copyright John T. Reed

Part 1 of this article is at www.johntreed.com/gotousma.html.

No indentured servitude

Do not go to any college that puts you into indentured servitude. That means service academies or ROTC programs. Otherwise, make your college decision based on cost, location, activities and subjects that interest you. I would not worry too much about which civilian college you go to. In the long run, your life will be determined by what you do with it, not by which college you attended. Few options are foreclosed by not going to Harvard. However, young people and their parents need to worry about a thousand times more about selecting a service academy or ROTC program. For all who stop and think about it, it is nothing short of astonishing that ten thousand or more young people get on those two conveyor belts to hell every May 1st. What in the blue hell are you people thinking!?

With regard to leaving your college before graduation

Leaving West Point before graduation triggers two peer-pressure categories. One is just the general bias against changing colleges.

Screw that! Do what’s best for you. It’s your life, not theirs. As moms often ask, would you walk off a cliff just because all your friends do it? Actually, that’s not that far from reality at West Point. You probably will rarely ever see any of your high school or college peers after graduation. How can you let such people have so much power over your life—in the case of West Point, perhaps the power of your life and death?

I urged my son to consider changing colleges when he was at Columbia. He did not. I felt the reaction of his peers was the main reason he did not. I suggested he mute that by transferring to another college while he was on vacation and just informing selected peers by phone or email. I make the same suggestion to current cadets who decide to leave. You don’t have any obligation to put yourself through a gauntlet of peer disapproval. It’s like pulling off a Band-Aid. Once you decide to do it, yank it off fast.

Being a ‘quitter’

The other pressure you feel only when you quit something that is known to be very difficult like West Point is not wanting to be “a quitter.” I discussed that elsewhere in this article. It’s a total bullshit, childlike consideration. You know who you are and whether you are leaving because you are not up to the challenge of West Point. You don’t risk your life or handicap it because people who don’t know you or your reasons might jump to an erroneous conclusion about whether you were not good enough to graduate from West Point.

Pick a goal then select the best way to achieve it. If and when West Point is not that best way, leave. Neither your peers nor your parents nor your friends nor your casual acquaintances get a vote. They have one life and that’s the only one they get to control, or at least it should be.

Here is an email I got from a “former cadet” (That’s what the Association of Graduates calls people who entered West Point but did not garduate.) whose identity I have concealed: [My comments are in red]

Hello Mr. Reed,

I am not too sure if you will remember me, but several years ago we exchanged emails regarding my decision to leave West Point. It was 201X and I was a nineteen year old yearling in the middle of my third semester at the Academy. At nineteen I did not feel ready to sign a contract that would bind me to spending my twenties in the Army. I am currently finishing up my degree in ———— Engineering at U——— and will be graduating in December 201X (extra semester due to transferring). I was recently reading through old emails, found our exchange, and figured you might appreciate an update on my experiences since leaving West Point.

After leaving West Point in December 201X, I had a brief winter break and began classes at U———— in January 201X. I initially disliked U———— and missed some aspects of West Point, primarily my close friends and the honor code. The transition from cadet to average college student was fairly tumultuous for me because I did not know anybody at U———— and was a bit cynical about both colleges. [Since most meeting at civilian colleges occurs during freshman year, if you transfer in after that year, you must make a concerted effort to meet people. Do that by joining extracurricular activities that have many meeting opportunities and frequent activities. Also, many jobs available at civilian colleges are great for metting people.]

I did not know how to explain my decision to leave West Point to my peers at U——— and found that I had nothing to talk about except West Point. The amount of autonomy I had at U———— was unprecedented and took some getting used to. Because it was the second semester almost all of the students already had friend groups and were well adjusted to life at U————. There seemed to be an unlimited number of opportunities at U————, both academic and social. I simply did not know where I would ever fit in. As a new West Point drop-out this was daunting. Over the following semesters I came to truly enjoy being a student at U—————. My experiences as a cadet surprisingly complemented those that I was having as a normal college student, and provided me with some interesting insights regarding the differences between U————— and West Point. Their missions are obviously quite different, but I think it is reasonable to compare quality of both educations.

Regarding academics, U————— is much more diverse than West Point and in many ways the University has more to offer. As a disclaimer, I can only speak knowledgably about the ———— Engineering program at U———. I found academics at West Point to be overly rigid, with much more of an emphasis on curriculum requirements than actual learning. At U——— classes were held in a much more casual manner and professors treated education much differently than instructors at West Point. As a cadet it seemed like West Point’s administration placed pressure on instructors to get all cadets to pass required courses, failing as few cadets as possible. This was especially true regarding Corps Squad athletes. At U————, professors cared much more about teaching subject material to students and less about everybody passing. The brightest students were able to excel, average students got by, and those who were not competitive did not get to become engineers. It seemed Professors knew much more about the subjects they were teaching and all of mine had doctorate degrees in their respective fields. This greatly contrasted [with] West Point’s academic staff of Army officers, who, in general, were hardly experts on the subjects they were teaching and mostly held Masters Degrees.

I found that the student body at U———— contained a variety of students in terms of talent. I think it is fair to say that U——— is representative of many large research-based universities. The profile of an average student at West Point has a much more impressive academic background than the profile of average student at U———. At the extreme ends of this spectrum, U——— has a much greater standard of deviation than West Point. The worst students at U——— are horribly incompetent and lacking in talent. The best students there are incredibly talented and thrive academically. Many of the top students at U———— ended up there because of financial concerns and the fact that U———— is a massive institution with no shortage of resources for students who are intelligent and work hard. Though it has its own problems with bureaucracy, the University is relatively dynamic and progressive regarding the opportunities it provides to students. Excluding recruited athletes, the worst students at West Point are generally mediocre but never too bad. The best students there are remarkably bright but only able to achieve so much academically because of the rigid organization and bureaucratic approach to education.

This past May I watched my class graduate from West Point. When you replied to my email in 201X you were quite correct that I would have some doubts about my decision to leave the Academy in this time. It was humbling to watch my classmates walk across the stage at Michie Stadium, shake the President’s hand, and officially become West Point Graduates. While they were busy graduating from West Point, I was having an ordinary day as an intern working in the ———— Engineering department at———, a large ——— company. I was still just a civilian millennial college student at U——— and it did pain me to think about how else I could have spent that day.

In retrospect, I have no regrets about leaving West Point and I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be graduating from U——— this December. U——— has given me plenty of opportunities and I like to think that I have been able to make something of myself through them. At the least, I feel much more in control of my future than ever before. For my current internship my boss received over 140 resumes from HR, interviewed 40 potential candidates, and ended up hiring me. Last summer I spent three and a half months in ————, AK working as a guide at —————. During my first summer at U——— I had a mediocre internship but was able to work hard and earn some credibility that would help me out for subsequent positions. Though my future is much less certain than that of my classmates at West Point [Don’t be too sure about that—budget cuts] I am incredibly happy with the decision that I made in 201X.

I would like to thank you so much for the guidance that you gave me several years ago as I was making the decision to leave West Point. Your article, Should you go to, or stay at, West Point? helped me make a more informed decision. I apologize for the length of this email and hope that it was interesting for you to hear about my post-academy experiences.

Very Respectfully,

[Name redacted by me]

Branch and assignment choices

I already talked about branch and assignment choices elsewhere in this article. Here, I just want to warn you that there is strong peer pressure with regard to these choices, too. And these choices, even more than choosing West Point itself, can get you killed. I keep urging flexibility in career choices. Dying is the ultimate in inability to make optimal career decisions. If you must graduate from West Point, pick a branch and assignment choice that is likely to keep you alive and healthy and maximize your success and satisfaction in your ultimate career.

If I had mine to do over starting branch drawing night, I would have chosen Air Defense Artillery. I am not sure what the alternatives are nowadays, but ADA would have been best back in 1968 because it was a non-combat arm (therefore no need to risk your life surviving ranger school) and ADA officers were generally stationed in major metro areas where it was possible to have a social life and perhaps make contacts or become familiar with an area to settle in after the Army.

Other support branches like military intelligence or transportation would not have been any good because if you chose one of them, you were “detailed” for the first two years to a combat branch like the infantry. Those support branch guys were ironically our first classmates in Vietnam in the infantry (because they skipped ranger).

The Vietnam ADA assignment was a little goofy. ADA units there were used as perimeter security machine gun crews (using quad 50s, an anti-aircraft configuration of the .50 cal machine gun and 20 mm AA guns) at isolated, small fire bases. I was actually in the only ADA unit in Vietnam for the first 20 minutes of my tour in Vietnam to be the battalion communications officer—but that’s another story. I doubt I would have enjoyed it any more as an ADA officer. In general, ADA would have best suited me in retrospect.

Would I have gotten shit from my cadet peers about choosing ADA if I had? Yeah, for a couple of days. I got a little for choosing Signal Corps. I ignored it. I had a plan I was following. I wanted to invest in real estate in my home state: NJ. The Signal Corps radio officer school I chose was in NJ at Fort Monmouth. It was also the longest school of any branch which meant the most TDY (temporary duty) pay which I would use to buy the real estate. Indeed, I did buy my first duplex in NJ on 4/15/69 while I was going through Fort Monmouth as a second lieutenant. In retrospect, avoiding ranger school and assignments to places like Fort Gordon, Fort Benning, and Fort Bragg would have been worth postponing the duplex purchase and foregoing the couple of months extra TDY pay. ADA school is in El Paso. The cost of living there is so much less than near Fort Monmouth that I probably would have made up the lost TDY pay in the form of lower rent and other prices.

‘The sky’s the limit’

A phrase often heard in business is “The sky’s the limit.” Is the sky the limit in a career as an Army officer?

Ha!

Receive email updates from John T. Reed

I am an entrepreneur. Have been since I was a 22-year-old second lieutenant (I bought a rental duplex that year.) As an entrepreneur, the sky’s the limit. I have lost 3/4 of a million dollars in a couple of apartment complexes I bought on the same day in 1983. I have also made millions. Some of my good ideas make almost overnight big bucks. For example, I got fed up with my book-store distributor and the book stores after having my books sold by them in book stores nationwide for twenty years and switched to self-distribution of the books that I write. As a result, my net income went up 257% in one year.

How many Army officers see their net income go up 257% in one year? Maybe General Norman Schwarzkopf, but only after he retired and cashed in on his Desert Storm celebrity.

All promoted the same day

My West Point classmates and I all got promoted to first lieutenant on the first anniversary of our graduation from West Point. Were some of us better than the others? No doubt. But in the Army, how good—or bad—you perform is irrelevant or almost so. Same thing happened on the second anniversary of our graduation: everyone got promoted to captain (except me and a couple of others—I pissed off my battalion commander at the time by declining to eat cold suppers with all the officers in the battalion and him). Again, it mattered not how well or badly you performed.

Around the tenth anniversary of our graduation, about ten of our classmates (out of 706 who graduated the same day) got promoted to major slightly early. Then the rest got promoted to major. I was out of the Army by then. Were the few who got promoted early promoted early because they performed better than the rest? That’s what the Army would say.

Lieutenants in captains jobs

But in fact a great many of them seemed to get the early promotion because someone in the Pentagon developed the theory that doing well in a captain’s slot (company commander) when you were a mere first lieutenant trumped successful combat experience in Vietnam!!! So a bunch of the guys who got promoted early to major in my class were guys who got married at graduation and chose Germany as their first assignment because they felt obligated to spend at least one tour with their new wives before they went off and got themselves killed in Vietnam. Think I’m kidding or exaggerating about that? I mean that precisely. I participated in the bull sessions at West Point where it was discussed.

Because of the Vietnam-induced shortage of Army officers in Germany, they had to use lieutenants as company commanders. Commanding a company in garrison (no war in the vicinity) is relatively easy. So the I’m-getting-married-so-I’m-going-to-Germany guys ended up being considered many of the ones who performed the best in our class. In some cases, those guys also never got to Vietnam at all because the war ended during or around the end of their first assignment in Germany, or they got to Vietnam when we were still there but not much was happening there. I believe some of them never intended to make a career of the Army and got out relatively soon thereby greatly embarrassing the Army who had said, in effect, “These are our few crown princes from this West Point class.”

After about another ten years, another tiny early-promotion list to lieutenant colonel came out. Shortly thereafter, the rest of the class made lieutenant colonel.

Bottom line: if you are a superstar and you go into the Army, probably no one, including you, will ever find out. In civilian life, especially in a small company that goes public or your own company, if you are a superstar, you will be recognized as such in terms of compensation and responsibility. In short, you will generally get what you deserve in terms of success and recognition of that success, or failure, in entrepreneurial civil life. In the Army, however, you will get promoted to lieutenant colonel, a tiny bit sooner or a tiny bit later than your classmates, regardless of whether you deserve to be a captain or a four-star general at the time. The military assumes everyone is uniformly mediocre and therefore promotes almost everyone in a given year group on almost the same day to almost the same rank. The only differences come at the general level and go to only a handful of seemingly randomly-chosen West Point, ROTC, and OCS guys in each commission year group.

In civilian life, you can be the equivalent of a four-star general when you are 27 and whether you accomplish that will generally be decided on your merit. In the military, you cannot possibly be a four-star general until you are in your mid-to-late 50s and the selection will be based almost entirely on military office politics.

Random numbers

During the latter part of the Vietnam war, they adopted the Random Sequence Number (RSN) system for the draft. It is better known as the draft lottery. Very simply, each day of the year, each of which is someone’s birthday, was assigned a random number from 1 to 366. Then they drafted those whose birthday was assigned number 1 then 2 then 3 and so on until they had enough soldiers for the year.

Whenever a scientist hears the word “random,” he or she immediately wonders if there is a research opportunity here. Indeed, there was with regard to the draft lottery. Labor economist Joshua Angrist wondered if being in the Army adversely affected the income of the draftees. In the early 1980s, about twenty years after the war had ended, he did a study that compared the incomes of those who came of age during the Vietnam draft lottery period to their RSN. The study showed that military service (as suggested by a low RSN) reduced income by about 15% for as long as ten years after being discharged from the military!

And for those of you who were not around then, that 15% drop in income was in spite of the fact that draftees only served precisely two years in the Army. West Point cadets have four years there followed by five years on active duty followed by three more years in the inactive reserves.

No advantage in civilian employment

The Army’s propaganda that military service will give you an advantage over your peers who never served in the military is bunk. Military service is, as the RSN study showed, an economic disadvantage when competing for civilian jobs and promotions. Generally, your years in the military are lost years from the standpoint of civilian employment. They simply leave you behind as a result of your arriving late to the activity in question. The Army and the Military Academy can spin it all they want. The data do not support the spin.

I had one of the top military specialties for getting a civilian job: radio communications. I never sought a job in that field. I had no interest in electronic communications. So I do not know if my training and experience had any civilian employment value. Speaking now as a civilian entrepreneur with 40 years experience, I expect few civilian employers would pay for any military training other than flight school and then only if you were going to be a pilot for them.

The fact that I had no interest in radio communications is also relevant. While the military does train you, they only train you in military stuff, like military communications—field radios, vehicle-mounted radios, military-only encryption devices. Civilians generally used more advanced, fixed-location radios, and civilian encryption devices. Military equipment is usually several generations behind current state of the art. So most civilian employers would laugh at you when you told them about your military training: “We haven’t used that in 13 years.” Generally, the civilians would have to put a former military guy through the same training as they do non-former-military employees. So no cost savings from hiring former military.

Hiring someone from the public sector

In the 10/1/07 BusinessWeek column Ideas by Jack and Suzy Welch, they answered a question from a woman who got a masters degree in public administration and who worked for the government for 13 years. She could not even get an interview when she tried to switch over to the private sector. Finally, she was at least able to talk to a vice-president on the phone about her dilemma. He said,

Public sector hires never work out. They can cross the border into the business world, but they never seem to grasp the culture.

The Welches then elaborated at length about all the bad things that arise out of the lack of internal and external competition and the slow pace in the public sector. They liken it to having spent your adult life in a foreign country then wanting to come back to work in the U.S. Amen. In fact, week after week on the last page of BusinessWeek, the Welches do a great job of skewering bureaucrats and bureaucracies in general, which is more than a little ironic when you consider that Jack Welch’s claim to fame is having been CEO of GE.

Hiring junior military officers

In the 6/16/08 BusinessWeek, the Welches commented specifically on hiring former junior military officers at GE. Jack Welch said they were “Whip smart and tenacious.”

I do not know why he said they were “whip smart.” As you would expect, junior military officers generally are graduates of relatively unselective colleges. There are not many Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, or CalTech junior military officers. So the “whip smart” statement is false on its face. I would be curious as to his motive for saying that.

I also do not understand “tenacious.” I can see it for West Point grads and rangers. Both of those schools require extreme tenaciousness to graduate. But the vast majority of officers went to neither West Point nor ranger school. They are just C-student frat brothers from Podunk State. They sure as hell did not become tenacious from OCS or ROTC. And I saw nothing in junior officer land that would make you that way. You’re just a low-level, olive-drab bureaucrat.

‘Can do’

He also says most military officers have “can-do, upbeat attitudes.” I’ll agree with that, although I think it’s a mere affectation stemming from the military’s look-the-part, talk-a-good-game, form-over-substance group norm. They had the same can-do, upbeat, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel attitudes in Vietnam, which they did not win.

He also says that former young officers can make yes-or-no decisions on the spot. It depends on the issue. Commanding men in close order drill and manual of arms engenders that quality. But as I stated elsewhere in this article, military officers, even generals, have astonishingly little real authority to make decisions about anything other than left or right face or ruining a junior officer’s career. So if you give a young former military officer at GE a chance to make a decision and he perceives it to be a right- or left-face situation, he will be quick and decisive. But if he perceives it to be a bureaucratic decision, he will be afraid to decide at all for fear it will piss off a superior.

People skills?

Welch says former military officers’ “people skills are superb.” I would think they are probably OK, not “superb,” with regard to their superiors, but in the military they only had to give orders to subordinates. Better not try that in a civilian corporation. How would they get superb? They spend about 1/3 to 1/2 of their brief military career as students in various military schools like basic officer training, specialty training, and maybe parachute school. The rest of the time they are platoon leaders or assistant platoon leaders or some miscellaneous assistant. They give orders to dozens of subordinates and occasionally interact with a handful of superiors. Where is the training or experience that would make them “superb” at people skills?

Welch also says that former junior military officers are great motivators and team builders. Well, they get exposed to a lot of rah-rah drill instructor types. And they do a lot of team stuff like group calisthenics. But the great motivators I have seen in my life were coaches and some university professors. The military drill instructors were doing a shtick like former Marine sergeant R. Lee Ermey doing “Mail Call” on the History Channel or his “Full Metal Jacket” act. Military officers run teams in theory, but, in fact, they are too busy screwing around with administrivia to bother about that. Also, they generally are not in a competitive situation other than war and even today, they spend probably less than half their careers in a war zone. And, unbelievable though it may sound, the American military has not tried to win our recent major wars like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. See my review of Nate Sassaman’s book Warrior King and my review of the book The Gamble about The Surge for more on that in Iraq. I discussed the lack of effort to win in my war, Vietnam, at various places at this Web site.

Welch also says that former junior officers will move anywhere. Bullshit! All that moving around they had to do in the military is why they became FORMER military officers.

Bureaucracy

Welch also had some negatives. He said many former officers “can’t seem to get the military’s necessary bureaucracy out of their systems.” Well, duh. That’s what he said in the discussion of hiring former public sector employees.

He also says they can “lack visionary thinking” and are “less inclined to take risks.” You bet. Visionary thinking in the military will end your career because, by definition, it contradicts the thinking of one or more of your superiors. And how does Welch square his accusation that former military officers are less inclined to take risks with his prior statement that they are great at making yes-or-no decisions on the spot?

I think Welch pulled his punches on this reader question about former military officers, and tried to accentuate the positive, in order to avoid being criticized for not “supporting our troops.”

I would be leery of long-term Army officer West Pointers

I do not hire people any more, but if I were hiring the sorts of jobs that West Pointers might apply for, I would not hold West Point against a person who graduated and spent no more than the minimum active duty time in the Army. However, if they spent more than the minimum five years in the Army, I would become leery and question them closely about why they did that. For each additional year they spent in the Army after the mandatory five, my suspicion that they were permanently poisoned by too many years in a military bureaucracy would grow exponentially.

During the Court Martial of Army Air Corps General Billy Mitchell, Congressman, later New York City mayor, Fiorella La Guardia testified. He had been a pilot under Billy Mitchell’s command during world War I. La Guardia had characterized the generals on Mitchell’s jury as “dog robbers.” “Dog robber” is American military slang, dating back to the US Civil War, for an enlisted man who acts as an orderly, valet and all-around facilitator for an officer. A similar British colloquialism for a junior officer in the Royal Navy is “dogsbody,” also in more general slang use for anyone in a subservient, menial position.

Here is part of the prosecutor’s cross examination of La Guardia:

La Guardia: I am convinced the training, the background, the experience and the attitude of officers of high rank of the army are all conducive to carrying out the wishes and desires of the general staff.

Prosecutor: How high a rank does an officer have to get before he becomes within your characterization?

La Guardia: It happened by the time they were majors.

That was my impression as well. Majors, almost by definition, have decided to make the Army a career. Many, if not most captains and lieutenants get out of the Army within two to six or seven years of being commissioned.

Which to hire: a West Pointer or a Harvard man?

Suppose I had two candidates who graduated from Harvard College and West Point the same year and each spent a mandatory five years as an Army officer (the Harvard guy from taking honors ROTC at MIT). Would I favor the West Pointer? No. I would probably tentatively favor the Harvard guy before I got to know each of them for the simple reason that it is much harder to get into Harvard.

To the extent that connections were important in my business, I would rather have a guy connected to a Harvard College class than a West Point class. Again, very simply, the Harvard guy would probably know all sorts of executives and professionals around the U.S. The West Point guy would probably know all sorts of Army officers around the rural South, Germany, Korea, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. No contest.

I might hire the West Point guy rather than the Harvard guy after I interviewed them, but on paper, the Harvard guy looks better.

Only look good to the government

Generally, a West Pointer would only look good to a company that hoped to do lots of business with the military. Or perhaps to other governmental organizations like the FBI or the INS.

What about all the special training at West Point? Wouldn’t I give credit for that when picking between the Harvard and West Point guys? Not unless I was in the business of running a military school, or a marching band, or a branch of Outward Bound or some other business where the similarities with the United States Military Academy were numerous and obvious.

As far as running a business that manufactured products or provided some commercial service, how the hell would all the chickenshit at West Point help my company produce a product, sell it, or deliver or sell a service? West Point cadets get zero training or experience either making things or providing service other than running around the woods shooting blanks at “aggressors” who are scripted to always run away. And they get no training in selling, which is about half of private business. West Point would probably claim indirect benefits like their “leadership” training helps you do everything better.

Bull!

Certified good guy

There are a number of careers where just joining the occupation makes you a certified great person. They include:

• priest
• nun
• doctor
• nurse
• EMT
• fireman
• police
• coast guard
• military

Clearly, many who join these professions do so because they have some sort of psychological need to be viewed this way. I was raised as a Catholic and went to Catholic school. I especially noticed that many priests and nuns seemed to be nobody special, but by joining those professions, they were treated as exceedingly special by almost everyone. This was especially annoying to me because the priesthood and convent seemed to me to have no standards—and that was before any pedophile or sex scandals. You got treated like a saint without having to do anything but wear black clothes and hang around the church and school buildings.

It has been said that politics is Hollywood for ugly people. I thought the word “ugly” was a bit harsh. Didn’t they mean ordinary-looking people? Then I noticed Harry Reid, John Murtha, and Arlen Specter and realized, no, they really mean ugly.”

I have paraphrased that to say that the military, especially the tough-guy, so-called “elite” units, is the NFL for unathletic, ordinary-sized people. Both NFL and military exploits are often on TV, but the NFL exploits are real. The vast majority of the military heroics people have seen on TV, on the other hand, are Hollywood fiction or Hollywoodized recreations of true combat incidents. The typical actual combat vet in the military has a quantity of combat experience about equal to what is called a “cup of coffee” in pro sports—being on a Major League or NFL team only for several games.

With this “selfless servant” nonsense, the military is trying to become the priesthood, if not the sainthood, for carousing, chain-smoking, drunken, pot heads. The non-medical-clergy occupations on that list are also getting a cheap, in many cases, certification as an action-figure hero. The military is full of desk jockeys and truck mechanics who have never been to a war zone and who strut around in the stateside civilian world in uniform getting drinks bought for them by easily-awed and guilty-about-their-own-lack-of-military-service civilians.

The recurring theme is that merely joining an occupation with such a public image, even where the occupation has no standards or easily-met standards, transforms you, in a matter of months or a few years, into a certified wonderful person.

Some would say becoming a doctor or a nurse has high standards. High academic standards, yes. But getting an MD or RN designation does not mean you are a good nurse or doctor, only that you were a good academic student of MD and RN subject matter.

To become a certified wonderful person, you ought to have to do wonderful things repeatedly.

The problem with the above list of certified good guy occupations is they can be joined too cheaply. The problem with those who seek them for the purpose of being a certified good guy as a result is that they apparently have some sort of mental problem that would be better served by psychiatric therapy than this training. There is also the problem that these occupations are often important and therefore ought to have as their members those best suited for them, not those most in need of the short-cut to self esteem and public esteem.

You see West Point’s lack of influence on my life in my books

My business is writing, publishing, and distributing how-to books on real estate investment, football and baseball coaching, and other subjects. Those particular products offer anyone interested a great opportunity to see how much going to West Point helped me succeed. See how many things in the books refer to or stem from something I learned at West Point and would not have learned anywhere else or at least anywhere other than a service academy. The indexes for all my books are at this Web site. Start at www.johntreed.com/allReedbooks.html.

There are nine paragraphs about a lesson I learned at West Point on pages 206 and 207 of my book How To Manage Residential Property for Maximum Cash Flow and Resale Value. My book How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-to Book, which was “highly recommended” by West Point’s alumni magazine Assembly, has five index entries for West Point. None of them relate to unique, beneficial learning from there.

My top-selling book, Succeeding, tells how to succeed in life in general. If the indirect training of West Point were going to manifest itself in my work, that would be the book. And, indeed, there are 60 index entries for West Point in that book. But they are mainly about overcoming the hardships and handicaps imposed by West Point, West Point as a career mistake I made, and so on.

On page 78, I did note that West Point and Ranger School taught us to reconnoiter future missions and to rehearse presentations at least three times and that it was wise advice that my readers should learn from. On page 170 I noted the Cadet Honor Code and said it inspired me to come up with my own Reed Family Code which I used to teach my sons how to conduct themselves. (Tell the truth. Keep your promises. Treat others as you want to be treated.)

Readers can check for mentions of West Point in the indexes of all my books at my Web site www.johntreed.com/allReedbooks.html. Most make no mention of West Point, even the football and baseball coaching books, which cover subjects one might think are very much like leading men in combat.

My main point here is that my life sort of has a transcript because I have written 85 books and over 5,000 articles, all of which were published nationally. So one can read that transcript and see how going to West Point influenced my life and helped me succeed. In fact, readers of my books, including West Point grads who could see West Point influence between the lines, will find very little evidence that my unique college was a big factor in my life or the success I have had. The surprising and sad fact is that West Point, not for lack of trying on their part, has rarely appeared in my post-military adult life as a source of education that helped me. I suspect other grads of West Point will realize the same is true of their lives if they reflect objectively upon them.

You versus Bob the non-West Pointer

Many would argue that the West Point education and experience as junior Army officers puts them ahead of their civilian peers. It’s just not so. Think it through.

Bob graduates, with honors and a bachelor’s degree in business administration, from, say, the University of Indiana the same year you graduate from West Point. After one summer as a lifeguard, he did two business internships the following two summers. He takes a job in the nearest major metro area—Chicago—with a medical equipment company that he interned with before his senior year. Seven years later, you resign from the Army and take a job with the same company.

A mid-level managerial position opens up. Bob has worked his way up two executive levels during the seven years. He has worked in three different areas of the company since college. He knows the business, the employees, its executives, customers, and suppliers.

You, on the other hand, were an infantry platoon leader in Iraq for a year and a company commander in Fort Hood, TX for another. You spent the rest of your Army officer time attending Army schools and working as a staff officer. That’s nice. If we were making a war movie, we’d hire you as a consultant. But what do you know about manufacturing or selling medical equipment? Dealing with union employees? Getting past secretaries to meet with the procurement man or woman at hospitals in the Midwest? Getting the best price on titanium sheet metal?

Do you really think that everyone in that medical equipment company is going to genuflect at the mention of your West Point diploma or combat service? You may not even be the first West Point graduate they ever hired. They will expect of you about what they got out of the last one. They may expect bigger things from you as a result of your military background. They may even hire you at a slightly higher-than-normal entry level. But basically, you are seven years behind in their eyes, and they are right. Unless your “superior” background quickly manifests itself in the form of undeniable superior performance making or selling medical equipment, you are just another college grad—indeed, a rather old one for your tenure within the company and the industry.

That same “five to eight-years behind your civilian college peers” handicap would apply in academia, politics, and even civilian government employment.

In short, Bob is going to get the promotion, not you, in spite of your West Point (genuflect) diploma. Furthermore, Bob and all your other civilian peers will continue to have that five- to eight-year lead on you for the rest of your career.

The 3/22/10 Fortune had a cover story saying that big corporations were increasing their hiring of recent young military officers. It claimed it was because of their fabulous leadership training and combat experience. The article was extremely lame and probably misleading. See my review of it at www.johntreed.com/Fortunemilitary.html.

Fortune did it again in their 5/21/12 issue. And I reviewed that too at www.johntreed.com/FortuneMay12vetsarticle.html.

More responsibility at a younger age

What about the line that military officers get far more responsibility at young ages than civilians?

It’s true. Civilian organizations rarely put a 23-year old in charge of 40 men or a 24-year old in charge of 125—especially in life-or-death situations. When I was a company commander in the Army, I was bemused to hear my middle-aged sergeants telling people in my front office to “run that by the old man.” (The old man” is a traditional Army name for the commanding officer of a company or larger unit.) The “old man” was me. I was 25. But there are two reasons for that: military leaders have to be young because of the unique strength and stamina requirements of combat and because the American taxpayers are cheap.

The fact that they put such young people in charge of platoons and companies in the military does not mean that the leaders in question were ready for such responsibility. In fact, in my observation and experience, they were not. They were too young and inexperienced. It is a bit of a scandal that the military does that. Men die because of it. Battle are lost because of it. Probably, some wars have been lost because of it.

None of my men died in Vietnam, but that was because the enemy chose not to attack us, not because I, at age 23, was a great military leader. I am very grateful that we were not attacked. I do not think that if we had been attacked and some of my men died as a result of my youth and inexperience that I would be grateful to the Army for having put me in that position. Nor do I think such artificial aging would have made me a hot commodity on the civilian job market.

I like the way Jack and Suzy Welch put it in their 8/25/08 Businessweek column on management. They were asked about the wisdom of “empowering” subordinate managers. The Welches said empowerment has to be earned. In other words, you do not give lots of responsibility to young subordinates across the board as a matter of policy like the military does. Rather, you give each young, rookie subordinate manager a little responsibility and see how they do with it. If an individual does well, you give him or her more. It’s common sense. But in bureaucracies like the military, common sense is an uncommon virtue.

Draftees are older

During general mobilizations like World Wars I and II, the average age of the Army goes up because they draft older men than volunteer for the military during non-draft periods. The greater age and experience of military personnel during general mobilization wars probably had something to do with us winning those wars. (See my arguments in favor of a draft.)

The main reason you get more responsibility in the military at younger ages than in civilian life is that the American taxpayers are cheap. They don’t want young platoon leaders and company commanders. They want cheap ones. They accept young to get cheap. They want this even though their sons die as a result.

Also, politicians do not want to vote for a draft that would bring in the older, more experienced leaders who would produce better results on the battlefield.

So you are not getting more responsibility in the Army than in civilian life because the Army and only the Army recognizes your true greatness as a leader. You, Lt. Fuzz, have that position because the American people regard military leadership as a shit job that they neither want nor are willing to pay enough for to attract more appropriately-qualified people.

Of course, you don’t have to go through the ordeal of West Point to become an Army officer. So you can get the same “benefit” of great responsibility at a young age in the military by going to OCS or ROTC.

Fool the ignorant civilians?

The notion that civilian employers will reward you highly for having survived such heavy responsibility rests mainly on the belief that civilians do not know what it’s really like in the military and can be easily bamboozled into being impressed by resume entries about being “responsible” for $80 million of equipment and 125 men and all that.

That is not the case. Almost every group of five or six civilian executives includes former military. They put that same bullshit on their resume when they got out of the military and they know it means little.

Wall Street Journal articles on former military officer MBAs

The 1/18/10 Wall Street Journal had two articles about former military officers going to MBA schools and then on to civilian executive jobs. The article had the usual partly line about former military officers having leadership training, experience, and qualities. When I was a student in the Harvard MBA program, I spent all day every day for the first year in the same room with the same 85 students. A few of us were former military. The vast majority were not. I thought the other West Pointer was a leader. He since has been CEO of at least one major coal company. I was president of two clubs at Harvard, although I think my advanced age (I was about four years older than the average MBA student there) was probably more responsible for that. I was also the main columnist in the school paper, a leadership position of sorts but not the type they train you for at West Point. The other former military MBA students in my section, who had been both enlisted and officers, did not strike me as standouts as leaders. Many of the non-military did.

As I said in my article about leadership, I believe leaders are fundamentally born, not made. About all you can teach are mechanical tricks like command voice, reconnaissance, and so on. Leadership training is mostly myth.

As far as experience is concerned, the Journal articles spoke of military experience as if the Hollywood depictions of it were accurate. That is, you graduate from West Point then spend five years as a combat platoon leader or company commander in Iraq or Afghanistan. In fact, it goes more like this:

1st year after graduation: attend various military schools like ranger, airborne, branch basic, branch specialty
2nd year: putz around a stateside unit in garrison duty as a platoon leader or miscellaneous assistant
3rd year: tour in Iraq or Afghanistan as platoon leader and/or miscellaneous assistant
4th year: more garrison duty in non-combat like Germany, Korea, or U.S., maybe attend another military school
5th year: another tour in Iraq or the Stan as company commander and staff officer

How much experience leading a “team?” About ten months in each combat tour and another ten months in each garrison assignment, but garrison is like a fire department with no fires. You have the title of leader or commander, but no mission to accomplish. Yeah, you’re supposed to be doing maneuvers and preparing for combat. In my experience and that of people I knew, maneuvers were few and far between. You mainly just do calisthenics, shit your pants getting ready for a motor vehicle inspection, train ROTC cadets, and other similar things. To call garrison duty as a platoon leader or company commander leadership experience is a bit of a stretch. I got more leadership experience coaching youth and high school football teams for a month than I did leading platoons or a company in the Army for a year. We had multiple difficult missions: win that week’s game against a highly motivated, often talented and well-trained, opponent.

‘Translating’

One of the main points in the Journal articles was captured in a quote from one of the vet MBAs.

The biggest challenge is translating our skill-set for the business community.

That’s like the Obama administration saying health care did not get passed because they failed in nine months worth of speeches to communicate its wonderfulness to the public. The real “biggest challenge” for the former military MBA is convincing civilian employers to hire them in spite of their lack of any relevant “skill-set.” Or, alternatively, for the dishonest former military MBAs, bullshitting the civilian employers, many of whom are themselves former military, into thinking there is a business usefulness to all those months spent attending military schools, wandering around getting shot at and blown up overseas without killing any enemy, and putzing around in garrisons, or bullshitting them into thinking the five years the vet spent as an officer were all John Wayne, combat, “Follow me, men,” team-building activities.

Harvard Business School, my MBA alma mater, now has remedial math for incoming students. I read about at least one West Pointer taking it before he started there. They also have remedial résumé writing and a sort of remedial business English to teach vets how to stop speaking in acronyms and military merit badges and such and start speaking in business.

One statement in the article was false. It said Harvard, which uses all case method instruction, relies on students’ personal experiences to propel cases. The truth is some sections (85-student groups) tend to have a group norm of respecting such experience; others pounce on any attempt to claim high ground based on personal experience. Fundamentally, Harvard could not rely on any such thing because the experiences of the MBA students are generally of a low-level and staff variety. The cases, on the other hand, put the student into the position of CEO, CFO, CMO, etc. When I was a Harvard, 20% of the incoming MBA students came straight out of college. They would always be left out of discussions that were “propelled” by personal experience. In fact, student personal experience was rarely part of case discussion. We were all there to learn the basic principles being taught: decision theory, economic order quantity, labor relations, decision-making unit, and so on. If Harvard relied on the low-level, mostly-staff experiences of its students, we would learn very little during the two years there.

The true main virtues of service academy graduates going into the civilian work force are the talents and work ethic and character they had when they entered the academy, not any value added by the academy or military officer stint.

But little authority

There is also a big “but” with regard to the extra responsibility the military gives young officers. It is a bedrock principle of management that

authority must be commensurate with responsibility

Is that the case in the U.S. military? You gotta be kidding! At least not in non-combat situations, which is the vast majority of what you do in the Army—even in Vietnam when I was there during the war. I’ll give you some examples.

I was a company commander at Fort Monmouth. In addition to my own 400 men, my mess hall had to feed the 400 men of the adjacent company. How do you run a restaurant? You need adequate staff, facilities, and raw materials. Did I have that? I had the facilities and raw materials. The kitchen was adequately equipped and the raw materials that were delivered to our truck dock daily were also adequate.

Staff

What about the staff?

Ha!

Every single cook in my company was a parolee from the maximum security U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, KS. Did they do an adequate job? No. They were lousy. It was like pulling teeth to get them to perform.

How about my mess officer? I did not have one. It was just me and the company XO. Neither of us had been trained in mess hall operation. Since I had 800 men to feed, I suspect there is a regulation somewhere in the Army that said I should have had a mess officer.

Mess sergeant

What about the mess sergeant? He was a fat, old, minority sergeant who was a year or two away from retirement. I mention that he was a minority because the brass was more reluctant to discipline minorities. (This was 1971.) Also, the battalion commander at that battalion was himself a minority. When another minority soldier blatantly refused to follow some simple orders and trash talked me and the XO to boot, I initiated court-martial proceedings against him. The same-color battalion commander did not dispute the legitimacy of the charges, but he simply refused to prosecute the case to maintain “good” race relations. I’m all in favor of that, but not at the price of good order and discipline.

I hardly ever saw my mess sergeant around. I started asking where he was. The answer was always that he was at Fort Dix, another Army base maybe 50 miles away, in conjunction with his disability. It became apparent that he was absent too much. Next time I saw him, I made him account for his whereabouts. He attributed his more-absent-than-present status to being at the Fort Dix hospital. I asked for the names of the doctors in question. He reluctantly provided them. I called them to confirm his presence there on the days in question. They said he was lying. They had rarely seen him either.

I do not believe he had a legitimate disability claim. It is apparently extremely common among career military people to start looking for some exaggerated disability when they approach retirement so they can inflate their retirement pay.

I called him in in front of the XO and me and read him his rights. I said any more of this nonsense and I would court martial him, in which case he would not be getting any disability or pension at all. I was later removed from the job because I refuse to attend “command performance” parties and because I refused to violate the wishes of the Unit Fund Committee and spend Unit Fund money on the savings bonds for the battalion and brigade soldiers of the month. The troops wanted the money spent on repairing the foosball machines in the Day Room which is what I spent the money on.

The foosball machines were used by a lot of guys, But my guys only had about a 1 in 1,600 chance of being Battalion Soldier of the Month and a 1 in 5,000 chance of being Brigade Soldier of the Month. Actually, in view of my “popularity” with the battalion and brigade commanders, whose after-hours weekend parties I refused to attend—my guys probably had a zero chance of winning either award. (See my article on O.V.U.M. for details on that nonsense.) After I left the company commander job, I assume the mess sergeant went back to his hammock except for his continuing efforts to fraudulently get disability pay.

Now if it had been a Burger King...

In the civilian world, where I probably would not have had the responsibility for feeding 800 men at such a young age, I probably would have had the authority to match whatever number of people I had to feed. For example, if I had been the manager of a Burger King, I could decide whom to hire and whom to fire and it would only take a matter of days or weeks to make it happen. In the Army, I had no authority to replace any of my cooks or my mess sergeant. Had I court martialed the mess sergeant, they probably, but not certainly, would have assigned a new one to me. I would not have had any say whatsoever as to who the replacement was. He may have been better, the same as, or worse than the original one.

Inability to differentiate is fatal to efforts to excel

In the 9/15/08 Businessweek, Jack and Suzy Welch say in their column that managers must have the ability to differentiate between employees. By that they mean you have to divide your employees into three groups:

• top performers who must be rewarded to get them to stick around
• medium performers who must be motivated and coached to become top performers
• chronic underperformers who must be fired

That parallels what I found in my career and what I have written in my books about coaching and real estate property management. The problem in government employment and some union situations is that such differentiation is impossible or illegal.

Government employees, including the military, have a civil-service mentality. They figure there is nothing you can do to them. That is true as a practical matter. It takes enormous time and effort and some career risk to yourself to fire a soldier. Most officers just try to work around bad actors. Also, commanders have extremely little—too little—ability to reward and retain good subordinates. Not to mention the whole deal of transferring everyone to a new job—typically on a new continent—every three years or less, which wipes out the incentive of commanders to promote the good and punish or fire the bad. If they help retain the good, other commanders will get the benefit. And if they let the mediocre or weak stay, it’ll be some other commander’s problem with months or a year or so.

Just show up

The Welches say, of federal government employees,

All they have to do is show up and, well, not screw up.

Actually, it’s worse than that. I wrote above about a career mess sergeant I had who did not even show up. I tried to crack down, but I was relieved of my command within months for bucking other OVUM and OPUM, so I am sure the mess sergeant went back to not even showing up.

Messing up does not even get you fired in the military unless it becomes a public scandal. General William Westmoreland screwed up by being the first U.S. general to lose a war. He was promoted to Army Chief of Staff. (The Vietnam war was controversial, but never a public scandal. The Army just bluffed their way through it as far as whether they had screwed up. “We never lost a battle,” is their typical answer to any accusation that they screwed up. Losing a war, somehow, is not a public scandal. It should be.) When I mentioned Westmoreland’s promotion for losing at my 40th reunion in September, 2008, one of my classmates derisively called that promotion a “lifetime achievement award.” Just so.

Screw-ups are actually par for the course in the SNAFU military. They only result in getting fired when they come to the attention of the public such that they embarrass the brass. For example, the Pat Tillman incident cost a brass hat or two his career. The My Lai massacre hurt no one, until it became public, at which time the Army sacrificed a handful of officers to protect their own asses and limit the damage—including West Point graduate Sam Koster who was superintendent of West Point at the time it hit the fan.

So you don’t really even have to show up or avoid screwing up—as long as you do nothing that embarrasses the brass. Furthermore, if you are the perfect officer, but some situation arises that you are innocent of and just close to, that non-screw-up of being in the wrong place at the wrong time may end your career. As described in his book Warrior King, West Point grad and quarterback Nate Sassaman was a bit more guilty than total innocence, but he generally sounds like he did not screw up so much as he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, yet he was essentially fired.

There are plenty of other places where you can make a career and have proper authority to recruit, train, retain good subordinates and improve or fire bad ones, that is, where you can follow the good advice of the Welches. In the U.S. military, you cannot. They cannot teach you anything at West Point to overcome that, and they do not teach any solution to that—or even acknowledge the problem as far as I know.

‘A challenge’

Career military people, who are absolute geniuses at spinning such chicken-manure problems into some sort of good deal, would say the staff situation in my mess hall was a “challenge.” Yeah, it was. And I met the challenge as evidenced by the fact that my mess hall had the biggest head count at Fort Monmouth by far shortly after I took over.

At Fort Monmouth, soldiers could eat in any mess hall they wanted. They did not have to eat in their own mess hall. So they ate in mine. Why? We were the best. In the interest of full disclosure, I must add that I had no competition for the honor. I was the only West Point CO. The others never showed the slightest interest in their mess halls. I made it my main point of emphasis. Normally, training the men would be the main focus, but this was a training company at a school. Their training was done during business hours by full-time military and civil-service instructors. I had nothing to do with that.

Best Mess Hall competition

The first month I was CO, we won second place in the base-wide Mess Hall of the Month competition. But the base newspaper photo of my receiving the award was cropped to cut the commanding general who was handing it to me out of the picture. No other such photo was cropped to exclude the CG. (God forbid. That would be a good way to lose your job as photo editor of the paper.) Also, the caption mentioned me and the award, but not who was handing it to me. Again, all other captions were careful to credit the CG.

Although our mess hall became by far the best the following month—again, no competition and a huge head count to prove it—we never won another mess hall award. I expect the base mess officer who made the monthly inspections was told, “I don‘t care if Lieutenant Reed has the best mess hall in the universe, you will give him no more awards, capeche?” On his subsequent visits, the base mess inspector would gingerly compliment us on our mess hall, but he was very sheepish about it. Like he was trying to give credit where it was due, but stay out of trouble with the CG.

What was my secret for making our mess hall the best in spite of the staff? I applied an old agricultural management principle:

The best fertilizer is the shadow of the farmer.

That is, I was there throughout the meal buzzing around like a fancy restaurant owner asking the “patrons” if everything was OK. I wore one of the white paper cook hats after I wrote “complaint department” on it. Troops would come up to me and ask if I was serious about being the complaint department. When I said yes, they would show me some problem. Once, it was fried chicken that was cooked on the outside but not the inside. I flew back to the kitchen and showed it to the cooks and told them to knock that off.

Absent complaints, I constantly walked a circuit: milk machine, coffee machine, tray washing, dishes and silverware washing, table cleaning, cafeteria line, kitchen, and around again. That is sometimes called, “management by walking around.” In the food-service business, military or otherwise, the whole place goes to hell in a hand basket in about 15 minutes if the owner, or CO, is absent. As far as I know, no other company commander in that brigade had anything to do with the mess hall except to eat there where he would be given special treatment that would make it seem like everything was going fine. I knew of no other officer who ever spent any time at all in his mess hall other than to eat when the menu was appealing. Indeed, the monthly best mess awards were held during lunch, the main meal. That’s like the NFL holding the Coach of the Year Award dinner during the Super Bowl game.

‘I got your challenge right here’

And as soon as I could, I told the Army what they could do with that particular challenge, i.e., shove it. Actually, I gave the Army their own challenge. “I’m outta here. Replace me with someone as good or better.” In that company commander job, they replaced me with a non-West Point captain who instantly outraged my men so much they circulated three petitions demanding that the brass reinstate me. I thanked them for the gesture but told them to stop doing that because the Army was not going to respond favorably to a petition from enlisted men so it would not help me at all, but it would likely get the guys who signed it into trouble. They did stop collecting the petitions, but gave them to me. I still have them. Ironically, in an Army that is constantly giving officers who did not piss off the brass awards commemorating their service in the unit when they leave, those petitions are the only such “award” I ever got.

As a civilian, I was a boss on a number of occasions. When the employees did not perform adequately, I fired them and I chose their replacements. You gotta be nuts to put up with the military’s assigning huge responsibilities to young, under-qualified people then doling out inadequate authority as if from an eye dropper—woefully inadequate. It is a loaves-and-fishes sort of responsibility.

Lieutenant, you are responsible for this $40 million of military equipment. The supply system won’t get you parts. The mechanics lack tools and in many cases, training and/or motivation. Often, you will not have enough mechanics. But you’re responsible because we have such a high opinion of your abilities even though you are 23 and you have never had a full-time job in your life. Get all the vehicles in tip top shape by tomorrow because that’s when you’re going to have to start signing a daily report that says they are all in tip-top shape.

Seek intelligent challenges

The civilian business world has ample challenges. Handicapping your life on top of those normal challenges with the bureaucracy and poor quality staff in the military is just stupid. An ounce of recruiting quality people is worth a pound of “leadership.” In the civilian business world, recruiting, training and retaining quality staff are given adequate and proper emphasis. In the military, they have long been in the habit of providing military leaders with very poor quality, warm-body troops as a general rule. (See my article on the need for a draft for details on the number of convicted felons and other poor personnel in the all-volunteer Army) Some troops are good people, especially when you have a draft. But as a group and compared to comparable civilian jobs, the military has very poor quality personnel. Furthermore, the longer they are in the military, the more whatever talents and abilities they had when they came in atrophy to zero.

Only a masochist would voluntarily subject himself to the Kafkaesque “challenges” of dealing with the Situation Normal All Fouled Up, myriad mindlessness of the U.S. military bureaucracy. Only a masochist or a young person who knew no better because he had spent his entire adult life in the belly of the military beast where others who also have spent their entire adult lives there constantly assure you it’s the same in civilian life. The hell it is!

I hope I have eliminated from your mind the notion that one of the reasons to go to West Point is to get greater responsibility as a young person than you would get in the civilian world. In the civilian world, you are far more likely to get an appropriate level of responsibility for your training and experience, as well as appropriate authority to discharge those responsibilities, and appropriate support from others in your organization upon whom you must depend to do your job.

Riding mower

On another occasion, I felt bad for my men who had to mow our vast lawns with push mowers. I thought we should have riding mowers. Then they were trying to go to the all-volunteer Army and I read that a general said they should have riding mowers instead of the ubiquitous push mowers to increase enlistments and re-enlistments. Great minds run in the same channels.

I called higher headquarters to ask for a riding mower. I climbed the chain of command all the way to the post commander—a two-star general. His aide told me the general did not have the authority to get me a riding mower.

Say what!?

The guy spends 35 years as an officer, rises to two-stars and base commander, and he still does not have the authority to order a riding mower. At the time, I owned a duplex. I wondered if I should get a riding mower for it. They cost $265 then as I recall. I considered it, then, after talking to the tenant, decided to make him cut it for a rent break in the summer. He said his family had a mower he could use. Nice, simple, smart, practical, common sense, profitable, civilian businessman solution.

But the main thing that struck me was that as a 1st lieutenant duplex owner, I had more authority (just spend my own $265) than the damned base commander of Fort Monmouth! I’m supposed to trudge through chicken manure for 35 years so I can be such a big shot that I cannot make my own decision on a $265 lawn mower!? F’getabout it.

So all this stuff about getting more responsibility in the military at a young age is crap. Yes, you get the responsibility, sort of. But they cannot and will not give you even a fraction of the authority or support anyone would need to discharge the responsibilities in question, so who’s kidding whom?

Military officers fancy themselves great leaders of men and big shots. They are, in fact, usually little more than glorified clerks, even as generals, because of the bureaucracy practice of delegating almost no authority below the top. The Pentagon makes all the decisions.

So you should try to be assigned there? Apparently not. I never was but I saw many a career officer wince at the mere memory of when he was. You often hear in the Army that the function of one- and two-star generals in the Pentagon is to get coffee for three- and four-star generals, literally. “Never again” was their comment on the experience. I commented elsewhere in this article that I needed to be “far from the flag” when I was in the Army. Career officers’ need to be far from the flag was generally less than mine, but almost all of them despised being as “close to the flag” as working in the Pentagon.

Are platoon leaders and company commanders in combat more than glorified clerks. I was a platoon leader in a combat zone—Vietnam. I was more or less a glorified clerk. I described what I did there in detail elsewhere in this article. The way I would put it is that a platoon leader or company commander in a fire fight is a leader of men. But rare is the living West Point graduate who spent more than 15 or 20 minutes in fire fights total in his career. (An IED explosion is not a fire fight or mortar or rocket attack. I was on the receiving end of rocket attacks. In a fire fight, you are shot at and shoot back with considerable certainty as to the location of an enemy within the range of your platoon’s or company’s weapons.)

Authority over your career on the other hand...

There is one area in the military where officers have unbelievable power and authority. Every superior you ever have has the authority to end your competitiveness. “Competitiveness” refers to your likelihood of becoming a general. After five or ten years as officers, the officer corps divides into those who are competitive—that is still have a small chance to become a general—and those who no longer do. What does your superior have to do to end your competitiveness? Just shade your efficiency report slightly down such that a civilian would not even notice. “Gee, This says you’re great!” “No. See that seemingly favorable comment right there? End of my career as far as making general is concerned.” For more on all that, see my article: “The U.S. military’s marathon, 30-year, single-elimination, suck-up tournament Or How America selects its generals.

‘Don’t do any West Point stuff’

Every one of my civilian superiors, or almost everyone, at one time or another, told me not to do any West Point stuff in my job—most recently, the head varsity coach of our local high school where I coached freshman football.

Had I inappropriately applied a West Point way of doing things to my civilian duties? Nope. These admonitions were anticipatory—based on their stereotyped notions of what West Point and its graduates are like.

Also, most of my educated peers were draft dodgers during the Vietnam war and they have hated the military—mostly out of guilt in my opinion—ever since. So while my civilian employers may have reacted favorably to West Point being on my resume, they wanted it down played or hidden in the actual performance of the duties that could be seen by others outside the organization. “It’s OK for you to be from West Point, but keep it under your hat and don’t act like a stereotypical West Pointer,” was essentially their message.

In 2003, the moms who created our school football program gave all of us coaches a form to fill out so they could create a bio of us for the program. It had blanks for your college and grad school which I filled in as requested. When the programs came out, the head varsity coach was not pleased with my team-mom-created bio. The following season, all mention of my graduating from West Point and Harvard had been deleted from my program bio without a word of explanation to me.

In other words, the rest of the world is less infatuated with West Point’s approach to life than the grads, cadets, and prospective cadets think.

Is West Point even the best college for becoming a top general?

I wonder if West Point is even the best college to go to if your goal is to become the Army Chief of Staff. It’s not necessary. Non-West Pointers have been Chief of Staff like George Marshall during World War II. As a non-West Pointer, you would be part of the majority of Army officers by source of commission. 60% are from ROTC so that would be the route that would arouse the least resentment among other officers.

As stated before, about 24% to 63% of West Pointers get out of the Army not long after graduation.

In ROTC, you can have a normal college experience without apparently reducing your prospects as an Army officer. At West Point, you endure a God-awful ordeal, miss out on many valuable, enjoyable aspects of college life, and may not improve your chances of success in any area of endeavor perceptibly—including in a career as an Army officer.

I have never seen such a study, but I expect that the most successful top 1,000 ROTC officers of a given year are more successful in Army careers as a group than the West Point graduates from that same year. For one thing, the most successful ROTC 1,000 all stayed in the Army. Only about 300 to 700 of the 1,000 West Pointers did.

To sum it up, you would think that with all the extra stuff cadets do above and beyond what civilian college graduates do during college that the West Pointers must perform better in many areas of post-graduate life. But the evidence seems to say that the West Pointers do not perform better than the civilian college grads—even in Army careers. And based on the logic and science and engineering I learned at West Point, I have to conclude that West Point appears not to be worth it either for its graduates or for the nation.

No doubt, West Point authorities and many grads will violently object to that conclusion. Fine. Show me the error or omission in my logic or facts. As a grad, I would love to be proven wrong. But also as a grad, I know logic and facts are the only valid proof. I cannot find them. (Note: This statement has been here for years. As far as I know, no West Pointer anywhere has posted any evidence or logic to refute it. None has contacted me to refute it other than a couple of items that I added to this article.)

Military expert journalist Tom Ricks said ROTC officers seem to perform better than West Pointers and are preferred by senior officers in the Army in his blog comments on whether West Point and the the other service academies should be closed.

Legal system

I get a kick out of how informed even the least informed Americans are about their rights. “I know my rights,” is a phrase you often hear in confrontations between citizens and the law. Sometimes American invoke their rights overseas where they do not have them. Richard Gere was arrested in Holland or thereabouts and refused to talk to the police and demanded a lawyer instead. Dutch law provides no such right.

Guess where else you have lesser rights? Correct, within the U.S. military. If you go to West Point you will be subject to that institution’s somewhat unique justice, in particular with regard to the Cadet Honor Code. I never had any experience with it either as a witness or as an accused. Lots of cadet were apparently falsely accused and won their case.

Star chamber

The mere fact that I have to be vague manifests the secret Star Chamber approach. It was all hush-hush. You would wake up in the morning with two roommates, march to breakfast and eat with them, go to class, then come back to your room at lunch and all of one of your roommate’s stuff would have been removed from your room. His locker and desk would be empty. His name tags on those pieces of furniture and his bed would have been removed. His jackets, hats, bathrobe, and coats disappeared from the hooks next to his bed and his boots and shoes would be removed from under his bed. His foot locker would be gone. His sheets and blankets would be gone and his mattress rolled up, as if he had never been there. You would never see him again.

That meant he was “found” (kicked out) for an honor code violation. Weird.

Silenced

Some cadets who refused to resign when the cadet honor committee asked them to do so were “silenced.” That is, the corps of cadets was directed not to speak to them except in line of duty. They would be given a separate room with no roommates (unheard of otherwise) and would eat at a ten-man mess all table by themselves (also unheard of otherwise). Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was silenced by the Corps of Cadets at West Point for his entire four years at West Point because he was a “negro.”

When he was commissioned as a second lieutenant, the Army had a grand total of two black line officers — Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. He later became the first Tuskeegee pilot and retired from the Air Force as a four-star general.

Two guys were silenced when I was a cadet. I said at the time that I would not honor the silence because I thought it was childish. Had I violated it, I supposedly would then have been silenced myself. In the event, my position was moot because the cadets in question were in another regiment and class so I had no contact with them and both quit fairly soon after the silence was imposed. I never had any intention to seek them out so I could violate the silence. I thought they were both guilty jerks. But I also felt the honor committee cadets who thought the silence was appropriate behavior for a bunch of about-to-be-Army-Officers were wrong.

I have heard that they have made that process a bit more America-like, for example, enabling the accused to be represented by a lawyer. When I was there, he was required to represent himself but you still come under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and other Army legal regulations and procedures which is very scary.

The practice of silencing was ended in 1973. Good. Although that was a period when many cadets reportedly lost respect for the honor code and deliberately elected company honor reps (jurors in honor trials) who campaigned on the promise of never finding a companymate guilty. That would have been astonishing to cadets in my era and before. The 1970s was a very bad time for the military and West Point. I head they had trouble filling classes then, let alone being selective.

The Court Martial of General Billy Mitchell

I was reminded of this while reading the 2004 book A Question of Loyalty by Douglas Waller. It is about the life and court martial of Army Air Corps General Billy Mitchell who is generally regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force. The cadet mess hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy is named after him. A U.S. postal stamp of him was issued. The World War II B-25 bomber was named after him. Those awards and the many others the received were all posthumous.

If he was deserving of all those awards, why was he court martialed?

If they don’t like you, you’re guilty

Ah. You’re starting to see the picture. The pompous asses who run the military are used to getting their way. When they take a dislike to an active-duty service person, he or she is toast. The implicit orders in such cases are try him, convict him, and discharge him. What about a presumption of innocence?

Ha! The general wants him convicted, buddy. You want to go with him? No? Well, then you’d better play the game.

‘Blank check’ provisions

The UCMJ contains what I call “blank check” provisions that let the Army convict anyone they want. I encountered this with my own honorable discharge which was not a court martial or UCMJ deal, but it involved Army procedural rules.

The blank check charge against Billy Mitchell was,

disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and military discipline...conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the military service

Author Waller characterized it as a “catchall provision for anything the Army found offensive.” I would object to his personification of “the Army.” There is no “the Army” that finds things offensive. There are only individual officers and it is they, not “the Army,” who find some things offensive, or more accurately, are angered by some subordinates and want them punished.

Mitchell was also accused of insubordination which can be objectively defined, but it also begs the question of whether the order in question ought to be obeyed. For example, is it insubordination to refuse to give an officer a bad efficiency report because he’s black? See my Web article on the morality of obeying stupid orders.

Disloyalty

What Mitchell was really court martialed for is in the title of the book: A Question of Loyalty. (See my Web article on superior’s use of the virtue loyalty to protect their own asses.) Mitchell’s “disloyalty” was only to his superiors, not to his principles or his country. The real rule he violated is better stated as “Thou shallt not embarrass or criticize thy superior.”

I also called it by an ancient name when the Army was using one of their blank check rules to put me out of the Army eleven months before my five-year commitment was up: Lèse majesté

That means “injury to majesty.” In the days of royalty actually running the world, you could call your neighbor an idiot, but not the king. And if you did call the king an idiot, the truth of your accusation was irrelevant. You would be executed.

Their royal highnesses, the military brass

Military brass think they are royalty. Thus their use of practices like saluting superiors, words and phrases like “loyalty,” “rank has its privileges,” “sir,” and “command performance.” They believe their rank immunizes them from accusations of incompetency like Mitchell made and even from the slightest slight, like my declining to eat supper at their table in the mess hall or not attending one of their parties.

The blank-check clause they used against me was that I had a “defective attitude.” When I got the papers making that accusation, I went to the military law library on post to research the definition of a “defective attitude.” There was no definition, either in a statute, rule, or regulation, or in published administrative hearing decisions. (I had such a hearing, not a court martial.) About the only meaningful comment I found anywhere about attitude came from the late legendary management guru Peter Drucker who said,

An employer has no business with a man’s personality. It is immoral as well as an illegal intrusion of privacy. It is abuse of power. An employee owes no ‘loyalty,’ he owes no ‘love’ and no ‘attitudes’—he owes performance and nothing else.

The legal problem with both the “catchall” accusation made against Mitchell and the attitude accusation against me is that they are “unconstitutionally vague.” Here’s a brief explanation of that from Carolina Journal On Line.

The standard for vagueness was defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Grayned v. City of Rockford: “[A] statute is unconstitutionally vague if it either: (1) fails to ‘give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited’; or (2) fails to ‘provide explicit standards for those who apply [the law].’”

That case involved anti-picketing and anti-noise ordinances invoked against political demonstrators. Loitering laws are also often thrown out for being too vague.

In the Mitchell court martial, no evidence was presented that there had been any breakdown in order or discipline anywhere in the U.S. military as a result of Mitchell’s behavior.

Nor was there any evidence presented that Mitchell brought discredit up on the military service in general. Rather, he criticized the holders of specific positions within the Army as not doing what they should. They said the accusations he made were false, but that is a libel case with specific standards. People who claim to have been libeled tend not to want to prove it in court.

Lack of evidence notwithstanding, Major General Mitchell was found guilty and forced to resign from the Army.

I was sued for libel in 2002 by a famous TV infomercial real estate guru. The case lasted three years then was settled and dismissed by the court with prejudice when my opponent failed to prepare a promised stipulation of settlement. But eleven months after it started, the plaintiff who had accused me of libeling him withdrew that suit on his own initiative and refiled it as “tortious interference with a business relationship,” i.e., making false and defamatory statements about him that caused people to not want to business with him, like my pointing out that he was a convicted felon and ex-convict who pled guilty to second-degree robbery in a plea bargain and went to prison for it. The reason he withdrew the libel suit and filed the tortious-interference suit is that libel is hard to prove, especially when you turn out to be a convicted-felon public figure. Tortious interference is easier to prove and has no First Amendment connotations. Similarly, military brass do not want to have to sue for libel or slander because the case will involve a public airing of whether the criticism of them is accurate.

Conflicts of interest

The conflicts of interest in military justice are absurd. Everyone is in the same chain of command. Commander in Chief Calvin Coolidge initiated the court martial proceedings against Mitchell in 1925. All the officers in the court martial including the guys running it and the jury of generals were all subordinates of Coolidge hoping he would promote them.

If you go to West Point and/or into the U.S. military, you will be in the belly of a beast that strips you of many of the legal rights you had as a civilian. A case can be made that this fact alone warrants staying out of both West Point and the U.S. military. West Point quarterback and career Army officer Nate Sassaman got zapped by the military justice system. One of his West Point graduate lieutenants was sent to prison. The case involved murder. The West Pointers said no one died, that the supposed death was just a scam to get damages from the U.S. military. The court martial believed the Iraqis who were unable to produce a body that could be identified as their relative. (They cremated it.) See my review of Sassaman’s book.

Won’t happen to you?

I suspect many reading this figure the military legal system is irrelevant because they never get into any trouble. That’s what I and Sassaman and his West Point lieutenant thought when we were cadets. I never got into any trouble before I graduated from West Point or after I got out of the Army. Figuratively speaking, I am an Eagle Scout. I never smoked, drank alcohol, tried marijuana or any other illegal drug. Never cheated on my wife in 36 years together. I got one speeding ticket in my whole life. No other trouble with the law. So why was I constantly in trouble as an Army officer after I completed the schooling?

Law-abiding citizens get into trouble in two ways in the upside-down world of the U.S. military:

• by refusing to engage in illegal or immoral behavior (me and Billy Mitchell)
• by being in the wrong place at the wrong time (Sassaman and his lieutenant)

I refused to comply with O.P.U.M. or O.V.U.M. Officially, that was OK. Unofficially, it was akin to insubordination or sabotage. Mitchell refused to remain silent about serious service-wide strategic problems he felt honor-bound to complain about. After trying unsuccessfully to get change within the chain of command behind closed doors, he went public. Time has proven he was in the right. Almost every change he urged later was adopted.

When bad things happen, which is more common in the military than in civilian businesses, the brass protects themselves. Often, that takes the form of sacrificing lower ranking officers, like you, to placate the public. That’s the wrong place, wrong time stuff like the incident that ended Sassaman’s career or the Pat Tillman incident which ended some West Pointers’ careers.

You have two choices and three possible outcomes:

1. play the game, that is, sign false documents and such, which is what the West Point grad professors at West Point unofficially urged us to do
2. refuse to play the game, which is what I always did and what Billy Mitchell ultimately did (he refused to an extent throughout his career, but he made major general, too)

If you choose #2, which I would argue is the only choice you can make if you believe in the ideals of West Point, you are committing efficiency report suicide. You will get all awful reports. You will not be promoted. You will get no medals other that the ones they are forced to give you for attendance. You will generally be an assistant to someone who is not authorized to have an assistant. There is a good chance you will be riffed or otherwise honorably discharged before your five-year commitment is up.

If you chose #1, either you will not get caught by the world outside the Army and you will have as successful a career as your ass-kissing skills and luck obtain for you. See my Web article “The 30-year, marathon, single-elimination suck-up tournament” or “How American chooses its generals.” Or, you will get caught playing one of the illegal aspects of “the game.” How might you get caught? Throughout your career, you will be surrounded by persons who know you are complying with O.P.U.M. Any one of them can report you. For example, an enlisted man might write to his Congressperson about your signing a false document.

If and when that happens, your superiors, the same ones who made you sign the false document, will proclaim that they are “shocked, shocked” that you could do such a thing. They will then hustle you out of the Army, probably via an Article 15 (a sort of plea bargain) or some such like Nate Sassaman. They will probably let you retire if you are close to it. They probably will try to get you an honorable discharge. Because they are nice guys? No. Because they know if they play the “shocked, shocked” routine too hard and punish you too hard, you will turn on them and start introducing into the court martial the stuff you have on them. They will move heaven and earth to prevent a public airing of any additional O.P.U.M. laundry. They won’t move heaven or earth for other purposes like winning a war or preventing unnecessary loss of U.S. military lives, but they will to protect their own careers.

Opposite-sex relations

The most important decision you will ever make is whom to marry. So why am I bringing that up in an article about choosing a college? If your decision was between, say, Rutgers and Princeton, I would not even bring it up. Both those schools are large, about 50-50 co-ed, and are near other co-ed colleges.

But if West Point is one of the colleges you are considering, spouse choice becomes an important part of the education decision. Going to West Point can have a very significant, adverse effect on your ability to achieve a good match between you and your future spouse.

The place is now co-ed. It was not when I was there. But only about 15% of the cadets now are female. That sucks for the males. In their 1963 hit song Surf City, Jan and Dean sang,

And we’re going to Surf City ’cause it’s two to one...Two girls for every boy

The females bound for West Point could sing a similar line:

And we’re going to West Point ’cause it’s six to one...Six boys for every girl

That’s a great thing for the females at West Point. My book Succeeding has a chapter called “Make Yourself Scarce” that urges readers to find situations where what they have is relatively rare, needed by others in that situation and valued more highly by them as a result of the scarcity. Females who go to West Point are following my “Make Yourself Scarce” advice with regard to relations with the opposite sex. But if you are a male, f’getaboutit.

The 2008 book The Logic of Life: The rational economics of an irrational world by Tim Harford has a fascinating chapter on the amazing amount of “bargaining power” that accrues to men or women in situations where one gender is outnumbered by the other. One bit of analysis in that chapter discussed a game-theory experiment here there are 20 men and 20 women in a speed-dating situation. If they pair up, each couple gets $100 which they would typically split $50-$50. But suppose you remove just one of the women? Then the women could could each demand $99.99 and their male partners would only get $.01 each (An economics principle called “The Law of One Price”) and one man would get zilch: no woman and no date. The other men would have to agree to the $99.99-$.01 split or they would be the odd man out.

Obviously this in an economics book and the motivations in the experiment were strictly economic. But Harford goes onto show that real people act similarly in the real world citing such evidence as the increase in divorce rates when women began making higher incomes and the behavior of black men toward black women which is affected by the relatively favorable-to-the-men ratio of available black men (many other black men are in prison).

As Harford puts it,

Scarcity is power, and more power than you might have thought. A seemingly modest shortage of [one gender] leads to a surprisingly big disadvantage for [the other gender].

And I will point out that the shortage of women at West Point is not at all modest at six men for every women.

The 2/9/10 Doonesbury comic strip has two homely Army females in Afghanistan talking about getting hotter by the week because of being among the few American women in the combat zone, that they are “fives and sixes back home, but a few months downrange, a girl turns into a nine.”

I recommend that “fives and sixes” who are thinking about going into the military or West Point to take advantage of that phenomenon talk to some older fives and sixes who tried that enough years ago to have perspective on it. My impression is that the women in question come crashing back down to five- and sixdom when they return and that their five and six status is more painful than had they not visited ninedom. To state it more starkly, they get dumped when they return to the real world.

Women’s perspective

I have never been a woman (one of my West Point classmates now is a “woman” of sorts after a “sex-change” operation) let alone a female West Point cadet, but I still have some thoughts on their predicament based on logic, human nature, and analogous situations.

The female cadets would seem to have a tremendous advantage with regard to attracting male cadet suitors. However, I suspect that gives them a very misleading perspective and many bad habits with regard to relations with non-cadet men. I also suspect that female West Point cadets are extremely unattractive, in term of their career and image, to men who do not go to West Point. I expect a male college student who dated a West Point cadet would be ridiculed and made fun of for doing so.

Also, how does a female cadet or female Army officer attract any husband other than a fellow Army officer? Many women are willing to be Army wives—although nowhere near as many as in past generations. But rare is the male who would find being an Army husband attractive. He has to follow his wife around to various Army schools, find a new job every one to three years, typically in some isolated, rural podunk Army base town. What man would put up with his wife getting jerked around by her superiors the way military personnel all get jerked around routinely?

The book In a Time of War, which is about the West Point Class of 2002, confirms that female Army officers are rarely able to marry civilians on page 49.

Divorce rates

In a 11/28/09 AP story Pauline Jelenek reported that there were 27,312 divorces among the 765,000 married active duty military (all services) personnel for the year ended 9/30/09. That’s a 3.6% rate. The active duty divorce rate before the Afghanistan war was 2.6%. The rate for reservists was 2.8%.

The divorce rate for married female military personnel was 7.7%; for men, 3%.

There is no matching civilian divorce rate stat. The closest Jelenek could find was a Centers for Disease Control said that 43% of all first marriages ended in divorce within the first 10 years. That stat includes the military divorces.

It appears clear that military divorces increased about 40% during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and female divorce rates are more than twice male rates. But I cannot tell from the CDC stat whether military personnel have higher divorce rates than civilians.

Gloria Steinem told women to go to West Point and was part of the effort to get them admitted. She probably also wore a t-shirt saying, “A Woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Steinem, who is childless, was married from age 66 to age 69 when she became a widow. Women who were hoping for more children and a longer marriage would probably increase their chances by avoiding the military career that Steinem urged women to pursue. She had a militant career.

As West Point cadets, I and many other cadets absolutely refused to date girls from then-adjacent Ladycliffe College (see below). That was doable for us males. But I expect a female cadet who tried to adopt a no-dates-with-other-cadets rule would be very hard-pressed to attract civilian college men.

There was a documentary series called Carrier on High Definition PBS TV. One episode was about male-female relationships of the U.S.S. Nimitz carrier crew. It had me in tears. Very rough, sad stuff greatly exacerbated by military service. I strongly recommend that anyone contemplating military service of any kind, including attending West Point, watch that episode. As I said, choosing a spouse is the most important decision you’ll ever make. If you go to a civilian college, choosing a spouse and choosing a college are separate, often unrelated, decisions. But if you choose West Point as your college, you are, to an extent, simultaneously and unwittingly greatly limiting your spouse-choice options—far more so if you are a female. Indeed, I wonder if a female choosing West Point as her college is not also thereby choosing to marry a cadet or Army officer to be named later—or be an old maid. On page 55 of her book I Love a Man in Uniform, author Lily Burana says 95% of military spouses are female.

Probabilities of two-career-officer marriage happiness and/or divorce

If so, let’s do some math I learned at West Point. Elsewhere in this article, I give the stats on the percentage of West Point graduates who make a career of the Army. It varies according to whether there is a war. Let’s say the median is around 40% stay in the Army for a full career. So a double West Point or double military officer young couple who get married have, as a couple, a .40 x .40 = .16 or 16% probability of both of them staying in the Army for a career.

If both want to get out, which would happen .6 x .6 = .36 or 36% of the time, everybody’s happy. Same with both wanting to stay in. But 1.00 - .16 - .36 = .46 or 46% of the time, one spouse will want to stay in the Army and the other will want out of the Army. That means divorce. Either the spouse who wants to stay in the Army will have to get out of the Army or that spouse will have to get out of the marriage. There is another possibility. That is, one wants out and gets out, but stays in the marriage with the career officer. I think that is unlikely in general and extremely unlikely if the spouse who wants out of the Army is the male. Being “in” the Army as a spouse only is worse than being in as a career officer in many ways like lack of employment opportunities near rural and foreign military bases.

I have heard that when both spouses stay in, they can designate one spouse as the “franchise” spouse. That is the one who takes the ticket-punching assignments needed, if they can get them, to make multi-star general. In that case, the Army will try to assign the “non-franchise” spouse near the “franchise” spouse’s assignments as often as possible. Both spouses can designate themselves as “franchise” spouses, but if they do, there is little chance for them to be near each other at subsequent assignments. Both will get the assignments they earn and need to remain competitive in their careers.

Custody battles

Now forget the above math for a minute. And forget what goes on during duty hours on base. At best, the marital spouse and family disadvantages of one or both spouses being Army officers are extremely daunting if your goal is to have a good marriage and raise your kids as well as you can. An argument could be made that a military career is per se bad for marriages and their offspring. I suspect that argument has been made many times in custody battles between military career officers and their former spouses. And I suspect the military member of that former marriage loses custody more often than they win because of the demands of military careers.

Your spouse and family are more important than a successful military officer career. They last longer for one thing. Succeeding in both family and a military career also are arguably incompatible goals. Civilian life offers many opportunities for a great career with little or no adverse effect on spouse and children. I am extremely happy with both my career as a writer and my marriage and kids. In my case, my career actually helped the marriage and kids because I work at home.

Some civilian careers are too demanding, like doctor, lawyer, management consultant, and investment banker. But you can stay in those professions and reduce your hours by switching niches. In the military, competition for the relatively few general slots is extremely tough and gets more so the higher you go. Plus that competition is not related to talent or job performance. Rather, it revolves around ass-kissing, “playing the game,” working long hours, frequently being far from home and family, and being in the right place at the right time. In civilian life, there are those kinds of careers as well as entrepreneurial and non-bureaucratic careers where job performance and talent are the determining factors in success.

41.1% children of career military

On 12/13/08, I was stunned to read in the Wall Street Journal that 41.1% of current West Point cadet freshmen are the sons or daughters of career military officers. That’s creepy. The Journal tells of families where both members of a married couple are currently in Iraq as well as one or more of their parents and/or other relatives. Marriage ceremonies have to be scheduled, and even proposals advanced, to try to get the benefits of various military policies about emergency leave, stationing spouses near each other, war zone deployments, etc. According to U.S. military figures, the number of marriages with two active-duty members was 33,055 in 2007.

Iraq northern commander Major General Ray Hertling, said of the multiple military member families,

But it may be a bad thing because it’s also fostering a society where a small group of citizens do most of the tough work..

I would add that it results in a dangerously narrow perspective among military career people. Think about it, brat cadets, that is, those who were children of career military, were born into the military, literally! When they enter West Point at age 17 or 18, they have never known anything but living at Army bases, going to Army schools (most go to civilian high schools because there are only a few military base high schools). As military officers, their time in the Army and their ages are the same. They have never been civilians or even had civilian parents. They have never lived in the states or countries that do not have U.S. Army bases—or even in any parts of those states or countries that do have U.S. Army bases. They have spent most of their lives in Confederate rural military post towns in the U.S. or in Germany or Korea or both. All their friends and many of their relatives are also career military or children thereof.

Breeding humans to be career military officers

The word “breeding” comes to mind, as in animal husbandry. How do farmers breed livestock? They put the desirable female and male into the same pen. That is not identical to putting human males and females who were born into and have lived their whole lives in the Army into the same isolated college on an Army base, but it bears disquieting similarity.

When I was a cadet, I often heard or saw the word “inbred” applied to West Point. We complained about it in bull sessions. And I occasionally saw outside written criticism of West Point as being too “inbred.” So I am not the first to see an animal breeding analogy at West Point.

What has changed is that the accusation applied to the faculty and administration back in the 1960s. Nowadays, it applies a bit less to the faculty. When I was there, 98% of the professors were West Point graduates. Now it’s less. Although other departments are still as inbred as they can get. The Association of Graduates investment committee was still all West Point graduates last I heard. I guess that’s based on West Point’s stellar reputation as a producer of Wall Street analysts. But the student body is now far more drawn from the ranks of the children of West Point graduates and the children of career military officers.

Too often, the mind set at West Point is to assign the best West Point graduate to its various responsibilities. Instead, they should assign the best person in the world whom they can attract to handle the matter in question. It’s a simple bit of logic, but one which is usually beyond the comprehension of those who run the strange little monastery on the Hudson.

My family lived in a rural Delaware town for about five years once. It had about 1,900 people. My mom, who was from the big city, was astonished that almost everyone in the town was related to everyone else. Indeed, five last names were dominant, one of them being the same name as the town name. The U.S. military is turning into that if it has not already arrived at that state—like some Middle Eastern tribe. The Journal referred to these multiple military member families as “military clans.”

This is so disquieting it probably ought to be made illegal, e.g., a law that says you may not join the U.S. military if currently you have a non-spouse relative on active duty or a relative who retired from the military. I see nothing wrong with generations of the same family being in businesses like farming or clothing or real estate, but not killing. Also the military’s power and mission are too unique and important to become the sole province of some extended family like the bigamist compounds of the West or the Irish Travelers (who were made famous in the TV series The Riches). The military should reflect all of America population, not just an ever smaller, increasingly inbred group of Northeastern West Point and Confederate ROTC families.

Obsequious

Also, the main characteristic that is actually desired of career military officers is obsequiousness, not the courage, leadership, and all that which the recruiting brochures say. Here are some dictionary definitions of obsequiousness:

• abject or cringing submissiveness
• full of or exhibiting servile compliance; fawning
• marked by or exhibiting a fawning attentiveness

ass kissing, boot licking, brown nosing, sucking up

Are there such people? You bet. Too damned many of them. Are there any in the U.S. military officer corps. Absolutely. Indeed, obsequiousness is the primary actual criterion for getting promoted in the U.S. military officer corps, although the military will deny it. The obsequiousness of any given person who was ever in the military is directly proportional to the length of time they were in the military and the rank they achieved. The more time and the more rank, the more obsequious they must be.

Animal breeders identify one or more traits that the breeder wants to increase in his animals. Then he selects the individual animals that possess the most of that trait and mates them to produce similar offspring, repeating the process again and again over generations always mating the individual animals with the most of the desired trait. In horse racing, the desired trait is speed.

In the military, it would be obsequiousness. No one would admit that and few are probably even conscious of it. But obsequious people like military careers. Non-obsequious people hate them. Non-obsequious people who mistakenly find themselves in the military get the hell out ASAP. Obsequious people stay. So this heavy amount of intermarriage within the military career ranks will inevitably breed toward an ever more obsequious officer corps. God help us.

I am not aware of any area of human endeavor where such people are desirable. Within the national defense, they are dangerous to the safety of our nation. Non-obsequious people see problems then alert their superiors and try to correct them. Obsequious people go along to get along. They believe if you see the problem, you are the problem.

Upton Sinclair described the U.S. military in another similar but pertinent way:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.

Snake Committee

When he sold his company EDS to GM, Annapolis graduate, former Navy officer, and extremely successful civilian entrepreneur Ross Perot said,

At EDS, when someone sees a snake, they kill it. At GM when someone sees a snake, they form a Snake Committee.

The U.S. military needs the former type of leaders. By breeding generation after generation of ever more obsequious officers, they move the national defense in the Snake Committee direction. If you are an obsequious, Snake Committee type of person, go to West Point or stay there if you’re already there. Otherwise, run the other direction. During the pirate rescue incident, Commander In Chief Barack Obama had a “snake” committee that had 17 meetings before the snipers shot the pirates. We were lucky they were still nearby.

Us versus them

The Journal article quotes the West Point graduate best man at a 9/08 West Point graduate marrying another West Point graduate wedding as proposing the toast,

And here’s to us and those like us. Damn few left.

When I sat in on a class in military ethics at West Point the week of my 40th reunion in September, 2008, the seniors in the class manifested a bit of an us-versus-them mind set where us is the military officers corps and them is the civilian population. The toast just cited almost uses that us-versus-them phraseology precisely. When I was asked to make some comments at the end of class, I complained a bit about that us-versus-them mentality as well as a sort of group superiority complex that I thought I detected. The active-duty colonel professor protested that he heard none of the latter.

I warned the cadets that it was a dangerous and inaccurate perspective and that they must strive to maintain the perspective that the American populace and the military are one in the same and that the notion that the military officers were better was just wrong and stemmed from isolation of the military from the civilians, not actual evidence.

I said there is too much unethical behavior in the Army and that much of it is justified on the basis that we officers are morally superior to the undisciplined masses who are not risking their lives like we are and therefore we should not have to air our dirty laundry to them by submitting accurate reports on our readiness and such to those sloppy civilians whom we have to pretend to be subservient to. Thus does the active-duty military generate tens of thousands of false reports destined to the civilian bosses in the Pentagon, yet still feel morally superior while doing so.

Physically isolated

West Point is somewhat physically isolated. It’s only 50 miles north of New York City, but there are a lot of mountains and trees between West Point and New York City. When I was a cadet, it was extremely hard for us to even set foot off the post. I was a member of the first class allowed to leave at Christmas during freshman year. We were allowed no other leave freshman year, one weekend leave per semester sophomore year, two per semester junior year, and about one per month senior year. One of my cadet roommates read that and said, “YOU were allowed one weekend leave per semester! I was not.” I had forgotten you had to have a certain grade level to get that leave.) We were not allowed to have a car or even drive someone else’s at West Point until March of senior year.

The town of Highland Falls is adjacent to West Point. It is not much of an exaggeration for me to say I have never been there. On the rare occasion when we were allowed out, we sure as heck were not going to go to Highland Falls.

We generally found it very difficult to get dates while we were there, but that’s another story. See my Succeeding book for the details on how we managed to overcome that handicap in spectacular fashion.

One mistake I made was to figure, “Oh well, at least when we graduate we will no longer have trouble being where the girls are.”

Wanna bet?

Out in the woods in the Confederacy

My first assignment: Ranger School. Two months in the woods. No food or sleep or women. Then two months at Fort Gordon, GA in Augusta. None of my West Point classmates was able to get a date there. Too small a town. Too closed a community. Too much competition from tens of thousands of other soldiers at Fort Gordon for relatively few appropriate-age, single girls. Plus we were only there two months. Hard to form a long-term relationship.

Next stop: three weeks at Airborne School at Fort Benning. Same situation only all numbers worse. More troops. Fewer women. Shorter time. Zilch.

Then six months at Fort Monmouth, NJ. God bless Fort Monmouth. We had a blast and dated our asses off. Unlike most Army bases, Fort Monmouth is located in civilization. Near seashore resorts and New York City, actually. I ultimately fulfilled the old West Point saying, “Signal Corps, Jersey Shore, Out in four.”

Then Fort Bragg, NC. Same as the other assignments in the Confederacy. When I had time off, I went to DC to see a New Jersey woman I had met while I was a cadet.

Then Vietnam. Others of my classmates went to Germany and Korea, which may sound exotic and fun, but imagine how much success a German or Korean soldier would have competing with American men for girls if he were stationed here.

As you can see, the Army is arguably even less attractive for a bachelor soldier than somewhat-isolated West Point.

On 3/30/10, Military Times announced the four best U.S. military bases in the world. Three of the winners well illustrate how distorted your perspective can get when you spend a lifetime in the military.

• Camp Pendleton (Oceanside/San Clemente, CA—I’m OK with that one)
• Fort Knox, KY (been there, done that, no desire to ever go back)
• Ellsworth AFB (Rapid City, SD—need I say more)
• Fort Drum (Watertown, NY—I’d rather be at West Point)

Here is my list of the four best places to live and work: NYC, London, Paris, San Francisco. You don’t assume you are going to be on a military base then ask which are the best military bases. You ask “Where is the best place to spend my only life?” and it sure as hell ain’t Rapid City, SD.

What about married guys?

How about solving this problem by getting married right after West Point? To whom?

The typical cadet date is an ambitious college girl. She probably wants a masters degree like her prospective husband. So she needs to be near a good university. She also wants rewarding, challenging employment with compensation and responsibilities commensurate with her intelligence and education.

The author of Unforgiving Minute, West Point graduate Rhodes Scholar Craig Mullaney said at a book signing in May, 2009 that some efforts are being made to help this, like trying to get a federal law that would enable professionals like nurses, doctors, and lawyers practice their profession in a new state when their military spouse gets transferred without having to get re-licensed or readmitted to the new bar. But as yet, professional spouses of military members do need to go through the licensing procedures all over each time they relocate to a new state.

On page 151 of I Love a Man In Uniform, author Lily Burana says many officers’ wives have portable, multi-level-marketing businesses like shopping-party franchises Pampered Parties, Avon, and, I guess, Tupperware. If they do that, I would also expect some Amway distributors and such. Creepy.

Some West Point wives earn university degrees after marriage, but it may take them many years and three or four different universities in different states or even countries to do it.

Your wife can teach or she can teach

Many college or university educated West Point wives end up working as overqualified public-school teachers at many new military assignment locations. But that means they never get tenure and are always among the first laid off when budgets are cut. If the teaching credentials go by state, they may need a new teaching credential every time their husband gets transferred. They also never get seniority and spend their entire careers teaching the worst kids and classes that other teachers at the school use their seniority to escape and they always get fresh-out-of-college starting salaries.

Here is a pertinent passage from page 52 of the 2008 book In a Time of War. A member of the West Point Class of 2002 hit it off really well with a college classmate of his sister-in-law. But the girl,

...drew a line in the sand. She wasn’t going to be an Army wife, following Eric around from post to post. It was his choice, she said, but if he was planning on going career military, they should think twice about taking things further...

I am glad to have a concrete, real world example to cite. I fear prospective cadets will ignore my logic alone.

Will she find a good university or a good college-grad job near Fort Benning, Bragg, or Gordon? Sorry. After a few years of this, will she suggest that you either get out of the military or find a new wife? Decent chance she will. She wouldn’t be the first.

Short story: Your future spouse and kids are the most important thing in your life. Neither cadet nor Army life are conducive to finding or keeping the type of wife a 2007 selective college guy would normally seek. And that appears to be far more true for female cadets and graduates.

No doubt some grads will point to their own lives and happy marriages as refutation of this. Not valid. As they taught us at West Point, you can prove anything, even incorrect conclusions, if you use a small enough sample size.

If they can prove, for example, that Fort Bragg is not in Fayetteville, NC or that Fayetteville has anywhere near as many young single women as young single men, I stand corrected. But the fact that West Pointer Bob and Mary met there and lived happily ever after is mere anecdotal evidence and therefore of little evidentiary value and unpersuasive.

My wife and I celebrated our 34th anniversary in May of 2009. We have three great sons. But this was in spite of and not because of West Point and the Army. I met my wife using “The System” that West Point and the Army forced us to invent to overcome their colossal isolation. (Again, see my Succeeding book for how we did that.)

Marrying down

Because of the isolation while at West Point and thereafter in rural, isolated Army bases in the Confederacy and overseas, the average West Point graduate probably marries down education-wise. By that I mean that his years of education, SAT scores, and the selectivity of his post-high school educational institutions are probably significantly higher than those of his wife. Had the young men gone to a fully-co-ed civilian college and taken a job in U.S. civilization rather than in the Southeastern pine forests or Middle Eastern desert, their wives, as a group, would probably be more equal to them in IQ and educational achievement.

When I was at West Point, which was 100% male then, there was a women’s college called Ladycliff just outside Thayer Gate. I saw an ad for it in the New York Times once when I was a cadet. All it said was the name, address, and phone number of the college and the words,

Campus adjoins West Point.

I thought that was pretty shameless and crass. To further drive home that adjoining West Point was their sole reason for existence, the place shut down when West Point went co-ed. The former Ladycliff campus is now part of West Point (just south of the Hotel Thayer).

When Ladycliff was around, it was labeled as “non-selective” in the college guidebooks. In contrast, West Point was labeled “most selective” or “more selective” depending upon the era. As you might expect, a disproportionate number of West Pointers married Ladycliff women.

I never had any interest in them because I thought they were rather ordinary and being treated as if, and acting as if, they were hot stuff because of our isolation and the ratio of West Point men to Ladycliff women.

What about Vassar?

You may be wondering, “What about Vassar College?” Like Ladycliff and West Point, it was a one-gender college: all women. Like West Point and unlike Ladycliff, Vassar is very selective. Vassar was one of the Seven Sisters (seven very selective, famous, Northeastern all-female colleges: Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Radcliffe College, Smith College, Vassar College, and Wellesley College—Radcliffe merged with Harvard. Vassar went co-ed in 1969, the year after I graduated.)

It is only 33 miles away from West Point—significantly closer than New York City. The Seven Sisters have “traditional social affiliations” with Ivy League men’s colleges. Many West Pointers fancy their alma mater the equivalent of a Ivy League college. Technically, West Point and Annapolis were members of the Ivy League when it was an informal sports-writer phrase to describe Northeastern college football powers in the early 20th century.

So was West Point the “traditional social affiliate” of Vassar? Nope. Their “traditional social affiliate” was Yale—in New Haven, Connecticut—78 miles away. We quasi-Ivy League West Pointers should be insulted by that. In the movie Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, there are shots of a Yale football player and his girlfriend: Meryl Streep, a Vassar girl.

Bus loads of Vassar women came to West Point on occasion for mixers and other events. Bus loads of cadets went to Vassar on occasion for the same purposes.

So did a lot of West Pointers and Vassar girls marry each other? Not that I know of. Some of us dated Vassar girls on occasion. I do not know anyone who married a Vassar girl. I am sure there must be some, I just do not happen to know them.

Why not?

I do not know. Shortly after I graduated, some Vassar girls held a press conference in which they announced they would have sex with any West Point cadet who resigned from West Point in protest of the Vietnam War. I suspect the cadet in question would have had to wait until after he got back from his tour in Vietnam as an enlisted man if he took them up on it. (If you quit West Point after junior year began during Vietnam, you went directly into the Army as an EM.) No one did. Had UCLA girls made the same offer, the results might have been different.

My best guesses as to the relative lack of socializing between West Point cadets and Vassar girls are:

• many cadets intimidated by the self-confidence, intelligence, and independence of Vassar girls
• Vassar girls turned off by the military and the Vietnam War in general and the prospect of being a nomadic, isolated, military housewife
• snobbishness of many Vassar families
• clash between liberal arts and engineering focuses of the two colleges
• clash between liberal and conservative world views
• one-sided nature of the travel burden (cadets were rarely allowed off post and had no cars until March of senior year back in the 1960s)

In short, it would appear that although many West Point cadets and grads fancy themselves Ivy League equivalents, Vassar girls sure as hell never saw West Pointers that way. I would be curious to hear from pre-1969 Vassar women as to their thoughts on the question of why there was not more dating and marrying between cadets and Vassar girls.

The other main source of cadet dates was northern New Jersey and environs. Those girls were generally the education equals of the cadets.

Marrying down South

Those who did not marry a woman they met while at West Point often married women they met near the Army bases where they were stationed. That generally means Confederate women, German women, and Korean and other Asian women.

When I was a cadet, West Point had a national student body. Now, I understand that it is predominantly a Northeastern student body.

People in the Southeast part of the U.S. regard young West Pointers who are not from the Southeast as “Yankees” and will say that in the first paragraph when they meet you. As will their friends and relatives. Indeed, if you marry a Confederate, she and her friends and relatives will be calling you “the Yankee” until the end of time. I mentioned that to one of my Yankee Harvard classmates at our 9/07 30th reunion. He married a Texas women he met when they were undergraduates at Princeton. He said her relatives still call him “the Yankee” more than 30 years after the marriage. Q.E.D. Confederates regard their Southern belle marrying a Yankee West Pointer as an act of intermarriage—which it is.

Ideally, you want “a marriage made in Heaven.” If you go to West Point, you may get a marriage made in Killeen, TX or a marriage made in Chongnogu, Korea. If you believe that love conquers all, West Point’s and the Army’s female situations may give you a chance to test that theory.

Page 58 and 59 of the 2008 book In a Time of War tells of a West Point graduate from the Class of 2002 whose girlfriend followed him to Fort Rucker, AL (aviation school). She got a job teaching Spanish at a nearby high school, but she said teaching at that school was like going to church. She continually received adverse comments about living in sin with a man. When the West Pointer introduced his girlfriend to a major and his wife at an officer party, the major’s wife, instantly said to the West Pointer and his girlfriend,

This nice girl moved all this way, and you haven’t put a ring on her finger?

The Army is fortunate that I did not have a steady girlfriend when I was in the Army. I would have told that major’s wife, with all the cold fury I could muster, that my marital status, and that of my friend, were absolutely none of her business, with her husband who outranked me standing right next to us. And if the guy had court martialed me or did the slightest thing to retaliate against me, I would have gone straight to the national news media with the name of the major and his wife and their contact information.

Actually, if I had a steady girlfriend when I was an officer, none of my superiors would ever have met her. I absolutely refused to go to those “command performance” parties and got retaliated against with such things as my promotion to captain never happening. I was two years overdue for it when I got out of the Army, which was eleven months before I was supposed to be allowed out. My refusal to attend “command performance” parties was apparently the main reason I was allowed to leave early.

According to the book, the Class of ’02 officer “turned beet red” when the major’s wife made that low-class comment. Shortly thereafter, he and his girlfriend got married.

I do not know them or how their marriage is going. I wish them well. But this little story is a reason NOT to graduate from West Point. Your marriage is the most important decision you ever make. That decision should be made based SOLELY on the match between you and your prospective spouse. Furthermore, the longer you wait before you make that decision, within reason, the better decision you are likely to make and the more successful your family life is likely to be. The same is probably true of living together before getting married. The military officer corps tries to pressure officers into marrying young. It also tries to pressure young officers into not living together. And most stateside Army bases are located in the rural South which is also apparently still inhospitable to living together before marriage.

A number of the West Pointers in In a Time of War seemed to marry earlier than they would have if they were not in the Army. As their parents could probably also tell them, this is generally not the best way to make the marriage decision. Screwing up the marriage decision, I remind you, typically generates decades of pain for you, your spouse, and any children who are born during the marriage. It is a profound moral outrage that the Army pressures its young officers in various ways to make a hasty decision.

Pressure from Mrs. Major Rectalorifice, whose husband probably has the power to end your career competitiveness and who will probably do so, or from the the Evangelical Christian cell at your ostensibly secular place of employment should play no role and you ought to avoid situations where you might get such pressure, like being in the Army or in the formerly Confederate portion of the country.

Say Hallelujah

Southerners, especially the women, tend to be more fundamentalist or evangelical Christian than the nation as a whole. If you are not, don’t be surprised if you have to consider switching to that mode at the behest of your Confederate bride. One current cadet told me he did not think one could have a successful officer career today unless they were Christian and a regular church goer. When I was an officer, no one cared about such things and any visible religiousness would have been regarded as a bit off.

It’s now a Confederate Army officer corps

In the South, you will have to compete for the attentions of the relatively few (compared to the number of soldiers at your base), young, single, attractive, Southern women. Since 40% of the officers in the Army are now Southerners (Wall Street Journal 2/22/07), Yankee you will be at a distinct disadvantage in that competition.

I have little knowledge of marrying a foreigner whom you met near an overseas base at which you were stationed, but my impression is that such women are more likely to smoke and less likely to have as much education as a West Pointer. In Germany, for example, only half as many women as men go to college. Their country, nowadays, is probably also anti-American. Expect your foreign in-laws to be as well. If you get divorced, you may have to travel to the native land of your ex-wife to see your kids. And it is more likely they will deny you that right in such countries. If all that is an abstraction to you, I suggest that you talk to some West Pointers who went that route.

In other words, by going to West Point, you are likely to have fewer dates while you are single and you are likely to end up marrying someone probably with less education and geographic and religious similarity to you than you would have married if you had gone to a civilian college and had a normal civilian career.

My wife and me

Since you’re probably wondering, my wife Marty and I are both Harvard MBAs. She was born overseas to an American expatriate family and graduated from Drexel University in my home area of Philadelphia. I did not meet her until after I was out of the Army. We were married before either of us went to Harvard. Her mother, who was a native of Charleston, SC, had a bachelors from Florida State and a masters in philosophy from Columbia University. While working at Columbia for its president Nicholas Murray Butler, the consensus smartest man in America before Einstein arrived, she met her husband. My wife’s father was a native of Southampton, NY, also a graduate of Drexel, and a CPA. My wife is a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence on her father’s side (Francis Lewis of NY), eligible for membership in the Daughters of the Confederacy on her mother’s side, and is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution based on both her mother’s and father’s sides. In other words, I was not forced to marry down educationally or foreign as a result of being relatively isolated from eligible females by West Point and the Army. But it took a hell of a lot of effort and patience to avoid it. (I never heard my mother-in-law use the word “Yankee,” which would have applied to both her husband and her daughter’s husband. On New Year’s Day, 2010, I learned I share a great great great great great grandfather—Nathan Underwood, Sr.—with James Madison, Father of the Constitution and Father of the Bill of Rights, fourth President, and most importantly, husband of Dolley, so there, Marty.)

This article is not intended to insult graduates who married down and their wives. It is not even intended to be read by them. It is aimed at high school students who are considering going to West Point and cadets who are considering leaving—all of whom are single.

If you are a West Point grad who married down and a friend or relative of yours directed your attention to this article, get mad at them, not me. Apparently they are amused by provoking you to anger. I am not. With sickos like that for friends, you don’t need any enemies.

Ltc Good ’Ol Boy

Not only do you have to compete with your 40% Confederate Army officer peers for women in the South, you also have to compete with them for promotions in the Army. In other words, it is highly likely that Lieutenant You and Lieutenant Joe Bob will find yourselves competing for the “affections” (good efficiency reports, assignments, and promotions) of Lieutenant Colonel Jim Bob—who sees Lieutenant Joe Bob every Sunday at the Baptist church.

Good luck with that, Yankee, and with competing with Joe Bob for the affections of l’il ’ol Tammy Faye whom he met at the local Baptist church or at a Confederate-flag-displaying honky tonk. The book I Love a Man in Uniform was written by a former stripper who married an Army officer who was a non-grad West Point instructor. On page 325, she quotes another Army officer’s wife who, upon learning of the stripper’s background, says,

Not for nothing, but there are a lot more Army wives who used to be strippers than you might think.

I wouldn’t be surprised. Many soldiers stationed in isolated areas tend to end up in strip joints when they get lonely. And the strippers may not get many better offers than becoming a colonel’s wife. Probably not what your parents and high school friends had in mind when they sent you off to West Point. But don’t be surprised if you and your masters degree find yourself admiring a local high-school dropout pole dancer after several months at Fort Bragg.

Y’all come back, now, y’hear?

In April of 2009, I got an email from a late ’90s West Point graduate. He got married at 24 and the marriage has turned out well in spite what he now regards as a rather young age for a West Pointer to marry. However, he gave me the following details about himself and his spouse. In addition to his West Point degree, he has a masters from Harvard and a doctorate from another University. His wife is a high school graduate whom he met at a church located near a rural, isolated, Army base in a former Confederate State.

Q.E.D.

Parental pressure to go or stay

A lot of young prospects or cadets I have spoken to indicated that their parents were heavily pressuring them to go to West Point or stay there.

That is WAY out of line.

It is the prospective cadet’s decision, not the parents’. It is the prospective cadet’s life that is at stake with regard to both physical risk and career and family risk. I get the impression that the fact that West Point is “free” plays far much too big a factor in the parental pressure. That’s really way out of line.

West Point may be free for your parents, but it’s not free for you. There is a huge ordeal to endure and even bigger risks to take. At best, if you decide to get out of the Army, having gone there will put you years behind your civilian peers who are your competitors in your civilian career.

I believe my wife and I took the correct attitude on the subject. We figured we would let our kid go to the best college he could get into. Our oldest, Dan, got into Columbia, Dartmouth, and Yale. He chose Columbia and went there as a football recruit (tailback). He graduated in 2003. But the cost, $40,000 the first year, more thereafter, took our breath away. We asked if we were eligible for any financial aid. We were not. We had to pay full sticker price.

We figured we would muddle through and we did. We made him borrow as much as he could and we made him work when football was not practicing. And I simply worked harder at my self-publishing business and made more money. Parents who prevent their kid from going to a good school that he got into because of money really creep me out. As do parents who pressure their kid to go to West Point because of the monetary price tag.

The education at West Point is, indeed, free to the parents. So is the body bag that a significant number of such sons and daughters will come back in. How the hell will the cheapskate parents feel then? Will they still say, “Yeah, but you can’t beat the price?”

If your parents want you to go to a service academy to save them tuition, room, and board money, ask your county child welfare authorities to place you in a foster home. Your original parents are obviously unfit.

Who should go to West Point?

If you know yourself and you really know what the Army involves, and this is still what you want, and you think West Point will be better preparation for that career than ROTC or OCS, go there.

Do not go there because, as one guy I know said, “I don’t have a better idea.”

Do not go there because it’s the only school that recruited you for Division I athletics. Play lower division athletics.

Do not go there to see if you like it. It is not designed to be liked.

Do not go there because you think it’s necessary to have a good Army officer career. It’s not.

Do not go there as preparation for a civilian career. It will hurt your ability to succeed in a civilian career.

Do not go there because you think you’ll get a great education. There are at least 50 better U.S. colleges for that.

Did I benefit from West Point?

Yes.

How?

Getting accepted gave me a tremendous self-esteem boost—surviving there and graduating gave an additional boost. When you go through some ordeal like that, when you subsequently encounter difficulties, you tend to think, “Well, if I got through West Point I can get through this.” I got more of the that in Army Ranger School and Vietnam.

Did I benefit from the classroom education there?

Yes. I was forced to learn good study and work habits, to learn how to triage work overloads. I benefited from studying some engineering like civil and automotive engineering. Non-engineers tend to view the world a a bunch of mysterious black boxes. They don’t know how their car works or how the economy works or how organizations work. Engineers know that most things are logical systems that work for certain reasons and fail for certain reasons.

A West Point roommate and I successfully applied our engineering training to the important cause of meeting quality women in difficult circumstances. I have often said that my success as a writer of real estate investment and football and baseball coaching books stems in large part from my applying basic engineering approaches to fields that need it but otherwise do not have it. In the land of the “blind” liberal arts or P.E. major, the one-eyed engineer is king.

However, I do not recall any benefit from studying all the myriad other subjects we studied there. It seems in retrospect like we were just studying that stuff because some long-dead academic decided that was the right list and so we could impress people by reciting the names of all the courses we had to take. Even the military history was how to fight not the last war but the last century’s wars.

Did I benefit from the honor training?

No. My mom said I was like that from birth because of my father’s genes. My two brothers are the same. They did not go to West Point.

Here is an illustrative incident that shows our family’s congenital honesty and congenital stubbornness. When he was in third grade, my middle brother was accused by a classmate—call him Bobby—of hitting him. My then eight-year-old brother denied it. The teacher sided with Bobby and demanded that my brother admit the assault and apologize. He refused. The teacher made him go sit in the first-grade class room until he followed her orders. When my brother got home and told my mother, she went to the school and told the principal, “My sons don’t lie.” He ignored her.

After several days of my brother sitting at a tiny desk in a room full of six-year olds, Bobby admitted that he was the one who was lying, not my brother. Had he not done so, my brother would still be sitting in that first-grade classroom. That brother of mine has long been a chain store manager, a position he got because of his integrity which became apparent to the CEO in an incident years ago.

My wife is as honest as any West Point cadet. I have gotten a zillion compliments for my honesty throughout my life starting when I was a kid. For example, once in a post-practice team meeting, my high school football coach felt compelled to compliment me in front of everyone on my “sincerity.” It was a little embarrassing because it had nothing whatsoever to do with the topics he was otherwise discussing. I have no idea what I did that inspired that comment.

Even among my West Point classmates, who were all adhering to the Cadet Honor Code, I occasionally got singled out on such matters. My yearbook write-up, which was written by a company-mate who later became prominent, describes me as “the conscience of C-2.” One of my C-2 roommates heard two cadets in the class below us having a heated argument. He suggested that if they really wanted a fair, honest, objective opinion of which of them was right, they should each present their case to me. He later asked me if that as OK. I was shocked by the fact that he had done that and said it was fine when I got over the surprise. Somewhere during the prior three years, he concluded that I was very judicial in my approach to things. When I ushered at a another company-mate’s wedding right after graduation, the groom feared that his relatives or other classmates in the saber arch would hide his car keys and thereby screw up his departure for the honeymoon. He gave the keys to me to hide in a particular place, explaining, “You’re the only one I trust.” I put them where he told me to.

I still get compliments on my integrity about once every other day via email as people react to my writing on the Internet and in my books and newsletters. I always thought of such compliments as you would receive a “compliment” like “Thank you for not stealing my car.” It always seemed to me that being honest was the most minimal standard, not an occasion for a compliment. I think those who pay me such compliments say more about themselves and the sorry state of the world than they do about me.

I feel the same about people who preface a comment with the word “frankly.” It seems Freudian. Like, “Normally, I lie, but this next statement I’m going to make is actually the truth for a change.” Politicians—and military officers—say “frankly” a lot. In one of my civilian jobs, I could hear my boss talk on the phone because our offices were adjacent. Whenever he said, “Frankly,” the words that followed were lies.

When a West Pointer starts in bragging about the great honor training he got at West Point, I am tempted to have the following conversation with him.

Me: You think West Pointers are more honest that non-West Pointers?

Mr. Honor: Absolutely.

Me: You married?

Mr. Honor: 36 years.

Me: So how can you stand living with that lying bitch?

Mr. Honor: My wife doesn’t lie!

Me: She go to West Point?

Mr. Honor: Of course not. It wasn’t co-ed back then.

Me: So she must be less honest than you.

Mr. Honor: I didn’t say that.

Me: It’s sort of inescapable logic, isn’t it? If West Point honor training was great stuff that made us significantly more honorable, then our relatives and friends who did not go there must be significantly less honorable than we are.

Did I benefit from the physical training?

Nope. I would have been physically active no matter where I had gone as I was before I went there. I ran five miles a day every day before school in high school. My wife and three sons, none of whom went to West Point, were all going regularly to the health club before I started doing that.

Did I benefit from the military training?

Yes. For one thing, I learned that humans can meet far higher standards than they would have thought. By being led by other cadets I learned what sort of leadership style I like best. By leading other cadets (during the last two years) I learned that it doesn’t matter what leadership style I like. You have to have the full repertoire of leadership approaches to deal with each of your subordinates because each individual responds differently to different leadership. Some respond to nice guy; some only to hard ass. You have to be able to do both.

Leading men in such things as close-order drill and calisthenics was surprisingly beneficial. The first time I gave a command, I was faking it. But the platoon snapped to attention. “Damn!” I thought, “that was pretty cool.” So for my second command, “Right, face,” I was more confident. Darned if the platoon didn’t snap to the right in unison. By the time I had marched them to Thayer Hall (classroom building) and back, I was a combination of R. Lee Ermey and George Patton. [One of the plebes who was responding to my first commands that evening was Jack Reed, now U.S. Senator (D-RI).]

I have since coached 35 athletic teams and been a landlord and held other adult leadership positions. I am amused when I see my fellow educated adults put in a position where they have to lead others. They frequently apologize for being in charge and aw shucks their way through it when that sort of behavior is counterproductive. When I am in charge of adults or kids I do what all West Pointers do. I take charge confidently and in an experienced, trained, practiced way. I am not self-conscious or lacking confidence or uncomfortable. Indeed, I am uncomfortable about not being the leader in a setting where someone else is and he is not doing it correctly. Being in charge of 10 people or 500 people is quite easy for me. Been there. Done that. That would have been somewhat difficult to get other than at West Point.

On the other hand, in spite of graduating from the world’s self-proclaimed best leadership school—West Point—and the world’s best management school—Harvard Business—I now have zero subordinates. I have not had any subordinates other than athletes since 1992. The fact that I can lead does not mean I want to do it. I like coaching, but I do not like being a non-coaching boss because of the four “ations” that apply nowadays to such subordinates: litigation, regulation, taxation, and legislation. So in my case, in-person leadership generally was ultimately a useless skill.

Military vs. non-military at Harvard

During the first three months of Harvard Business School, the students there who were never in the military freak out. One guy told me he went out and sat under a tree and cried. My wife, who was year behind me, cried hysterically and was mad at me for giving her the impression during my first year that the place was fun. It was, if you had already learned how to ignore the negative-feedback routine that we got in the military. It did not occur to me that civilians would have trouble with HBS until I saw them doing it. After Thanksgiving of the first year, they were OK because the first grades came out and they finally got their positive feedback and realized it had been a sort of a game.

All their lives they were teachers pets. Then, at Harvard, they suddenly cannot get any positive feedback. The professors Socratic method them to death and their classmates finish them off in amphitheater classrooms that are like intellectual gladiatorial pits. But I and my fellow HBS students with any military experience at all had no trouble at all with the first three months. It was sort of basic training ultra lite.

The theory of West Point

Above, I have discussed the empirical evidence, or lack thereof, of West Point’s effectiveness at producing the “leaders of character” and war-winning generals it claims to produce. “Empirical” means relying completely on experiments or experience. For example, doctors have long known that aspirin reduces certain pain and swelling, but they never knew why until recently. “Why” is the theory or scientific principle at work. Before, their conclusion that aspirin worked was entirely empirical.

But I also find it useful to analyze the theory behind whatever I am trying to figure out. What is the theory of West Point?

Looking at its history is the best way to understand the theory of West Point. During the Revolutionary War, upstart America had to fight the world’s greatest military power: Great Britain. They were state of the art which included Roman Legion type tactics, i.e., marching in straight lines, as if in a parade, in battle. They also had artillery and engineers who knew how to design and build fortifications and bridges to get troops across unfordable waterways. Those were all necessary in those days.

Hardly anyone in America knew those skills. We had to rely on experienced foreign soldiers like Tadeusz Kociuszko, a statute of whom is at West Point, and Friederich Wilhelm von Steuben. The Commander in Chief of the American Revolutionary Army, George Washington, was grateful for their help, but wisely concluded that it was not prudent for America to always have to depend on foreigners for military expertise. So he urged the creation of West Point which began in 1802. It taught the skills I just mentioned: military drill and discipline and military engineering.

So where’s the flaw in the theory? I don’t see one—through the Civil War.

After the Civil War, neither Roman Legion battle formations and tactics nor fortifications were viable anymore in war. Yet today, if a soldier from the Civil War or earlier could be brought to 2008 West Point, and their view restricted to prevent seeing cars or aircraft and such, they could be fooled into thinking they were still back in the nineteenth century, even after seeing cadets in some uniforms. If they witnessed a cadet parade from far enough away that they could not see the modern M-14 rifles, they would think they were still in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

Polite, obedient, neat freaks

The basic theory of West Point was, and is, that putting relatively selectively chosen students into a four-year, federally owned and operated, military boarding school college will make them far better military leaders than having them go to a regular civilian college. In class, the cadets study about the same as they would study at Stanford or Ohio State.

When it began, West Point was the nation’s only engineering school. Nowadays, West Point is not the nation’s only type of school in any category. Engineering and every other subject can be studied and learned elsewhere. Nor is West Point ranked the best in any subject it teaches. It’s probably not even best in military history. Some civilian universities, like Norwich university, give masters degrees in that subject. West Point awards no masters degrees.

Most expensive college in America

It may be the most expensive college in America—to the taxpayers. Divide its annual operating cost and capital cost for real estate and such by the number of students to get the per-student-per-year cost.

Although it is ostensibly free to its students, you need a sharper pencil than that to really answer that question. The true monetary cost of going to West Point for its graduates is the present value of the amount the graduate would have made at the best civilian college he or she could have been admitted to minus room, board, and tuition and the amount they earned from five years on active duty in the military followed by their lifetime earnings at a civilian job.

Also, the calculation should be risk adjusted. Graduating to West Point increases the probability that you will be killed, captured, or wounded over going to any other college, even the Air Force and Naval academies. And, as I explained above, graduating from West Point has negative implications for your marriage that are hard to quantify but extremely important.

To calculate the true cost of West Point you must take into account all of those costs, including the hidden ones, not just the cash outlay during your time there as a student.

‘Blue Book’ rules

Military academy life appears mainly in dress, grooming, living quarters, hazing freshmen, and the use of military rank and customs like inspections, saluting, and calling superiors “sir.” When I was a cadet, each cadet room had a two-inch thick loose leaf binder called the Blue Book. It was officially called Cadet Regulations.

They were absurdly extensive, detailed, anal retentive, and obsessive-compulsive. At almost every moment of the day, we were told where to be, what to wear, how to stand or sit, and how to be groomed. Harassment of freshmen is cataloged and regulated by a document known as the Fourth Class System. Those two books: the Blue Book and the Fourth Class System (now called the “Four-Class System”—public relations spin is alive and well at West Point) define the ways in which West Point is unique and different from normal civilian colleges.

In other words, those two books are the manifestation of the “how” portion, if not the “why,” of the theory of West Point. Why that approach is best is explained to an extent in the Fourth Class System book and the why of the rest of the theory of West Point is explained in other documents like the West Point catalog, Web site, view books, media guides and so forth.

There are two months or more of summer field training every year. I have no objection to that. On the other hand, that is essentially what civilian ROTC students do in the summer as well. In this discussion of the theory of West Point, those things that are not different from civilian ROTC programs are not relevant.

To describe cadet life as briefly as possible, it is a festival of neat-freak behavior, freshman hazing, and extreme obedience and politeness with a military patina. For example, cadets stand guard duty with a real rifle (no bullets) every Saturday night all over the barracks and around the barracks. I am not aware of any reason for such guards other than to give cadets artificial experience at an activity that is actually needed in combat zones and at bases worldwide that could be the targets of enemy activity.

Hazing freshmen was initially a civilian college fad that swept the country in the late nineteenth century. When it reached West Point, it became far more virulent to the point that Congress held hearings about it in 1900 and it was cut way back. Plebe Douglas MacArthur testified before Congress at those hearings—apparently covering up what was going on to an extent. But it was still an outrage when I was a cadet. The nation gets little benefit from treating its service academy freshman abominably, plus many a potential excellent officer has been dissuaded from going to West Point, or convinced to quit after going there, because of the hazing of freshmen.

Why would such a life style cause students to become “leaders of character” or war-winners—in the post Civil War era? I do not know. I don’t think it would.

The proper focus

Here is a passage from Murray Rothbard’s book What Has the Government Done To Our Money? He is talking about government monetary policy, but the thoughts apply as well to how West Point operates.

If we immerse ourselves wholly in day-to-day affairs, we cease making fundamental distinctions, or asking the really basic questions. Soon, basic issues are forgotten, and aimless drift is substituted for firm adherence to principle. Often we need to gain perspective, to stand aside from or everyday affairs in order to understand them more fully.

If the people who run West Point are as overscheduled as the cadets, I can see where they would have little time to consider the big picture or to make “zero base” inquiries. “Zero base” means to stop thinking in terms of incremental improvements and consider whether the whole enterprise ought to exist or whether it needs a fundamental, from-the-ground-up overhaul.

The proper focus of an inquiry into whether West Point is as effective as it and its boosters claim is as follows:

Value added only

The effectiveness of West Point is how much value does it add to incoming students between their first day around July 1st before their freshman year and graduation day 47 months later. Too often, so-called elite schools take credit for qualities and talents that their graduates had before they got there. That’s bullshit. It’s fraud. I have no objection to West Point and other schools seeking to recruit the best students. Indeed, that is required for the ultimate success of their graduates. But unless West Point adds significant value, sufficient value to warrant its cost, it needs to clean up its act and start adding significant value or switch to a new educational or training mission where it can add significant and sufficient value.

Unique outputs require unique inputs

West Point claims a unique output as a result of the value it adds to its students. That implies that West Point is doing something that no other college does, that it is applying some unique input to its students.

What, pray tell, is that? It’s not teaching calculus, English composition, and economics. Thousands of colleges teach those subjects. It’s not teaching subjects like those better. I am not aware of any evidence that West Point is the best place to learn any college subject. Strictly academically speaking, it’s just another college that teaches subjects you can learn as well or better elsewhere.

It’s not the summer training. While that has a different set of details, like Beast Barracks compared to basic training in the regular Army, both teach the same fundamental subjects, namely, qualifying on the rifle, learning how to march and salute and wear the uniform and all that. If the way West Point does it is better, the ROTC instructors should do it West Point’s way.

Lots of military academies

West Point is not even unique as far as the military academy lifestyle is concerned. There are a number of West Point imitations around the U.S. namely, Virginia Military Institute, The Citadel, Texas A& M, Virginia Tech. There are also the other federal military academies, namely, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy, Coast Guard Academy, and the Merchant Marine Academy. And there are state maritime academies like California Maritime Academy and others in MA, ME, TX, MI, SUNY, and Seattle. If the military academy lifestyle is how the value is added, the graduates of those institutions should be roughly the equivalent of West Point in terms of value added. Indeed, some of the grads of those schools have risen to prominence. George Marshall (VMI) was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during World War II and was the Secretary of State who championed the Marshall plan after World War II.

But there does not seem to be any feeling in America that those who graduate from military colleges in general are better in any way than non-military college graduates, including leadership. The graduates of those military institutions have not held anywhere near the leadership positions in all fields as those from the Ivies and Stanford and the Little Ivies (Williams, Amherst, etc.)

True, the two major academies (Army and Navy) are held in high esteem by the public, but I suspect that is more due to graduates of those institutions holding high positions in time of war than objective tests. And one of the reasons West Point and Annapolis grads hold high positions in wars is that they are disproportionately numerous within the Army, Navy, and Marines and used to have an inside track to the top prior to the 1970s. Since the 1970s, non-West Point grads have held top military position in the Army as often or maybe more than West Point graduates. Since those non-West Point graduates all come from different colleges, they leave West Point looking like the premier producer of Army officers. In fact, ROTC is.

It is probably a post hoc ergo propter hoc logic fallacy (“after which therefore because of which”). That is, young men went to West Point from 1802 on and many of them later became prominent generals in wars that we won, therefore going to West Point caused us to win our wars. One could apply the same logic thus: The Army owns and operates West Point therefore it favored West Pointers in promotions for almost two centuries and America won its wars because of its industrial might and technology and perhaps in spite of the policy of engaging in promotion favoritism toward graduates of the Army’s own in-house college.

Those who believe in the military academy lifestyle as a way to become a leader should consider military academies other than Army, Navy, and Air Force, both private and government, where they incur no obligation to serve in the military. They should also consider military high schools. I think high school is a far more appropriate age at which to subject people to the military academy lifestyle—if ever. “Hudson High” is one of the contemptuous names West Point cadets and grads use to describe the overly restrictive lives cadets lead there.

I’m just discussing the other academies here for academic reasons. In fact, I do not believe the military academy lifestyle comes within a country mile of making any sense other than perhaps for at-risk teenagers.

Direct versus indirect teaching

I have coached 35 athletic teams and written 17 books about how to do that. I have also written 70 other how-to books on real estate investment, self-publishing and succeeding. Writing a how-to book is a learning experience just as teaching is. I was a platoon leader, executive officer, and company commander in the Army. I managed apartment complexes and office buildings. I owned my own apartment buildings with employees. I was the speaker at countless clinics and seminars. I am a clearinghouse for people who are trying to succeed in the various fields I write about.

In short, I have spent decades trying to get kids and adults to do what they ought to do and need to do. I have also been around many others trying to do the same thing.

Generally, the way it works is that an ounce of recruiting is worth a pound of leadership or coaching. Good people do what they are supposed to do.

Secondly, practicing or rehearsing that which you will be required to do in a realistic way is how you add value to your subordinates in the area of endeavor in question. The phrase “in a realistic way” is where the West Point theory breaks down. They believe in what I call indirect teaching, or at least that belief is implicit in the way they are unique. For example, implicit in their regulations is the belief that being forced to make sure your tooth brush bristles are always on the left will make you a better combat leader.

No, it won’t. It just gets you into the habit of being obedient without questioning the orders in question.

An experimental biologist quoted in the book A Demon of Our Own Design said,

...observing rats in mazes can tell you nothing other than how rats behave in mazes.

In football, some coaches believe in blocking sleds. I am one of many who does not. While there are a few similarities between blocking a sled and blocking a game opponent, there are too many differences. The best way to learn to block is to do it against a human, not a sled, in realistic conditions where the opponent can rip, swim, bull rush, juke, and all the other things that opponents really do in games. Sleds teach bad habits like leaning on the sled.

Originally, West Point was not using indirect teaching methods. Military drill and engineering were directly applicable to war winning back then. But they became indirect teaching methods gradually in the late nineteenth century, due to the invention of the Gatling and machine guns, apparently with little notice by the people who run West Point.

Switching from direct to indirect teaching methods is a really big deal. I doubt anyone would have decided to do it consciously. But it was not done consciously. It was done gradually and unconsciously, and not criticized because no one criticizes their superiors in the military. Also, West Point and the army are political organizations and careerists in such organizations do not want to spend their own personal precious political capital on matters like changing the out-of-date practices of their institution. That would greatly benefit the nation, but barely benefit them personally. They spend their political capital on what will benefit them personally—like asking for a plum, career-building assignment.

Discipline?

A person I discussed this with said combat leaders need discipline and West Point teaches discipline with the cadet rules and Fourth Class System. True. Football players also need discipline. And if the New York Giants had prepared for the 2008 Super Bowl against the New England Patriots by having the players align their shoes under their beds and clean rifles and polish their brass and march to their meals, they would have been beaten 200-0.

Once, when criticized for the lack of discipline on his Florida State football team, Coach Bobby Bowden commented sarcastically,

If discipline was that important in football, Army would win the national championship every year.

(Army won the national championship in 1914 when some of their players were former pros. Such players were not eligible to play for most teams in conferences like the Big Ten. As an independent, Army had no rules to abide by. Army also won the national championship in 1944 and 1945 when Army and Navy, paradoxically, were the only colleges in America whose football players could not be drafted into the military for World War II.)

It is not enough to show that what they do at West Point has any logical benefit to Army officers. You must also have a sense of proportion, cost-effectiveness, cost-benefit analysis, triage of the nice-to-have in favor of the crucial, best ways to use the time and resources available, and continuously asking “Is what we do really working and producing the results desired as efficiently as possible?

Silly anachronism

Now, 144 years after the end of the Civil War, the theory of West Point is silly on its face. The only part of West Point training that is unique to that institution consists of wearing military uniforms, including anachronistic ones based on what soldiers wore in the early nineteenth century—the era of Napoleon Bonaparte. It also includes saluting, saying “sir,” hazing freshmen, marching to meals, marching in parades, watching football games in a military manner including parading onto the field and cheering in greater unison than civilians, adhering to huge quantities of picayune regulations many, if not most, of which have no purpose other than to give cadets practice at complying with rules and regulations.

And this is supposed to cause you to lead men in battle better in Mosul? I can see some slight logic to it, but nowhere near enough.

New Coke syndrome

Great old institutions have a common problem. The people who run them are generally not sure why they are great. So they become afraid to make any changes at all. Call it the New Coke syndrome. They are prisoners of their own past success or image of success.

Young readers do not understand the reference to New Coke. In 1985, Coca Cola decided to improve its recipe. The new version was called “New Coke.” They had done a zillion taste tests and the testers thought New Coke was better than old Coke. I agreed with the testers. I love Coke and Caffeine-Free New Coke quickly became my new favorite.

But the public went nuts. Original Coke recipe had been around and loved for a century. The very idea of changing the recipe angered people,

New CEO Robert Goizoeta, who took over in 1980, told Coke employees there would be no sacred cows. Thus did the company kill its long-time recipe. Turned out, it was a sacred cow. 77 days after New Coke was launched, Coke Classic, the original recipe, was added back to the product line. Today, New Coke is no longer available at all and Coke Classic—still called that—is the only Coke other than the various low-calorie versions.

The whole incident actually turned out to be a big success because it revitalized Coke’s market share by reminding people how much they loved Coke.

The problem at institutions like my two alma maters—West Point and Harvard—is that those who run them fear that almost any change may remove the unknown secret ingredient that made them great. That’s wrong. They need to understand that greatness comes from fundamental principles and constant experimentation that seeks better ways to do things. West Point, more than Harvard and other great institutions, is too convinced of its own wonderfulness—or at least reputation of being wonderful—and consequently too afraid to ask hard questions about its current effectiveness and too afraid to make changes to improve. West Point has become more and more anachronistic by the decade and probably now would be greatly embarrassed by a rigorous, objective, independent inquiry into its current claim of superiority over other institutions that produce second lieutenants.

Born not made

Thirdly, as I discuss at length in my article on leadership, leaders are generally born not made. In other words, West Point cannot produce “leaders of character.” No one can.

One of my books is about baseball coaching. Baseball is a relatively uncoachable sport. My book basically tells coaches how to coach base running, little ball (bunting, hit and run, and fake bunt and slash), waiting for a good pitch to hit on the first two strikes, where to go in the field when the batter puts the ball in play, pitcher-cover-first and other specific defensive plays, and outfielding. It also says that full-swing batting, pitching, fielding grounders in the infield are zen activities and that the people who can do those things are born not made. As a youth baseball coach, with only 40.5 total hours of practice per season, you find pitchers, hitters, and infielders. You don’t make them.

So the theory of West Point is that it can add all sorts of generally applicable value through narrow, indirect teaching methods that are far-from-realistic rehearsals for the future situations in which the training is supposed to pay dividends. What’s worse, they are also trying to teach the unteachable when it comes to leadership per se.

If I were suddenly king of West Point, I would set up an extensive screening mechanism to separate leaders from non-leaders. The non-leaders would be washed out before admission.

Realistic situations

Then I would find a way to create the most realistic leadership situations I could and have the cadets practice leading in those situations. It would be like media accounts I have seen of Fort Irwin, CA which is a training base that emphasizes contemporary realism, e.g., moving through Iraqi urban areas and interacting with Iraqis. I would have people tracking down everyone with Iraq and Afghanistan combat experience—from both the U.S.’s and its allies’ side as well as the al Qaeda and Iraqi sides, and picking their brains for best practices and lessons learned.

The Gracie Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy has an interesting model that contrasts with other martial arts in a way that is analogous to the way West Point contrasts to private business or athletics. Here is a paragraph from page 259 of the book A Demon of Our Own Design by Richard Bookstaber.

The very existence of vale tudo competition [an open no-holds barred invitation to anyone to fight its graduates] points to the key aspect of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu that allowed it to gain superiority over other martial arts. It was not just that it was actively improved through competition while other forms stayed rooted in tradition.

Other forms of martial arts basically claim they have it all figured out because their ancient masters developed their martial art as far as it could go millennia ago and that’s that. Martial arts and war are the same. Both allow B.S. artists to prosper because hand-to-hand fights to the death and wars are rare. These ancient martial arts schools, and West Point, are extremely big on stylized, choreographed tradition and theory and nearly devoid of recent rigorous evidence of the effectiveness of their training and methods. How many times do you see a media story about some martial arts graduate winning a fight against an assailant? Given all the martial arts academies in the U.S. and the huge numbers of their students and graduates, we ought to be seeing such stories weekly. I think I have seen one or two in my life.

We were trained in hand-to-hand combat at West Point and in Ranger School. Three of my classmates unwittingly went to a laundromat in a bad neighborhood during when we were in Ranger School—after we had our hand-to-hand combat training there. There were attacked by three local guys. Two of them pulled knives and told two of my classmates to stand still and do nothing, which they did, while the third bad guy beat up the biggest of my three classmates. Our hand-to-hand combat training at both West Point and Ranger School included how to fight a guy who has a knife. The bad guy was bigger than the classmate he chose to fight, but this was still three guys against three West Point graduate rangers. The West Pointer in the fight lost about 20-0 on points and still has a badly mangled thumb 40 years later. He feels lucky to be alive.

In private business and athletics, we compete daily or weekly. If your approach is best, you win. If not, you lose. At West Point or your local kung fu or whatever academy, there is no competition that tests the effectiveness of what they teach. In the martial arts academy or military academy business, if you just talk a good game, you win revenue and students. (To those who would say Iraq and Afghanistan are the competition I would only ask, “And who won?”)

You would also need real enlisted men and sergeants, not cadets pretending to be enlisted men or sergeants. For all wars, you would need multiple training sites including the Army’s former Jungle Warfare School in Panama Canal Zone, Camp Buckner at West Point, urban areas, and the Marine’s mountain warfare training base. Terrain, climate, and vegetation are extremely important to warfare so you have to train in each possible venue. Such a school would produce graduates that commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan would be clamoring for—the way businesses clamor for Harvard MBAs or more so.

If you gave me the assignment of creating a college that produced “leaders of character” who could excel in leadership positions in all walks of life, not just current wars, as West Point claims it is doing, and gave me adequate resources, I would emphasize recruiting natural-born leaders. I would only be able to teach them generic mechanical tricks of leadership like public speaking, command voice, reconnaissance, rehearsal, how to recruit, train, and retain excellent subordinates, psychology, and things like that. They would need additional subject-related training in order to actually excel as leaders in the various specific fields in question. West Point does some of that, but they chase away many of the natural-born leaders they need with their silly oppressive regulations and hazing. West Point claims it ordeal version of college attracts leaders. Maybe some, but primarily it attracts masochists—the zero-percent-body-fat crowd who know too much about hardly eating and not enough about winning wars.

On-the-job training might be the best way to accomplish West Point’s objective, not a military academy college. Once again, many would point out that West Point already does that sort of thing in the summer. Once again, I will point out that all I am discussing here are the things that make West Point unique. Summer training for West Point cadets is similar to summer training for civilian college ROTC cadets. The thing that makes West Point unique is the military academy lifestyle that is layered on top of its undergraduate college during the academic year.

Like I said, the theory of West Point is silly. The empirical evidence discussed elsewhere supports that conclusion. It’s not working. There appears to be little value added by West Point’s unique approach to college other than some short-term (two-years) maturity, politeness, learning military customs and procedures like saluting and the proper way to wear various uniforms, and the mastery of a few mechanical tricks of leadership. There is also considerable evidence of value subtracted in the ways that graduates have been immature (opposite sex and alcohol) in the years immediately after graduation, and in the bad habits acquired as a result of working for years in the military government bureaucracy and holes in the training like not knowing how to dress in civilian clothes.

More important things to be good at

Instead of being good at aligning their shirt seam with the seam of their fly, and folding their underwear in the prescribed way, West Point should set high standards on important things like the following:

Logical thinking

I studied logic at West Point. I also was on the debate team plebe year. I really liked that but it was too brief. I have since come back to those things in a bigger way.

I am a non-fiction writer. More specifically, I am a how-to writer. My books tell readers how to invest in real estate; how to coach baseball and football; how to succeed in life; how to write, self-publish, and distribute a how-to book, and how to protect your life savings from hyperinflation & depression. In a good how-to book, the author:

• identifies the pertinent best practices
• explains why they are the best practices
• persuades the reader that they are, indeed, the best practices
• refutes the mistaken “best practices” believed generally before the publication of your book
• teaches the reader how to implement the correct best practices

When you think about it, that is sort of what West Point claims to do with regard to leadership and winning wars.

When you do what I do for a living—often in speeches or seminars—you get attacked by those who do not want to hear about best practices that they did not think of or that are difficult or refutation of the practices they currently believe are best practices. Over those years, I have found it necessary to study logic and argument so that I could address those sorts of attacks in my books and thereby make my books more persuasive.

I only write a book when the existing practices in the field and/or the existing books in the field are inaccurate andl/or incomplete. In other words, I only write iconoclastic books. That is the only kind of non-fiction book anyone should write. The only alternative to iconoclastic books is “me too” books. Why write those? the subject has already been covered.

As a result of all this, I have found it necessary to create a web article called Intellectually-honest and intellectually-dishonest debate tactics.

One reader told me that brief article “changed his life.” It’s pretty important to me but I was surprised to read it changed another person’s life. it links to a couple of other similar articles. Plus it mentions that Roberts rules of Order (Roberts was a West Point graduate) and the Federal Rules of Evidence are also lists of intellectually-dishonest debate tactics.

Professor Kingsfield was more West Point than West Point

There was a book, movie, and TV series titled Paper Chase, about being a student at Harvard Law School. The author, John Jay Osburn, Jr. write the book in 1970, the year he graduated from Harvard Law School. My grad school alma mater, Harvard Business School, was modeled after Harvard Law School when it was created in 1908. I graduated from Harvard Business School with an MBA in 1977, seven years after Osburn graduated from the Law School.

The main character in Paper Chase, to me, is Professor Kingsfield. He was played in both the movie and TV series by actor John Houseman and is generally considered the salient role of his long career. Each episode of the TV series began with his welcoming remarks to the new freshman class.

You teach yourselves the law. I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and if you survive, you'll leave thinking like a lawyer.

Harvard Business School is called the “West Point of American business.” Not only are those words and the way they are delivered quintessential West Point, they are, unfortunately, more West Point than West Point. Sadly, the West Point equivalent would be:

You think “drop you bag” means to set it down. I will teach you it means “DROP it.” You come here a slob. When you leave, if you survive, you will leave thinking like a MARTINET NEAT FREAK!

I submit that West Point should be doing what Kingsfield purported to do, although to produce logical thinkers, not lawyers. (God help us.)

I have been in 8 or 10 litigations. In all but one, where I was represented by a lawyer hired by my property insurance company, I acted as my own lawyer.

Before you spout the world’s most successful advertising slogan—“A man who acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client”—I must tell you I got compliments from judges, opponents, and court stenographers during my legal “career.” One federal judge suggested from the bench in court that I apply to his alma mater Harvard Law School. I was a Harvard Business School student at the time. I told him I had applied for the joint MBA-JD program during my first year at Harvard Business and that I was rejected by the law school. He said, “Apply again, Mr. Reed. You are quite good at this.” He later told a lawyer who told me that I was the best pro se he had ever seen. Pro se is Latin meaning “for yourself” or a non-lawyer who represents himself.

I was preparing for trial in 2005 when I discovered a computer game called Objection!. It is approved for “continuing education of the bar” training. It teaches you how to object to an improper question during a court room trial. You have to object within one second to get full credit, and on the correct grounds. At first it was frustrating but eventually I mastered all six levels of the game.

I think it would be very good if West Point taught something like the rules of valid argument listed in my web article and other similar sources. Essentially, they are the rules of logical thinking and argument. Furthermore, cadets would get very good at them within months if a concerted effort along the lines of the Objection! game were made.

When I was a plebe, we got barked at within one second for such “errors” as using contractions, failing to ask permission to ask a question, failing to use complete sentences, calling lunch “lunch” instead of “dinner?” and other near meaningless trivia. Wouldn’t it be better to be teaching rigorous thinking in such instances instead of pedantic West Point-only harassment? I actually saw a little of this sort of thing at Harvard Business School. If any student ever suggested taking into account the past cost or effort invested in a particular activity as a reason for continuing it, the entire section would instantly bark out “sunk cost.” That is a logic mistake. Past expenditures are irrelevant to decisions. Only future considerations—where are we now and where do we want to get and what is the best way to get there?—matter for decision making. We could have and should have done a lot more of that at West Point and at Harvard.

West Point grads would subsequently have a reputation for rigorous non-mush thinking. That would be a good thing and a major improvement over their current reputation as being very nice, polite boys and girls.

Fitness

In the 1970s, there was a book store book called How to Be as Fit as a West Point Cadet.

As I have said elsewhere in this article, West Point claims its cadets are extremely fit. I beg to differ. Very simply, the average West Point cadet is more fit than the average civilian college student because physical education and physical activities like fitness tests and intramurals are mandatory for all. But that’s not saying much. The average Division III (lowest level) college athlete is more fit than the average West Point cadet.

I have another article about the military way overemphasizing fitness.

Instead of all the emphasis on neat freak behavior, one different focus I would advocate is true physical fitness. That would mean adopting a simple standard like the near universal recommendations that everyone have a body mass index between 18.5 and 24.9 and the near universal recommendation that men have a waist-to-hip ratio of .95 or less and women .70 or less.

I, who was born in 1946, comply with both of those recommendations. I believe my three sons, who were born in 1981, 1984, and 1987 also are in compliance. My wife and I visited West Point for my 40th reunion in 2008. We were both appalled by all the overweight cadets. No doubt those fat cadets have shiny shoes and sharp pants creases. But which is more important: clothing and grooming or health and fitness? Implicitly, West Point says clothing is more important than substance. Shame on them.

Very simply, West Point needs to adopt the standards I just recited or similar ones, and enforce them. They are very good at enforcing rules at West Point. Hell, they are phenomenal at enforcing rules! But the United States Military Academy absolutely sucks at selecting what is important to emphasize.

The fat cadets should be punished gradually, but relentlessly so that each passing week of being overweight draws greater punishment until the cadet either loses the excess weight or resigns or gets expelled. I expect they will not do that because they do not have the guts and do not want that many cadets to flunk out or resign.

Okay. But don’t tell me how high your standards are any more. When it comes to things that matter, your standards are lame.

Academic depth

I surmise that in the first 60 or so years of West Point—1802-1862—that West Point graduates were highly regarded for their academic merit, namely, being competent engineers and the only ones in the U.S. (My son’s head football coach at Columbia told me that school had the oldest engineering school in the U.S., and Columbia, founded in 1754, is older than USMA, founded in 1802. We were told at West Point that for decades West Point was the ONLY engineering school in the U.S. I’ll leave it to others to figure out which engineering school is telling the truth.)

But I have never heard in my life that West Pointers are highly regarded for their academic strength in any discipline. If it’s such a hot-stuff college, with a tremendous amount of in-class hours, which it is, how can its graduates not be highly regarded in any academic discipline?

When I was there in 1964 to 1968, it was because our curriculum was a mile wide and an inch deep. We had a ridiculous number of in-class hours per week, but we were jacks of all disciplines and masters of none.

Now, it’s worse. Why? For competitive reasons—not losing recruits to other colleges or service academies, West Point now lets students major in 45 subjects. We had no academic majors when I was there.

Too small for 45 majors

West Point is a small school: only 4,400 students. Furthermore, it is strictly a college, not a university with graduate students and graduate courses. When I was there, we had one curriculum for all with a smattering (one course per semester per student) of electives junior and senior year.

When a small college tries to offer multiple majors, they are forced into a considerable amount of inefficiency. You need more professors per 1,000 students for courses only taken by those majoring in the subject in question. Courses will have fewer students than the same course would have at a large university. The average academic major at West Point only has 100 students spread over probably the last three years of study. That means there are, say, 33 juniors majoring in statistics. Somewhere in the neighborhood of half to 2/3 of your courses in college relate to your major. So the 33 statistics juniors are taking, what, three statistics courses a day? If they still have the odd-numbered regiments take courses on one day and the even the next, there are only about 16 juniors available to take those three courses per day. Do they have three different professors who specialize in each course or one all-purpose stats professor who teaches all three in the style of a one-room school house? Are there quotas for each major or can everyone take whatever they want? I would expect quotas.

Sounds like they are still making the mistake they made in the 1960s: trying to be too broad at many things resulting in not being deep enough at anything.

Top engineering school?

At the 2011 West Point Founders Day dinner in Oakland, CA (for the whole San Francisco Bay Area), the supe said West Point ranks in the top few in engineering in the various college guides. I am skeptical about that. I don’t doubt that the guides say that. I doubt that they are using appropriate criteria.

West Point professors are typically West Point graduates who got a masters in the subject right before they went to West Point to teach it. They will only stay for two or three years then they will leave to be a battalion commander in Afghanistan or somewhere. With the exception of the civil engineering done by the U.S. Corps of Engineers—canals, dredging, levees, etc.—the U.S. Army has no engineering jobs for West Point graduates. They now use high tech weapons, but West Pointers do not design them. MIT geeks do. So by the time they get out of the Army, their engineering training at West Point, no mater how great, is five years out of date—an eternity in a dynamic field like engineering. And some college guide is going to tell me that West Point is teaching those subjects better than Cal Tech, MIT, Harvard, and other places with tenured professors, cream of the cream students from all over the world, a pipeline into the top engineering jobs in the world,and world class research laboratories? I don’t believe it.

When I was a cadet, our top students generally chose the engineer branch. Infantry branch was for the dumbest guys in the class. 70 of my classmates were forced into the infantry because they were in the bottom of our class. Some of them were killed in Vietnam in ways that seem to say that their branch was decisive in their deaths. Now, apparently as a result of some action-hero propaganda campaign directed at the cadets, the best students choose infantry. That would be like the top nuclear engineering student at Cal Tech choosing to make a career supervising day laborers who pick up the loose debris for a demolition company.

Why still teach engineering there at all?

Why does West Point even teach engineering other than building pontoon bridges or timber trestle bridges or temporary fortifications? Apparently because of 200-year-old inertia and the desire to impress civilians with how intelligent West Pointers are.

Hey, West Point. Wake up. You are a military academy, not Harvard. Your academic majors ought to relate to what West Point graduates do as platoon leaders, company commanders, and battalion commanders. Since so few West Pointers become generals, (Hell! Few ever become battalion commanders. I don’t think any classmate I knew at West Point was ever a battalion commander.) you should not teach what generals need to know until the officers are around 40 years old. So what few majors West Point offers should relate to platoon, company, and battalion command?

• psychology
• military stuff like military history, strategy, tactics, lessons learned
• military civil engineering
• philosophy (ethics)
• computer science
• communications (writing, speaking, visual aids and video)
• pedagogy (how to teach and coach, that is, impart relevant knowledge and motivate the student to employ it zealously and drill it so skills reach high levels)

If you look at the list of majors available at West Point, it appears they are trying to graduate officers who can give a good account of themselves, education-wise, at cocktail parties attended by graduates of civilian colleges. Actually, I think the civilian colleges do much the same. My oldest son’s college, Columbia, has their vaunted “core curriculum” which means studying stuff written by the really old, dead, white guys whose names are carved into the buildings at Columbia: Plato, Homer, Newton, Shakespeare, and all that crowd. I suspect the real purpose of that is to give graduates the ability to drops such names into cocktail party conversations. I sure as hell do not rely much on Homer in my 21st century life.

How to compete

The main subject West Point ought to be good at is one I do not really recall studying much there: How to compte. How to win.

True, we had a lot of competitive sports like intramurals and things like boxing and wrestling in mandatory PE. But those were either, “Here’s some equipment and two hours of time, go play” or “Here is the correct technique for a left jab.”

Our military maneuvers in summer were nothing but the crudest choreography, pretty much all one group fires at the enemy while the other group moves toward the enemy. When I was a kid playing army we were smarter than that—making use of vegetation to get closer to enemy positions undetected and all that. West Point gave me the impression they considered such things wimpy, Real men just form a skirmish line and walk toward the enemy blasting away.

Now as a Vietnam vet and student of the military I can tell you we had it more right when we were playing army as kids.

I learned how to compete at Harvard Business School, coaching amateur sports, researching coaching, writing about coaching (which is a learning experience paradoxical though it may seem), and in a more holistic sense representing myself in court and being an investigative journalist.

For example, in football coaching, I learned that the basic principle of offense is strength against weakness and the basic principle of defense is strength against strength. The same is true of war. But I will bet you less than 1% of West Point graduates know those basic principles and the only ones who do are those who have read my writings.

Why are plebes not memorizing that kind of stuff instead of how many lights are in the ceiling of Cullum Hall?

I learned to do extremely detailed research looking for the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses and watching film of our own past games to identify OUR strengths and weaknesses. Other than gun camera film, I have never heard of the U.S. military doing such examination of their own past battles. A high school football coach would be astonished and appalled at how superior his preparation is for an ordinary high school football game compared to the U.S. military’s preparation and after analysis of battles that involve life, death, and national security.

I do not recall ever hearing a conversation about how to win the Vietnam war at West Point (1964-1968—the war started in 1964). Nor did I ever hear such a conversation i the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, or in Vietnam, or in the Army in the U.S. after my tour in Vietnam.

Win our wars

West Point’s function is to win our wars, not impress civilian elites. West Point should strive to be the best academic institution in the nation and can be, but they need to focus on fewer areas of study and those need to be related to winning wars, not impressing at cocktail parties. We discussed the Vietnam war at West Point and in Vietnam, but it was in terms of equipment, units, tactical fads like airmobile and “search and destroy” and “winning the hearts and minds.” But we never discussed it like hundreds of football coach conversations I have participated in. You would only need to hear a single football coach discussion of their team to see the stark difference. It would go something like this:

Coach A: Lincoln High’s best defender is their right defensive end. We either need to double team him or roll away from him.

Coach B: Is he overly aggressive? If he is, can we trap him?

Coach A: Maybe. West did not try that so we have no video on whether it would work against him.

Coach C: Does he trail or tear out to the other side on flow away from him?

Coach A: Actually, now that you mention it, I think he was not fulfilling his trail responsibilities.

Greek chorus: Reverse his ass!

In contrast the closest things I ever heard in Vietnam were along the lines of:

Colonel A: How can we get the infantry to call us for fire more often?

Major B: I ’ve had some tell me they are afraid of us because we are so long range and fire such large shells.

Colonel A: Could you give them a demonstration in their AO to get them over that fear?

Major C: Maybe. Who would arrange that?

Colonel A: Maybe wee need to make some of the lieutenants like traveling salesmen who call on the infantry battalion commanders to sell them on the idea of using us.

I actually heard that conversation. To military officers, the war is not against the North Vietnamese. It was to get their ticket punched, get a good efficiency report (perhaps by firing more rounds than the other battalion commanders), make colonel, go to the right school for their next assignment, and all that. There was no interest in defeating the enemy and they never had any training or experience on how to do that along the lines of what we learned at Harvard Business or in activities like coaching and litigation.

In litigation, which is real in that your life savings are typically at stake, my approach was to use every trick in the book and a lot that were not in the book. I attacked on all fronts. The opposing lawyers were used to a much narrower set of tactics like filing motions. I used motions, counterclaims, public relations, private investigation, publishing of investigation results, publishing every legal document I filed on the Internet, attacking opposing counsel for layer misbehavior, driving wedges between opposing allies, you name it.

At Harvard, it was always “What business ore we really in?’ What’s really important. Where is the key point we should focus on. Like in selling Life cereal, it is key to understand that Mikey has to like it and his mom has to think it’s good for him. So 32% sugar for Mikey and vitamins and minerals for mom.

I never got any of this sort of training at West Point or in the Army.

For example, in Afghanistan, I would think you need to video every battle and study the video looking for weaknesses in ourselves that we can correct. We did that every Monday with the previous game film when I played football in the 1960s and when I coached it in the 1990s and 2000s. We shold also video the Taliban as much as possible and interrogate their guys we capture to learn as much as possible about who they operate. Look for their strengths and pits our strengths against the strengths of the Taliban. We also need to look at our weaknesses and theirs to see how we should attack them.

Some pertinent techniques I use in investigative journalism are

• laying out chains like supply and personnel and money chains of Al Qaeda and the Taliban

• diagramming all the associations of the various enemy people and groups (I saw they did that in Iraq and it helped capture Saddam)

• mapping where the Taliban move or attack or set up IEDs and such (common computer analysis police tactic these days)

• what business are we really in in Afghanistan? Figuring out who the enemy is and when and where we can kill them without hurting civilians. How do we do that drone surveillance, spies, making it easy for the civilians to give us information secretly, etc.

• what are our strengths? air supremacy, stealth drones, firepower, long range weapons, technology

• what are our weaknesses? language, local culture, relationships with locals, acclimatization to the altitude and terrain, anti-war movement in the U.S.

• how do we avoid their strengths being applied against our weaknesses and how to we bring our strengths to bear on their weaknesses?

• Taliban kids roll boulders out on the road when our humvee goes by so we cannot get back that way if we get ambushed. Doesn’t that also stop the enemy? No. They use motorcycles that slalom around the boulders. Why don’t we use motorcycles? They fire at us across steep valleys. They may only be 400 yards away as the bullet flies, but it will takes us seven hours to walk down to the bottom of the valley and climb up to their position. How can we get ourselves or our weapons across that 400 yards immediately?

I wrote some other articles like a football coach looks at military strategy and tactics.

I know the military does some of this stuff intermittently and inconsistently. Football coaches do it religiously and obsessively. Businesses constantly strategize and test and focus group and seek out cheaper factory machines and so on. Trial lawyers constantly seek an edge on the opponent including taking seminars on new techniques, technology, investigating to find a new witness or document, and so on. The movie All the President’s Men showed two top investigative journalists—Woodward and Bernstein—zealously pursuing victory in the Watergate investigation.

There are no West Point or Army equivalents to these habits and best practices. I fact, this sort of stuff above all is what West Point cadets should be learning, not the proper way to wear an 1815 full dress uniform complete with long tails, white gloves and a plumed hat or how to make a bed so a quarter will bounce on it.

When Michael Jackson was being tried for child abuse, he suddenly became Mr. Black Guy after years of getting plastic surgery that made him look whiter, apparently to use the race card to avoid conviction. Comedian Robin Williams commented that before you use your race, you have to pick one.

West Point has the same problem. To be excellent in academics, they need to focus on some subject or just a few subjects. Which ones? Obviously military subjects. Amazingly, the United States Military Academy appears to be ashamed of military academic subjects. We only studied one in four years there. It appears that civilian colleges like Norwich are actually better on military subjects like military history than West Point. My impression is that West Point is afraid to specialize in military subjects for fear the school will be less respected by civilian intellectuals in general and fear that many sought-after high school students, including future Rhodes Scholar candidates, will reject West Point because of a narrow, relatively unattractive curriculum.

Probably true, but what is the mission of West Point? The real mission articulated by Gen Douglas MacArthur in his farewell address to the Corps of Cadets in 1962.

Your job is to win our wars.

Just so. And we have not won one since he said that. Ten years before that, he was fired for trying to win one in Korea. Before Korea, we won them all.

It seems to me that West Point the academic powers that be are more interested in their ranking in U.S. News & World Report’s college guide and their number of Rhodes Scholars than they are in their war-wining ranking—which presently sucks.

They want to be respected by the civilian counterparts, by the elite media. They puff up their chests every time General Petraeus’s PhD in International relations from Princeton gets mentioned. See, we’re smart and educated just like you.

West Point claims they’re great academically. At what? Everything. Look at our U.S. News ranking. Look how many Rhodes Scholars we have.

The fact is West Point appears to get no respect academically the way MIT and Cal Tech are respected for science, or Johns Hopkins is for medicine, or Cornell is for hospitality. And it should get little respect for winning wars at least since 1945.

Somebody at West Point needs to get a “Thanks, I needed that” slap across the face. Change your academics so that West Point graduates are truly respected in the few fields the school should be teaching. This is the sort of area that West Point needs to be excellent at, not trouser creases and close-order drill.

No need for federal colleges

West Point needed to be an undergraduate engineering school when it began because the nation needed such expertise and no other U.S. school was teaching it. But there no longer appears to be any reason for the Army, Air Force, and Navy to have their own undergraduate colleges. The nation has 3,000 civilian colleges that are so good that they draw students from all over the world.

Educating officers in those is cheaper. In the case of the best U.S. colleges, the education is better. Unfortunately, those are typically the same colleges that ban ROTC—which begs a large, important question that I will not address in this article. See my article on why we need to bring back the draft for discussion of the lack of representativeness of the current U.S. military. The federal government currently operates five anachronistic, military academy boarding schools out of nothing more than 144-year-old inertia. (West Point, Annapolis, Air Force Academy, Coast Guard Academy, Merchant Marine Academy)

West Point boosters point to victories in World War I and II as evidence that West Point is extremely effective. Drawing that conclusion with a sound basis requires a rigorous analysis akin to what is known as cost accounting in the business world, economics, and epidemiology in medicine. That is, rigorously separating out the influence of West Point-educated officers from all the other factors that led to those victories. Look at how non-West Pointers fared in military leadership position compared to West Pointers. Subtract out factors like America’s vast industrial and resource might and technological superiority.

Economists lately have been doing a great job of that sort of separating most notably in books like Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics. I suspect the powers that be at West Point would freak, if you’ll pardon the expression, if such an economist announced he was going to calculate the true value of West Point to the nation’s defense. His conclusion would probably something along the lines that West Point is little more than a free college education of moderately good quality accompanied by a sort of Old Guard ceremonial student body that occasionally puts on parades and who wear period costumes. As far as leadership and all that, I suspect the finding would be that West Point graduates are all but indistinguishable from ROTC officers and indeed that ROTC officers seem to be more successful than West Pointers as a group over a 20-year military career.

What specifically was the great military strategy employed by, say, Dwight Eisenhower? Based on what we learned about it at West Point and some other reading I did on my own about Eisenhower, I conclude that his decisions were generally straightforward, unimpressive, and occasionally bad (e.g., invasion of Italy and Operation Market Garden—both pressed upon him by the British) because he was more about getting along with the Allies than pure military considerations. His great moment was supposedly deciding to invade Normandy on June 6, 1944. What choice did he have? The weather precluded the 5th. Postponement would push it to another month and increase the chances that the target beach secret would leak out. Plus the weather might have been the same or worse then.

Beautiful place other than winter when snow is not falling

West Point is one of the most beautiful college campuses in America—maybe the world. It was ranked the 32nd most beautiful college campuse in America at thebestcolleges.org. Sports Illustrated once said it was the most beautiful place to watch a college football game. In 1965, I had a date for homecoming. The sky was crystal clear. As usual, we cadets were immaculate in our custom-fitted dress gray uniforms and short haircuts and no facial hair and relatively trim physiques. As usual, the grass on the field was mowed in a different direction every five yards giving it a two-tone, pristine appearance. I was 19. My date turned 19 that day. At one point during the game, she looked around at the scene including the leaves being at mid-October peak color, mouth agape in wonder, and finally said, “This is surreal. I feel like I’ve left the real world and stepped into a movie screen.”

Ah. The story of my life.

I say it’s the story of my life because I seem to have sought out multiple movie-like venues since I left home at age 17, namely, airborne and ranger schools, the 82nd Airborne Division, Vietnam, Harvard, and my home state of California for the last 32 years.

We had a song at West Point called Army Blue. It has the same tune as Love me Tender. One of its lines is, “Our future is a cloudless sky.” I thought that was a stupid line when I was a cadet. Then, nine years after I graduated from West Point, I moved to the Golden West, where the sky is not cloudy all day. As I write this in Alamo, CA on 8/10/08, there is not a cloud visible anywhere in the sky—a common weather pattern in California.

My wife and I recently went out to supper with two other local couples—all originally from the Northeast—that is, typical Californians. One of the wives said she still feels a thrill every time she goes to San Francisco. Me, too. We go there for supper, shows, speeches, shopping from our home in the East Bay suburbs. When you emerge from the Caldecott Tunnel—ta da!—there it is: the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Pyramid, Alcatraz, the Bay, Mount Tamalpais. Songs like San Francisco and I left my Heart…and Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in your Hair pop into your head. I feel sorry for those I left behind in my boyhood home of South Jersey and places like Fayetteville, North Carolina and Columbus, Georgia. Life is too short.

Maybe as a result of having entered the movie set at West Point, I became addicted to experiencing cinematic things and/or living in such places. Although I must say I know of no other West Pointers afflicted with that particular syndrome.

West Point is beautiful in spring, summer, and fall, and in winter when snow is falling. For the rest of winter, West Point is essentially the New England depicted in the advice, “Never make an important decision between October and April in New England.” Very depressing.

Also, I doubt West Pointer—cadets or grads—are much able to enjoy the beauty of West Point because it represents massive oppression and regimentation. Pleabes get chewed out for “gazing around” (not keeping your eyes straight ahead). At my 20th reunion, I still felt cadet fear walking around campus. As a car approached, I would squint to see if it had an officer’s decal meaning I had to salute. Sitting in Grant Hall having a Coke I could not shake the worry I was doing something wrong and would get written up by an officer. As I said elsewhere in this article, even seeing the countryside around the Palisades Interstate Parkway—a beautiful mountain landscape—and an area where I never went except when going to West Point, depressed me and made me tense until my 40th reunion when it seemed to have dissipated. Other graduates say the same things.

‘Gloom period’

Cadets call the period between the end of Christmas leave and the 100th Night Show (100 days before graduation) “Gloom Period.” As cadets will tell you, during that period, their uniforms are gray, the sky is gray, the buildings are gray, the mountains are gray, the Hudson River is gray, and the unmelted snow is gray. And it’s bitter cold. Plus, nothing pleasant like football or baseball or going to the beach is going on. We did have our own ski slope and almost free skiing, but that was not enough to change the name of Gloom Period. There is a certain beauty at that time of year at West Point—reminiscent of the “magnificent desolation” phrase used by astronaut Buzz Aldrin (West Point Class of ’51) who landed on the moon with Neil Armstrong, but the attractiveness of desolation is fleeting.

The phrase “end of Christmas leave” still depresses me 41 years after graduation. In his 2008 book Warrior King, Army quarterback Nate Sassaman says he threw up just before the end of every leave when he had to go back to West Point. In the 2008 book In a Time of War, a female graduate of the Class of ’02 went back to West Point for a football game years after graduation and commented that she “...felt the same butterflies she used to get when returning from vacations.”

Some have criticized this article on the grounds that I graduated 41 years ago and am therefore out of date. In many respects, being out of date about West Point appears to be impossible. West Point is militantly reluctant to change and it shows in things like my being depressed about returning for 41 years.

Not just a college, it’s an adventure

As a high school kid, I thought West Point would live up to the one-time U.S. Navy recruiting slogan, “It’s not just a job; it’s an adventure.”

Was being a cadet from 1964 to 1968 an adventure? Yes. There was considerable novelty to going from being a typical “Happy Days” early 1960s teenager to attending the renowned United States Military Academy. We wore uniforms all the time which made every minute quite new all by itself. Then there was all the military stuff which was reminiscent of war movies and the West Point TV series and movies about West Point. Our days were almost all jam packed with events and experiences. We were celebrities who got asked for our autographs and asked to pose for photographs with strangers. Our football team was respected and our games were on TV a couple of times a season (there were only three channels back then: ABC, CBS, and NBC) including the Army-Navy Game in Philadelphia, my home area. We marched into that one on national TV and one other game each season. If I recall correctly, they were Yankee Stadium to play Syracuse in 1964, Soldiers Field, Chicago to play Air Force in 1965, Rutgers in 1966, and Pittsburgh in 1967. We also marched down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan each spring on Armed Forces Day.

In our summers, we went through Beast Barracks and Camp Buckner the first two years. Lots of Army stuff like shooting weapons, forced marches, bivouacs, obstacle courses, attacking “aggressors,” driving tanks and road graders, building bridges, blowing stuff up. It was sort of fun much of the time. In July of 1966, I did an internship at the 101st Airborne Division to see the “real Army.” I was appalled by that and instantly decided not to make a career of the Army. Until then, that was my intention. West Point summers were sometimes fun. The 101st was not fun for me. It was like a bad summer camp.

In June of that year, we did some fun stuff like two one-day ocean cruises on Navy ships and introduction to nuclear submarines at New London, CT as well as a rare relaxed several weeks at West Point all by ourselves (no other class). Senior June we went on a trip to the headquarters forts of the five combat arms branches plus Air Defense Artillery where they tried to impress us into selecting their branch if we had a choice. We were greeted by brass bands, fixed up with dates, literally had some red carpets rolled out for us, shown fire-power demonstrations, etc. In July of 1967, I was a platoon sergeant of a Beast platoon of New Cadets. That was interesting. I went to the Naval Academy for a long weekend on an exchange trip during the academic year. That was standard for all cadets. We also hosted some Navy and ROTC cadets who came to West Point for the weekend.

The sounds of West Point

I do not think we West Pointers fully appreciated the sounds of the place when we were there or since. I do not think West Point’s administrators have yet ever adequately appreciated them.

For example, the West Point gift shop and Association of Graduates have long sold recordings of the West Point Cadet Glee Club and the U.S. Military Academy Band, which is made up of regular Army enlisted men musicians and officer band leaders, not cadets. When I was a cadet and young graduate, that recording contained exactly the music you would expect: West Point songs sung by the Glee Club and marches played by the band.

That was great as far as it went.

The Glee Club should not quit their day jobs, but they probably do a better job on West Point songs like the Alma Mater and the Corps than any other group could, regardless of the quality of the singers. Those songs are in the souls of West Pointers. Hollywood or Broadway mercenaries, however great their singing voices and acting abilities, probably would not be able to get them right.

And the USMA Band was who we heard playing those marches when we marched in parades and when we went to reveille and meals. We are not interested in hearing it done better. We want to hear the same guys who did it when we were cadets. I would be interested in hearing someone try to play that music better, but the USMA Band is no slouch. Those guys are pros in every sense of the word and I believe, unlike most regular Army units, they stay at West Point forever, not being reassigned to another post every couple of years.

However, my complaint about the Glee Club and the Band is that, in recent years, they have put songs in that recording that are not West Point. Here are examples from the current Glee Club recording offered by the Association of Graduates: The Last Words of David, Ain’a That Good News, The Promise of Living, Cindy, Hotaru Koi, Orpheus with His Lute, Shenandoah, Seventy-Six Trombones, The Blue and the Gray, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, God Bless America, Armed Forces Medley, Mansions of the Lord.

Like I said, don’t quit your day job. Please put only the West Point-related songs into the recording—including the ones that make no mention of West Point but were marches to which we marched as cadets. If you want to do another recording with Shenandoah and all that, to sell your moms, fine. But do not force us to buy that stuff to get the West Point songs.

The background music of your life

In movies and TV, there is often background music. People muse and joke about having background music constantly going on in your real life. Been there. Done that—at West Point.

Most college students are awakened by a clock radio. Actually, I was at West Point plebe year because I got up at 5AM every morning to study before reveille. But for most cadets, including me during summer training and upperclass years, we were awakened by the live background music of our lives. More precisely all hell broke loose in the silent barracks area at 0550. The reveille cannon went off—except for a brief period when some of my classmates threw it in the Hudson River senior year. Simultaneously, the plebe minute caller started yelling about the time until the formation and the uniform of the day and the Hellcats started playing their drums and bugles.

That’s right, you had a clock radio at State; we had a live band six days a week year round at West Point—reveille, breakfast, lunch, retreat supper and taps. The barracks area stretched over so much ground that I believe there were separate bands for the South, Central, and North areas of barracks. Except for weekends from Saturday lunch to Sunday brunch, we were literally never expected to go to eat at the dining hall or go to bed without live background music. Actually we marched in step to all non-free-time meals and the drums were needed to do that.

What if it was raining? They were there in rain coats playing.

What if it was freezing and the wind was howling and snow was falling? They were there with gloves that had no finger tips playing. Snow changed the sound by muting the normal echoes off all the granite. And no one ever heard that but us cadets.

What if it was dark like reveille, breakfast, retreat, supper, and taps in the winter? They were there playing.

Most people, even including most cadets, grads, and the administrators at West Point think the epitome of West Point is a full dress parade on Saturday afternoon in front of thousands of spectators. Not me. I thought it was the weekdays in the winter when no one was around but us cadets and our background music Hellcats. Say, 6AM on a Tuesday in February. No football game. No parade. No tourists. No officers until class. Just the Hellcats playing away in the dark, this minute callers screaming, and we cadets stumbling out of bed into the cold and dark for an amazingly fast firstsquadallpresentoraccountedfor,sir.Secondsquadallpresentoraccountedfor,sir…Dismissed!

And then there were the week nights. Again, the tourists and officers were gone. Just us cadets. And occasionally—following no schedule that I could discern—a haunting sound would come from the hill above the barracks. All the buildings at West Point look like medieval fortresses, including the Cadet Chapel which sits on a hill high above the barracks and parade ground. It is the focal point of all the iconic photos or paintings of West Point.

Somber, forbidding, staid, it is a place where you felt obligated to whisper even if no one else was there. A place whose bells rang the usual call to services on Sunday morning. Yet, on weekday nights, when no one was around but us cadets, it would sneak out of character and serenade us with less ponderous tunes like “On Brave Old Army Team” during football season or “Jingle Bell Rock” at Christmas time, maintaining its totally straight, military, devout, granite face throughout.

What would you put into the space on the CD made available by getting rid of the non-West Point stuff?

The Glee Club and USMA Band, great as they were, were not the only things that made memorable sounds at West Point. For us nostalgic old grads, I suggest the following sounds need to be on a CD called “The Sounds of West Point” including but not limited to the West Point-related performances of the Glee Club and USMA Band:

• reveille cannon going off
• the standard sounds of a West Point funeral, nothing unique to the deceased in question, including commands, firing squad, and taps played by a lone USMA Hellcat bugler
• Cadet Chapel bells playing a West Point or Christmas season song
• bugler playing retreat
• plebe minute caller calling the minutes to a formation with the Hellcats in the background doing their thing including the bugle calls “first call” and “assembly”
• one of the sense-of-humor-amid-the-formality-and-dignity band songs, like their playing “Hey, look me over” during an arms inspection in ranks
• Rabble Rouser leading the Corps in a rocket
• “Class dismissed” and subsequent cheer at graduation
• Cadet first captain calling Washington Hall to attention and ordering “Take Seats” and the “Attention to orders” that preceded the MacArthur Farewell to the Corps speech recording
• a whole parade including marches, Star Spangled Banner, and the cadet marching commands
• a cadet company reporting in formation before marching into the mess hall
• what is now called “R Day” sounds of upperclassmen giving the age-old commands and New Cadets responding verbally
• cold and hot beverage corporals and pie cutters sounding off pursuant to their duties
• a classic standard “Attention all cadets” Corps-wide public-address announcement
• Army Blue as it would be played at the end of a cadet hop
• public address announcer at the Army-Navy Game announcing the march on of the Corps of Cadets
• upperclassman leading calisthenics in Beast barracks
• upperclassman commanding and groups of New Cadets responding to commands like “delayed cadence count”
• recitation of the Cadet Prayer by a cadet
• Hellcats playing drums and bugles for New Cadet close order drill
• audio from the sound-and-light show about West Point history put on for New Cadets at night

I ran into a retired member of the Hellcats when I was in McDonalds off campus for my 40th reunion in 2008. I thanked him for all they did for us when we were cadets. We should have been more appreciative. But we were too pissed off about having to get up at 0600 and go out into the cold or rain or both to think about it back then. Their name—Hellcats—was given them unfondly by cadets as part of a daily stream of profanity in reaction to their performances disrupting our sleep and dreams.

Let me thank all the others I did not meet at McDonalds now. Sorry about our adolescent preoccupation with our own unhappiness about getting up. We really appreciate you guys getting up even earlier and standing out in the cold and dark performing for much longer periods than we did for all those formations. We took you for granted. We should not have done that. We did not realize what a rare privilege it was to have live, extremely well-performed, professional, background music for our daily lives. We should have applauded before we went back in the barracks. Standing ovation. Every day.

The ‘grout’ of West Point

I kept a diary one year of my life. It was when I was a cadet. When I came across it years ago, I was surprised by how it was totally focused on events like papers that were due, exams, football games, and dates who were coming to West Point for the weekend. But when you reflect back in it, you have forgotten most of that. When I wrote the above list of sounds, I flipped through my junior and senior year West Point yearbooks to get reminded of stuff. Many of the photos in yearbooks are about the day-to-day ambience, not the events.

One yearbook photo that we even commented about when we first got the yearbooks shows the Central Area barracks quad at night on a week day after a rain. All the windows are blazing with light because on weeknights we had to be in our rooms studying. The quad, which is covered with hundreds of cadets multiple times during daytime or on weekend evenings, is deserted. The lights are all reflecting off the wet pavement. It is a scene only a cadet would ever see. The officers leave the cadet barracks area after business hours. That scene is what one would only see typically coming back from studying at the library or an evening meeting in the academic building. Non-graduate personnel who were stationed at West Point for years—but who never had occasion to make that walk—would probably look at the photo and wonder, “Why is the area deserted but all the lights are on?”

It is the day-to-day ambience that you remember.

Events during cadet life are to its routine ambience what painted ceramic tiles are to the grout between the tiles. One of the most important functions of yearbooks is to preserve our memories of the “grout.” The list of sounds above is the audio “grout” of being a West Point cadet for four years.

‘Up, up With people, you see ’em wherever you go’

My three summer leaves were somewhat eventful although that was my initiative. What I did was not quite unique. I would usually run into other cadets when I did it. But it was rare among cadets. Most cadets were less enterprising. After plebe year, I hitched rides on Air Force planes to Hawaii. I had never been anywhere or been in a plane before that. I stayed at Fort DeRussey at Waikiki Beach.

After sophomore year, the night before my last day of my 30-day internship at Fort Campbell, KY, I joined the cast of Sing Out ’66 a.k.a. Up With People and traveled around the Midwest and northeast singing and dancing as a cast member. After about a week, they made me captain of one of the two or three buses we traveled in—probably because, as I said above, we cadets were more mature than our peers about responsibility and such during college and for a year or two afterward.

[I just went to Wikipedia to get a URL to link to about Up With People and was startled to see my name listed among the 13 “Notable former cast members” out of 20,000 Up With People “alumni.” The others include Glenn Close, Tim Gallwey (an author whom I have quoted several times without knowing the Up With People connection), Cecil Broadhurst, and Travis Rush. Glenn Close and I were in the group at the same time. I do not know if she was in my cast. There were three casts traveling at the same time. I would have remembered a girl named Glenn. If you’re reading this Glenn, I was there in August ’66, went to Fort Campbell; Wright-Patterson AFB; Allentown, PA; Fort Dix, NJ; New York City. If you were in the same cast with me, let’s do lunch. Have your people call my people. Ciao!]

That was unique among cadets. I know of no others who did it. Up With People later came to West Point and I slipped into the cast and performed there without asking anyone’s permission. I am the leftmost guy whose face is visible in the picture of Up With People performing at West Point on page 202 of the 1966 West Point yearbook. Glenn might be in that photo, too. I only spoke to a few people in that cast that day. Only a few of them had been in the cast I traveled with. That yearbook page also shows three other acts who played the same “room” that year: The Four Seasons, The Mitchell Trio, and Sammy Davis, Jr. They weren’t bad, but I think we got more curtain calls.

In August of 1967, I hitched rides on Air Force planes to Madrid, Mallorca, Frankfurt, and Berlin. Stayed in Europe on $10 a Day Pensions or BOQs at U.S. bases.

Now, we must ask the question,

Could I have done those things or better things if I had not gone to West Point?

Yes and no. The unique cadet things like wearing that uniform, living at a national shrine, marching into football games or leading the parade down Fifth Avenue could not have been experienced elsewhere.

But most of the other military stuff could be experienced by the average enlisted man to a large extent. We certainly got a lot of orientations and introductions to a wide variety of Army branches and some Navy stuff. As an enlisted man, you would get a narrower, but deeper, focus. ROTC cadets also got a slightly lower quality versions of the various trips we took.

What about the summer travel? Well, I could not have hitched rides on Air Force planes if I had gone to a civilian college, but I could have had I enlisted in the military. I also could have stayed free at U.S. military bases around the world using them as hotels. I could have joined Up With People without going to West Point although my being a West Point cadet was automatic acceptance to the group. My application as a non-cadet might have been rejected.

In short, if you are a slug, West Point and the Army will force you to go on various adventures. If you are already an adventurous person, West Point and the Army will handicap your quest for the variety of adventures the whole world offers, as opposed to just the military. Plus, when you are ready to end a civilian adventure, you end it. In the military, the adventure doesn’t end until the Army says it ends. Also, you cannot change your mind about a military adventure. It’s called desertion and the penalty for it is potentially death by firing squad.

Contrast with my sons

On the other hand, my sons did not go to West Point. Did they view college as an adventure? Perhaps not as much, but they did stuff. Dan played tailback on the football team all four years at Columbia in Manhattan, an activity that included one month of summer if not the two we had at West Point. He was a swim team coach the other month, worked for me, etc. He co-founded and was an officer in a fraternity. He appeared on MTV (Total Request Live hosted by Carson Daly) a couple of times in speaking parts. He was part of a GQ photo spread. He hung around Manhattan daily. Two Hollywood stars (Anna Paquin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) were students at Columbia when he was. At his graduation, my wife and I were standing next to Actress Jane Seymour (Live and let die, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) whose daughter was a classmate of Dan’s.

It was a rare treat for us cadets to get to New York City. Dan lived in Manhattan and had on-campus jobs including installing DSL, working in the development office (ask alumni for money), and refereeing intramural basketball games. He also worked as a bartender at a hot bar downtown in Manhattan. (I worked at a singles bar on the Jersey Shore right after graduation from West Point.) Dan and his buddies did one spring break road trip to the Redneck Riviera in FL. He organized a ski trip to VT. He went to the U. of MD for some fraternity leadership training. He could have studied abroad for a semester but only senior spring (because of fall and spring football practices the other years) and he wanted to be at Columbia for that.

My middle son Steve had a similar variety of experiences at the University of Arizona for two years and at the University of California at Santa Barbara for two years—with a hell of a lot better weather than we had at West Point. He worked with horses while at Arizona and got access to the LA Hollywood scene at Santa Barbara. He drops lines like “Tom Hanks’ wife is really nice” into conversations. He has spent some holidays with UC Santa Barbara friends with David Geffen on David’s yachts. The yacht did not stop at Fort Hood, but the Sea of Cortez, Caribbean and the Mediterranean are nice, too. He worked for the company that made My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Dog Whisperer. He went to Barcelona for part of one summer to study Spanish and also traveled around Europe while there.

My youngest son Mike has been at Arizona for five years. He is a manager on the football team which has let him participate up close and personal in Pac Ten Football including the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl. He knows NFL players from Arizona. Because of the tuition scholarship that goes with being a manager, we are letting him go to college for five or six years. He has four majors and several minors and is often on the deans list. He has had a lot of fun with his intramural flag football team which consists somewhat of his fellow football managers and had a game against their counterparts from arch rival ASU the same weekend as the varsity game with ASU.

Most colleges offer all sorts of experiences for those who seize the opportunities. Many college students who did not go to West Point had many great adventures during their summers if they went to the trouble to seek them out. In my era, doing Europe on a Eurail Pass was common among all U.S. civilian college students. I do not know if I could have afforded it as a civilian who had to pay air fares and who did not get a meager cadet salary. But West Pointers were not the only American students roaming around Europe in the 60s.

West Point sort of forces you to have a lot of experiences. I probably would have had equal or better, albeit different, experiences if I had not gone to West Point because I am the kind who enterprises such things. But if you are lazy, West Point will make you do some of them anyway. Better you should stop being lazy than agree to the entire nine-year West Point/Army package just to get out of the house.

Career military people make this same mistake. They rave about all the places they lived and say they couldn’t have done it without the Army. “Yes, you could have,” I tell them. One one occasion, a career friend said he would love to spend half of every year in a country he had been stationed in but could not afford. I said he could afford it and went through the details of the finances and he was surprised and admitted, “I guess you’re right.” I agree that most military career people would not have made it happen in the absence of the Army, but that’s a sad commentary on them, not a reason to join the military. My wife was born and grew up overseas. There are zillions of U.S. civilians living or traveling overseas, and they do not concentrate their travels in Korea, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Perhaps the main reason I feel sorry for cadets is they do not realize how big the world is and how many great opportunities it offers. I did not fully understand it until I graduated from Harvard.

Forced to do things that are optional, but available, if you do NOT go to West Point

On 8/21/09, I talked at length to a classmate at a party about this article. He had not read it but I asked him what he feels he got out of West Point. His answer was basically a list of stuff that West Point forced us to do that was good for us, namely:

• various physical fitness activities (mandatory phys. ed. and intramurals and summer reveille runs and calisthenics) and tests (obstacle courses, mile runs in combat boots, etc.)
• public speaking requirements

This article is aimed at young men and women who are considering going to West Point or who are already there and wondering if they should leave. For them, I say this list of things that my classmate got out of West Point, while accurate, is not a justification for going to, or staying at, West Point.

Very simply, you can get these things at almost any other college and/or at various education and training programs that are less lengthy like summer camps or adult education. More importantly, you can get them without committing yourself to spending four years in a general ordeal like West Point and without committing yourself to five years of active duty in the Army.

West Point physical fitness versus civilian colleges

Let’s take physical fitness. At civilian colleges, you can sign up for intramurals in the fall, winter, and spring. At West Point, the entire student body was forced to—if they were not participating on an intercollegiate team during the season in question. But it’s dopey to risk death in combat to get your college to force you to do that which you could do optionally at any college.

There are also off-campus sports teams that are often more competitive that on-campus intramurals. When I was stationed at Fort Monmouth, I was on the Raritan Valley YMCA volleyball team that played opponents in New York City and North Jersey. It was a higher level of play than I experienced in intramurals at West Point. The Raritan Valley YMCA was in New Brunswick, NJ, same as Rutgers University, which was my safety school. So I could have played on that same team as a student there. When I was in my 40s, I played year-round semi-pro and adult baseball (hardball) in the San Francisco Bay Area. That was far more competitive than West Point intramurals. I also generally jogged five miles most mornings before I went to West Point and for decades afterward.

There are all sorts of teams and individual physical fitness activities and exercise facilities at colleges and universities and off-campus near them. There are also tests like 10Ks and ironmen competitions you can sign up for. If you are good enough to play, and do play, intercollegiate sports, like my oldest son who was an Ivy League tailback, you will be meeting far higher standards of physical fitness than the average cadet at West Point does, even at a Division III (smallest) college.

In short, you do not have to go to West Point to do the physical fitness activities and physical tests cadets go through. Indeed, if you want a greater physical challenge than West Point forces its cadets to engage in, West Point will prevent you from doing that. At civilian colleges, you can choose to set your physical fitness standards as high as you want. At West Point, cadets are overscheduled so you have little or no opportunity to supplement the cadet physical fitness program because you do not have the time.

The West Point physical fitness program is going on in more variety and at higher levels of competition on or near almost all civilian college campuses. All that happens at West Point that’s different is that they force the entire student body to participate. Needing to commit to five years on active duty and three in the Army reserves to be forced to engage in physical activities is lame.

Public speaking

My wife and I took the Dale Carnegie public speaking course—thirteen weeks one night a week several hours a night. It is an excellent course. I highly recommend it. We sent our youngest son to it when he was 15. He benefited greatly. When he was a senior in high school, he helped my oldest son and I coach the freshman football team. At the post-season awards ceremony, all the coaches spoke briefly including my youngest son. Not only did he make an excellent brief speech, many of his classmates who were varsity players also made speeches that night about the coaches and the contrast was stark. Almost all of the senior varsity players were embarrassingly bad at their public speaking.

High schools and colleges typically have a number of public speaking opportunities including debate team, public speaking teams, theater, TV and radio stations, running for and serving in student government office, and so on.

My wife also participated in Toastmasters which was a weekly breakfast meeting. The members make brief talks to the group regularly and grade each other. You can also join the National Speakers Association or the International Platform Association. They have conventions and training sessions. If you simply put together a talk about some subject of interest, and make your availability known, you will get speaking gigs. I no longer push it but I am speaking on my Succeeding book day after tomorrow to a local church group. I recently spoke to a Rotary Club about my inflation and deflation book, and I spoke a couple of months ago about my Best Practices for Intelligent Real Estate Investors book. You can see excerpts of all three talks on YouTube by going to my home page.

Is the ability to speak in public as valuable as my classmate said? Absolutely. Do you have to go go to West Point to get training and practice at public speaking? Hell, no! Can you actually get more public speaking training at a civilian college or off campus in civilian life if you make the effort? Absolutely.

Let me put it this way. Say X is the amount of physical activity and public speaking that an Ivy League student who makes little or no effort to do either gets. What West Point requires of cadets is, say, 3X. But at civilian colleges and in the off-campus civilian world, you can choose X, 2X, 3X, 4X, or 5X in terms of physical activity and/or public speaking—as well as almost every other type of activity. I submit that the ability to choose from X to 5X in any activity is superior to being forced to do 3X in two areas: physical and public speaking. I will also stipulate that slugs who would do X or 2X in a civilian college are probably better off for having been forced to do 3X at West Point, but it’s not worth the ordeal of West Point and five years on active duty price you have to pay to go to West Point.

Value added or subtracted by West Point and Harvard

The raw material coming into West Point in 1964 was mostly extremely impressive. They admitted a ton of class presidents, athletic team captains, honor students, and all that. Similarly, the raw material coming into Harvard Business School in 1975 was extremely impressive. The class had almost all been involved in amazing stuff in college or right after college. The woman who sat next to me had worked for Otto Eckstein, a former member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, after graduating from Wellesley. Another guy in my section had been an author whose writings had been required reading for yet others in the section. Another had been an American on-air broadcaster for the BBC. Another of my classmates had been an NFL football player. Another won gold medals in swimming at the Mexico City Olympics.

Harvard Business School had an advantage over West Point in that they did not have to pick 80% of their student body until the applicants had a chance to show what they could do in life after college. Also, HBS can pick the absolute best candidates in the world. West Point has to go along with the odd rules allocating nominations to West Point to Congressmen, Senators, the vice-president, president, and the Army.

But the big reason West Point graduates fall way behind Harvard Business School graduates in life accomplishments is that they are forced to work for the U.S. Army for five years after graduation plus three years in the Army reserves, which, nowadays, may involve some additional active service. That requirement clearly subtracts rather than adds value to West Point graduates.

What about during-student time? I think Harvard Business does nothing but add value to the students. West Point both adds and subtracts value to its students. They add value in areas like teaching cadets to say “No excuse” when they screw up. That is a real maturation lesson that many civilians never learn. They also made us go to class all day every day and half a day on Saturdays. Just the quantity of study adds value. But West Point is too much of an obedience and conformity school that crushes the individual spirit and creativity of its students. That subtracts value from the raw material that enters at the beginning of July each summer. I could do a more detailed breakdown, but you get the idea.

West Point and the Army add some value, but also make cadets less successful and capable than they would have been had they gone to a selective civilian college. Harvard Business School adds value to an arguably equal or better group of students.

Perhaps more importantly, you cannot show the way to students until you know the way. The professors at Harvard Business School know far more about the best practices for succeeding in business and other managerial situations than the professors at West Point know about succeeding at war winning or even leading in non-military situations.

I suspect that the high school records of my West Point classmates who entered West Point on 7/1/64 would compare quite favorably to the high school records of the students who entered Harvard College (the undergraduate school, not the Business School) in September, 1964. (That would be far less likely today. Harvard College got much better and West Point got significantly worse.) But nine years later, in 1973, had there been a longitudinal (long-term) study of the two classes of ’68, I think the researchers would be saying something along the lines of, “Wow! Look at the vast difference between the two classes now. Only a dozen or two of the West Pointers are still in the top 1% of their nationwide peers while the majority of the Harvard College grads of that same year are continuing the superlative achievement they exhibited in high school and college.”

Leadership training

West Point claims to be the world’s best leadership school. Arguably it is, but that begs the question of whether leadership is a teachable subject or whether West Point is an adequate leadership school. Best does not necessarily mean adequate. Are leaders born or made? I wrote a separate article on that.

To teach any subject, you need to identify the pertinent best practices or rules of what to do in various situations. But former Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik, author of the new book Hedgehogs and Foxes: Character, Leadership, and Command in Organizations, says,

I don’t think it’s useful for people to worry about the rules of leadership or command. I think the central concept is character and character in the uses of power.

Zaleznik further said in a much-reprinted Harvard Business Review article that

Managers essentially seek to to solve problems within existing frameworks of solutions, while leaders develop fresh approaches to problems.

As I said above under the “independent thinking” subhead, West Point absolutely sucks at encouraging outside-the-box thinking. Such thinking is arguably literally illegal in the military. If Zaleznik is to be believed, and I agree with him, West Point needs to lose the word “leadership” and switch to “management” because Zaleznik’s definition of managers sure as hell describes how the vast majority of West Point grads have been behaving and his description of leaders sure as hell does not.

Certainly most of the world’s great leaders did not go to West Point or any foreign equivalent. Today’s top American leaders include no West Pointers with the possible exception of Duke and 2008 Olympic basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. (West Point ’69—I note that Krzyewski got out of the Army five years after graduation—the soonest he could—and that he spent all of his time as an Army officer as a basketball coach. So his great success provides not much support for the theory that being an Army officer makes you a great leader.)

Can leadership be taught—By West Point or anyone else?

To a large extent, leadership is a born-not-made characteristic. They taught us that at West Point at least to the extent of acknowledging the usefulness of charisma to a leader and the uselessness of trying to acquire charisma if you were not born with it.

An ounce of recruiting is worth a pound of coaching or teaching. When I was a cadet, West Point or the Congressmen who nominate applicants, did a hell of a job of recruiting an astonishing number of high school class presidents, athletic team captains, Boys State delegates, and club presidents to West Point. There is no question that I learned a lot about leadership from observing them and living in the same rooms and barracks with them for for years. But I could not replicate every aspect of their leadership talent. Most of it was their personality. We all have to be ourselves.

Did we learn some of what I call mechanical tricks of leadership at West Point? Yes. For example, at West Point, when the cadets line up for chow in the woods, the highest ranking officers and cadets always go to the back of the line and let the plebes eat first. The reason is that the mess stewards sometimes give overly large portions to the beginning of the line causing them to run out of food before the end of the line. The highest ranking guys go to the head of the line to make sure that the plebes get fed and that, if anyone is going to go hungry, it will be the colonels and senior cadets.

We were impressed by that and many of us did the same when we became older cadets and officers. Good stuff. (There is a chapter called “Mechanical tricks” in my book Succeeding. It is about aspects of success in any field that anyone and everyone can and should master—like the correct arm and eye position for receiving a handoff in football. That still does not take care of whatever talent is required for the skill in question.)

Commanding more junior cadets is a routine part of life at West Point and in summer training there and away from West Point. There is no question that giving commands to subordinates and having them respond is great experience for other leadership positions.

One problem I have with West Point leadership training is that there are all sorts of ways to lead. My Succeeding book has a chapter called “Find your medium” that urges readers to ascertain which medium of human interaction they are best at and includes a list that begins:

• face-to-face
• radio
• telephone
• TV
• print
• theater

and more

Notwithstanding associating with such at West Point, I am not a politician class president type leader who is popular with peers. Those guys are cocker spaniel personality types. I am more of a cat to continue the domesticated pet analogy. On the other hand, I am a leader on a national level through my writing in my books newsletter, and this Web site. And the politician types generally cannot lead in that way because they try to be all things to all people and that is the antithesis of marketable writing. My leadership through the medium of print happened in spite of West Point, not because of it. So in that dimension, West Point is a horse shit leadership school.

West Point only teaches how to lead in one medium: face-to-face with groups of one to a hundred or so. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s awfully anachronistic. When West Point began in 1802, face-to face, the performing arts, and print were the only media. In the twenty-first century, trying to lead only through one 1802 medium is appalling when you think about it.

Petraeus

General David Petraeus, to most Americans and to most of his soldiers, is a TV personality. He has to lead that way because he cannot get face to face with his two hundred thousand or so subordinates. His TV performances have been wooden—to be kind. Why? Zero training at West Point in leading through the medium of TV in spite of the predominance of that medium in our lives today.

Petraeus also tried to lead in print by co-authoring the Army’s new Counterinsurgency manual. It is unreadable. No leading by him through the medium of print. Why? Inadequate training in writing at West Point plus much training in avoiding offending anyone which is destructive to good writing. For a selective college, West Point has produced distressingly few published authors. Can you name one—or at least one who did not write a book about West Point?

When I learned that one of my classmates had gotten a PhD, I asked the subject of his dissertation. When he told me, I said, “That sounds like a good book store book. Have you considered getting it published?”

He smiled knowingly and said, “If you want an Army career, you don’t ever publish a book.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s impossible to write 100,000 words and not piss off someone who outranks you.”

That exchange captures how the military feels about the form of leadership practiced by authors. If you think writing is a weak form of leadership, I suggest you read Ten Books that Changed the World or other similar works. American soldiers died in Europe because of what was written in Mein Kampf. They are dying now in Iraq and Afghanistan because of words written in the Koran. In both cases, American died for words written in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

At West Point, they say you need to learn how to be a follower before you can be a leader. Oookay. I will go along with that to the extent that you do need to see what it feels like to be a follower in order to maximize your effectiveness as a leader. However, there can be no doubt that the vast majority of your time at West Point is spent learning how to be a follower, not a leader, and too much follower training and experience hurts your ability to lead. It makes you too deferential, too inclined to wait for direction from above. And West Point graduates on active duty get promoted totally for being good followers, not good leaders. The entire culture of the Army officer corps is impressing your superiors to get a good efficiency report and promotions.

Decisions

In his book Warrior King, Sassaman says, “What West Point does quite well is help cadets (and future officers) learn how to make good decisions.”

I would like to hear his logic or empirical evidence. I have some logic that says the opposite.

When I was a cadet, I made almost no decisions. They were all made for me—from what to eat to what to wear to my haircut to how to spend my afternoons and Saturday mornings and Sunday evenings. A girl I dated in cadet days told me in 2006 she lost interest in seeing me back in 1968 (my graduation year) because, “you had your plans.” “They weren’t plans,” I said when she tracked me down 40 years later. “They were orders.” [I got to pick my branch and first assignment, but the alternative choices were such that I would have had about the same set of orders no matter my choices.]

One of the things that struck me about my oldest son‘s college experience at Columbia in contrast to mine at West Point was how many different decisions he had to make on a daily basis.

Sassaman says he is referring to values training—apparently the Honor Code and ethics. But his own case seems to prove the opposite. He made a dead wrong values decision about covering up an incident involving mistreatment of detainees.

I recall extremely little decision theory in class at West Point—just a little decision trees lite for a couple of days or so senior year. In the Army, you rarely make decisions. They are made by higher headquarters. “Yours is not to reason why. Yours is but to do or die.”

And what is the empirical evidence that West Pointers are good at making decisions? Their prime decision-making opportunities in the last 50 years were the Korean War, Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Not showcases of great decisions. Is there any evidence that West Pointers who get out of the Army rather than make a career of it make great decisions? That would be guys like Al Haig and Wes Clark. I am not aware of their reputations for great decisions.

Masochists

My high school classmates were proud of me for getting into West Point, which was apparently much harder to do in 1964 than now. They were glad for me because they knew how much I wanted to go there. But they thought all of us who went to West Point were nuts for putting up with the petty harassment and regulation of every aspect of our lives.

They were right. They all saw instinctively what it took me decades to figure out. Getting yelled at by junior and senior college students when you are a freshman college student does not make you a better combat leader or a better person. It’s just a stupid waste of time. As are making sure the bristles on your toothbrush are on the left side all four years that it is displayed in your locker and the thousand other anal-retentive regulations with which we had to comply.

At Harvard Business School, I took an excellent course called “Self-assessment and career development.” It ought to mandatory for all high school students. One requirement of it was that we take the Edwards Personal Preference Schedule test. I scored .667 out of 1.000 on it for masochism. I expect all West Point graduates would score similarly high in that category.

The so-called Fourth-Class System at West Point, (now called the “Four-Class System”—I roll my eyes) the rules about how freshmen have to salute upperclassman and jump through hoops for the uppers is now and always has been a total crock. It hurts the cadets and hurts West Point and the nation by dissuading quality young people who would have gone there from attending or remaining.

We see that in football in high schools where the head varsity coach runs a Bataan Death March program with extreme conditioning demands. His team is a little more fit at the beginning of the season than others, but many of his school’s best athletes are playing water polo or soccer instead of football because they did not want the brutal conditioning. For a century, many of the best West Point cadets have attended Stanford, MIT, and the Ivy League instead because of the Fourth Class System which adds nothing to either the education or leadership skills of the cadets and probably has a negative effect on them. I suspect it only continues at all because the old grads would raise hell if it were ended wholesale.

End it wholesale. It’s a stupid disgrace.

Pride through masochism

All elite military training courses—including West Point, airborne, and ranger—are primarily “pride through masochism” operations. That is, the training is set up to make the students miserable purely for the sake of being miserable. It is almost identical to banging your head against a wall—difficult, but worthless, if not harmful.

Starving new West Point cadets in Beast Barracks is an example. One of my classmates was caught eating the glue out of the binding of his Bible. Many others asked friends or relatives to send them food, which was illegal. Upperclassmen inspected all incoming mail to new cadets and made new cadets open suspicious packages in front of them. They would confiscate any edible contents. In Ranger School, one of my classmates lacerated his tongue trying to get the last bit of peanut butter out of a tin can with a jagged edge where he had opened it with our P-38 crude can openers.

The mind set is that anything that is difficult is good for you—builds character. You bang your head against a wall for eleven months at West Point as a plebe then you beat your chest about it for the rest of your life. “I beat my head against a wall for eleven months and you didn’t, therefore I am a better person than you.”

Or dumber.

Intelligent high standards

I am in favor of a modicum of high standards that are relevant to what the mission of West Point ought to be—to win our wars (So said Douglas MacArthur West Point class of 1903). The actual, official, stated mission is bullshit, namely,

To educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army

If you read it carefully, it promises nothing that can be measured the way winning wars can be measured. It sounds like some demagogue’s empty, but nice-sounding, campaign promises.

West Point should have extraordinary, but not beyond-the-point-of-diminishing-returns, standards for cadet health, physical fitness, work ethic, mastery of relevant military and academic skills and knowledge, and integrity and professional ethics. It should not have mindless tormenting of plebes or high standards for toothbrush alignment. Cadet rooms should be functional and efficient with regard to cleanliness and their uses as study, relaxation, and sleeping quarters. Cadets’ clothing and grooming should meet a reasonably high, but not extraordinarily high standard—sharp, not immaculate.

Demanding but not too demanding

The Goldilocks rule applies: not too much, not too little, but just right. West Point’s standards should be high, but not too high. As I said above, in football coaching, coaches that set overly high standards find that good players quit their team or refuse to try out for it to begin with. In business, CEOs who set overly high standards find that good people leave their company and the bad people who remain start falsifying reports to “meet” the high standards on paper if not in reality.

I even found the same thing in setting standards for myself. If I set my exercise or diet standards too high, I find myself making excuses to miss workouts and go completely off the diet—which makes me worse off than my prior moderately high standards. That problem stems from my setting the goal on paper away from the gym or restaurant. That’s how the people who run West Point operate. They need to set the standards in person with the cadets. For example, if they want them to get up early and run, the officers who think that’s a great idea need to do it themselves with the cadets. Same with setting the distance to be run. The time and place to decide to raise exercise standards is at the end of your final set in the gym. And the person to set the high standards needs to do himself that which he is demanding. If he sets the higher standards far from the gym, he is more likely to set them too high.

Overly high standards, which West Point probably has still in many ways, attract masochists and repel normal people. That is a bad thing.

Setting high standards in areas that are not important, like aligning one’s belt buckle with one’s fly or aligning shoes in prescribed, to-the-inch positions and sequence, is a waste of time and a deterrent to attracting and retaining the best people.

The REAL Father of the Military Academy: Friederich Nietzsche

West Point calls Sylvanus Thayer the Father of the Military Academy. German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche might be a better candidate. It was he who said,

What does not kill me, makes me stronger.

At West Point, the slightly altered philosophy appears to be,

Any damned pain in the ass to which we can subject the cadets makes them better combat leaders.

The Lucifer Effect

The place also seems to provide further support for Philip Zimbardo’s observation of the Lucifer Effect. That is the propensity of people to misbehave when they are given too much power over others.

Zimbardo did a famous experiment at Stanford University in which some summer students were made jailers of other students. It had to be called off early because the jailers became too sadistic. At West Point, a civilian college fad of the late Nineteenth Century, hazing freshmen, took hold and spun so far out of control that Congress held hearings about it around the turn of the Twentieth Century. Abu Grhaib has been cited as an additional example of that behavior pattern. After the Congressional hearings, West Point discipline got it generally under control, but the Lucifer effect is still evident, usually at a low level, but occasionally succumbing to mob psychology.

Football coaching

As a football coach and observer of other coaches including my son’s in college, I saw that the basic idea of taking responsibility for your actions—the West Point “no excuse, sir” routine—can be taught without the excesses of West Point.

The mother of a 10-year old player of mine once thanked me profusely for transforming her child into a responsible young man. Apparently it was our teaching the kids to take responsibility for failing to carry out their blocking assignments that did it. I did not have to make the kid memorize my beverage preferences or regulate his off-duty toothbrush position.

Similarly, my son got the good parts of West Point from his college football coaches including discipline and taking responsibility. When he and I would have breakfast on Sunday during the season, he would constantly be looking at his watch to make sure he was not late for team meetings—and he never was.

He arrived late at a class once. The instructor could tell from his appearance that he was a football player. At Columbia, you can tell the athletes from 50 yards away. I said that a California friend. Later he and I were at Columbia together and he said, “Son of a gun. You’re right about recognizing the athletes from 50 yards away. I thought you were exaggerating.” The college instrutor thought my son’s being late behavior was typical of college athletes, and demanded to know why he was late. “No excuse,” Dan said. The professor was astonished and impressed and became Dan’s best friend and biggest booster among the faculty. (Dan had learned “no excuse” from both me and his coaches.)

‘No pain, no gain’

The slogan “No pain, no gain” accurately describes increasing strength through resistance training. But West Point seems to have garbled that into, “Anything and everything that causes pain, annoyance, difficulty, or oppression builds character.” Bull!

West Point and the Army in general seem to have decided there is a corollary to that: All pain equals gain.

There is not. All pain does not equal gain. West Point and the military in general need to pull their heads out of their asses on that score. If they doubt me, they should do a rigorous study to find the answer. I will not hold my breath waiting for such hidebound, in-bred organizations to investigate their own assumptions.

West Point shines only in time of war

One valid point that a classmate said to me about this article is that West Pointers may not shine as well as they could because many devote their lives to the military and national defense. Wars are infrequent and led at the top by civilians who did not go to West Point. So it is not surprising that many West Pointers who are great leaders are not known to the public because they spend most of their careers like highly trained firemen waiting for fires that rarely happen. When the fires do happen, they cannot be any better than the strategies they are required to implement by their civilian leaders. Indeed, the infrequency of wars may be a testament to the deterrent value of West Pointers in the military.

All true. But it’s also what I call the Mother Theresa defense. Career Army officers are nowadays fond of describing themselves as living a life of “selfless service.” Actually, I spent eight years with those guys. I would characterize them as government employees who are extremely aware of and who zealously protect their pay, position, benefits, and other perks. See my article on the validity of the military’s work-hard-play-hard ethos. Generally, career military officers are resigned-to-their-fate, downtrodden bureaucrats who stay in the Army because they do not think they could do better in the civilian marketplace or they are careerists who are taking care of number 1. I never saw anyone you would mistake for Mother Theresa in the military. They love their “gentlemen’s courses” and their golf courses and leaving early on Fridays and their aides and drivers and oversized houses for the top brass and many other trappings of power.

I think the “selfless service” phrase is something career military people use to think better about the life they have ended up in. It’s like low-income people telling each other than at least they are not greedy and selfish like the rich.

Also, top-notch military men need not stay on active duty for decades to help America in time of war. They can remain in the reserves or get out then offer their services when war occurs. Most of the men who served in World Wars I and II and who won those wars were not career military. They were like volunteer firemen who put down their civilian workmen’s tools and pick up fire hoses and ladders for the duration of the fire then they go back to their civilian jobs.

If you had it to do over, would you go to West Point?

Hell, no!

No one ever wanted to go to West Point more than I did. There may have been others who wanted to go as much as I did, but no one ever wanted to go more than I did. Among other things, I read all of Col. Red Reeder’s “Clint Lane” books about West Point. There was a memorable line in his book about senior year. Just after the graduation ceremony, a graduating senior said to a classmate,

I wouldn’t trade it for a million dollars but neither would I go through it again for a million dollars.

I thought that was a stupid, contradictory statement that made no sense when I read it in high school. Then, on June 5, 1968, I was standing in Michie Stadium after my graduation ceremonies saying the exact same thing and understanding it perfectly.

West Point is sort of like root canal. You are glad you had it done, but you are also glad it’s over. But that doesn’t mean you should want root canal. Better you never need it.

Are you glad you went to West Point?

Yes and no. Read the above article.

Did you like West Point?

It’s not trying to be liked. We had some good times there, but they were more in spite of West Point than because of it.

Did you encourage your sons to go to West Point?

Au contraire. I told them no way did I want them to go to any service academy or even to enter the military except as draftees. My middle son got some solicitations from West Point for reasons unknown to us.

When I broached the subject when they were in high school to make sure, they said, “Don’t worry, Dad. After all the stories you’ve told us, none of has the slightest interest in going there.”

The stories were not intended to discourage them from going. They were just regular West Point stories, for example, about the time I was the only guy in a parade in second regiment to start doing order arms when the first regimental commander gave that order. I was on the front rank of the old-style, two-rank, squads-drill formation in a full-dress parade on the Plain, and I was a plebe. I thought it was a funny story—after I got my ass chewed by the company commander in his room. My sons heard it as a scary story and a cautionary tale.

Were the benefits of going to West Point worth the ordeal and risk of it?

Absolutely not. See above.

The principal of a high school where I coached football and volleyball was interviewing my son to see if he could attend there as an interdistrict transfer. He did. During the interview he asked if Dan was going to go to West Point after high school. I chimed in, “No. It’s too much of an ordeal for the benefits.” He responded that his first teaching job after college had been at a military high school and he came to that exact same conclusion: some benefits from the military academy setting, but not enough to justify the ordeal of it.

What about your other alma mater? Would you recommend your sons and other people go there?

Absolutely! Almost everyone should go there (if they could get in, which is extremely difficult nowadays). The Harvard MBA education would help you succeed big time at almost every career you could choose. The author of the book The Gospel According to Harvard Business School, Peter Cohen, described the education you get there as “advanced common sense.” I would characterize it as “very advanced common sense.” Roughly speaking, Harvard Business School really accomplishes what West Point claims to do, but, in fact, fails to do: produce leaders.

Below, I will answer the same questions with regard to Harvard Business School as I answered above about West Point to contrast the two and to show that I am not one of those guys who finds great fault with everything and who would have similar complaints about Harvard.

Did I benefit from Harvard Business School? Greatly.

Did I benefit from the classroom education there? Absolutely. Greatest academic experience of my life by far.

Did I benefit from honor training there? They teach only by case method and Socratic method. When we had an honor type case, I was one of those in the classroom urging the ethical approach. So my role was less that of a student than an advocate.

Did I benefit from the physical training at Harvard? There was none. I played some intramural sports, squash (à la Love Story Harvard College and Law School grad “Oliver Barrett IV”), and jogged along the Charles River.

Changed my life

Did I benefit from the military training at Harvard? There was none. But military training at West Point mainly takes place in the summer. For my summer between the two years at Harvard, I got a summer job through the Harvard placement office. It was writing articles for a brand new newsletter on real estate investment. Like the summer internship I did with the 101st Airborne Division in the middle of my time at West Point—the one that totally changed my mind about a career in the military—that summer job as a writer changed my life. I became a full-time writer as a result of it.

I also had another experience at Harvard that changed my life. My belief was that I needed to spend my life in the South Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia from whence I had come because I knew the market and had many friends and acquaintances there, not to mention owning twenty units of rental housing there.

Then, one day at Harvard, I attended an optional after-school lecture by the head of Universal Studios. He prefaced his remarks by urging any of us who were interested in the entertainment industry to talk to him after his lecture. He said they were extremely eager to have us come work for them. I was not interested in Hollywood, but the comment caused me to realize, as I immediately told my wife, “Going back to South Jersey after Harvard would be anti-climatic. With these degrees (she had also been accepted by Harvard Business School by then), we can go anywhere in the world, and we should.”

A month or two later, during the summer of 1976, we drove around the U.S. looking for the best place to live and decided it was the San Francisco Bay Area. Indeed, the San Francisco area has been our home since I graduated from Harvard in 1977. And we love the Bay Area more than ever now. Our oldest son who went to Columbia University in Manhattan skipped all the recruiters there his senior year because he wanted to return to the Bay Area.

Comically, shortly after I graduated from Harvard, I received a questionnaire from my West Point class before our tenth reunion. One of the questions it asked was, “Where do you hope to be assigned next?” Apparently, a classmate who was still in the military designed the questionnaire. At that time, the Presidio of San Francisco was almost every active-duty military officer’s first choice Army base, which they indicated on a periodic request form to the Pentagon called a “dream sheet.” Even if you were one of the rare guys to get assigned to the Presidio, you could only stay there for three years. My answer to the question was:

Where do you hope to be assigned next?: Wherever I damn well please. San Francisco at present and until I get tired of it.

I still live in the San Francisco Bay Area 31 years later. I haven’t got tired of it. Call it, “Living the dream sheet.”

If I had it to do over, would I go to Harvard Business School? Absolutely, only sooner. I was 29 when I started there.

Am I glad I went to Harvard? Absolutely.

Did you like Harvard? Loved it.

Did I encourage my sons to go to Harvard? Absolutely.

Were the benefits of going to Harvard worth the ordeal and risk of it? Absolutely. By the way, Harvard Business School is also an extreme ordeal, albeit an academic one rather than a chickenshit one like West Point. Our routine was to watch 60 Minutes from 7 to 8 PM Sunday nights then hurl ourselves into the heavy study time required. By Friday after noon, the whole class was giddy from the week of hard study and ferocious gladiatorial debate in class and leaning toward the weekend respite from the academic pressure cooker. Also, going to Harvard Business School is a risk in that it takes you out of the game for two years and costs a lot of money both in tuition/room/board as well as lost salary income.

Once again, I think the best test is to peruse the alumni registers of the post-graduation biographies of the graduates of West Point and Harvard Business School. If they did that, I suspect that even the most rabid, gray hog, West Point graduates would be reduced to saying something along the lines of “Damn! These Harvard MBAs are unbelievable! And I was surprised and disappointed by the bios in the West Point Register of Graduates.”

No mention of West Point

Something new and interesting happened to me in the second week of January, 2009. ESPN the Magazine quoted me (in a 1/26/09 article about NFL clock management). Being quoted was not new. When you are a writer, that happens all the time. But they identified me as “John T. Reed, Harvard MBA.” No mention of West Point. They knew about both. The writer read my book on Football Clock Management which listed both West Point and Harvard in my about-the-author blurb. The subject of where I went to college or grad school never came up in the interview. In the past, the writer either would have mentioned both, and if there was only room for one, they would have used West Point, not Harvard MBA.

The propensity of journalists to mention West Point in unrelated new stories is telling. When “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap was ascending in the business world, journalists always mentioned that he was a West Point graduate (Class of ’60). But when he fell, they generally stopped mentioning his West Point background. For example, see the following negative story about him: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1316/is_11_31/ai_57625666. It makes no mention of West Point, the same West Point that was almost never left out of the ascending stories.

Why? I surmise that the journalists respect West Point.

What was odd in ESPN was they apparently needed to use only one of my degrees and they chose the Harvard MBA. I doubt they would have made the decision the same way 20 years ago. Back then, they would have known that West Point was a renowned engineering school and a producer of famed military officers. War and football are often seen as similar. Back then, a Harvard MBA was seen as very well-trained businessperson.

Now, my sense is that the reputation of West Point has faded because of its perennially hapless football team and our inability win wars like we did in the 1940s. Few generals have become famous recently, and when they did, like Schwarzkopf and Petraeus, it was for much lesser accomplishments than winning World War II.

I also sense that West Point’s academic reputation has faded. All the students still have to minor in engineering according to a more recent grad than me. The Harvard MBA, on the other hand, has taken on mythical status. It has become a generic noun for extremely aggressive, smooth, top business executives. Currently prominent holders of the Harvard MBA include President George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Michael Bloomberg, etc. In the original version of the fictional movie The Thomas Crown Affair, Crown was depicted as being a Harvard MBA.

One robin does not a spring make, but ESPN’s use of my Harvard MBA rather than my West Point degree to buttress their point that I was an expert on Football Clock Management is probably a telling indication of a relative fading of the “West Point brand”—an ironic bit of Harvard MBA-ese that they have recently started using at West Point. Harvard Business School is often described as the “West Point of American Business,” including in a December, 2008 CNN documentary about HBS. Describing HBS that way is another manifestation of the previous higher regard for West Point than Harvard Business School. I suspect that a Nexis search of the phrase “West Point of American Business” would reveal that its use has diminished in recent years. HBS is now its own brand, a brand which is probably stronger at present than the West Point brand.

What about the fact that every other West Point grad says it’s the greatest thing in their lives, the world’s greatest education, etc., etc.?

First, you have to wonder how objective they can be. (One cadet who contacted me about whether he should stay there said it was because he found the military pages of my Web site to be more “objective” than any other grad he had talked to.)

The typical West Point grad has his identity and self-esteem tangled up with West Point to a large extent—more so than the vast majority of civilian college graduates. So a question about West Point is regarded as a question about him and he will tell you that he is a great guy indirectly by claiming that West Point is a great college.

Secondly, for the same reasons, West Point grads regard any criticism of West Point to be an attack on them personally and a full retaliatory response will ensue.

Thirdly, many West Point grads have been bragging about graduating from the place and extolling its alleged virtues and would lose face if they stopped and reflected on it more objectively and had to admit to friends and relatives—and to themselves—they had been overstating all these years.

Effort justification

To say anything else, they have to admit they made a big mistake. I admit it. Most people are unable to admit mistakes, especially big ones. This is caused by a well-known psychological pattern known as “effort justification.” Wikipedia defines that at length, but here are a couple of statements from the beginning of their article.

Effort justification is people's tendency to attribute a greater value (greater than the objective value) to an outcome they had to put effort into acquiring or achieving. ...there is a dissonance between the amount of effort exerted into achieving a goal or completing a task (high effort – high "cost") and the subjective reward for that effort (lower than was expected for such an effort). By adjusting and increasing one's attitude or subjective value..., this dissonance is resolved.

This theory is clearly implicated in the effect of rites of passage and hazing rituals on group solidarity and loyalty. The hazing rituals, prevalent in military units, sports teams and academic fraternities and sororities, often include demanding and/or humiliating tasks which lead (according to dissonance theory) the new member to increase the subjective value of the group. This contributes to his/her loyalty and to the solidarity of the entire group.

As with all my writings, I try to provide facts and logic rather than just opinion. You should demand the same of any West Pointer who disagrees with my analysis. And I remind you that the second paragraph of Part 1 of this article urges you to talk to other West Pointers to get other perspectives.

Usually, all you’ll get from them if you demand proof is a recitation of the names of dead generals who were born in the 1700s and 1800s and recitations of the extra stuff cadets do above and beyond what civilian college kids do. That’s the theory of why West Pointers ought to be better, but still conspicuous by its absence is any evidence that they are better.

Intellectually-dishonest debate tactics

I was briefly part of the debate team at West Point. I believe that’s how I got to know one-time presidential candidate Wes Clark. He was two years ahead of me and sat at the same debate table in the mess hall as I recall.

I learned there or elsewhere that there are only two honest debate tactics: pointing out an error or omission in the opponent’s facts or logic. All the other debate tactics are intellectually dishonest. If a West Point grad or someone else says part of the analysis in this article is incorrect, insist that they point out the erroneous or omitted facts or logic. Do not let them get away with an intellectually-dishonest argument. You can see my article on intellectually-dishonest debate tactics and links to other such articles at www.johntreed.com/debate.html. There is also a sort of debate between me and a West Point grad at www.johntreed.com/beknowdo.html. and between me and a non-grad colonel at www.johntreed.com/Petraeus.html.

Process orientation versus results orientation

I attended a Founder’s Day dinner in Oakland, CA in March, 2007. Founders Day, March 16, is the date West Point was founded by George Washington. West Pointers gather around the world every year in March to celebrate the institution, its ideals, and history.

The speaker, Col. Michael Meese, a West Point academic department head, talked a great game about all the stuff they are doing at West Point to prepare the cadets to lead men to victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. A visitor from Mars would have wondered how we could not have won the wars there in six months.

But I could sense some bristling in the audience about the lack of results in those current wars. One guy asked exactly what the U.S. mission was in Iraq. Meese said something to the effect that we did not have one. The Iraqis had the mission. We were just there to support them accomplishing their mission. That seemed to satisfy exactly no one in the room.

I had some thoughts, but thought they were inappropriate to share in that setting at an event celebrating the ideals of the Academy. I’ll share them here.

‘But can they win?’

In the 1967 movie Dirty Dozen, a criminal enlisted man dresses up like a general for some reason I forget. At one point, in that role, he has to inspect a regular Army unit standing at attention in parade formation. While his criminal buddies nearby smirk and laugh, he does a pitch-perfect imitation of the typical pompous-ass brass hat.

“Where you from, son?

and this classic line to the commander of the unit being inspected at the end of the inspection:

“Very pretty, colonel, but can they fight?”

A similar question came to me as Meese was speaking.

“Very impressive, colonel, but can they win an asymmetrical war?”

Superintendent Huntoon 2011 Founders Day

I attended the same annual meeting in 2011, only the speaker was West Point Superintendent General Huntoon. The supe is the CEO of West Point.

I could sum up his talk with one word: nice. The cadets are nice. Hundreds of them ran in a charity run in New York City on their day off. The professors are nice. They are doing all sorts of things to make West Point better like sending one of their law professors to Afghanistan to mentor the dozen or so female Afghan officer trainees there. They have dozens of foreign students at West Point now. That’s nice. (We had two.)

The only results Huntoon spoke of were some Army-Navy victories (76% of all the sports the two compete in last year) and various athletic championships and Academic All-American Honors and Rhodes Scholarships Army had recently won.

He also said the incoming class of 2015 is arguably the best ever in terms of test scores, GPA, honors won during high school. That is a result of their recruiting, and probably a result of being named the best college in America by Forbes magazine. But that particular result is not a measure of the value added—a phrase Huntoon appropriately used in other contexts—by West Point training.

But nice is not the goal. The job of West Point is to win our wars. We have not won one since 1945. To paraphrase Obama, Huntoon needs to focus laserlike on winning our wars. His talks need to be about war winning. Like Meese, he was all about process. His talk was a laundry list of things West Point is doing that ought to make cadets better “leaders of character.” That’s process, not results.

As a sports coach and an entrepreneur, I almost never talk about such vague, fuzzy concepts. Sure, in the parent meeting I explain to parents that sports are very good experiences to learn how to be a more successful adult. But about 99% of what comes out of my mouth as a coach during a pre-season and season involves telling players and parents what we need to do to win or make first string and incessant corrections, use of video of the last game to show players what they did right and wrong, use of video of the upcoming opponent to point out that team’s weaknesses and strengths so we can stop their strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses.

Similarly, my entrepreneurial activities and my books on coaching and business are full of rock solid, practical, meat-and-potatoes best practices for getting the particular job done. I have zillions of testimonials about the effectiveness of the best practices in my books.

I do not claim to be a genius. But I am drawing a contrast between the process-oriented world of a lifelong government bureaucrat like Huntoon and the results-oriented world of a typical high school or youth coach or an entrepreneur. In my world, West Point would be regarded as a severe turnaround situation because of not having won a war—its reason for existing—in 65 years. I heard no such sense of urgency from either Meese or Huntoon. They act like they have all the time in the world and may not even be making any progress at all toward winning our wars.

Truth to tell, Huntoon has been a government bureaucrat since he was 17 or 18. He knows nothing else. His superiors know nothing else, and they will tell this same nice story about what a great job they are doing for as long as we let them, ad infinitum, in this Afghan war which is already the longest in our history. As I said in another of my articles, “Career military people think they are conservative. They are liberal.” liberals believe good intentions are a 100% substitute for results and they will point to even the slightest improvement, even if there is no net improvement overall, to prove they are doing a great job. Because of their lifelong immersion in bureaucracy, they have never seen a great job and would not recognize one if they did see it.

The main thing that stirred me up at the 2011 Founders Day was the guy sitting next to me at the next table: the Supes aide. I will talk about that elsewhere in this article where I discuss how the Army utilizes West Point graduate, or more accurately, fails to utilize them. Search in your browser or the word “aide” in this article to find it.

1946

I also contrasted in my mind the difference between Meese’s talk in 2007 and what similar Founder’s Day talks must have sounded like in 1946.

In 1946, I expect the speaker from West Point focused on the results his graduates had achieved in the just-ended World War II: the number of enemy wounded, killed, and captured; the number of square miles and populations of territory liberated; the quantities of enemy equipment, materiel, and infrastructure captured or destroyed; the victories and successful occupations achieved; the alliances built and maintained during the 3-year-and-eight-month-long war.

In 2007, after an Afghan war that began six years ago and an Iraq war that began four years ago, the West Point representative had NO West Point graduate results of which to brag. He was forced to speak only of how the cadets were being prepared to achieve results in the future. In the business world, we call that hockey stick optimism. That comes from the shape of the graph that shows stuff not going so well now or in the recent past but that projects a rapid climb in the near future. The graph looks like a hockey stick lying down with its slapping surface pointing upward at the right side.

Process orientation

Meese’s talk was about nothing but process. Bureaucrats are process-oriented. I wrote another Web article about that at www.johntreed.com/process.html.

I spent about five years of my adult life with the process-oriented people as an Army officer and at Crocker National Bank in San Francisco. But I have been an entrepreneur, real estate agent, coach, and in other strictly results-oriented occupations and avocations for the other 35 years of my adult life.

Results-oriented people do A to achieve the desired result. If A doesn’t work they go to plan B. If that doesn’t work, plan C, and so forth. Classic entrepreneur Thomas Edison was famous for trying thousands of ways to do something until he found the right one.

In contrast, a process-oriented person will do plan A forever, regardless of whether it works or not. We would still be in Vietnam doing the same ineffective stuff if it had been left entirely to the West Point-educated commanders like Westmoreland and Abrams.

When a truck breaks down, a results-oriented person will do whatever it takes to get it working again. A process-oriented person, like the typical military bureaucrat, will fill out his requisition in quintuplicate, turn it in, and say, “I did my job. If the truck’s not working, it’s someone else’s fault.” Military people make the same sort of statements about our failure to win in Vietnam. We military guys did a great job. It was someone else’s job to win.

If we had won that war, there would be statues all over West Point of the grads in charge. At West Point now, victory is a thousand statues; defeat is the politicians’ fault. All of which is in ironic contrast to the first words spoken to me when I entered West Point.

Mister, from now on you have three answers: yes sir, no sir, and no excuse, sir.

I guess the current plebes have 17 answers, one of which is, “The civilian political leaders wouldn’t let us win, sir.”

If that’s true, West Point grads needed to say it privately to their superiors while they were in the Army, and resign in protest and speak out publicly if the civilian leaders wouldn’t listen. For example, Major General James Gavin, the youngest major general since the Civil War, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II, West Point Class of ’29, retired in protest at age 51 and wrote a book (War and Peace in the Space Age) detailing why. See my article on the key failure to do that in Vietnam at www.johntreed.com/Johnson.html.

Silently leading 58,000 men to their deaths in Vietnam, and 6,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan, because of wrong-headed strategies and tactics dictated by incompetent military and civilian leaders is profoundly immoral and serves neither duty nor honor nor country. It only serves career.

Sylvanus Thayer’s Plan A

An early West Point graduate and later West Point superintendent named Sylvanus Thayer wrote West Point’s “Plan A” in the early 1800s. He is regarded as the “Father of the Military Academy.” But here we are in 2009, fighting asymmetrical wars against terrorists in civilian clothes instead of guys who wear uniforms and separate themselves from civilians, yet West Point is still on Plan A. Why? They are process-oriented bureaucrats rather than results-oriented entrepreneurs.

West Point has produced results-oriented people like Grant, Patton, and MacArthur. But its modal (not model) graduate/career officer is the bureaucrat-politician like Eisenhower.

The people who run West Point, almost all grads of it, will continue to talk a good game and look the part until the end of time if they are allowed to. To them, the goal is preserving the place, as if it were some sort of Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village.

In fact, the implicit goal of all the extraordinary training and expense that is lavished on the cadets is extraordinary performance by its graduates. If the extraordinary performance is not there, you have to go to Plan B. If adequate performance is not there in the place’s main mission—winning current wars—then you’d damn well better go to Plan C and D and so on, fast. Where there ought to be a sense of high urgency to fix the lack of performance that matches the hype at West Point, there seems to be not even any admission that there is anything wrong with Plan A!

The Father of the Military Academy, Sylvanus Thayer, did a hell of a job for the era of what British General Rupert Smith calls “industrial wars.” But that ended in 1945. The Military Academy now needs a new father for the era of what Smith calls “wars amongst the people.”

Inmates running the asylum

When I was a cadet, the inmates had little to say in the running of the West Point asylum. I sense that many of the changes that have occurred at West Point since my graduation in 1968 were not made by experienced gray beards trying to improve the national defense. Rather, they were made by high school kids who desires were accommodated by the people who run West Point in order to avoid losing prospective students to Annapolis or the Air Force Academy or to civilian colleges.

For example, when I was there, we could not select our courses except for one course per semester junior and senior year—four courses total. We had no major, not even military science which many of us thought was our major.

Who cares? I said in my Succeeding book, when you ask a mature adult what he or she majored in in college, they laugh before they answer. Sylvanus Thayer was not interested in what subject students wanted to major in. West Point probably should not be either from the standpoint of national defense. They’re high school kids for chrissake. They, too, will be laughing about their majors twenty years from now. But apparently prospective cadets were telling West Point that they decided to go to Navy or Air Force or UCLA or wherever so they could pick their major so West Point had to change to avoid losing them.

Offering majors is very inefficient. It requires far more instructors per 100 cadets than our curriculum did. It also ends something I thought was attractive about West Point. We had a solidarity with graduates from decades before because of the relatively unchanging curriculum. We also had a solidarity with our classmates. None of the poets-versus-engineers conflict they have at civilian colleges. Now West Point has poets and engineers, too.

They have also backed off on the military demands. I am not opposed to that per se and I have said so elsewhere. But at one level, those things are what distinguishes West Point from civilian colleges and, to a lesser extent, from Annapolis and Air Force. If cadet life is going to be much more like civilian college life, please explain to me why West Point still exists. If the civilian approach is the correct one to the point that we are increasingly imitating it, why not just get all the officers from civilian ROTC programs? Again, I do not think the civilianization of West Point was done to improve the national defense. It was done for marketing reasons to give civilian high school kids what they want. This is another example of the asylum being run by the inmates or—actually, the prospective inmates.

There is marketing logic to doing this. There is also the argument that what good is West Point if it cannot attract good students. All true. But what is the definition of West Point? Is it just a geographic location and it matters not what happens there as long as they retain the motto, crest, and vestiges of the gray uniforms? Or is there a tipping point where accommodating the tastes of civilian high school students, regardless of the advisability of such changes for defending the nation, needs to stop. Is it possible that what the high school students are saying is that they are really not interested in attending a West Point that still retains the essence of what West Point was about?

Most likely, the truth is there are sill good kids who want to go to a real West Point, but not as many of them as in the past. Instead of making filling all the barracks rooms at West Point the guiding principle for admission standards and decisions about how to run the place, West Point should decide, “This is what we are. We will change to remain up-to-date technologically. We will accommodate changing generational personal tastes where it does not interfere with accomplishing our mission. But if the number of acceptable applicants falls below the number of barracks rooms, we will simply close those rooms and go with the new cadets who show up.” Letting the number of barracks rooms and budget amount force decisions about standards and majors and military discipline and all that is letting the high-school-kid-taste tail wag the national-defense-college dog. West Point should not be an infinitely elastic marketing package whose sole purpose is to perpetuate itself.

The marginally motivated have the most influence

When you think about it, changing West Point to make it more attractive to prospective cadets really caters to those least motivated to go to West Point—swing voters—and ignores those most motivated. How so? The most motivated are going to go to West Point regardless of whether it changes. Only the marginally motivated to go to West Point will have their minds changed by West Point bending itself to be more attractive to those on the fence.

It is reminiscent of the charge that is made that the Democrat party ignores blacks because they vote for the Democrats in such high percentages that they can be taken for granted. Both parties ignore their base to an extent and cater to the undecided and the moderates. The same dynamic appears to be persuading West Point to change to be attractive to those who are least motivated to go to West Point.

There is also the danger that such changes to attract the least motivated may reach a tipping point at which time the most motivated to go to West Point will conclude that West Point no longer is sufficiently, well, West Point, to warrant their attendance. It reminds me of one of the biggest marketing mistakes of all time: Coca Cola’s changing the recipe for Coke to a sweeter version called New Coke. There was such an uproar from Coke drinkers that Coke was forced to reintroduce what they called Coke Classic. I suspect that some young prospects who want to go to West Point—the most motivated ones—prefer West Point Classic to New West Point Lite.

Outsiders running the Military Academy

In addition to the teenage inmates changing West Point, outsiders who do not have the national defense as their focus are also forcing changes.

Women began entering service academies in 1976. This did not happen because wise graybeards thought the national defense required it. It was done to appease squeaky-wheel feminists.

The fact that women were admitted to service academies for the wrong reasons does not necessarily mean it was the wrong decision. Was it the right decision? I don’t know. Maybe there should be more of them there. Answering that question would take a detailed, honest study looking at the quality of the Corps of Cadets and graduates before and after, the career trajectories of the graduates, etc. Will there be such a study? Never. Why not? It is politically incorrect. Merely initiating such a study would imply that perhaps women should not be at the service academies. The advocates of women at the academies do not want to know whether it has been a good thing for the national defense because they fear it has not and their agenda is advancing women’s rights, not national defense.

I can see some issues that one would wonder about?

Whom do female cadets form romantic relationships with compared to whom they would date if they went to a normal civilian college? I would expect they have trouble meeting, forming romantic relationships with, and marrying non-cadets. That was, by definition, not the case before women were admitted.

When colleges like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton went co-ed, there was huge pent-up demand among women to attend those schools. I would be astonished if the GPAs and SAT scores and other admission data at those colleges did not increase significantly as a result of their admitting women. But I never sensed there was any great pent-up demand among high school girls to attend West Point. It’s a bit weird for a guy to go there. It is really weird for a girl to go there. So what is the profile of the women at West Point compared to, say, those at Princeton? Are those the women who best serve the national defense?

Before women, West Point was a very macho place. I knew it was all men when I went there but I remember thinking while I was a cadet that the place was far more masculine than I dreamed possible before I got there. One assumes that is no longer the case. Is that a good thing for a bunch of people who are nowadays fond of calling themselves “warriors?” To be sure, much of machismo is dysfunctional and immature bravado in many life situations. But war may not be one of them. After all, it was the very non-macho Eleanor Roosevelt who said,

The Marines I have seen around the world have the cleanest bodies, the filthiest minds, the highest morale, the lowest morals of any group of animals I have ever seen. Thank God for the United States Marine Corps.

West Point cadets in the 1960s were more gentlemanly than that, but also fond of profanity and extremely eager for female companionship.

I expect that the admission of women reduced the attraction of the place to many young men who liked the manhood-affirmation aspect of the old men-only school. Where would one go now for that? Perhaps a Division III college where they could be on the football team? Or military organizations that are still all male like Marine basic training or Army Ranger School.

Similarly in the other direction, I would expect that women at West Point would find maintaining normal femininity was sort of against the wind. I also would expect that they might have trouble attracting non-West Point males because of the macho image of the place and some of the actual training. For example, a civilian college guy in a relationship with a female cadet might be teased that she could defeat him in a fight. Because of hand-to-hand combat training at West Point, she probably could. She might be able to literally kill him with her bare hands. I would also expect that few civilian college men would find the prospect of being married to a career military officer attractive from a frequent moves, assignments to rural areas, separation from the family standpoint.

To state it succinctly, West Point was a fouled up place with regard to relations between the sexes before women were admitted and now it is still fouled up, but in a very different, probably not better, way.

U.S. News & World Report

I cannot see the specifics to point to, but I have a strong sense that the U.S. News & World Report ratings of colleges and grad schools exert far too much influence on all U.S. colleges and grad schools including my other alma mater Harvard Business School. I expect an investigation would find that some of the changes made at West Point in recent decades were not to enhance the national defense, but rather were to enhance West Point’s image in U.S. News and the other periodicals that rate colleges. U.S. News and the rest have no right or standing to play such a role. My impression is that HBS has resisted being pushed into changes by U.S. News. But I also suspect that HBS and other schools have been unfairly hurt, and prospective students have been led astray, by the dishonest and/or incompetent periodical ratings.

When I first wrote for a real estate investment newsletter, the owners complained that it was not profitable. Yet I would go to real estate conventions where those who spotted my affiliation with the newsletter on my name badge would warmly greet me and praise the newsletter to the heavens. I finally said to the owners, “I think we have a profitable 20,000-subscriber newsletter hidden inside an unprofitable 50,000 subscriber newsletter. If you guys would stop spending millions of dollars a year trying to jack the number of subscribers so high, and let it settle down to its natural level—which is probably around 20,000—it would be quite profitable.” They never listened.

So I started my own newsletter in 1986. It has always been profitable and is still perking along at age 24.

I suspect West Point is making the same mistake. They should have some standards that are unchanging. I heard that during the 1970s, they had trouble filling classes. In the early 60s when I entered, West Point was one of the most selective colleges in the nation. There were only 2,512 cadets then. Now, there are about 4,400. What happened was that the Vietnam war was extremely unpopular, and therefore, the military was extremely unpopular.

It seems to me that West Point ought to have constant student standards and let the enrollment rise and fall according to their ability attract students that meet those standards. Instead, they fill the exact same number of slots every year and let the standards go up and down instead of the room occupancy. I surmise they do that because they are trying to hide the relative unattractiveness of the Academy at times—sometimes for long periods.

There is also the issue of who are the standards set for: to make West Point look good in the U.S. News ratings or to attract the kind of men and women who would make good officers. As I said elsewhere in this article, I think the West Point cadets of my era were overqualified for the job of Army officer. The top standard ought to be lower to match the job of Army officer to the incoming cadets. Maybe they should even reject extremely top notch students because they are unlikely to remain in the Army or succeed there—if that’s what the historical experience reveals. Many wise employers reject both the top and bottom of the applicant pools. That would reduce the career attrition rate which would be a very good thing.

At the same time, they should raise the minimum standards so that they are not bringing in cadets who are not good enough—just to fill seats. By spending less time pursuing the academic blue-chip recruits, they could get more of the type they actually need and are more likely to attract. By setting good minimum standards and sticking to them in the lean years when the Military Academy is not a popular choice of high school graduates, they can keep West Point true to its essence and most attractive to those they should most be trying to attract.

Character building

When we were cadets, we constantly assured ourselves that we were going to be much better off than our civilian peers because of all the character building we were getting. How else could you endure such an experience? When you tell yourself that for a year or more at West Point—and big name speaker after big-name speakers tells you how honored he is to be speaking to the “cream of the crop” of America’s young men—you come to believe your own bullshit. It is an occupational hazard of spending four years at a place that beats its own chest daily about how great it is.

Then there is the notion that we could not possibly have done all that extra stuff that civilian college kids did not without benefiting greatly. How could we not have benefited, they think. I cannot see the benefit in any concrete, hard-evidence form.

When I get into an argument with grads about the value of West Point they are usually reduced to spouting fuzzy-wuzzy, abstract, spiritual benefits that are unmeasurable and maybe non-existent.

When you encounter such a grad, let him say his speech about character building and recite the names of the famous grads who were born in the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Centuries. Then, when he catches a breath, ask for the hard evidence of the current value of the place. In what way have West Point graduates outperformed non-West Point graduates as a result of their extra training in the last sixty years?

He will ask in accusatory tone, “What’s your criterion?” thereby seemingly putting the monkey on your back. They always do.

Then you calmly say, “Take your pick. As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no area of human endeavor where West Pointers out-perform non-West Pointer college grads over the long term.”

They usually sputter and storm off at that point, but you should at least give them a chance to come up with some hard evidence. If West Point is as great as they say, there has to be some concrete manifestation of it somewhere in terms of the results the graduates achieve. If there’s not, what’s it all about, Alfie?

Letters from a ninth grader who wanted to go to West Point

I got an email from a ninth grader who has long wanted to go to West Point. (I recently coached four ninth grade high school football teams and wrote a book about it so I am quite familiar with that age.) He came across this article and it caused him to reconsider his long-time desire to go to West Point and be an Army officer.

After an exchange of emails, and reading my other articles at this Web site about the military, he appears to have changed his mind about a military career and West Point. He said his parents have been trying their best to talk him out of the military for many years, but that I did it with just a couple of articles. (My wife says they owe us a dinner.)

Lifelong ambition to go to West Point

The young man said he has wanted to go to West Point and become one of the elite officers for years. I said that his image of the military sounded Hollywoodish and that he needed to get a more accurate fix on what it is really like to be an Army officer before he committed. I suggested that he try to shadow an active-duty Army officer for a day or two at a U.S. Army base. I also suggested that he find some other West Point grads who got out after their minimum commitment and get their perspective.

He said he was an independent guy who was an outside-the-box thinker. I said that if that was correct, the last damn place he should go is to the military. He protested that an Army unit he was aware of claimed that’s what they wanted. I said that was total bull and again urged him to investigate further. To that point, his investigation seemed to consist of reading the West Point Web site and other Web sites about the military—official and not official—and watching depictions of the military in movies and on TV. Nowhere near enough I told him.

He said he had been drawing his own imaginary special forces “OpPlans.” I urged him to become a football coach where you actually do that and execute it and find out whether your plan and your execution were good enough to win the game once a week.

Entrepreneur better

With regard to his independent, outside-the-box thinking, I said those were characteristics of an entrepreneur and urged him to consider that career.

Other outlets for things military

With regard to his love of the military, I urged him to become a military buff—perhaps a professional one like author Tom Clancy; or the various non-veteran military experts and professors who appear on the Military Channel or the History Channel; or a think tank military expert; a military museum curator; military historian like Stephen Ambrose, Gordon Prange, or Cornelius Ryan; or military archeologist; or an instructor employee of a civilian company that runs a military-type activity like Outward Bound. You don’t have to deposit yourself into the belly of a Kafkaesque bureaucratic beast to spend your days on things military—indeed, going into the military is paradoxically a way to spend your days on things bureaucratic, not things military. To put it another way, if you love things military, stay far away from THE military.

Here are some quotes from the ninth grader’s emails to me [my comments in red].

This is one of the reasons I enjoyed your piece so much.  You have been on both sides of the so called “crème-de-la-crème,” the Army, and the traditional paths of education.  It has really made me question some of the slogans and catch phrases that seem so courageous and patriotic on the West Point Web site.  I appreciated the way you shared real life lessons, and struggles.  I also was very impressed by the way you systematically broke down some of the perceptions and misconceptions about West Point, and life after West Point.  What you did was not a bitter rant like I’m sure some of your one-time superiors would have categorized it.  It was a simple look at the facts.  I enjoyed your direct and honest approach to writing and most of all your seeming objectivity... [seeming?]

...the military, which has been one of my favorite subjects since I was 5).  I mean, I’m talking about the kid who thinking up imaginary Op-plans for his imaginary team of Green Berets when he was nine... [me too roughly speaking]

I’m very conflicted when thinking about my future, and have always been told to follow my passion. [partly true but if I may paraphrase President Reagan, be passionate but verify]

In the beginning of text you talked about loyalty, and how some might view your piece as disloyal.  They couldn’t be more wrong.  By analyzing the school the way you did, you were in fact being loyal to the “Honor Code”, the supposed “cornerstone” of the West Point Academy.  I respect that deeply. [the kid’s good]

...I was only planning on joining the military if I got into West Point. [that supports what I said above about cadets being overqualified for the Army and only interested in being an Army officer if they can first be a cadet and West Point graduate]

A lot of what you said is actually similar to the kinds of things my parents tell me about the military.  How, it’s just politics with guns, and you run into the same cut-throat manipulations you run into at regular jobs of people who want the promotion.  [Bureaucracy with guns is more like it—not so much cut-throat as who is the best sycophant—first one to arrive in the morning and last to leave at night—that sort of thing]

That would probably explain how the Pentagon can spend hundreds of millions on projects like the crusaders tank, yet not have enough body armor for the troops on the ground initially in Iraq.  I guess if one is planning to make a career of the military, they have no room for error, and in a way you have to sell your soul, so to speak…would you say this is accurate? [yep]

I would like to thank you again for your help in exposing me to the non-Hollywood version of the military.  I have been reading a lot of the other material on your site and am flabbergasted at some of the stories you have to tell.  The information about all the “voluntary, yet required” activities, and some of the conversations you’ve had with some of your “superiors” where astoundingly similar to conversations I’ve had with certain figures of authority in my life.  

Pointless rituals and formalities carried out just to give the illusion of discipline frustrate me no end.  Many times they are just an enormous waste of time that could be spent actually doing something productive.  From what you say, that is pretty much the existence of a solider. [
hurry up and wait; the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way; if it moves, salute it; if it doesn’t move, whitewash it; midnight requisition; etc.] This alone, I think is a legitimate reason not to join. But hearing the stories about how the officers handed out medals like they were candy made me sick.  That completely invalidates accomplishments of the people who actually deserve honorable distinction.  But the thing that really got me, was the whole attitude of “if you want a promotion, you better kiss my ass (and come to officer parties).”  If there is one organization in the world that should be completely result-oriented, it is the entity which preserves our national security.  If there is one enterprise which should be ruthless in preserving it’s efficiently and effectiveness, it should be the United States military.  

That is one thing that would absolutely drive me crazy.  My pet peeve is inefficiency. The military sounds a lot like that, and it is something I wouldn’t subject myself to in a million years.  [
SNAFU] Not to mention having to interact [with] and try to lead “Georges” on a daily basis.

That one article turned off my military professional aspiration more than the 10 years of lectures my parents gave me.   I always thought it was such a crisp organization, and because of my love of strategy (and yes, my favorite game is chess) [
become a football coach], it seemed like the perfect fit.  It appears quite the opposite is true in fact.  Thank you for your perspective, in my case, it truly might have saved my life. [Wow!]

Would he have gone to West Point?

It sounds like there was a very high probability that this young man would have applied to West Point had he not read my articles. Would he have been admitted? It’s too hard to say. He certainly sounds intelligent and articulate. But to get into West Point you have to run a gauntlet that includes getting a Congressman or Senator to nominate you (the most common method—I received a principal nomination—the highest—from the late NJ Congressman William Cahill), passing a physical exam that is harder than enlisting, passing a physical aptitude (athletic ability) test, and getting Academy approval of your academic transcript and college test scores.

Do I want intelligent, articulate young men and women to follow my undergraduate footsteps through West Point? Absolutely, but not until the Academy and, more importantly, the Army, once again make themselves worthy of such young people. This young man is also idealistic, like I was when I went to West Point at an age two years older than his. I do not want the idealism or spirit of service of even a single additional young person crushed, or, worse, retaliated against, by the cynical careerists who currently run the U.S. military. When the Academy and the military again become worthy of such young people, I will be the first to agree, as this young man says, that national defense is so important that our best young people should be important parts of our defense efforts.

As I was writing this, I got another email from a West Point plebe who asked me to help him decide whether to stay there.

The teenagers are in charge when you have an all-volunteer Army

I suspect the military may think it can ignore me and others who seek to reform the organization from outside—“disgruntled officer who didn’t make general,” “just trying to sell books,” and all that. But even the military is smart enough to recognize that it’s current bullshit-based recruiting efforts must be successful, and that when they no longer are—in an all-volunteer Army—the game is up. They must reform whether they like it or not. The generals still think they run the military. Actually, in an all-volunteer Army and Military Academy, the teenagers whom they hope to recruit ultimately are in charge. It’s an unintended consequence of ending the draft (which I say was a mistake that ought to be corrected).

It may be unrelated, but my insurance company of 40 years, USAA, which used to be for U.S. military officers only, and still is mainly military personnel and their families, and is run by a retired Army general, declined to offer me an umbrella liability insurance policy this week (first week of April, 2008). We tried to buy that coverage on the recommendation of a USAA financial planner whose services we had retained. USAA also canceled my homeowners insurance this week. Why? They said both decisions were because of the content of my headlines news Web articles! I asked them to reconsider or to explain exactly what those articles have to do with non-business insurance and have not yet received an explanation other than they exercised their judgment regarding increased exposure resulting from my “personal opinions” being expressed at my Web site.

Unexpected appreciative audience for this page: former cadets

I have heard from an unexpected appreciative audience for this Web article: former cadets. That is what they call people who enter West Point but who do not graduate for one reason or another. It includes both those who are forced out and those who quit.

Sadly, many have been bothered big time ever since by their failure to graduate. Two have told me that this Web page relieved them of that decades-old self-esteem wound instantly. Good.

Here is an email I got from another one:

Hi John-
 
Back in 1980, I was accepted into West Point and Yale, and subsequently went to Yale.   Being fairly entrepreneurial in nature, I’ve had my struggles, and often wondered (with much admonition from my family) whether or not I should have gone to West Point.  But, reading your comments on the matter made me feel MUCH better – I now know I made the right decision!  A huge thank you for taking the time to write & post that!
 
Mike
Yale ‘84

Others who were cadets told me they were afraid of such regrets and that this article assuaged those fears. For them, I cannot predict how they will feel after quitting. No one can. Actually, it is a road not traveled by me. So I do not even know how I would have felt. It’s sort of like abortion. It’s irreversible and may or may not do irreparable harm to your psyche. It shouldn’t, but that’s not the same as won’t.

Some former cadets are gray hogs—big contributors to and boosters of West Point. I guess that’s OK although they should know that it raises eyebrows among us grads.

Non-graduate gray hogs

Another odd aspect of the sometimes awesome power of West Point’s mystique is the existence, and sometimes prominence, of gray hogs who are neither West Point graduates nor former cadets.

A gray hog is a person who is in love with everything West Point including the inaccurate parts of its public image. Non-graduate gray hogs are not being dishonest when they profess to believe the inaccurate parts of West Point’s image. They are true believers in both the true parts of West Point’s image as well as the bullshit parts. They are wrong, albeit sincere.

To be called a gray hog is a put-down among cadets. It is cadet shorthand for a sentence along the lines of, “Why are you still spouting that recruiting-brochure bullshit? You know it’s not really like that here!”

Just as no man is a hero to his valet, no well-regarded college is as pure and wonderful to its students and graduates as its public image suggests. Familiarity breeds contempt. Non-graduate gray hogs have an unhealthy and inaccurate lack of contempt for parts of cadet and graduate life because they have no familiarity with the perspective of a cadet or grad.

You would think that some West Pointers would be gray hogs, but no one else. Ha! You should meet some of these guys.

One of my friends and classmates was the head regional recruiter for West Point for many years. When he resigned from that post, he was replaced by a non-member (of the Association of Graduates and Former Cadets) gray hog. In other words, the chief recruiter of West Point cadets for a large region of the U.S. was a guy who was never a West Point cadet!

Man-crush creeps

The most prominent current non-grad gray hog I know of is a Wall Street Journal columnist named Bill McGurn. He is a fleshy, overweight, chicken hawk whose nephew got an appointment to West Point and, last we heard, entered West Point. West Point is big on cadets who look like recruiting posters. McGurn looks like the opposite of a West Point recruiting poster. Non-grad gray hogs like McGurn apparently have a man crush on me and my fellow grads and on current cadets.

When I was a cadet, one of the guys in my company got a “Dear John” from his girlfriend, but the girl’s father was so enthralled with the cadet he continued to write to him and visit him, uninvited, at West Point—to the great discomfort of the cadet.

I once sat down with my new commander at a new post and he acted like he was in the presence of a rock star and congratulated me on graduating from West Point. I tried to change the subject mumbling something about it being old news, having happened three years before.

Let me state this as basically as I can, and here, unlike much of what I say in this article, I suspect I speak for most West Pointers.

You non-grad gray hogs give us grads and cadets the creeps. Back off. You revere West Point more than we do. Since we were marinated in that place 24-7 for 47 months, it ought to be obvious to you, but it inexplicably is not, that to the extent that you love West Point more than we do, your view of it must be inaccurate.

Furthermore, we real West Point grads have classmates who were killed in combat. How dare you urge high school kids to risk that fate because of imaginary benefits of going to West Point that you got from Hollywood or somewhere?

Stop being spokesmen for West Point. We 45,000 or so living grads have it covered. Refer interested parties to one or more of us. You don’t know what you’re talking about, regardless of whether you had some briefing or tour at West Point. Statistically, you are surely sending a percentage of your recruits to a body-bag fate—a risk that you have incompetently calculated is worth it because of the wonderfulness of the college you did not attend. Going to West Point is, for many of those who make it, a life-or-death decision. It is not just another college choice. Stay out of it. Your inserting yourself into this is akin to a statement that violates what the Federal Rules of Evidence call the “best evidence” rule:

The general rule is that secondary evidence, such as a copy or facsimile, will be not admissible if an original document exists…. (Wikipedia)

We originals exist.

Speak West Pointese with an accent

You can spot these guys sometimes because they do not speak West Pointese correctly. For example, they refer to the place as “The Point.” West Pointers never do that except as a momentary lapse. Howard Cosell used to use that phrase when he mentioned West Point. “The academy” is used a little bit by West Pointers but not much. It sounds ostentatious and put on to a West Pointer, like you should tilt your head back and tap the bottom of your nose a few times while saying it.

When we were cadets, we called it “school” as in, “I have to go back to school on the 30th.” Real West Point grads who are too far removed to use the word “school” call it “West Point” or “USMA” (pronounced “Use May”) when talking to each other. If I said “the Academy” in a conversation with classmates, you would probably see some eyebrows rise. If I said, “The Point,” they would laugh out loud and start doing Howard Cosell imitations or make other mocking uses of the phrase.

Non-member gray hogs also do not have “The Look,” but you have to be a graduate to recognize The Look or its absence.

Non-member gray hogs are embarrassingly pro-West Point—like some 1940s movie script writer might depict the place. When I have met them in the company of my classmates, we grads sneak raised-eyebrow glances at each other communicating by mental telepathy, “Can you believe this guy?” They make us grads uncomfortable because they do not know what they are talking about to a large extent. But they make great salesmen for the place because they possess a certainty about the place that only the converted are capable of, like the converts to Catholicism who try to be more Catholic than the Pope. They are grown-ups who still have the naiveté about West Point that we lost by going there as teenagers.

I would expect some sort of let on that they are West Point grads themselves although they would immediately deny it if asked directly. You are entitled to get talked into going to West Point if you wish, but do not, I repeat, do not, let a non-member gray hog talk you into going to West Point. Rely only on West Point grads.

One father of a recent West Point grad went so nuts on me for this article I had to learn how to block unwanted emails. And a couple of days later (July 2012) I got this from a grad:

John,

I really enjoy all of your articles. I am a 2001 USMA grad who left the army after 5 years and a short tour in 2003 during O[peration] I[raqi] F[reedom]. I just wanted to let you know that your opinions on West Point and the Army are generally spot on in my experience.

Best Regards,

Name withdrawn at writer’s request

West Point-hating West Point graduates

An odd, opposite phenomenon that seems to exist in most colleges and universities to an extent appears to be more vehement at West Point. That is hatred of the school by some of its graduates. It is pertinent to this article. I recall many cadets when I was there vowing never to have anything to do with West Point after they graduated. I did not hear anyone say that at Harvard Business School, but I have, since graduation, noted that a few of my Harvard classmates have nothing to do with the school, never attend reunions, never communicate with the class scribe, and have no current contact information with the school.

No bio in the Register

You can see this in the West Point Register of Graduates that I recommended above that you read to get a better handle on what West Point graduates accomplish or don’t accomplish after graduation. In the Register, you will generally see brief bios of the grads, but many have no entries beyond what branch of the Army they were commissioned into and the date of their resignation from the Army. The class scribes in Assembly magazine regularly ask for help in locating these guys. The number of guys who vow never to have any contact with West Point after graduation is greater than the number who stick to that vow.

Because of my book-publishing experience, which is apparently unique in my class, I was drafted to work on a memory book for our 40th reunion in 2008. I just laid it out, not editing, and getting printing cost quotes from book manufacturers and such. No one edited it other than correcting spelling errors and such. In the process, I have worked with the classmate in charge of the reunion. I asked him about contacting our class’s West Point haters to encourage them to come to the reunion. He said he tried but they were extremely rude and ordered him never to contact them again.

There is no excuse for that. He was approaching them in friendship and hoping they would come to the reunion and enjoy seeing old friends and the venue of one of their youthful adventures, albeit one that was not a 24/7 picnic. But no. They were still so outraged at the place 40 years after graduation that they took it out on an innocent classmate.

When they arrived at West Point, almost all of my classmates had been decent guys and teachers’ pets in their high schools. They are not the kind of people who would be rude to anyone without reason. The fact that they would behave this way toward a classmate with nothing but the best intentions and who has next to no official connections to West Point is a manifestation of the extreme reaction many have to the place. Statistically, the number of prospective cadets reading this who turn out to feel the same toward West Point after they graduate from there will probably be the same as the percentage of my class who have no bio in the Register.

‘This place sucks’

Almost all of us got into the “This place sucks” mentality plebe year, but most of us outgrew it. For example, it was cool among us to tell people that we went to a “small men’s college in upstate New York” for a while when we were cadets. That did not last because it pissed people off greatly when they learned we were West Point cadets. Some graduates, however, sustain a life-long contempt of West Point—a hatred that is primarily manifest by refusal to have any contact with the place after graduation.

I suspect they also refuse to ever wear West Point jewelry like the class ring or West Point logo clothing. In his book Warrior King, former Army quarterback Nate Sassaman says he wears neither his West Point class ring nor his Cherry Bowl victory ring. He condemns those for whom graduating from West Point was the crowning achievement of their lives and says he “could not wait to put West Point in his rearview mirror.”

I have always owned and occasionally worn clothing with the West Point crest or the letters “USMA”, but not clothing that says the full words “West Point” or “United States Military Academy.” That is because the crest and USMA are recognized only by people who are “in the West Point family.” I enjoy meeting them. It just happened yesterday (5/29/08) in the Jet Blue terminal at JFK.

Wearing stuff with the words “West Point,” “U.S. Military Academy,” or “Harvard,” on the other hand, seems like showing off. I discussed that when talking about attending “elite” colleges and graduate schools in my book Succeeding. I never purchased a West Point class ring—the only one in my class not to—but it was simply because I do not like rings. I have never owned a wedding ring either and my wife and I have been married for 34 years. Grads can always buy their class ring after graduation so there was no buy-now-or-forever-hold-your-peace pressure on me to buy senior year. It just never interested me and I was pretty frugal back then. I think it cost about a month’s pay.

Come to think of it, my class got the rings in September of senior year. After that, whenever I heard a classmate vow to never have anything to do with the place after graduation, I should have asked why they bought and were wearing a class ring. Within the Army, the ring was generally recognized for what it was—and resented by non-West Pointers who call West Pointers “ring knockers.” Outside the Army, the ring is so large that many acquaintances would feel compelled to ask what it was for. I would be curious as to whether the grads who kept their vow to never have anything to do with the place wear the ring.

‘B.S. 1965’

One West Point Class of ’65 guy from my company who was a West Point hater became prominent in one of my fields of expertise: real estate investment. When Who’s Who in Real Estate was published in 1983, he and I were both in it. But his entry made no mention of his having graduated from West Point. It just says “B.S. 1965.” One of his bosses spoke to the real estate club, of which I was president, at Harvard. He tried to recruit me to work for him, too. He said he found out that the Class of 1965 guy had gone to West Point, but that he had to pry it out of him. The only other entries in that Who’s Who that would say just “B.S.” and a year are probably degrees obtained from unaccredited colleges and universities that their “graduates” are ashamed of.

Not representative

The West Point-hating West Point graduates are not representative. They are a distinct minority, but they are also a significant-sized group, probably larger than similar groups at other non-service-academy colleges and universities. The phenomenon is apparently relatively consistent throughout the classes. Their extraordinary vehemence and numbers are relevant to any discussion of whether you should go to West Point or stay there. No doubt, those who have never attended West Point are surprised to learn such any such group exists.

Why do these guys hate West Point? They need to speak for themselves, which, of course, they almost by definition are not inclined to do. So I will take a shot at explaining them.

Lucian Truscott IV

Lucian Trustcott III was a prominent West Point graduate who was depicted in the movie Patton. His grandson, Lucian Truscott IV, was in the class behind me. His son was class of 1945.

Is the 1969 Truscott a West Point hater? I don’t know. His entry in the Register is nothing-but-branch-assignment-and-year-of-getting-out brief. On the other hand, it does include his address and email address. He is also the author of the books Dress Gray, Full Dress Gray, and Army Blue. A made-for-TV movie was made of Dress Gray, but it had to be filmed at another military academy because West Point refused to cooperate. They only cooperate with films that show West Point in a good light like Cast a Giant Shadow and the Long Gray Line.

Truscott IV wrote a piece in the 6/28/05 New York Times called “The Not-So Long Gray Line.” Truscott’s Times article is similar to many of the things that I have said about West Point and the Army in my various articles at this Web site. He also has a similar career description to me. The Times called him a “novelist and screenwriter.” He was an embedded war correspondent in Iraq.

I commend his book Dress Gray to you. It is a dead-on accurate description of the Corps of Cadets in the late sixties. One memorable phrase in the book, which I heard many times as a cadet, is “West fucking Point.” It and many other similar things in his book capture the contempt that many cadets and graduates have for the exalted, goody-two-shoes position the place holds in the minds of the public who know it only from afar.

The plot is a bit over-the-top. And its categorization as fiction is somewhat off if you consider that those of us who were cadets then can identify the real persons on which many of the “fictional” characters in the book were modeled. But the book gives you an excellent picture of how a West Point graduate could be a West Point hater and about what it was really like to be a cadet in the late sixties.

Defrauded

I think the haters feel that they were defrauded. Especially in the early 1960s, West Point had a soaring reputation. But familiarity breeds contempt and just as no man is a hero to his valet, it is hard for any college to be a paragon of virtue to its own students and graduates. The problem appears to be that these guys felt West Point was near perfect before they arrived, then overreacted to its inevitable warts and weaknesses.

I think these guys also feel that accepting credit for being West Point graduates is akin to the cadet honor code prohibition against quibbling. Quibbling is remaining silent when doing so encourages another person to believe something that is not true. I think they feel that associating with West Point and taking public credit for having gone there is, therefore, a form of dishonesty.

Finally, that place subjected us to tons of chickenshit with little or no logical reason for doing so. The haters resent it and they do not feel fondness for an institution that did that to them.

Am I a West Point hater? A couple of guys on a West Point football news group called me that, but it seemed to be a sort of instant-messaging sort of reflex to a brief comment that I made. I certainly agree that the public images of the Army and, to a small extent, West Point, are inaccurate. Logic and morality require that one not sin by silence when they should protest. Many of my articles about West Point and the military are designed to set the record straight with regard to excess hype about Army rangers, West Pointers, paratroopers, and so forth. I do resent the mindless “jerking cadets around because it builds character” aspects of my years there.

But, West Point is my alma mater. It provided me with my undergraduate education that I probably use at least in part on a daily basis. It set the stage for my going to graduate school and succeeding there. Many of my friends are my classmates. We all have fond memories from going there in addition to the unpleasant ones. We all love the values and virtues that West Point espouses. Being a West Point cadet was certainly an interesting, densely-packed adventure. I saw a lengthy documentary about service academies on PBS once. As they showed all the stuff we did as cadets, the Frank Sinatra My Way line occurred to me: “To think, I did all that.” (As a cadet, however, I absolutely did not do it my way. Everything had to be West Point’s way.)

Am I as fond of the place as my many classmates who sent their sons or daughters there? No. But neither do I feel the way those who refuse to have any contact with the place do. I would be thrilled to be able to report that each and every, or even any, criticism I have made of West Point has been corrected.

The opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference. For example, Truscott IV wrote several books about West Point and the Army as well as writing the Times piece and so forth. It is hard for me as a fellow writer to think that he could do all that if he truly hated West Point. He certainly is not indifferent to the place. (Indifference toward West Point or any aspect of it was literally a serious offense for a cadet to commit and they used that same word—indifference—when they wrote you up for it. Perhaps West Point hating after graduation is a way for grads to dare West Point to write them up for “indifference” now—a backlash against that “mind crime.” Being indifferent toward the place or any part of it was generally considered to be cool among cadets.)

The grads who refuse to have contact with West Point may hate it, although I think it’s more likely that they are just stubbornly trying to avoid being inconsistent with one of their most cherished vows of their youth—still trying to be “cool.” They probably need to grow up about the subject.

A West Point grad who hates West Point says why

Here is another email I got on 6/14/11. My comments are in [red]:

Dear John,

I wanted to tell you how nice it was, after 21 years, to read the items on your website. I, finally, in my desperate search for closure, found affirmation for what I had believed all along about the West Point experience. For 21 years I have had people tell me that I was a liar, a fraud, that I didn't know what I was talking about, that I was disloyal, that I should turn in my ring, etc. It was such a breath of fresh air to finally find someone who could affirm for me that my opinions and beliefs were, in fact, 100% true, and who was able to so aptly express these items in a logical and factual manner.

I have struggled since R-Day [first day when you enter West Point as a freshman] to comprehend why I always appeared to be the square peg in the round hole throughout the whole ordeal. I was always told that everything that transpired to make me miserable was MY fault, and that since I was such a horrendous example of a Cadet / Army Officer, my inadequacies and lunacies were what caused me such emotional and psychological angst both at and after USMA and the Army. Even after 8 years of psychotherapy I still had some lingering doubts. Reading your website has removed these doubts, and I thank you for writing what you did. We've never met and maybe never will, but I hope you know that your actions have helped a somewhat lost and confused soul who struggled for many years to find succor.

If you would please allow me to write a few more items, I think the catharsis will finally be complete. I am in no way trying to either validate or denounce what you wrote—maybe I'm just hoping that someone who can understand my experience will hear a bit of my story so I can finally get it off my chest.

You mentioned the "West Point Haters" in your article, but I think you also said that you had never interviewed one. Well, I am one, and I'll be happy to give an interview. In lieu of that, I can let you know why I am the way I am.

I am not a part of any Register [of graduates, a book published annually by the Association of Graduates]. I have asked USMA several times to forget that I ever existed and to forego sending me items that I just pass along to the recycle bin. For some reason, they won't honor my requests. I don't participate in any AOG events etc., either locally or globally. I don't keep in touch with any USMA people. I have refused contact/interaction with grads. I have not gone to any reunions and never will. I have told my wife that if we ever go to NY I will never accompany her to West Point. The simple reason behind this is that any type of contact I have with USMA, whether via TV, print media, graduates, Cadets, etc. makes me want to vomit uncontrollably. It fills me with such angst, sadness, and discomfort that I have to take a few moments alone to calm myself down.

Although I share your opinions almost 100% and am sickened by the culture and futility of the organization, the main reason I am a "hater" has to do with my Cadet experience. Yes, that's right. The experience I had at the hands of both the upperclass and my own classmates. I'll try to explain this, but I'm not sure how effective I'll be, particularly in that, at least in my experience, I have found that the ambiance I am attempting to describe is not something that was experienced by members of classes prior to 1970. [Correct. Classes after the 1960s, when I was there, seem to have attended a new and uglier West Point. The physical facilities are now better, but the group norms are worse to the point of being hypocritical refutations of the ideals of the place. In the 1960s, West Point was pretty much what it was advertised to be, including the cadet honor code and always helping your classmates. Since then, the culture appears to have changed radically and for the worse. Although there are plenty of West Point haters in the pre-1970s classes including mine, 1968]

The Institution is what it is. When I reported on the first day, I knew that there would be a significant level of bullshit that I would have to tolerate, but I counted it as part of the "deal" that I would have to survive in order to earn the "prestige" of being a Grad. I didn't welcome it, but I accepted it, with the understanding that if I wanted the honor I would have to pay the toll.

I have read accounts of survivors of POW camps and they all speak similarly: they knew that, by the very definition of their new "home," they would be subjected to certain horrors, and that making it through these challenges was part of the "deal" if they wanted to survive and return to the world. What they all further relate, however, was that keeping faith with, supporting, and being supported by their fellow prisoners was what got them through the ordeal, and what helped make an intolerable situation, at the very least, survivable. [I often felt during West Point and my four years as an Army officer that I was a Prisoner of War, not a soldier, only my captors were the U.S. brass, not any enemy. Cadets in my era sometimes referred to our rooms as “cells.” West Point then was very much the same as a minimum security prison.]

THIS is the item that was so markedly missing from my Cadet experience. There was absolutely none of this fellowship/camaraderie at USMA from 1990-1994. As bad as the institution was (and it was pretty bad), I and many of my classmates soon discovered to our surprise/chagrin that the most horrific behaviors we were subjected to were visited upon us BY OUR FELLOW CADETS and, in many cases, by OUR OWN CLASSMATES.1990 was the year of introduction of the Cadet Leader Development System (CLDS), which meant that we would be recognized 2 months early and that certain restrictions were to be "lifted" or relaxed. What actually transpired was that ’91, ’92, ’93 subjected us to more horrors in 9 months than any of them had experienced in 11. I and several of my classmates were both starved (I lost 20 pounds) and physically abused (notice I did not say "hazed;" take that how you will) on numerous occasions. These events merited trips to the hospital, and we were "encouraged" to invent excuses for the injuries so as not to bring detriment upon the aggressors. These individuals had already informed us that if we told the truth regarding our medical statuses, they would lie to protect their classmates, and that we would then be "found" for Honor and expelled. [So much for the Cadet Honor Code. No such thing would ever have happened when I was there in 1964-68. The mere making of such a threat would have been reported as an honor violation.]

We thought the Plebe year had ended in 1991, but, thereafter, the upper classes, still vehemently of the opinion that we were "CLoDS" and had not had a "true" Plebe experience, continued the "treatment" for the next 2 years. We as Yearlings, with the exception of starvation, physical beatings, and pinging through the halls, were subjected to pretty much the same type of abuse we had suffered as Plebes. I have never felt hate from any group of humans as I did from the classes of 1992 and 1993. This same treatment continued through the Cow year, so much so that many of us rebelled against the then-Firsties who were, for all intents and purposes, treating us worse than the Plebes and, in many cases, negating our orders/authority with the lower classes. [I never heard of such a things when I was there. When my superiors did that to me once when I was a civilian coach, I resigned on the spot.] Those who reacted as such found themselves victims of Regimental Boards [a sort of kangaroo court run by upperclass cadets] and hundreds of Area [punishment] tours [walking back an forth in dress uniform carriyng a 9.5-pund M-14 rifle for an hour—far more paniful than it sounds. I walked about a total of 6 hours as a cadet. Some of my classmates never walked a single hour. One wallked over 300 hours!] for "disrespect" or "insubordination." [I was in the first plebe class to go home for Christmas. We caught hell about it and would rather have stayed at West Point. We still catch hell about it 45 years later at Founders Day dinners if it comes up. But I must say that it was good-natured hell. The upperlclassmen thought we were lucky, envied us, but recognized that we did not have a damned thing to do with the decision. The classes of 1991, 1992, and 1993 as described by Owen were apparently a much lower class of people than our upperclasses of ’65, ’66, and ’67.]

When we finally became Firsties [seniors], I thought that the ordeal would finally end. Imagine my surprise when my OWN CLASSMATES began to treat me in the same fashion as had ’91, ’92, and ’93! I have never, in all my life, ever seen any group of "peers" abuse and/or screw one another over to such an extent, solely to sew one or two extra stripes upon their sleeves [cadet rank for a few months senior year]. I have very rarely experienced since such hateful, scornful, and abusive treatment from anyone as I did from my own classmates. I have never seen such immaturity, self-centeredness, aggression, anger, jealousy, back-biting, etc. from any group of people ever, and it still makes me want to vomit whenever I see or hear any sort of "trigger" that recalls those memories. Classmates and fellow Cadets—the ones with whom I thought we were to keep faith as we all wended our way through the horrid USMA ordeal were, in reality, the ones who made the experience the most intolerable. [This was unheard of and absolutely taboo by group norm when I was at West Point. I have heard numerous reports recently that it is the norm now and tac officers reward it. When I was there, the tacs, who were recent graduates, would have punished a cadet who ratted out his classmates on regulation, not honor, violations.]

These people have inspired me to forever denounce the Institution and isolate myself from what it is and what it stands for up to and including my dying day.

You also mentioned some theories about Female Cadets. Some of the items you mentioned were, in my experience, very true. I, for my part, found that the women who attended West Point had just as many variegated reasons for doing so as did the men. Many of them wanted "prestige." Some wanted to be men. Some wanted to know how to fight and kill and command troops. Some relished exerting authority over (read "starving") large, powerful men and over women they perceived to be more attractive than themselves. Three of them were actually some of the nicest, most caring ladies I had ever met in my life. Two of these were extremely attractive. I do know that many came to USMA seeking husbands—and all but a very few graduated without a wedding shortly thereafter. I also very distinctly remember the "Fourth Quarter End-Run" which started in March […], in which those who were not engaged did everything in their power to become betrothed so as not to depart USMA in a "single" status. I do know that some of my female classmates did, after leaving the Army, marry civilians. One is now actually a stay-at-home mom! While we were at USMA, I only saw one of them ever date a civilian. I felt so sorry for this poor gent. I think he was accompanying someone to 500th night. Him in his tuxedo (and I recall that he was a big, tall, athletic, good-looking fellow) surrounded by 1,000+ Full-Dress Grey-clad "supermen." He was intimidated to the point of being mortified, even though all of us were very polite and genteel to him. I found out later that he broke up with his date as soon as he returned to his own university. I know of many civilian men who would not even approach a woman who could "clean their clock," particularly so after the story circulated about a lady from the Class of 1992 (I believe) who had maimed a guy who had attempted to sexually assault her to such an extent that he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. [All cadets were, when I was there, and still are, taught hand-to-hand combat. A better name for it would be fighting dirty with the goal of killing or maiming the opponent. We wondered if the training were effective. We never got to try it. So I am only partly surprised about this incident and result. I had already said above that I thought a male civilian dating a female West Point cadet would be teased by his budies that she could beat him up, and that she probably could. Q.E.D.]I do know that many female cadets were very unhappy to be so "different" from civilian women, and that the only people they could find who could understand/love them were either at USMA or in the Army. I wish all of them the best and hope that they are now living happy lives.

I also want to thank you for your passage on Ranger school. I am so glad that I did not attend. You see, the class I would have been part of was the class that lost 4 people to hypothermia […]. I am a terrible swimmer and cold water always wipes me out, so I think it is safe to say that I would have been swamp victim #5. My father had a dream that I would die in Ranger school and pleaded with me not to go. [smart man] I actually did a benefit/cost analysis as to what I would have to pay (I think it was a mandatory $800 expenditure from Ranger Joe's in those days) [that’s only the out of pocket cost] vs. what I would gain (I think the tabs cost $1.99) should I even graduate, and decided to head out from Ft. Knox to my first duty station. This was in the days when [ranger school instructors] really were [flunking] out about half of the class simply on a whim during the first week. I also heard that in [the 1990s] the RIs had this thing against West Pointers stuck in their craws and were encouraging students to "peer" [review] USMA people out. I have had past doubts/regrets for my decision not to attend, despite the knowledge that I probably would have died there. Your article helped me put that indecision behind me. [good]

I am very glad that I was directed to your website and was able to read your words. You have helped me more than you'll ever know, and I thank you for it. I am going to keep your site bookmarked for future reference, and will direct other traffic to it. Take care, God bless, and I wish you the best in all you future endeavors!

Jeff Owen ’94

[As my web articles about West Point and the Army say, I had little problem with West Point. My problems were about 98% with the Army after West Point. Many of those who attended after my class, seem to have had a very bad experience as cadets, not just after graduation. This surprises and saddens me.]

 

My 40th reunion at West Point

From September 2nd through 7th, 2008, I stayed at the Hotel Thayer at West Point for my 40th reunion. I expect some readers will be curious as to how I was received after having written various articles that are critical of West Point and the Army. As far as I could tell, it was a non-issue. No one said anything to me about any of my articles. Although I suspected it was a topic of conversation when I was not present because four or five grads made oblique, neutral references that I assume referred to my Web articles. For example, a friend from my company jokingly asked me if I had, “ever had an unpublished thought.”

Given that I am John T. Reed and that I work at John T. Reed Publishing, my having an unpublished thought would be slacking off. Academics say they work in a “publish or perish” environment. Probably so, but that statement is more true of my business: publishing. Also, suggesting that one is publishing too many of his thoughts may make sense to people outside the writing/publishing business. But within that business, publishing thoughts is the essence of what we do. Publishing thoughts is what writers do just as killing enemies is what soldiers do, albeit either may sound eccentric to those in other businesses.

Bull sessions formalized

The “unpublished thought” question confirms, in a left-handed way, a statement I made about my military Web articles, namely, that they are essentially thoughts that were expressed my me and my fellow cadets and officers when I was on active duty in countless bull sessions. We frequently questioned or complained about some aspects of West Point and the Army and talked about ideas for making things better and wondered why the big brass were not doing such things. That friend who asked about unpublished thoughts participated in some of the exact same bull sessions as I did as well as many others where I was not present. His question suggests that as one with similar experience, he did not think my thoughts were noteworthy or unique, except for their being published.

Another company-mate said, “I guess you’re a maverick.” A guy from another regiment whom I knew from KDET radio said he had been in a conversation at the reunion where others who did not know me personally were talking about me. No one elaborated on those comments. My interactions were almost all of the, “Hey Jack! Remember the time...” variety. To my surprise, I also made some new friends as a result of being accidentally juxtaposed at meal tables, on busses, and at the football stadium. In other words, the same as anyone else at the reunion. We spent more than four years together at West Point going through hell or heck and in Army training immediately after West Point. I also spent time talking at the reunion to classmates who were in the same units as I in Vietnam.

I was surprised by a number of classmates who told me they had been reading and using various books I wrote over the years. One guy, a very prominent classmate, thanked me for causing he and his wife to get married. He and I sat together on a plane after the 20th reunion. I explained to him the Dating System another classmate and I used for years. He later used a small part of it, but said even though it was only a partial following of my advice, it was decisive in his marrying his wife which I surmise was the best thing that ever happened to him. De nada. (To read the advice I gave him verbally, see the “Spouse Choice” chapter in my book Succeeding.)

I also talked to some West Point grads/officials who were not classmates—guys I had never met before. Although they seemed wary of me at first, the conversations soon became nothing more than old grads kidding around and talking without rancor about the best way to select and educate cadets.

Had anyone at West Point challenged me on the content of this or other articles, my response would have been,

If there is an error or omission in my facts or logic, please point it out and I will fix it. If there is no such error or omission, I am not the problem; the underlying facts are. If and when the offending facts are changed for the better, I will be thrilled to report it.

For example, one of my articles said that most intercollegiate athletes at West Point took great pride in never marching in parades. Then I got a letter sent to all my classmates and me saying that such athletes will henceforth have to march in a parade every Monday. I reported that promptly after reading about it. It’s not the biggest deal, but it changed an unattractive fact that I had previously written about.

Ahead of the Curve

Ahead of the Curve is a 2008 book written by a member of the HBS MBA class of 2006 about the school. I just finished reading it and it reminded me of some differences between the educational approach at HBS versus West Point.

One thing is that everything at HBS was oriented towards giving us a big-picture “framework for analysis.” Indeed, Harvard MBAs approach problems using that analysis. I cannot give you the whole two-year MBA course in a paragraph but it’s along these lines.

Where are we now? Where are we trying to get? What are the alternative paths to get there? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative? Match your unique competences to the market opportunity. Decide which is best and explain why. There is a lot more detail for the various niches and business functions.

Did we get something similar at West Point?

Not so simple answer to that at West Point. First, I recall no big-picture way of approaching problems. West Point certainly has thousands of rules on how to behave in all sorts of extremely narrowly defined situations. Our book and brief course on “Cadetiquette” is an example. Others are the Cadet Honor Code and its accompanying interpretations and the Blue Book. The Army in general also has all sorts of “doctrines.” But they come and go politically and they are generally full of shit. They don’t know what to do but they pretend they do and the pretending takes the form of formal written doctrines. And the Army has a number of checklists and forms like for an op order (operations order if I recall correctly). For example, when we went to the Army-Navy Game, the Academy would give each of us an op order. It would follow this format of

Unit: U.S. Corps of Cadets
Mission: Beat the hell out of Navy
Location: John F. Kennedy Stadium
Time operation commences: 1300
etc.

I forget the details but you get the idea. Cute.

Roughly speaking, there is no overarching West Point approach to big-picture stuff. The main deal there is follow orders. The HBS framework for analysis is really about real world executives identifying what the two or three most important things are so they can focus on them. That’s how results are achieved in the real world. The West Point stuff, on the other hand, is typical of process-oriented organization men and is procedure manual did-what-I-was-told sorts of activities. Process-oriented bureaucrats are blissfully unaware of the clock, the calendar, results, success, failure, or any of that. They claim good intentions and feel those, along with doting the i’s and filling out their forms in quintuplicate, are all they are required to do. Please see my article on the differences between process-oriented people, that is, bureaucrats like Army officers, and results-oriented people, like entrepreneurs, coaches, trial lawyers, and so forth.

‘Convincing liars’

On page 17, the Ahead of the Curve author says his class engaged in a mock financial negotiation. He said in his group, “the military guys took charge and turned out to be convincing liars and brutal tacticians.” So if you were thinking the Cadet Honor Code is the overarching West Point approach, maybe not. See my articles on military integrity and the Pat Tillman cover-up with regard to the incidence of Cadet-style honor in the Army.

A reader sent me an article from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It tells of a 47-year old West Pointer who ran a Ponzi scheme and got prosecuted for it. The reporter noted the West Point background with surprise in both the first and last paragraphs. True, all colleges have some grads who go wrong, but the reporter’s surprise mirrors that of many Americans who thought West Point had few, if any, of such people. The issue is not whether West Point is perfect, but whether it is different. A Long Gray Line Ponzi Schemer is not as different as the hype about West Point would have you believe.

Harvard Business versus West Point reunions

The same company-mate who asked me if I ever had an unpublished thought asked what the difference was between my Harvard Business School (2007) and West Point (2008) reunions. Interesting question. Two weeks after I was asked that question, I got a chance to make a pertinent observation at my wife’s 30th Harvard MBA reunion.

HBS is often called the “West Point of American Business,” although I think that phrase is dying because of West Point’s diminished image and HBS’s elevated image. At this point, West Point would probably benefit more from a reversed version of the comparison, i.e., West Point is the Harvard MBA of the Army. But it’s not that anymore, if it ever was. The West Point BS-HBS MBA is the most common bachelor-advanced degree combination found among West Point alumni in the last 50 years.

I suspect that my West Point classmates and HBS classmates were fairly similar to each other when they each entered college. More of my MBA classmates were foreigners. By the time my West Point and Harvard MBA classmates graduated from college, there was a difference starting to appear. The West Pointers were beaten down by plebe year and the oppressive conformist regimentation and narrow career focus at West Point. My Harvard classmates were probably more diverse by the time they graduated from college than when they entered; my West Point class, less diverse than when they entered college.

But the time between college and HBS resulted in huge changes between the two groups. The West Pointers were in the Army which is a whole other strange world that I have discussed in great detail elsewhere at this Web site. A handful of my HBS classmates who did not attend service academies were also in the military, although they were typically only in for two or three years and seemed little affected by it. There is a big difference between what happens to you in nine years at West Point and in the Army versus two or three years only in the military.

Almost all the former military in my HBS class were also veterans of the Vietnam War. Was that some transformative experience? Nah, not unless you had been wounded or lost men in combat, but those were rare experiences in Vietnam. Being in the Army was a major trauma to one’s life. The Vietnam war was pretty much a non-event—just another year of being in the Army—unless you were in prolonged firefights or were missing body parts. The Vietnam war was not like the Iraq and Afghanistan with so many amputees and IED-explosion deaths.

Fewer doctorates at HBS

West Pointers of my era tend to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and MBAs. They tend to be partners in or sole proprietors of professional firms or civilian middle managers of Defense Department or other government agencies. Harvard MBAs of the same age as my West Point class tend to be founders and CEOs of their own companies or high level executives of publicly-traded corporations. Many HBS students were foreign and are big shots in various international companies in virtually all capitalist countries. One of my Harvard classmates heads GM; another, Procter & Gamble; another, Visa USA; another, Hess Corp; another is head of the SEC. The new, Obama-named head of the SEC is another of my classmates.

At my wife’s HBS section party, I spent a fair amount of time talking to her sectionmate, the Publisher of Time-Life and a frequent subject of articles about the “XX Most Powerful Women in America.” Others are in big-time entertainment, high finance, consulting, technology, charities, academia, farming and ranching, construction and development, corporate boards. They tend to live in glamorous big metro areas worldwide. West Pointers are primarily in the U.S. and are more spread out with many in rural areas.

My West Point classmates probably have more doctoral degrees (PhD, JD, DBA). Indeed, I cannot think of a single Harvard MBA classmate who got any degree after the MBA. Nor can I think of any who had doctorates before the MBA. In part, that results from ticket-punching in the Army. It also results from attempts to retool when getting out of the Army to increase professional prospects. Harvard MBAs, on the other hand, view additional post-MBA degrees like the woman from Boston who asked, “Why should I travel? I already live here.” That is, they know of no way to top their Harvard MBA with another graduate degree. They are also extremely practical and regard doctorates as being beyond the point of diminishing returns as far as education is concerned. Harvard MBAs are also making a lot of money in most cases and thus would have to give up more income to attend yet another graduate degree program.

Non-profit activities

Each school produces reunion bio books of the class. In addition to the above differences, there was also one striking format difference. Career military people have lately grown fond of describing themselves as “selfless servants.” I find that self-aggrandizing and an exaggeration and so wrote in an article at this Website. So I found it interesting that one of the standard questions asked of HBS grads in the bio book form was about their “nonprofit activities”—not charities to which they contributed money—but activities to which they donated their valuable time gratis.

The HBS grads’s nonprofit activities were extremely eclectic and numerous. Having such activities was extremely common. It is noteworthy that the USMA bio book organizers did not even ask the “selfless servants” what their volunteer activities were, and few mentioned any in the free form narrative they wrote. I don’t think it means the HBS grads are more virtuous. It probably means they are just more affluent and have more time and maybe feel a bit guilty about having become so wealthy and feel a need to “give back,” although to their credit, I do not recall any using that trite phrase. It also appears to be a preppy/Ivy group norm.

West Point grads, many of whom retired on half pay or more after a career in the Army, also have time to volunteer. If they do so less often than Harvard Business grads, it puts their claims to “selfless servant” status in an interesting light. Perhaps they feel they “gave at the office.” They seem more likely to give their golf handicap in reunion bios than list any charities for which they volunteer.

Reunion activities

The Harvard reunions are Ivy and preppy in feel; the West Point ones, military and state college (my two youngest sons went to UC Santa Barbara and U of AZ).

At age 62, West Point reunions have a palpable, partial blue-collar feel, apparently due to career officers who spent their adult lives on dusty, isolated, rural Camp Swampies around the world associating with enlisted men, NCO, warrant officers, and fellow officers, all of whom have been in the military and nowhere else since they were teenagers. The military on a day-to-day basis has a construction company feel at times (line units in war zones and other bases) and a DMV feel at others (desk jobs at the Pentagon and other administrative positions). If you spend your whole adult life hanging around with non-college guys in rural Army and war zone bases, you acquire a blue-collar patina and perspective whether you want it or not and whether you think about it or not. West Point graduates at that age tend to be pensioners to an extent complete with pensioner mentality and perspective.

Aged Harvard MBAs, on the other hand, have no blue collar or pensioner characteristics. Rather, they are sort of business world elder statesmen and women. Although there is a big difference between a business background and an Army background. There are a zillion different ways to be a businessperson in a zillion different places and industries around the world. The West Pointers who got out of the Army early are more diverse than those who stayed in the Army, but not as diverse as the HBS MBAs.

At West Point reunions, you attend events like meals; a parade (except they have always been cancelled the last several times I was there—apparently for high humidity in 2008!); a football game (usually depressing at West Point these days); a briefing by the Superintendent, Dean, and Commandant. At Harvard, you get a briefing from the Dean, then attend two days of classes and meals. At West Point, the reunion activities other than the football game were all just with our class. At Harvard, all five-year classes are together except for the first night reception, which is just your class, and the section party which is just the 85 men and women you sat in class with all day every day the first year. Breakfast and supper are with your class; lunch in a tent with tables marked for all the five-year classes.

The classes are in the same amphitheater class rooms we sat in when we were MBA students. Many of the professors were the exact same guys who taught us 30 years ago. The classes were special ones just for the graduates and were custom designed for that purpose. The current MBA students got the day off on Friday. They normally have the day off on Saturday, the other day we graduates had classes. The classes were extremely well attended (SRO) and the discussions were lively. The professors provide more info than when we were MBA students. Back then, the professors were all Socratic method and one student was selected, without notice, to lay out the case facts at the beginning of each class.

You can pick the classes you want to attend at Harvard MBA reunions. I chose Behavioral Finance (which I have lately been studying and writing about in my real estate books and newsletter), Investment Management In the New Financial Environment (that is, the financial meltdown that was going on around us during our 9/25-28/08 reunion and which I write about as well), when I skipped the classes and wandered around campus and Harvard Square in the afternoons, my wife attended In Search of Entrepreneurial Wisdom (we run an entrepreneurial business out of our home). I attended What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat with my wife (I have been studying and writing about this at my Web site—the professor, Louise Richardson who grew up in Ireland being taught to admire IRA terrorists and who wrote the book What Terrorists Want was great and changed my view of the subject). In all, there were 44 classes to chose from. My wife and I sometimes attended together, sometimes split up. She also took Raising Financially Fit Kids: It’s Not Just About the Money.

Interaction with current students

Neither school scheduled any interaction between current students and graduates.

My wife and I actually attended one cadet class at West Point at my special request. The class was on Professional Military Ethics and to my surprise the professor had me make about ten minutes of comments and take a question at the end. West Point should also schedule some grad-oriented classes like HBS does for reunion attendees. Both schools are remiss in not bringing the graduates and students together—probably best done in small groups and on a voluntary basis. Current students could learn a lot from their real world experience and, at West Point, the candidness of the grads. (The professors at Harvard are quite adequately candid already. They have tenure and were never bureaucrats.)

Cadets would probably be less interested prospectively in hearing from old grads, but I suspect they would be glad they did afterwards. When we were cadets, getting our resident old grads—the young Army officer professors—to “talk about the Army” instead of the class in question was great sport and much welcomed by the cadets. MBA students would probably see grads as a possible source of employment and/or other business relationships like investors in their businesses or suppliers or customers, as well as just plain old advice.

The grads would be heartened by the quality of the current students at Harvard. They are a notch or two better than we graduates were. Those at West Point were nice kids and earnest, but they were a notch or two below what the grads were when they were high school students and cadets. That was the observation of my wife and I and some other grads as well as being confirmed by a person who shall remain nameless but whom you would agree was in a position to know if I identified him.

My wife is skeptical of the value of bringing current students and grads together. She may be right. But I think it should be experimented with.

‘The Corps has’

There is a standing joke at West Point that old grads always believe “The Corps has.” That is short for “The Corps of Cadets [student body] has gone to hell.” In fact, the Corps is better in some ways (better summer training and computer usage), worse in some (dirty uniforms, less selective—my wife was shocked by some overweight cadets she saw), and about the same, albeit different, in others. But there are two at least fundamental differences that have caused a reduction in the West Point student quality: the relative unpopularity of the military since Vietnam (my class was on point for that—see my article on my class’s experience at West Point and in Vietnam—we were the last pre-Vietnam class when we entered West Point) and the current wars. There is also now an intense push to retain as many cadets as possible which seems to have diluted standards.

The graduation rate at West Point is now 93% of those who enter on July 1st each year. It was about 70% in our day. Harvard Business School’s two year graduation rate was about 87% when I was there. Back in the 1960s, everyone’s attitude was that we were extremely lucky to have been chosen to be at West Point and that we could only stay if we met their extremely high standards. Now, the game seems to be, “Thank you for choosing West Point. Please stay. Can we make you more comfortable?”

West Point’s recent high retention rate was one of the reasons it came in sixth in the Forbes magazine college ratings in 2008 and 1st in 2009. I think high standards are a good thing that result in more value added and that attract the sort of students we want to attract. My complaints were about what many of the high standards were about in the ’60s—like freshman hazing and obsessive-compulsive neat-freak behavior. High standards are appropriate with regard to the knowledge and skills that win wars.

One reader said I was complaining about both West Point being too easy and too hard. Yes, but the issue is the subject matter of the high standards. West Point ought to have extraordinarily high standards that are higher than civilian colleges on matters that matter to national defense like pertinent military knowledge, physical fitness, relevant academic subjects, counterinsurgency tactics, and so on. Otherwise, West Point has no reason to exist. West Point should not have high standards with regard to mindless military trivia like lining up underpants in your locker or bouncing quarters off your bed. The problem is that extraordinarily high graduation rates like 93% indicate lack of high standards of any kind.

At both schools, the physical plants have been spectacularly improved.

The West Pointers have more rapport with each other because of five or more years of intense, shared, common, varied experiences versus only about 18 months of less intense, more narrow experience at Harvard. The HBS class would almost certainly beat the West Point class by orders of magnitude in terms of net worth, income, number of people or amount of assets managed, and prominence as well as in the breadth of geographic locations, organization structures and sizes, and subject matter areas of endeavor. A far greater percentage of HBS grads work for non-profit, non-government organizations. Very few work for the government. Hardly any make their living from such professions as practicing law or medicine although many have the necessary degrees to do so. Generally, the scale of the HBS grads’ activities dwarfs that of the West Point class. HBS grads give individual gifts to the school that exceed the amount of my entire West Point class’s combined gift of $2.5 million.

West Pointers and HBS grads are worlds apart when it comes to careers and money.

Foreboding on the Palisades Interstate Parkway

As my wife and I approached the State of New York on the New Jersey Garden State Parkway on 9/2/08, I told her that my stomach usually tightened when I saw the New York Thruway and Palisades Interstate Parkway, two roads that lead one from the Garden State Parkway to Bear Mountain, just south of West Point. I became depressed and tense and felt a sense of foreboding—a Pavlovian response to the sight of the Palisades Interstate Parkway—a feeling that did not dissipate until the next time I left West Point and put that Parkway in my rear-view mirror.

But on 9/2/08, the feeling was much milder than ever before since I became a West Point cadet in 1964.

At prior West Point reunions—the last one I attended was in 1988 because I was coaching football since 1990—I also felt tension just walking around the place. As cadets, we always had to be on the lookout for officers to salute, including officers’ cars that had a yellow decal on their bumper. As a 42-year old graduate in 1988, I could feel tension and a right-arm-saluting reflex whenever an officer or car approached. When I was walking with a 42-year old classmate during the reunion, we would both be looking at the oncoming car bumpers to see if we needed to salute. The same thing happened 1995 when a classmate and I and my oldest son visited. I was 49 then.

Some time between my 33rd anniversary of graduation and my 40th, this Pavlovian response went away.

Am I relating this merely as a funny story? No. I don’t think a college should do that to its students. Pavlov did his experiments on dogs. I have called West Point first and foremost an obedience school with full acknowledgement that the phrase usually applies to a place where dogs are trained. I noted that we got the command “Take seats” every single day at West Point (in the mess hall) and that there is not much difference between the command “Take seats” and the command “Sit.” That sort of overdisciplining cadets deters good candidates from applying to West Point, from going there after they are accepted, and from staying there after they enter. It is unnecessary to say the least and probably counterproductive to attracting and retaining the sort of quality people that West Point wants to graduate.

Food

GIs, including West Point cadets, like to complain. But one thing we never complained about at West Point in the 1960s was food. The food we got in the cadet mess hall was the best most of us ever ate in our lives before or since. That is no longer true. I ate two meals in the mess hall during my 40th reunion visit in September, 2008. One was on Wednesday September 3rd with six cadets, my wife, and one of my company-mates and his cadet son. The meal was rice, carrots, chicken fajitas and orange Gatorade. The rice was gray and shiny. I live in California. We have lots of Chinese restaurants. Rice is supposed to be white and sticky. The boiled carrots were OK. The fajita was insipid. One cadet told us chicken fajitas were one of the most popular entrees among the cadets. I never order fajitas, but I will not be starting to do so either. My wife, who frequently orders fajitas, says the ones at West Point were lousy.

The Gatorade was made by the plebes cold beverage corporal from an envelope of powder. When we were cadets, the cold beverage changed every meal and was fresh-squeezed juice usually with pulp or ice tea. We got a can of Coke at pep rallies. Our 1960s juices were delicious. The 2008 Gatorade—orange at both meals—was medicinal.

The dessert was blueberry cobbler or some such. Few at the table touched it. I didn’t eat it when I was a cadet either so I don’t know if it got any better or worse.

On Saturday, September 6, 2008, I again ate in the mess hall, this time with my classmates en route to the football game. We were served the same food as the cadets. It was an oblong dried out hamburger that hung out of both sides of the round hamburger bun like a black tongue. We also got dried out krinkle-cut fries. Dessert was an excellent coffee cake.

When we were cadets, there was always a jar of peanut butter and delicious fresh-baked bread on the table for those who did not like the entree of the meal. They still have the peanut butter jar, but we got no fresh bread at either meal. You would have had to lick the peanut butter off the knife on Wednesday or put it on your hamburger bun on Saturday.

I feel bad for the current cadets because in the 1960s, food at West Point was a three-times-a-day delight of great stuff in an otherwise arduous college experience.

The three ‘goods’

When we were cadets, there was a saying that our ordeal at least included three “goods” that we were entitled to: a good shit, a good sleep, and good food.

Scratch the good food.

I said elsewhere that one of the things we got at West Point was “cream of the cropism.” That is, famous people kept telling us we were the cream of the crop. We believed it. Another reason we believed it was the way we were treated by the Academy. I often described us as being treated like spoiled rich kids here and there. We got free skis, boots, transportation to our own ski slope. Once, some company mates and I decided to go camping. West Point gave us a 3/4-ton truck, sleeping bags, steaks and other food items for each meal. Cooking equipment, gasoline for the truck, everything we needed. (We had to turn it in when we returned but we did not have to clean it or anything.) We also had, if we wanted them, sailboats, canoes, water skiing in the summer, etc. etc. All free.

The great food in the mess hall was one of those ways. For example, I never tasted real butter until I was a cadet. My classmates made fun of me for liking it so much. We had steak every Wednesday for supper. Steak and eggs for breakfast on football game days. Lobster tail. Filet Mignon. etc.

So what message do today’s cadets get when they are served lousy food below the standard of my high school cafeteria? “You got your free tuition. You expect good food, too!?”

Am I advocating lavishing premium meals on the cadets? No, I guess not. But I was greatly saddened to see what the cadets ate in the mess hall, and the no-longer-special nature of cadet meals. It was as if I had come to visit a favorite uncle only to be surprised to learn that he had died.

In 2013, my class had our 45th reunion. On Saturday before the football game, our class ate in the cadet mess hall. (I did not go that year.) The post-reunion rating survey said that meal was by far the most disliked event of the long weekend getting a 44% negative rating out of 21 events. The only other two negative ratings were each 4.9% for teh football game which we lost and a continental breakfast which was apparently way overpriced. The class is considering eliminating the mess hall meal, probably a centry-old stable of West Point reunions.

Short message, when we were cadets, the food at West Point was great, probably the best at any college in America and certainly the best I ever had in my life over an extended period. Now, it’s shit, as is the football team. The old gray line she ain’t what she used to be.

Cult?

Reading In a Time of War, a 2008 book about the West Point Class of 2002, reminded me of the cultish brainwashing and groupthink that goes on in the Army and to a lesser extent at West Point. I was somewhat affected by it. Most seemed to be more affected by it than I was.

First, are West Point and/or the U.S. military cults?

Here is the first sentence of the Wikipedia article on cults other than religious cults:

A cult may refer to a cohesive social group devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding population considers to be outside the mainstream.

Does that describe West Point and/or the U.S. military? Certainly West Point and the military describe themselves as cohesive social groups. Indeed, they celebrate that fact and have their own words and phrases for it like “West Point way of life” or “Army way of life” and “camaraderie” and “espirit de corps.” The Cadet Prayer asks God’s help in “living above the common level of life.”

When I attended a class on military ethics at West Point in September, 2008, I commented to the cadets at the end of class that their class discussion evinced a bit of an us-versus-them perspective toward the outside world including toward their American citizens. And also a superiority complex. I said we were the same when we were cadets, but that both attitudes were improper and incorrect and that such attitudes were one reason the U.S. military often finds itself in scandals. Their disdain for the outside, non-military world, tends to excuse things like lying to that world in the form of false reports.

I do not know that West Point or the Army have any official “beliefs” that would be considered outside the mainstream. Behind closed doors, however, you could probably find that career military people were somewhat outside the mainstream in their beliefs.

With regard to “practices,” West Point and the rest of the U.S. military are several miles outside the mainstream.

Check list

There appears to be no consensus definition of a cult. Rather, when you research it, you get lists of cult practices with the admonition that the more such practices a group engages in, the more likely the group is to be a cult. Here is one such list from the Wikipedia article:

1. People are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations;
2. Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized;
3. They receive unconditional love, acceptance, and attention from a charismatic leader;
4. They get a new identity based on the group;
5. They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives, and the mainstream culture) and their access to information is severely controlled

West Point and the U.S. military seem to have 1, 2, and 5 although access to information is not severely controlled. (It was during our first two months and we could not listen to radios in our rooms during our first semester freshman year.)

Cult are often focused on one person (not West Point and the military) or one idea. With regard to the one idea, I would say that West Point has a somewhat roughly standard notion of the stud career officer. The young men in In a Time of War seemed to be trying to adhere to it to a large extent. It appears to be the central focus of the military. The selfless-servant warrior image the military talks about a lot these days is one way to put it.

There are women in the West Point Class of 2002 and in the book, but they seem to be a sort of Ladies Auxiliary side show to the male graduates. If West Point and the military are cults, they are not focused on the females among them. Indeed, they are focused on the branches of the Army—infantry, armor, combat helicopters—that females are excluded from.

Cognitive dissonance and effort justification

A recent grad who read this suggested I link to the Wikipedia articles on cognitive dissonance (perhaps a fancy phrase for guilt about hypocrisy) and the related subject of effort justification (what it sounds like—refusing to admit you made a mistake when you invested a lot of effort in the mistake in question). Great suggestion. Great articles. I am glad to comply.

Here’s another comment from LT 07:

It’s strange because many of my friends are very smart, rational people, and yet they all seem to want to make the military a career. But you are certainly right that the Army is like a cult. I see more and more people commit to it, and I have no idea why, because they point out to me all the time all the SNAFUs and FUBAR situations. Many of my girlfriends married other West Pointers, and they all seem ok with the fact that they will likely be following their husbands around in the Army, not see them for months or years at a time, and likely have a tough family life. Yet none of them have expressed to me that they are getting out, not even when they have kids. Go figure.

Party-line pressure on cadets

When we graduated in 1968, we were urged to go infantry or another of the then five combat arms. “Real men go infantry” or “Real West Pointers go infantry” words to that effect was the message. Guys who wanted lots of stripes at West Point during senior year usually claimed they were going to choose infantry as part of their three-year political campaign for stripes. Like most of my classmates, I rejected the infantry. We thought it was the dumbest branch—dumbest soldiers and dumbest officers—and the infantry officers stationed at West Point seemed to confirm that. If we admired a branch as a group, it was probably the engineers because they seemed the sharpest, although there were sharp West Point grads at West Point in other branches, too. The smartest recent graduates were brought back to West Point to be our instructors. Disproportionately few of them were in the infantry. I do not recall any sharp infantry officers at West Point.

I chose the least combative combat arm: signal corps (communications). The reason was I wanted to invest in real estate in NJ and that’s where the Signal School was. In retrospect, it’s also where civilization was. It’s hard to have much of a sex life stationed in rural Army bases in the South or overseas. Air Defense Artillery had the best assignment locations—near major U.S. cities.

They also wanted us to go to airborne (paratrooper) school and an airborne unit, which I did. And they wanted us to go to Ranger School which I did by selecting a combat arm branch. (See my article on Ranger School. It says DO NOT GO THERE. I am not kidding in the slightest. A significant number of West Point graduates and others have died in that school. I almost did. I believe five guys, non-West Pointers, did die there in the month before, during, and the month after I went there. Furthermore, even if you survive, you may be denied the ranger tab capriciously even though you earned it. In which case you have risked your life and health for nothing. I expect most cadets reading this will go to Ranger School anyway. All the other kids are doing it and you would, as your mother used to say, walk off a cliff if the other kids were doing it. In Ranger School, you may literally walk off a cliff—in the mountains in the pitch dark—because the other kids are doing it. Not long after they begin ranger, they will think of me and my ranger article and say, “Son of a bitch. That Reed guy wasn’t kidding or exaggerating. What in the hell was I thinking when I volunteered for this!?”)

And they wanted us to volunteer for Vietnam while we were still cadets which I did.

What the hell was I thinking?

Looking back on it, I wonder what the hell I was thinking. I almost got killed twice in a war that the American people had changed their minds about by the time I got there. I also almost got killed in ranger school. (Airborne school was interesting and fun. People pay to go to the civilian equivalent of airborne school. Being in an airborne unit, however, is not something I would do over again. The main difference between airborne and non-airborne units is that the soldiers are about 20 IQ points dumber in the airborne and you have occasional jumps which are miserable experiences in an airborne unit, not fun like they are at airborne school. You get a little extra pay for the “hazardous duty” of making jumps, but it’s not worth it.)

Reading In a Time of War, it appears the Academy now bears down much harder on the cadets to push that sort of party line—apparently successfully. Cadets are agreeing to extend their active duty commitment longer than five years in return for getting an assignment or branch or graduate school. They have a celebratory dinner at the beginning of junior year because that is the point at which cadets can no longer resign from West Point without having to serve in the military. We had the same rule, but no dinner or any other acknowledgement of the passage of the deadline. Of course, that was during a much bigger war and a draft so no matter when you resigned from West Point, you had a very good chance of ending up as an enlisted man in Vietnam.

They wanted us to go into the infantry. As a group, we essentially laughed at the idea. (A relatively small percentage of the top and middle of our class chose infantry even though they did not have to.)

‘Infantry, sir!’

Toward the end of my class’s branch drawing, a sub-drama occurred. I and my circle of friends had already chosen our branches. Suddenly, the officer in charge stopped calling names. My little circle was only half paying attention. We were talking excitedly about our choices and the surprise choices some of our classmates made—mainly guys who had a lot of cadet stripes and who claimed their were infantry-bound all four years suddenly choosing Air Defense or Finance Corps or some such. The officers on the stage went into a huddle double checking the class roster and other papers. Then the officer in charge somberly went to the microphone and said words to this effect:

The remaining number of members of the Class of ’68 who have not yet chosen their branches is 71. The remaining number of infantry needed to meet the minimum quota for the infantry branch is also 71. Accordingly, the drawing is over and the remaining first classmen [seniors] will be assigned to the infantry branch. [Groans and gasps throughout the audience. 71 was more than expected—over 10% of the class.]

As everyone started to get up to leave, one of my classmates yelled out to the officer in charge,

Sir, I have been waiting four years to choose the infantry as my branch. I request that you continue the roll call, sir, so I and my 70 classmates can choose our branch, too.

Resumption of the roll call

Taken aback, the officer in charge agreed and the roll call was resumed. The remaining 71 all stood up and chose infantry, but they did it in two ways. Some were theatrical—loud and proud—sour grapes to my ears. That is, they were trying to give the impression that they really wanted infantry all along. I’m sure some did, but I expect most just saw the handwriting on the wall as the four years of academic grades and branch drawings by the three classes ahead of us unfolded and resigned themselves to their fate, perhaps convincing themselves over time that infantry was the best branch for their own mental health purposes.

The rest apparently did not share the desire to continue the roll call and had not resigned themselves to an infantry fate. They quietly, sometimes angrily, said, “Infantry, sir.” They had come to the drawing hoping against hope that they could avoid infantry like the Class of 1966 had, ranking its bottom guys into the signal corps. They realized that their lack of academic ability or laziness or both during the previous three and a half years had just dramatically elevated the probability that they would be killed in Vietnam. High academic standards are a worthy cause, but a death penalty for graduating from West Point, albeit in the bottom 10% of the class, seemed like an overly harsh punishment for a difficult-to-discern, relative academic weakness. During Vietnam and before, “study hard or die” was a literal truth for West Point cadets near the bottom of their class. Maybe it still is even though they stopped publishing the General Order of Merit.

‘Cutoff man’

Each class at West Point reportedly had a “cutoff man.” He was the starting football player with the lowest GPA in a given subject who was allowed to stay at West Point. If your grades in that subject were worse than his, you flunked out of West Point. If your grades were equal to or better than his, you got to stay at West Point. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if your GPA was close to that guy, you also got forced into the infantry at graduation and maybe killed in Vietnam a year or two later as a result. The guys who flunked out, on the other hand, are probably still alive.

As at most colleges, the West Point intercollegiate athletes as a group were disproportionately the dumbest and/or academically laziest students on campus. They were “athleticker than thou.” They never marched in parades. It was beneath them. Too cool for school. That was true all through their four years at West Point—until branch drawing night. Being a dumb and/or academically-lazy athlete in the bottom 10% of the class totally stopped being cool that night.

A number of my classmates who were ranked into the infantry were among my 20 classmates who died in Vietnam including the guy who ranked last in our class.

Suicide night

A number of those in the Class of 2002 who chose macho branches at West Point also died in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is an element of suicide in the two evenings at West Point where the seniors choose their branches and first assignments. We had a vague, queasy feeling about it when we were cadets during the Vietnam war, and a very concrete understanding of the dangers of the various branches and first assignments by the time Vietnam ended and we had buried 20 of our classmates, disproportionately guys who chose infantry or armor. As a practical matter, armor is the same as infantry because the U.S. Army is afraid to use tanks and make those who chose armor as their branch train in tanks, but go to war in non-tank vehicles with so little armor that calling them armored is a fraud.

When we were cadets, the branch drawing was done live in one of the big auditoriums. Now it’s one by computer and they hand out an envelope that tells you whether you got your first choice. It was the most tension-filled evening of my life. I expect my classmates would say the same thing. They had a big board on the stage in the auditorium that had hundreds of paper squares with the number 1 on them. There was a group for each branch. The number of 1s under each branch was the maximum number of cadets that could choose that branch. There was also a minimum for the various combat arms.

In addition to our queasy feeling that some of us might be committing suicide, were were also giddy and excited and happy like kids opening our Christmas presents. Many surprised their friends by making unexpected choices. Many were ecstatically surprised or crushingly disappointed by the choice they were able to make or had to make. There was a lot of laughter and joviality and congratulations and all that—at least among the top 90% of the class..

Our Town

In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, a young bride named Emily Webb suddenly dies. After her death, she is allowed to go back to observe—as an invisible and unheard ghost—one day of her life—her 12th birthday. As the returned-from-the-dead Emily stands in her family kitchen watching her younger self and her parents and siblings go about their normal routine, she is anguished by how they take life and each other so much for granted and don’t fully appreciate it. She laments,

Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it– every, every minute?

If, when my class was 27, you could have taken all of us back in time to the night of our branch drawing, as Emily-like invisible, unheard observers of our 21-year old former selves, you would not have seen any giddiness or excitement or laughter. We would have stood pin-drop silent, somberly watching it unfold. As the names of our classmates who died in Vietnam were called, tears would start streaming down our faces as we watched that classmate cheerfully choose “Infantry, sir” or “Armor, sir,” knowing it would lead to his death a couple of years later. By the end of the evening as we watched our former selves celebrating, we would be emotionally drained and sobbing uncontrollably. I had to wipe tears away as I wrote this. If any of my classmates, or West Pointers from any war-time class, read it, they will probably have to do the same.

I do not recall any film of our branch drawing being made at the time. But if there was such a film, and they showed it at one of our reunions, my classmates and I would start yelling “Turn it off!” before very many of our classmates who died in Vietnam made their branch choices. Recent senior cadets probably wish there was a video of their branch drawing. Indeed, with the wide spread of video recorders, they probably do have such videos. But they will not be able to watch them, not after they start getting email messages with one-word subject lines: the first name of a classmate, usually one who chose one of the most dangerous branches.

Memo to the officers at West Point who pressure young men with their whole lives ahead of them to go infantry or armor because “It’s the only way to go” or whatever propaganda lines they use: If a video of a branch drawing of a class you pressured to choose infantry or armor is ever shown at a West Point reunion, get your sorry ass out of the state before you get killed by the classmates of your macho branch recruiting “successes.”

No one should ever urge any cadet to choose one of the most dangerous branches. It is the decision of the individual in question. No one else. I don’t know how those who pressure cadets to choose infantry or armor and now combat helicopters can live with themselves when their branch recruits start coming home from the war through Dover Air Force Base. To a lesser extent, I make the same statement about those who encourage high school kids to go to West Point or otherwise join the military. Their just kids. They don’t realize what they might be doing.

Nowadays, the infantry is the hardest branch to get into at West Point. My classmates are astonished when they learn that. Engineers was always the hardest to get into. For example, Douglas MacArthur, Class of 1903, was valedictorian and went into the engineers. (He later switched to the infantry when he figured out it was better for making general.) When I was a cadet, they had a Goat-Engineer football game every fall. The goat team was composed of guys from, if I recall correctly, the bottom 25% of the class by GPA and the engineers team was the top 25% of the class. The engineers team had a differential equation for jersey numbers.

Today’s cadets need to do a better job than we did or than the Class of 2002 apparently did of resisting the various brainwashing pressures about infantry and staying in for a career and all that. As I say in my Succeeding book, select the goals that best match your strengths and weaknesses and likes and dislikes, then focus laser like on the best path to achieving those goals. The standard West Point party line path is probably not the best one for you.

If I had it to do over

If I had it to do over starting my senior year at West Point, I probably would have chosen some non-combat branch where I would would not have been ranked into the infantry for my first two years. (When you chose a non-combat branch, like transportation, back then, they made you go into a combat branch for the first two years before they let you switch to the non-combat branch.) I also would have avoided airborne school and done it as a civilian instead. My oldest son and his wife are airborne civilians. Choosing a non-combat branch would have kept me out of ranger school. I also would have chosen to go to Korea or Germany for my first assignment. That would have delayed my going to Vietnam or perhaps prevented me from going at all.

I did not, and would not if I had it to do over, agree to anything that extended my time in the Army or my time in Vietnam. I think most of today’s cadets made a mistake going to and staying at West Point. The fact that most seem to get out of the Army about as fast as they can after graduation would be my proof. Probably more should get out but they figure, “Well, I’ve stuck it out this far. I might as well stay for 20, especially now that I have so much less competition for getting promoted to general from my classmates.”

What I am telling you is that you are in a lousy position to make career decisions when you are in the belly of the West Point beast and subject to high pressure to do it the way that makes the people who run West Point look best. Keep as many options open as possible. Don’t take any unnecessary chances with your life or limbs. Don’t make any decisions about whether to stay in the Army until your last year of your commitment after graduation. You won’t know what you, and, if you have one, your spouse, will want to do about your respective careers until then. Don’t lock yourself into a longer commitment or get yourself maimed or killed in some mistake war following the party-line career-officer path until you have the information and experience and wisdom of age to make a clear-headed, informed decision.

Lalich/Langone study of cults

Here are some points from the study done by Lalich and Langone.

Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

Bingo on that one.

Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

I don’t know but I’ve been told, Huah! and drive on! Airborne all the way! Rangers lead the way! I could go on, but you get the point.

The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

Sound familiar?

The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself,...the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity

That’s that superiority complex, selfless servant, warrior stuff. The military constantly describes some of its troops and units as “elite.”

The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

I was not aware that had been identified as a cult characteristic when I accused the cadet class of exhibiting that perspective.

The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group.

This is done unofficially in the military. When I was a sophomore at West Point, we were taught some improper thing in summer training at Camp Buckner. The sergeant instructor from the 101st Airborne Division noted that what he had just taught us violated the Geneva Convention, “but Vietnam ain’t Geneva.” Nervous laughter all around, including from the officers observing. I was appalled and considered filing a formal complaint about it. I concluded it would probably get a skull and crossbones put in my personnel file folder and did nothing—until now.

The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

Subtle but present in the military.

The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

It’s called recruiting.

Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

Army wives and ex-wives started nodding when they read that sentence.

Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

NCO and officers clubs and on-base military housing and medical care and shopping plus locating most military people on isolated military bases, including West Point itself, which give the phrase “gated community” a whole new meaning.

The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

Bingo on that one, too. I caught endless hell in the Army for saying I intended to get out of the Army when my commitment was up.

Unattractive college life

This section used to be at the beginning of the article because it was important. But a number of teenagers told me it was not important, so I moved it to the back because they were not reading beyond it.

Those teenagers are wrong about this not being important. Choosing a spouse is the most important thing you will do in your life. But teenagers are ignorant of life. The opposite sex is a dime a dozen in high school, so they foolishly think choosing a spouse is a mere footnote compared to what they major in or where they go to college. In fact, going to West Point is very likely to severely handicap your social life with the opposite sex for the first nine years of your life. And if that causes you to make a mistake about whom you marry, it will adversely affect your entire life.

West Point may have the single most unattractive college student life in America. Anyone who disputes that needs to name the U.S. college with a less attractive student life. I just scanned the list of “over 1400 schools” in the 2006 U.S. News & World Report Ultimate College Guide. I could not find any other candidates for the title of least attractive student life. The only contenders would be other military academies or unusually strict, single-gender, religious schools. (When we were cadets, we often compared the place to a monastery and cadets to monks.)

There are two big problems with student life at West Point compared to student life at other U.S. colleges:

• male-female romance opportunities
• regimentation

Anti-romance factors

Because of a combination of factors, romance with the opposite sex is probably more difficult at West Point than any other U.S. college. Those factors are:

• geographic isolation from civilization and other colleges with female students
• a 6-to-1 ratio of males to females (probably not a problem for female cadets who are OK with marrying a fellow graduate)
• rules that prohibit fraternization between certain classes and perhaps certain ranks
• extreme rules restricting physical contact between cadets and opposite sex

When we were freshmen, we were not even allowed to be friends with upperclassmen in our company (about 120 guys) and it was discouraged with upperclassmen in other companies. And it was an all-male college then!

I believe freshmen are not allowed to date upperclassmen now. I do not know, but I would not be surprised if there are also prohibitions against dating between cadet commanders and their subordinates. To draw the contrast starkly, at a civilian college, if you see a beautiful new freshman when you are a sophomore, you ask her out. If the same thing happens at West Point, you are required to bite on a bullet, figuratively speaking, until she is a sophomore. And even then it may not be allowed if you are in the same chain of command at different levels. For example, I do not think a company commander of one sex in the regular Army is allowed to date one of his or her platoon leaders of the opposite sex.

No PDA; hardly anywhere for private DA

PDA was a rules infraction when I was there. It stands for public display of affection. A cadet could not hold hands or link arms with a “young lady” as the regulation called them. The only exception I can think of might have been escorting the young lady to the dance floor at an-academy sponsored cadet dance (called “hops” as in the oldies song “At the hop” by the Danny and the Juniors). During the first two months of West Point, we could not be seen in the presence of a young lady even if she was our own sister and our whole family including parents was present!

I was just watching the Iranian riots on TV on 6/20/09 when Fox News Shepard Smith called the Iranian Mullahs,

...a group of men who won’t even let couples who are in love hold hands in public.

Hey, you don’t have to travel all the way to Iran to experience that. We have our own hard-core secular mullahs. Just go to West Point, if PDA’s still against the rules.

“So,” you are probably thinking, “you just wait until you are in a private place then you can hold hands, link arms, hug, kiss, and so forth.”

And where exactly would that be? We were absolutely prohibited from setting foot outside the gate of West Point. We were also prohibited from being above the mezzanine in the Hotel Thayer which was just inside the gate. Our dates usually stayed in the girl’s dorm at the Thayer. That part of the hotel was totally off limits to cadets. Bringing a girl into our barracks would almost certainly have gotten you expelled back then. There were continuous random room inspections by the cadet in charge of quarters (CQ) and less frequent, but equally random, room inspections by the Officer of the Day (a grown-up Army officer who was almost always a West Point graduate). There were also cadet guards with rifles (unloaded) in the barracks on Saturday nights. You do not even want to think about what would happen to the guards (freshmen), CQ, or Officer of the Day if there was a girl in the barracks in their area of responsibility.

You are probably thinking, “So you break a rule for love. What’s the big deal?”

Too draconian to violate

It was such a big deal that I never heard of any cadet doing it in four years there. And I would know. Whenever a cadet got “slugged” (major punishment), they would read his name and what he did and his punishment he got from the poop deck in the mess hall at the next supper. All three meals were mandatory then, so the entire corps of cadets would hear the announcement. Frequently we would laugh at the infraction. Invariably, we would wince and groan at the punishment, typically months of walking the area. Walking the area is walking back and forth carrying a 9.5-pound rifle on your shoulder in the central quadrangle inside the barracks area. As I recall, you did it about three hours on each weekend afternoon. It is far worse than it sounds—physically painful and excruciatingly boring. Plus you got inspected each day and typically got more demerits during those inspections which could put you into a vicious spiral of never getting out of walking the area.

If you didn’t get slugged, you got expelled. The risk and punishment were too great. If you have trouble believing that, I guess you had to be there.

“So” you think, “Surely they no longer have such restrictions?” I would expect that they have reduced them, but I saw no cadets holding hands with, or otherwise touching, their dates at West Point when I was there in September of 2008. You would have to ask a current cadet about the rules now.

However, I would not be surprised if the rules have changed at both West Point and the civilian colleges such that West Point is now farther away from civilian colleges than when I was a cadet. In the 1960s, college girls typically had to live in dorms or sororities with curfews and “no boys allowed” signs in the hall leading away from the lobby meeting area. That period saw also the transition period between the “nice girls don’t” era of the 1950s and before and the “free love/nice girls do” era of the late 1960s. So even if the colleges weren’t preventing sex back then, many of the girls were. Nowadays, college girls have no restrictions about sex placed on them by their colleges and many have no sex restrictions placed on them by their parents or themselves. In other words, although the regs at West Point may have let up a little, there is more to miss out on now if West Point is different at all regarding your sex life than a civilian college.

‘Sitting in a parked car after dark with a young lady’

In the Fall of 1966, I was standing in line at Grant Hall, a cadet snack bar and the place where cadets traditionally met their dates. It was a home football game weekend. I had just marched in the damned parade, showered and changed into dress gray over white (The “cadets” in the linked photo are Hollywood actors. Their hats are way too high on their foreheads and their posture is atrocious.), and was getting lunch by myself before going up to the game. Back then, cadets were not allowed to eat or drink in public like at a football game. We could eat in the mess hall for free but I must not have liked their menu that meal.

In front of me in line were two attractive college-age girls. They were unaccompanied, but that usually just meant their dates were still showering or some such. A friend came in and I kidded with him verbally across the room. The girls took note and went into a huddle quickly exchanging some plan discussion. Then one turned to me and asked if they would be thrown out of Grant Hall because they did not have dates with cadets. They had just come up for the game and bought their own tickets. They had walked past a “cadets and guests only” sign when they entered Grant Hall.

I explained that the cadet guard was probably too busy to check whether anyone was there without being a cadet guest and that even if he did, he would probably assume their dates had just not arrived yet.

Pause.

“Would you like to have dates?” They would. I sat them down in Grant Hall, ran back to the barracks before everyone left for the game and got a companymate who was dateless that weekend. We went back and took the girls to the game. I put myself next to the best-looking one at the game and ended up dating her for about six years. She was my date for graduation two years later.

Back at the parking lot

At around midnight, we had run out of game, campus tour, and cadet snack bar activities, so we ended up at their car which was parked in a now deserted temporary game-day parking lot (just south of right field of the Doubleday Baseball Field—you can see a satellite photo of it by copying and pasting the following into Google maps search: “Doubleday Road, West Point, New York.” I tried to create a link but it just gives you a very high altitude view of all of the West Point region).

We talked outside the cars briefly, which was allowed, then we got in, which was not allowed. That went swimmingly until three cars with their bright lights and flashing roof lights on suddenly roared up to each side and the front of the car, blocking us from escaping by driving the car away. Military police and the Officer of the Day (a middle-aged major) leaped out of the cars and rushed to our car doors to prevent us from running away either. It was like a SWAT team attack. I was in the front seat with my date. My companymate was in the back seat with his.

We cadets knew what had just happened. The Officer of the Day, making his rounds looking for cadets misbehaving spotted our car and that there were people in it. He assumed they were cadets and dates. He then called the MPs on the radio because he was not going to let us get away. Did I say this was a middle-aged career Army officer whom we were supposed to grow up to be like one day? We knew he would write us up and give us demerits, but we felt it was worth the risk.

Our dates, on the other hand, understandably flipped out. They thought they were going to be shot or at least arrested. After all, they had sneaked onto our campus and walked past “cadets and guests only” signs when they were not yet guests of a cadet. We tried to calm the girls down while simultaneously getting yelled at by the major in front of the girls. He was ordering us back to our barracks and ordering the girls off campus. They were not staying locally. They had driven up for the day from their girls college in New Jersey.

When I got the “delinquency report,” which accused me of “sitting in a parked car after dark with a young lady” and listed how many demerits I got, I sent it to the girl. She put it on the bulletin board at her college dorm to the great mirth and amazement of the girls there.

I do not know if such things still happen at West Point. But I do know that they do not happen at Columbia, UC Santa Barbara, or Arizona, were my sons went to college.

‘The walk down by the river’

Then there was this little adventure in sex life at West Point. I was in a club at West Point. Our club held a joint affair (Saturday group dinner and a meeting about the subject of the club) at West Point with the similar club from a girls college in the region. None of the students from either college were interested in anything but future opposite-sex romance possibilities.

One of the girls was drop-dead gorgeous. All the cadets noticed her and were talking about her. I got to speak to her briefly, but it was all bright lights and three’s a crowd. No chance to get her name and number without six cadets getting the same information at the same time. So I stationed myself near the group when they were getting ready to leave. They took roll. I strained to hear the names so I could get the name of the gorgeous girl. I got her first name, which was normal, but could not quite make out the last name.

Next day, I wrote her a letter. I spelled her last name as best I could and sent it care of that club at that college. She got it and agreed to come back to West Point alone to be my date for a weekend in January, 1966.

I meet her in front of Grant Hall. She is more beautiful than I remembered. I learn she had been a finalist for Miss New York State. At that time, New York was the most populous state. Miss New York should have won Miss America every year because they were in a whole different league than the other states.

After wandering around West Point giving her the campus tour and having supper at a cadet snack bar, she informs me that another girl at her college told her to be sure to get me to take her on “the walk down by the river.” I explain to her that is Flirtation Walk, so named because it includes going by Kissing Rock. Legend has it that if a cadet ever walks past that rock without kissing his date, the whole Academy will crumble, yadda yadda.” She says that sounds great and wants to go.

“We can’t go now,” I tell her. “It’s after dark. Flirtation Walk is off limits after dark and because my absence card in my room is marked ‘authorized absence,’ I would be expelled for violating the Cadet Honor Code if I took you there now.” (It could only be marked “authorized absence” at that time of day. If it were not, I would get many demerits for sure by the CQ making his random room inspections.) She is perplexed and a bit suspicious of whether I am telling her the truth. It is certainly not anything she has ever heard before.

With a big smile of anticipation, I tell her, “I’ll take you there tomorrow.” (You can see a satellite photo of the area where Flirtation Walk is, but not the walk itself which is just a dirt path. Copy and paste the following into a Google map search: “Clinton Place, West Point New York.” Flirtation Walk is in the scruffy wooded area between the curve of Cullum Road and the Hudson River. If you click on “terrain” and you can read a map, you see that Flirtation Walk is on a steep slope that runs about 200 feet vertically down to the River from the plateau of the Plain where the cadets live, walk around with their dates, and go to school.)

‘Go anywhere you want and do anything you want’

That evening, I take her to a movie in South Auditorium. That was a lecture hall in one of our academic buildings. On Saturday nights, it became a movie theater for the cadets and the officers and officer families stationed at West Point. We run into many of my companymates, chat with them, then watch the movie.

After the movie, she says to me—these are her exact words which are still seared into my brain 43 years later—“We can go anywhere you want and do anything you want.” She also suggests that I “show me your etchings”—literally.

Graduates from that era who are reading this just had mild heart attacks (vicarious post traumatic stress syndrome) because they know what came next.

After popping some nitroglycerin and aspirin tablets to control my own not-so-mild heart attack and racing through my mind trying to come up with a place to take her, I say, “I really appreciate that suggestion. And I would be thrilled to do that if we were at your college. However, the United States Military Academy says at this time of day, I can only take you to a couple of public areas and that the only thing I am allowed to do with you is talk to you. No PDA, which is Public Display of Affection.”

She is not pleased. She apparently made that suggestion to other guys before but got a totally different response. I’ll bet.

Note: I’m not that great looking or charming. The girl I met in the line at Grant Hall did not pick me as the best looking guy in the room. She was scared of being thrown out and picked me because I happened to be next to her in line and unaccompanied. Her huddle with the other girl was to discuss my adequacy, not any extraordinariness.

With Almost Miss New York, I out-hustled the other cadets to be the first, and probably only one, to ask her to come to West Point. Her eagerness to go to Flirtation Walk and elsewhere with me stemmed from her horniness as a result of attending an isolated all-girl college, my being passable as a cadet date, and her unique “Whatever Lola Wants Lola Gets” approach to life. She saw me as a generic West Point cadet and wanted to get the full saw-it-in-the-movies-about-West-Point weekend. I’ll bet she became a very big success of some sort somewhere later in life. She was as ambitious and assertive as she was beautiful and she was a student at an extremely selective college.

Semi-public display of affection

At around quarter of 1AM, I walk her back toward Grant Hall where there is a shuttle buss to take the dates back to the girls dorm at the Thayer Hotel. I explain to her that I absolutely have to be back in my room at 1AM or I will be in extreme trouble. She is pissed and literally orders me to start kissing her right now. Glancing around furtively, I see that we are on Thayer Road next to the East Barracks sally port. (A sally port is a covered, outdoor passageway through a building at ground level. It is about 15 feet wide. Here is a photo from inside what I believe is the North sally port out of Central Area.) My Company C-2 barracks is through the East sally port on the south side of the quadrangle (Central Area) there. No one is in sight. I take her into the sally port, which is lighted but narrow so you can only be seen if you’re also in it or looking through it from the west end. The entrance to the East sally port is a bit narrower than the sally port itself so you can hide in the corner just inside the entrance of the sally port thereby being unseen from the east end.

We make out for about 13 minutes. The whole time, I am looking for the Officer of the Day or any senior cadets on guard duty, some of whom might write up a sophomore cadet for PDA. I am also looking at the big clock in the middle of Central Area. When it gets to 12:58, I tell her I have to go and sprint to my room. She watches me go in wonderment at the whole situation.

When I get back to the barracks, one of my companymates who met us in the movie asks me who the heck my date is. “After I saw her,” he says, “I had to spend the whole movie blowing on my wrists to cool down.”

“Tell me about it.”

Canceled due to inclement weather

Next morning, there is a foot of snow on the ground and a blizzard is continuing to fall. Almost Miss New York says she is ready for her trip to Flirtation Walk. She has no boots, only the dainty flats that cadet dates are recommended to wear because of all the walking you have to do at West Point.

In retrospect, I would have figured something out, like smuggling sweat pants in a typewriter case to protect my wool cadet trousers and wearing combat boots with galoshes (an illegal but hard-to-spot-from-a-distance uniform) and carrying her to Flirtation Walk from the nearest shoveled walkway or loaning her my second pair of combat boots and whatever other cadet clothing she could use and not get arrested for wearing. (Why a typewriter case? We could not carry a blanket or any other object, like another set of pants, that suggested intimate activities when we were “escorting a young lady.”) But at the time, it went like this.

(Sigh.) “We can’t go there because of the weather. It’s a dirt path that is not shoveled when it snows. You have no boots. I have combat boots, but I am not allowed to wear them with this uniform and I am not allowed to escort, that is be with you, in any other uniform today than the one I am wearing. [I was wearing dress gray over gray (shown in the link photos of the chess players) under a short overcoat with regular spit-shined black leather shoes and galoshes.] If I try to take you there, my trousers will get soaking wet from the snow and I will get written up for appearing in public in wet trousers. Being with you at the time will increase the punishment. I’ll take you there next time, I promise.”

We find a spot outside in back of Thayer Hotel where the walk has been shoveled, but it’s not very private. We make out for a half hour or more. Probably 20 people see us. Fortunately, none of them write me up. At that point, I don’t care.

She invites me to spend a weekend at her college. I take more nitro and aspirin. Then I tell her,

“I wish I could, but I can’t. I’m a sophomore. We only get one weekend leave per semester. My mom has already made big plans for it.”

She expresses more consternation at my resistance to her umpteenth overture. I feel her pain.

Jesus! This sounds like one of those 1940s romance movies where the man and woman fall in love then keep getting frustrated and misunderstood until they finally get together at the end of the movie? Unfortunately, my movie had a different script.

I never saw her again.

Only at West Point

That probably would not have happened to me at any other college in America, even the other service academies. Again, I urge you to find out how much of this nonsense is still going on at West Point before you reject it for having the worst sex life in America. But I would not be at all surprised if, notwithstanding some relaxation of rules, that it is still the college with the worst sex life in America.

They have females in the barracks now. They live there. They are female cadets. But my understanding is that nothing is supposed to happen sexually between them in the barracks. With such extended close proximity though, I’ll bet they have figured out some ways. But those ways are likely still illegal at West Point. In almost every college in America, having consensual sex in your dorm room or your girlfriend’s is totally unregulated—and blessedly frequent.

They even relaxed slightly when I was there. During our senior year, a new Commandant of Cadets (officer in charge of disciplining cadets), General Scott, created a place where we could be “sitting in a parked car after dark with a young lady.” We dubbed it “Scott Place.” After I bought my first car, I availed myself of it, ironically, with the same girl who had been with me when I got written up for “sitting in a parked car after dark with a young lady” the night I met her.

It was still idiotic for a 21-year-old senior in college who was about to be an Army officer to have to be in a “submarine races” car like a 1950s high school kid who had borrowed dad’s vehicle for a hot date.

Sexual harassment

There was absolutely no such thing as sexual harassment when I was in the military, or at least we never heard of it. But I saw on C-Span that Congress has been investigating sexual harassment at the service academies. If you are a female or parent of a female considering going to West Point, make sure you investigate the sexual harassment situation at West Point before you go. I have no knowledge of it myself.

Parenthood

In addition to choosing a spouse, prospective West Point graduates ought to want to have children. That, in turn, implies that you want to be a good father or mother. Can you do that as an Army officer?

You probably think, “Of course you can.” I think the true answer is it’s extremely difficult, for two main reasons:

• moving to a new continent or state about once a year on average
• long absences for war zone deployments, TDY, and so forth

Been there as a kid

I had to change schools several times growing up because my alcoholic father could not keep a job. I was not very good at changing schools, but even those who are better at it don’t like it. (The trick is you have to join group activities as soon as you arrive at the new area—like youth athletic teams, the band, whatever. That way you meet and get to know lots of peers fast.) Having a career military parent who gets reassigned every year or two on average is not much different from from having a father who can’t keep a job from the the perspective of a kid.

Every time a military parents gets deployment orders, they have to tell the kids they are leaving and that they might not come back. Seems to me that a parent ought to have a damned good reason for subjecting kids to that once, let alone more than once. Example of a damned good reason: I got drafted. Example of a horseshit reason: I like being in the Army. Too bad for you that I don’t like the occupations of the other 99% of the parents in America.

Then there is getting killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. That is devastating to the kids of the dead service person. I am reminded of a thought I had at my mom’s funeral. She smoked, over our protests, and died of lung cancer.

No one has a right to make you love them then commit suicide.

Come home dead

Even if the guy who comes home dead is not you, your children often will be attending on-base elementary and middle schools where somebody else’s parent comes home dead, maybe their friend’s parent. I never had to experience that. You probably did not either. You’d better have a damned good reason for subjecting your kids to that and I don’t regard “I like being in the Army” as such a reason.

When you are a husband and/or a parent, you have an obligation to do what your family wants, not just what you want. Furthermore, deciding to have kids then deciding to unnecessarily risk leaving them orphans is arguably an immoral decision. The same applies to turning a single woman into a bride then a widow. If you get drafted and it works out that way, c’est la vie, c’est la guerre. But choosing to risk that is arguably immoral and profoundly selfish. The military expects, nay, demands, that you act in a profoundly selfish way with regard to your spouse and kids. Your only opportunity to mitigate the damage is to try to convince your spouse and kids that your words speak louder than your actions. Good luck with that.

Then there are the teenage years. They are a series of minefields involving alcohol, drugs, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted disease, broken hearts, social status or lack thereof. By being in the military, you complicate that by having your kids go to school with other kids whose parents out rank your kids parent. You exacerbate the normal problems by adding the problem of “my parent’s never around when I need them.” A military adolescent psychiatrist said many of today’s military children are displaying “clinically significant” responses to their parents being deployed, namely, attention deficit disorder, lower test scores, aggression, anxiety, depression, and suicide problems. Then when the kid gets in trouble, you’re on the other side of the world all but unable to help. Your spouse has to be both father and mother to the troubled teen. Few are able to do that by definition.

In the Newsweek article, one military parent explained to his kids that if he did not go to Iraq (four times), someone else’s parent would not get to come home. Not true. The other parent is a volunteer. They all are. And I guarantee that no one in Iraq is depending on any particular person to come there so they can go home. Another warm body volunteer will always be found by the Army to replace the guy due to come home.

That “explanation” is only true in an all-draftee Army and if we had such an Army, there would only be one deployment per person, not four. Daddy is going to Iraq for the fourth time because Daddy likes going to Iraq. Actions speak louder than words. If Daddy did not like leaving his wife and kids at home and going to Iraq, Daddy would not have even done it once. He would have stayed out of the Army. Daddy and only Daddy did this to you. Not the Army. Not the parent of the other kid who wants to come home. Daddy volunteered and continues to volunteer again and again.

The article said the teachers often hear from a mom that their kid is fine in spite of his dad being in Iraq. Then the ask the kid and he or she says, “No, I’m not fine.” So in addition to kidding yourselves about how wonderful an Army career is, you also have to deceive your kids. And they are far less easily deceived than parents hope or think.

If this sounds like the kind of father or mother you always wanted to be, if these sound like the way you want your kids to live, go to West Point. Or you can do out of high school what I was not able to do until after I got out of the Army. Having not enjoyed moving around, I vowed that my wife and I would stay in one home for our kids’ entire lives. That would spare them having to make new friends and impress new coaches. It would also provide a stable mental health foundation when they were growing up and a psychological safety net (I can always move back in with mom and dad) after they grow up.

And I kept my vow. We designed and had our current home built in 1983. Our oldest son was born in 1981. Our current house is the only one he remembers. The other two sons were born after we were in our current home.

Children’s sports careers

I coached 35 athletic teams—7 high school, 2 semi-pro, and 26 youth. One thing I can tell you about moving around is it hurts a kid’s youth sports success. Returning kids get preference over new kids. The devil you know versus the devil you don’t. If a kid is fantastic, he will be recognized, but most are not that great. Those get hurt by parents who keep moving them to places where they have to prove themselves all over. At the high school level, there is a high probability that the son or daughter of a military person might lose out on playing their sport in college. That is, if they have college-level ability, the moving around during high school will make it harder for them to get playing time as a starter, even though they have the ability, thereby making it less likely or unlikely that they will be recruited by any college coaches. That’s especially true of quarterbacks in football.

Friends and romance

Moving your child during teenage years often ends a romance. We adults know that such romances probably would not have lasted. But we cannot say that for sure about any given romance. What’s worse is that, to the child, the romance seemed the most wonderful sure thing in the world and you ended it for no good reason.

Same is true for all ages with regard to friends. Good friends are precious. Moving annually on average makes it hard to form strong friendships and harder still to preserve them. The 6/15/09 Newsweek had an article with the title/subtitle

Children of Conflict/Since 9/11, more than a million kids have had a parent deployed. Their childhoods often go with them.

Live at your favorite place

We civilians typically try a few different places to live and end up in the one we like best. Kind of logical, don’t you think? In the military, such common logic is an uncommon virtue.

In the military, at best, you live in your favorite place once for, at best, three years, then you’re out of there. Civilians who are connoisseurs of places to live probably would not like any Army base location. They are comparing them to places like Newport Beach, CA, the Upper East Side of Manhattan; Aspen, CO; San Francisco; and Georgetown, DC.

Minimum-security prison

When I was a cadet, West Point had many things in common with a minimum-security prison. I expect that is still true, but less so.

Cadet time is tightly scheduled by the Academy. We were told when to get up and when we had to be back in our rooms at night (1 AM on Saturdays and 10PM on other days). We were literally not allowed to set foot off the campus except on rare leaves or official trips. We had to be in uniform at all times even while sleeping (nude or West Point pajamas—one night in the wee hours when we were cadets, the tac officers went to each cadet bed and pulled the cover off the sleeping cadet to make sure he was in uniform—I kid you not). All three of our daily meals were mandatory except Saturday lunch and supper and Sunday brunch. There was also only one sitting and we marched into those meals in formation. Every item in our rooms had to be in a precise location and the room and our possessions had to be immaculate.

We could only have visitors (officially called “escorting”) during Saturday afternoon and evening and Sunday at mandatory chapel and in the afternoon. All class attendance was mandatory at all times. Even being late to class was so severely punished that most graduates were never late to a single class in four years. I was never late to a class except for one unusual evening class at the beginning of my freshman year. I misunderstood the rule about being in your room until 1920 hours. I did not know you could leave before that if you had an official reason. I was late to the 1930 hours class by seconds, and got a bunch of demerits.

At some minimum-security prisons, I believe they allow conjugal visits and have private rooms with beds for that purpose. West Point did not allow conjugal anything when I was there and I would not be surprised if that is still the case.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Talk to a current cadet about how much of that is still the case. I am not sure of the rules at a minimum-security prison, but I’ll bet most are less onerous in many ways. If there were any people who experienced both, I expect they would make a similar comment as the guy who was tarred and feathered and asked how he felt about the experience. “If it weren’t for the honor, I’d rather have walked.”

If it weren’t for the honor of going to West Point, and the shame of being in prison, most cadets and minimum-security inmates would probably prefer the weekday prison life style to weekdays at West Point.

It’s literally indentured servitude

I have an article at this Web site where I say the U.S. should draft its military. Many who disagreed accused me of advocating “indentured servitude,” which they regarded as a profound and fatal put down of my support for the draft. Being a good little journalist, I researched the history and precise definition of indentured servitude.

Guess what? The all-volunteer military, not the draft, is indentured servitude, precisely. Indeed, the post-graduation commitment of service-academy graduates—five years active duty and three years inactive reserves—is very close to the actual indentured servitude terms of the 1700s when as many as a majority of white immigrants to the U.S. were indentured servants who worked off the cost of their being shipped to America.

Here is the first paragraph of the Wikipedia write up on indentured servants:

An indentured servant is a form of debt bondage worker. The laborer is under contract of an employer for usually three to seven years, in exchange for their transportation, food, drink, clothing, lodging and other necessities. Unlike a slave, an indentured servant is required to work only for a limited term specified in a signed contract.

Wikipedia also says,

Indentured servitude was not the same as the apprenticeship system by which skilled trades were taught, but similarities do exist between the two mechanisms, in that both require a set period of work. The agreement could also be an exchange for professional training...

I think the most accurate use of the term would be to say that remaining at a service academy like West Point beyond the start of junior year—the point at which you become committed for the next TEN YEARS—is absolutely indentured servitude, plus being taught a sort of skilled trade. Enlisting in the military is indentured servitude until your enlistment is up. So are ROTC and other education programs for which students incur a service commitment. Going to graduate school on the Army’s nickel after West Point extends your period of indentured servitude. Indeed, it would seem odd to 18th century young men to learn that in the 21st century, middle-aged men were indentured servants. Back when indentured servitude was common, it was only for children and young people.

Article 4 of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (passed in 1948) says indentured servitude is illegal. I believe it’s also illegal in the U.S. because of laws that prevent suits for specific performance of personal service contracts. See the Wikipedia discussion of specific performance including exception number 5. You can sue to enforce a contract which requires someone to sell you something, but if the contract involves a person working for you, you can only sue for money damages if they stop working before the end of the contract. You cannot get a court to order them to keep working for you if they do not want to. As far as I can tell, the only indentured servitude in the U.S. now is in the military, where it is legal, and in the mistreatment of some illegal Third World immigrants to the U.S. Even pro athletes who make tens of millions can refuse to work for their team. They have to pay back any salary paid in advance and they will not receive any more pay after they stop work. They might owe some damages if the team is hurt financially by their reneging. But they cannot be forced to stay and perform.

Felt like a prisoner in the Army

In addition to feeling like we were in a prison at West Point, I personally also felt like I was a prisoner in Vietnam and after I got back to the U.S. I had no problem with paying my five-year “debt to society,” even in a combat zone, after graduation. I tried. However, speaking not only for myself but also probably for many of my fellow prisoners, I say this,

Yes, we will stay in the Army for five years and do whatever job you assign us to. However, do not look to us indentured servants to sign your false documents or kiss your asses like our lifer peers and our peers who plan to get out the same day as us, but who will lie about intending to make a career of the Army, kiss your asses, and “play the game” in the interim to make their lives as easy as possible during their time in the Army.

What actually happened to me was that I briefly had real jobs (platoon leader and company XO/commander), but none ever lasted longer than four months. The rest of the time after my full year of post-West Point Army schools I was simply tormented and harassed by my superiors to punish me for refusing to “play the game” and kiss their asses. My superiors’ peers apparently taunted them about “not being able to control their lieutenants” (me) and some of my peers complained about my not having to do stuff they had to do like attend “command performance” parties. I had to be shown who was boss.

Well, wait a minute. I agreed to stay in the Army for five years after graduation from West Point to pay the taxpayers back for my education. But if I am constantly in a non-job (assistant to a guy who is not authorized to have an assistant), and getting paid as a first lieutenant with more than four years of service ($49,777.20/yr in 2009), how is that paying the American people back for my education?

My superiors were all non-West Pointers who hated me for being a West Pointer who couldn’t wait to get out of the Army. Back then, West Pointers got a “Regular Army” commission on graduation day. Officers from other commission sources were “Reserve Army” officers, even though they had always been on active duty, and had to apply later for a Regular Army commission, which was hard to get. Back then, Regular Army officers could not get RIFFed (laid off). Reserve officers could. My superiors were also outraged at me for unilaterally exempting myself from stuff they and everyone else had to do when they were lieutenants, namely OVUM and OPUM.

I finally got them to stop paying me for the last three or four months I was in by going on leave without pay. They agreed with my argument that the taxpayers were not getting paid back by my collecting the 1972 equivalent of $50,000 a year while I was assigned to nothing jobs. They also concluded that my resistance to their efforts to break me like a wild horse was an immovable object and just wanted me out of their sight. (I did insist on getting my $4,000 severance pay when I got my honorable discharge. It was based on number of years in the Army and I damn well “did that time.”)

Some other recent West Pointers who have written to me indicated they, too, felt like prisoners during their indentured-servitude commitment period after graduation. And they, too, were eventually not allowed to have any real military jobs.

Dilbert comic strip 2/28/10

The 2/28/10 Dilbert comic strip captured this mind set. In it, Dilbert momentarily confused his “entrepreneurial fantasy life” with his real job where he works in a cubicle and is daily beset by idiot and/or evil bosses and colleagues. He said in one panel of that strip,

I run a parallel career in my mind. In that world, I’m the founder of a hot start-up.

And in the next:

It keeps my brain from fully realizing the horror of my actual career….

I know the feeling. When I was in the Army my spare time was filled with thoughts and writing plans for my future civilian life. At the time, I likened it to the allied prisoners in World War II slowly digging an escape tunnel out of their German prison camp like the true story depicted in the classic movie The Great Escape.

I met another West Point grad at a cocktail party once. He said he loved working with tools and spent all his daydreams designing the inside of a tradesman’s panel truck. His daydream was to become a handyman for a living. His truck was going to have the perfect collection of tools and fasteners all perfectly organized. I encouraged him to follow his dream. He said it was impossible. He needed to make more money. “But you only live once! Do what you love!”

Nope.

I have read accounts of prisoners of war who occupy their minds with similar plan-making. I once saw TV of a Soviet citizen who had a little out building at his farm. He had dramatically remodeled the inside of it and was extremely proud of it and eager to show it to visitors. But he did not remodel the outside at all. In the tightly controlled Soviet Union, the inside of that outbuilding was his only opportunity to be himself.

The job of the U.S. Army when I was in was to stop the Soviet Union from imposing that life on us. I was struck by the irony of the U.S. Army itself being a mini-Soviet Union in that regard, full of officers and enlisted men who lived for their hobbies and held their noses all day in, and numbed themselves to, their “Lieutenant Dilbert”-like military lives.

What the hell kind of way is this for a West Point graduate who was captain of his high school football team, class president, and most likely to succeed to spend the best years of his life?!

Alcohol and drugs

I do not drink alcohol. Never have. My dad was an alcoholic. I wanted to be immunized from that. Never taking the first drink does that. Ditto for drugs. I never even tried marijuana, which makes me almost unique in my generation. So my position on alcohol and drugs is different than most.

However, I understand that the vast majority of college students regard underage drinking and excessive drinking and getting drunk as one of the main attractions of college student life. I oppose that. I support the 21 drinking age and laws against doing dangerous things under the influence. I recommend the book Dying to Drink: Confronting binge drinking on college campuses which is written by the director of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study.

If drinking alcohol before age 21 and excessively thereafter, and/or doing drugs, is one of your big goals for your college years, you’d better look into the party scene at West Point before you commit to go there. I know they can drink alcohol on campus now. We had to be at least 15 miles away from West Point. We also had an 18 drinking age back then. But I would be surprised if West Point has moved much higher on the party school list than when I was a cadet in the 1960s.

I was grateful for West Point’s regimentation with regard to alcohol and drugs. There was virtually no peer pressure there to drink alcohol. And there was absolutely no peer pressure at all to use drugs or even tobacco. An officer asked an auditorium full of cadets, including me, for a match once when I was a senior. He needed it for an academic demonstration. No one had one. I had about 20 roommates (normal there then) in four years at West Point. Only one smoked.

Check with a current cadet for the latest on these issues. If you want to abuse “substances” as they are now euphemistically known to college administrators, you may find West Point is not a great place to do that. On the other hand, if you would like to avoid using “substances,” or being around those who do, West Point may still be a refuge from typical college peer pressure to use and/or needing to step over drunks, clean up vomit, or spend your Saturday nights saving your classmates from overdosing.

Cadet finances

We got paid a salary while we were cadets at West Point. Not much. It was $111.11 when I started in 1964. (That’s $766.50 in 2009 dollars) That was precisely half the starting pay of a 2nd lieutenant then. By the time we graduated, I believe it was around $150 a month—still half of a 2nd Lt.’s pay. I read in the 2009 Forbes magazine that said West Point was the best college in America that the cadets are now paid $895 a month.

We were not allowed to spend all of that money. They forced us to put a significant part of it into our “fixed account” which was savings. I used the savings, like most of my classmates, in part to make the down payment on my new car (’68 gold Camaro 3-on-the-floor stick with an 8-track tape player) in March of our senior year.

As cadets, we were starving students. I got into the habit of having a Coke and a pack of oatmeal-raisin cookies in Grant Hall after school to clear my head on days when we did not have intramurals or a parade. My mom was sending me some small allowance—$10 a month or some such. She was so relieved that she was not having to pay more for me to go to a civilian college that she thought $10 a month was a good deal. She was a single mom with three sons who worked as a secretary. I decided that she needed that money more than I so I told her to stop sending it. After that, I could no longer afford the cookies; just the Coke. Except for that $10 a month, which I only received for a couple of months, I have been financially independent of my parents since age 17. That’s a good thing, but West Point is not the only way to achieve it. Indeed, risking your life and screwing up the first five years of your post-college life are not worth the “financially independent as a teenager” claim.

We were rarely allowed to go off campus. When we could, we generally went to Manhattan. We went there every year to march in the Armed Forces Day Parade. And we went there for the Syracuse football game in Yankee Stadium my plebe year and the Notre Dame game my sophomore year. The typical cadet afternoon-evening (whole student-body trips) day was eating at Tad’s Steakhouse on Times Square and wandering the streets looking for girls. For those trips, which ended at 1:00 AM with us being in formation on the streets of Manhattan next to 40 buses, we were in uniform the whole time. On weekend leave, we would always be in civvies. (I just ate at a Tad’s on Powell Street in San Francisco in June, 2009 for the first time in 40 years for old times sake. Decent food and still great prices.)

When we had weekend leave in NYC, we typically stayed at a hotel that had cheap rooms for cadets (Picadilly or Manhattan hotels). We would take dates to the Officers Club on Governor’s Island (Coast Guard base then). It was cheap and very special. Only active-duty military could go there on a free ferry and you could walk around in a night-time, hyper safe, Mayberry sort of atmosphere—only with the skyline of Manhattan a mile away. Our big splurge was dinner with a date at Mama Leone’s in Manhattan. Cadets could cut the long line there, but we got no discount on the prices. Roughly speaking, cadets in Manhattan back in the 1960s were fairly similar to the weekend depicted in the musical movie On the Town with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jules Muchin. Naive and poor and eager to meet girls. After one Armed Forces Day parade, a classmates and I met some Barbizon girls on the street and spent the rest of the evening with them.

As I said elsewhere in this article, I was one of a minority of cadets who used my active duty military status to hitch free rides on Air Force planes to Hawaii and Europe on summer (30 days) leave. I also stayed in bachelor officers quarters whenever possible, like Nellis AFB to visit Las Vegas—otherwise in pensions I found through Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $10 a Day book. I also discovered in the West Point library a book that was sort of a travel guide for active-duty military. It listed all the military air bases, naval bases, and all the military bases that had “transient” housing. When I went to Hawaii after plebe year, I had a reservation at Fort DeRussey, a military hotel on Waikiki Beach next to the Hilton Hawaiian Village. For a back up, I also had a reservation at the Honolulu YMCA.

Anyway, you get the idea. Yes, we got a salary. All U.S. military can hitch rides on Air Force and other military planes (space available—very maddening at times, scary in that you were gambling on getting a ride back to West Point which would mean big trouble). But we were still impoverished, starving college students. The main fact of the cadet finances was that we were not writing checks for college debt after graduation. (We sent our bods to Vietnam to pay our “debt” instead.)

Net better off?

West Point boosters who were asked about my description of cadet life as the least attractive college student life in America would probably resist agreeing with that, but instead of refuting the pertinent facts, they would cite offsetting benefits, generally of the “build character” and “great” education type.

Other than the possible refuge from substance abuse I just cited, it’s not true. As the rest of this article explains, West Point does not live up to the hype. To put it the way we did when we were there, West Point sucks. Grads will not like me saying that, but if I had said it to them at West Point back when we were cadets, they would have responded with things like,

Tell us something we don’t know. No shit, Sherlock. What was your first clue?

The problem is the promised or imagined offsetting benefits never materialized.

LT 07’s summary after reading a bunch of my articles:

I am glad to read the honest to God truth for once, and I agree about people not wanting to criticize the military, afraid of a draft, calling all Soldiers heroes, etc etc. Also, about the fact that young kids get suckered into going to Service Academies and enlisting, later to find out that the Army/military is not all it’s cracked up to be. I went to West Point because I thought it would be different, be a challenge, be something great to do as a career, Looking back, I was young, naïve, had no idea what I wanted in life and what I was getting into, but hung in there because of the great friends I made and eventually the awesome experiences I had because of West Point...(...I went to _______ for my CTLT—and like you, was appalled at how the “real” Army worked… I should have known right then!) If I had read your article “Should you go to or stay at West Point?” I would likely have gone to a better school. So unfortunately, I thought West Point was the best I could do, and I was sadly mistaken, and realizing that now, as a 1LT, when it’s too late. My plan is to get out ASAP and apply to a top notch school I really want to thank you sir, for opening my eyes, and educating me on the REAL military.

I only wish some changes could occur as the result of your articles. It seems that no matter how many former military write books, articles, etc, the military does not seem to change. It was incredible to me, reading your accounts of being in the Army in the early 70’s, how little has changed.

I just finished your Sassaman critique, and I agree that being outside the wire is where you want to be. My soldiers were assigned to Combat Outposts, sort of like your description of Bunard, where there were berms and concertina wire as protection. I went to visit them several times, and it was amazing in the sense that no one was there to tell you what to do. I was probably the highest ranking person at the outpost as a 1LT.

I believe I am one of the ones you refer to as being good before and after the military, but not in. Indeed, this is indentured servitude, and I can’t believe that I or any of my comrades did not realize it sooner, before it was too late.
Thanks for all your wisdom sir.
Ilegitimi noncarborundum,

LT 07

[Reed note: Ilegitimi noncarborundum is a phrase that a number of my better-educated, non-West Point, fellow lieutenant peers in the Army used, behind the bosses’ backs, to buck up my spirits during my various battles with the brass.]

Wall Street Journal article about the West Point Class of 1976

The 7/25/09 Wall Street Journal had a big article about prominent members of the West Point Class of 1976. The hook was it now has a lot of high-ranking generals in the current wars. The Journal compared the Class of ’76 to “the Class the stars fell on:” 1915, which had a lot of big shots in World War II. The article has a number of errors which I will point out mainly to show that the general media stories about West Point are almost always a little off. Also, the article contained some accurate information that the author did not adequately draw conclusions from.

To get right to the latter point, the Class of 1976, as a group, may be one of the worst to graduate from West Point in the 20th century. I do not make a comment about particular graduates of that class other than McChrystal (head guy in Afghanistan) and Odierno (head guy in Iraq). To see what I said about them, type their names into the “Search johntreed.com” box in the top right corner of this page.

The Rolling Stone article that got Class of 1976 member Stanley McChrystal fired said,

McChrystal entered West Point in 1972, when the U.S. military was close to its all-time low in popularity.

Like I said.

Entered at a bad time

Why would ’76 be one of the worst? It all stems from when they entered West Point: 1972. Since the Vietnam war, West Point classes have “vintages” like wine. With wine, they stem from the weather when the grapes were grown, not unlike stemming from the public image climate of a college when it was receiving applications. 1972 was not a good year.

That was perhaps the nadir of U.S. Army prestige among the American people. I got out of the Army on June 14 of that year shortly before the Class of 1976 entered West Point around July 1st. The Army was about to lose the Vietnam war, which had been commanded by Westmoreland and Abrams, both members of the West Point Class of 1936 (which also included Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. head of the Tuskeegee Airmen and to whom his West Point class refused to speak when he as a cadet because he was a “negro”).

The media were full of accurate stories about Army units in Vietnam refusing to go on patrol, heavy drug use, and militant black soldiers routinely exhibiting open hostility towards their white colleagues and superiors. In the Journal story, members of the Class of 1976 told of being spit on, having eggs thrown at them, and avoiding wearing their uniforms.

That sort of thing also happened to my class in our last year there and after graduation, but not before. We were surprised by that having entered in 1964, before the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Resolution that most consider the start of the Vietnam War. West Point prestige may have been at a peak in the late 1950s and early 60s because of the West Point TV series and the movie The Long Gray Line.

The Class of 1976, however, applied when the anti-Vietnam War unpopularity of West Point and the U.S. military were already well known. Readers too young to remember the Vietnam era may think the current anti-war sentiment is the same as during Vietnam. Not even close. Also, the current anti-war sentiment is directed toward the top civilian leaders, not the military personnel themselves. During Vietnam, they spit on military personnel of all ranks. I suspect that many, if not most, of my class would not have applied to West Point in such a climate. Being careful to distinguish the war from the “warriors” today is a backlash from the way it was done during Vietnam. Baby Boomer draft dodgers—the majority of the generation—regret what they did during Vietnam as far as treatment of the military went.

I am not sure what years were involved, but I heard from classmates who were professors there around that time that West Point admissions had trouble filling all the spots in the classes in the 1970s. Normally, nine are rejected for every one admitted.

Cheating scandal

The class of 1976 did not distinguish itself during their time as cadets. They had the biggest honor scandal in West Point history. Time did a cover story with a photo of a cadet holding crossed fingers behind his back. Many of my classmates were there then as instructors and astonished the rest of us with tales of what was going on. One was that cadets would campaign for company honor representative (the jury members in honor investigations and trials) by promising never to vote in favor of expelling a companymate regardless of guilt. That would have been unthinkable when I was a cadet from 1964 to 1968. Indeed, the mere suggestion of such a thing would have resulted in the politician cadet in question being instantly expelled.

Lunar astronaut (Apollo 8—first to go around the moon and return) and West Point graduate Frank Borman was put in charge of the Borman Commission which investigated the 1976 West Point honor scandal. You can read his full report at http://www.west-point.org/users/usma1983/40768/docs/borman.pdf. The 1976 honor scandal centered on a junior class electrical engineering exam, but the Borman Commission found a pervasive “cool-on-honor” culture and the Honor Code is run by the cadets, not the officers, so the senior class of 1976 shares responsibility for the 1976 honor scandal with the junior class of 1977. For example, here is a comment from the Borman report,

Last year 16 first classmen [members of the Class of 1976] were forwarded to full Honor Boards, yet not one was found guilty by his peers on the 1976 Honor Committee.

That is an extraordinarily and suspiciously high exoneration rate. 16 of 20 accused freshmen were found guilty at the same time.

Vandalism of the mess hall

There is a dramatic, priceless, huge mural in the mess hall at West Point. (I could not find a decent color photo of it on the Internet but there probably is one.) The Class of 1976 and the other classes there at the time (perhaps not the plebes) deliberately vandalized it during a riot in which they threw food at it. At their 25th reunion, the Class of 1976 donated $500,000 to restore the mural. I am no expert on removing food stains from a mural, but I suspect 25 years is too long to wait to do it. In the interest of full disclosure, I believe we heard when we were cadets that cadets before we entered West Point had also had a food fight, but that the damage to the mural in that case was collateral and minor, not aimed at the mural as with the Class of 1976.

First class of women at West Point

The first class containing women entered the year ’76 graduated. The hostility of West Point to women entering had been well known throughout ’76’s senior year there. Even the Superintendent, the head of West Point, publicly denounced the change in policy. I do not know what to make of letting women in, but I know any anti-women feelings at West Point should have been suppressed totally. You’re in the Army, guys. Shut up and follow orders.

Success is also vintage based

The Journal was highly impressed by the number of current big-shot generals from the Class of 1976. That is pretty much a vintage issue as well. The big shots in the Army at any given time hold the rank of four-star general. How long does it take to become a four-star general? About 30 to 35 years. Do the math. The big shots in the Army in 2009 became officers, that is graduated from West Point, 30 to 35 years before, namely 1974 (Petraeus’ class) to 1979.

The Journal quotes a West Point official saying the ’76 generals in that class “wield unprecedented influence over the battlefield.” Well, maybe if you define that title in a way that few other classes have a chance to compete for it—like during a time of two simultaneous wars. But it is pretty clear that West Pointers in the same class wielded enormous battlefield influence during the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam, too.

I mean c’mon. West Point is the Army’s college. The Army runs the wars. Wars expand the size of the Army and the number of battlefield command opportunities. Cronies appoint and promote cronies. Since World War II, the U.S. military does not promote except from within. Whadya expect? If an unprecedented number of West Point ’76 guys turn out to be civilian college presidents, or Fortune 1,000 CEOs, that would be noteworthy, but classmates moving along the Army’s union-seniority sort of promotion conveyor belt and holding battlefield positions during a double war is not very noteworthy.

Errors in the Journal story

Error Correct version

McChrystal led a prank mock attack on Grant Hall which is described as an office building

Grant Hall is a cadet reception snack bar and lobby on the first floor. It was where we met our friends, relatives, and dates for the weekend. I believe it was cadet barracks on the upper floors in the 1960s and 1970s.

about McChrystal’s prank attack using real but unloaded weapons and witnessed by civilians who thought it was real There were plenty of cadet pranks when I was a cadet, but nothing of this nature. It sounds middle schoolish—like McChrystal may be a bit off. The article says he was almost thrown out of West Point for it. Ten years before, I suspect he would have been.
“For a prank military raid on Grant Hall, an ornate office building in the hear of the school’s campus, General McChrystal borrowed vintage weapons from the school’s museum, for research purposes, he told professors at the time” That would be a violation of the cadet honor code. The punishment is instant expulsion. Technically, they ask you to resign and if you did not in my day, you got silenced by the whole Corps of Cadets. 99% resign. This honor violation is consistent with McChrystal’s lying in the Pat Tillman incident, which the Journal completely ignored in spite of having covered the Tillman story including identifying McChrystal’s central role in it.
Odierno was primary architect of “The Surge” See the book The Gamble and/or my review of it
Class of ’76 are the foremost evangelists on protecting civilian population comes first ditto above comment, Petraeus, Kilcullen, AEI, and others were the main evangelists
Gothic stone buildings at West Point They’re Tudor, not Gothic
’76 arrived at an opportune moment because the military academy had doubled in size a few years earlier Bull! That’s my class of ’68, not ’76. Congress doubled the size of the Corps of Cadet (West Point student body) in May, 1964 (after I had received my appointment but before my class entered on 7/1/64) 1964 is not a “few” years before 1972. It’s a whole other war before!
Army was becoming more professional because of ending draft draftees are much better soldiers, as a group, than volunteers. See my article on the need for a draft.
quote yearbook write ups on Odierno and McChrystal Those are written by a friend chosen by the cadet in question. I would not be surprised if some guys wrote their own. No one checked. Mine was written by a roommate/classmate.
teachers gave tests almost every day About once a week in each subject when I was there. I doubt it changed to more frequent.
attendance at Saturday intercollegiate sports contests was mandatory No. Attendance at about five home football games was near universal but not mandatory. I only skipped one in the pouring rain senior year. Two away games per season—Navy and one other—were mandatory. One year, we had a third at Chicago to play Air Force. Hardly any cadets attended any other sports events.
In Afghanistan, McChrystal plans to build small outposts in individual neighborhoods and towns to help protect the local population. Not according to what General Petraeus, who is McChrystal’s boss, said to an audience including me in San Francisco on 7/9/09. Petraeus said living among the people in Afghan villages, as was done in Iraqi cities, was culturally impermissible.


Where does my Class of 1968 rank?

Since I have suggested that the Class of 1976 might be the worst in the 20th century, some, especially members of the Class of 1976, might wonder where my Class of 1968 ranks.

To answer that question in a sound and rigorous manner, you would need access to the admissions records. But let me give it a shot.

I think my Class of 1968 may be Number 1.

I am only talking here about where our respective classes stood on the first day of Beast Barracks—the day we entered West Point—7/1/64 in our case.

First off, the early 1960s were arguably the Golden Era of West Point. One piece of evidence for that is the attendance at the Army-Navy Game. Back then, that was the biggest football game in America—believe it or not, young people. In 1961 and 1962, President Kennedy attended and crossed the field ceremoniously at half time because he was the Commander in Chief of both services (he served in the Navy in World War II). President Kennedy planned to attend again in 1963 but he was assassinated about one week before the game, which was postponed. Back then, the Army-Navy Game was always played at midday on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and broadcast nationally. They still broadcast it nationally, seemingly for patriotic and traditional rather than football reasons, but it’s now played a week or two later and at various times.

The 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State game was bigger. It was #1 versus #2 which, before the BCS, was a rare occurrence, like an eclipse.

The Super Bowl was not bigger then—mainly because it did not exist. The first two games between the NFL and AFL were in 1967 and 1968. They were post-season exhibition games between the established NFL and the upstart, and perceived to be less competitive, AFL. As predicted, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers won both games. Not until 1969 did the AFL win a game (Joe Namath’s NY Jets of the AFL versus the NFL Baltimore Colts). Although the 1967 game is now called Super Bowl I, the name “Super Bowl” did not come into being until the 1969 game.

As an indirect result of that victory, the NFL and AFL merged in 1970. The two former leagues are now conferences: NFC and AFC.

The attendance at Army-Navy Games averaged over 100,000 in the 1960s. All prior, and subsequent, decades had significantly fewer attendees. Heisman Trophy winners played for Army and Navy in that era. (Dawkins USMA won in 1958; Bellino USNA, 1960; Staubach USNA, 1963—Staubach’s last Army-Navy game was 1964 when I was a plebe. Army won)

That may not be the best way to measure the prestige of West Point, but it is relevant and I am not aware, at the moment, of a better measure. Maybe number and quality of applicants, but I do not have that information and I would be suspect of it anyway because of the convoluted admission process at the major service academies back then and still has to an extent. My sense back in 1964 was that most of the fathers in America would have preferred that their son get appointed to West Point than admitted to Harvard. West Point cadets had the image of being very smart, athletic, exemplary All-American young men then. See the 1955 movie Long Gray Line and the 1956-1958 TV Series West Point for evidence of that image. Harvard’s image then was preppy, rich kid, legacy-not-merit admits. See the 1970 movie Love Story for evidence of that image. Now, Harvard is the gold medal of college admissions; West Point is regarded as an odd, extremely narrowly focused college like a school of mines or a culinary institute (or at least that was my impression coaching high school football in the 1990s and 2000s).

Baby Boom

My birth-year group, 1946, was the first year of the Baby Boom. Our fathers were almost all away in World War II in Europe or the Pacific. They returned home in the fall of 1945 and early 1946. We Baby Boomers were born approximately nine months later.

When I was a freshman in high school at a small rural school, all the classes ahead of my class had one home room each. My class had three home rooms. As did those behind us. Not only were the number of births greatly increased in 1946, they were also greatly depressed in the war years because twelve million young men (10% of U.S. population then) were in uniform and most were overseas.

West Point and the various members of Congress who nominated most of us had significantly more young men to choose a class from in 1964 than they did before that year. So I think a strong argument can be made that we were better incoming material than our immediate predecessors just based on demographic numbers.

Indeed, even when I was in high school I used to look at the older kids and wonder if their fathers were 4-F (physically unfit for World War II military service) or draft dodgers. When I was a freshman in high school, our class played the sophomore class in basketball—if I recall correctly, during half time of a varsity game. Our class won! That was quite unexpected at the time, including by us, but looking back on it it may have been the one-homeroom 4-F offspring against the three-homeroom combat veterans’ sons that determined the outcome. (I played in the game without distinction or any stats that I recall.) (I am aware that many members of the college classes of 1965, 6, and 7 had fathers who served in the military and who were conceived then due to their dad being stationed in the U.S., but some large percentage of those college graduation years were children of 4-Fs and draft dodgers.)

Gulf of Tonkin

What about the classes behind us? Truth to tell, I suspect the Class of 1969 might have been about the same as us. But there is one reason that suggests they might not have been: The Gulf of Tonkin incident and Resolution.

When my class entered on 7/1/64, there was no war. Vietnam then was like some Latin American countries at present. That is, we had a small number of military advisors there training local soldiers. The Gulf of Tonkin incident that marked the beginning of the Vietnam War occurred on August 2, 1964, a month after we entered West Point. By the time the Class of 1969 applied, the nation was at war. Wars since World War II depress applications to West Point I think. I am not sure about that. Again, I am also not sure there are any trustworthy numbers on the subject. Certainly in the latter stages of the Vietnam War, applications to West Point dropped dramatically.

But the Class of 1969 may have been a clone of ours because public support for the war was still strong when they applied. Public support still does not change the fact that applying to West Point in 1965 meant volunteering for a war which, patriotic fervor notwithstanding, did not even occur during World War II, the most popular war in our history. They had to institute a draft during World War II to get most of our military personnel. Even the Navy and Marines drafted during that war. So it is possible that applications to West Point from the second year of the Baby Boomer generation were below my class because of the existence of an ongoing war. At that time, going to a civilian college got you deferred from the Vietnam draft. During World War II, going to West Point or Annapolis probably delayed your arrival in the war zone and thereby decreased your probability of ever going there.

By 1966, when the class of 1970 applied, anti-war fervor was a substantial factor in America that probably reduced West Point’s ability to be selective.

So arguably, the Class of 1968 entered West Point during, not a window, but a unique one-year slit between the coming of college age of the sons of the returning World War II military personnel and the beginning of the unpopular Vietnam War.

Expansion class?

From time to time, they expand the number of teams in the NFL or MLB. Generally, expansion teams and expansion years are marked by lower quality of play and an extraordinary number of new records are set because of the slightly lower quality of players in the expanded leagues

My West Point class was the first to benefit from the May, 1964 new law that expanded the size of the Corps of Cadets. That is, we were the first expansion class.

But let’s not go overboard. First, we were not an expansion class until May, 1964. Most of us were appointed to West Point before the May law that expanded the size of the Corps. I got my appointment in April. So did most of my classmates. Then, in May, West Point hurriedly called a number of applicants who had been rejected in April and offered them an appointment. I do not know the exact number, but the class before mine graduated 583. My class graduated 706. The 123 difference is a 21% increase. (236 original members of the class before mine did not graduate; 284 of my class; so the total increase in number entering on the first day of Beast was 174)

In one high school I attended, the classes before me had one home room’s worth of students. My first-year-of-the-Baby-Boom class had three home rooms. Given that my birth year had significantly more young men than the year before us, a 21% increase did not reduce the Academy’s ability to be selective when my class—both the original and the second-wave appointees—applied. Congress would have had to increase the size of our class more than that to make our being an “expansion” class meaning we were less selective than the “one-homeroom” classes of ’65, ’66, and ’67.

Also, unlike civilian colleges, West Point admissions back then could not just pick the best applicants in the pile. They had to take the Congressional nominees who passed minimum West Point standards. It is even possible that my classamtes who were in the second wave of appointments in 1964 were actually better qualified on the grounds that the academy may have been able to exercise more merit discretion than they were able to with us first-wave “Principal” and “First Alternate” nominees.

That’s a brief analysis of something that you should dig into deeper to get a final answer, but I submit that it is logical and fact based.

What about classes before the 1960s? That’s the one home-room or smaller era. Although the Corps of Cadets was smaller then, I doubt it was smaller enough to change the selectivity percentages. The population of the U.S. was much smaller than in the 1960s (122 million in 1930; 180 million in 1960). Pre-World War II classes I would expect are too hard to compare. West Point was not accredited until 1925. There was a Depression in the 1930s. West Point was one of only a few colleges where you could avoid the draft during World Wars I and II, believe it or not.

What about classes after about those that entered in the mid 1960s? Vietnam, baby. That’s a whole different world. I do not believe that the Military Academy or the military in general has ever recovered from the Vietnam War. Young people may think Vietnam is irrelevant now. Nope. Your parents and/or grandparents were adults then. Ask them. That war is still vivid in the minds of all the people who lived through it either as military personnel or draft dodgers or girlfriends or wives of draft dodgers. And parents and grandparents still affect many, maybe most, prospective college students’ decisions on where to go to college.

On the day my class entered West Point, virtually no one in the U.S. was anti-war or anti-military. Since the late 1960s, anti-war and anti-military feelings have been common, if not a majority view, in the U.S. as manifest by such things as the lack of a draft, ROTC being banned from many colleges, military recruiters being banned from many high schools. Young people today will probably have trouble even imagining an America in which ROTC was welcome at virtually every college and discouraging military recruiters or ending or resisting the draft would have been universally condemned as so unpatriotic as to be treasonous. But that is exactly the way it was when my class entered West Point.

Live up to it

One unique benefit I got from West Point—and one that is hard to quantify—is that it makes you want to live up to its image. You feel an obligation when you are in the presence of people who know you went to West Point to behave yourself better. There are few other colleges, including even the great ones like Harvard or Stanford, that do that to you. It’s a good thing. But again, it’s not worth the ordeal and the risk. You can find other reasons to be good. As a West Point graduate ages, he or she should replace the West Point “brand” with their own unique “brand” of past performance, accomplishments, reputation, and character.

The greatest thing about West Point

The greatest thing about West Point graduates is the idealism and nobility with which they entered the place. They knew it was going to be very hard and, when I went, it was far harder than we thought no matter how diligently we tried to research it in advance. I wrote an article about that for my class’s 40th reunion memory book Both Sides of the Wall: Reflections of the West Point Class of 1968. You can read that article at www.johntreed.com/Tonkinclass.html.

We did it because we believed, however misguided that turned out to be, that putting ourselves through such a Spartan ordeal would make us far better men. And we were motivated, although we would rarely admit it back then, by things like patriotism, belief in the West Point motto of Duty, Honor and Country, and the other West Point ideals expressed in the Cadet Prayer and the words of the songs Alma Mater and The Corps.

However disappointing the results of our recent wars and the general lack of post-graduate surpassing by West Point graduates of their far less trained civilian peers, we had the highest noble intentions when we went there and stayed there until graduation. We deserve an E for effort and an I for intentions if not an R for results.

There is a Web page that has emails about the above and other articles at http://johntreed.com/militaryemail.html.

‘Transformative’ experience

On 2/26/10, my Harvard MBA wife and I, also a Harvard MBA, went out to supper with another Harvard MBA our age and his wife. When the subject turned to Harvard Business School, he commented that it is a “transformative experience.” I agreed.

Was West Point a transformative experience? I expect 95% of West Point graduates would say it was. I expect 100% of those who want to go there believe it will be a transformative experience in a positive way.

Reflecting on my four years and West Point and the 42 years since, I think it’s a mixed bag that breaks down something like this:

• partly transformative in a good way
• partly transformative in a bad way
• accelerative
• retardative

(I figured I was inventing those last two words but when I checked the dictionary I found both already exist.)

‘No excuse, sir!’

I feel we were transformed in a good way by the “no excuse, sir” training. But I think that is accelerative in part. In other words, I think those who go to civilian colleges learn to take more responsibility as they mature. It happens faster—almost instantaneously, actually, at West Point. It was literally part of the very first words they spoke to us the day we entered West Point.

Mister, from now on you have three answers: Yes, sir; no, sir; and no excuse, sir.

But I also believe most non-West Pointers never get all the way to the take full responsibility for your actions and inactions that West Point plebes do. So we were transformed to the extent that we take more responsibility all through adult life than non-West Pointers, but only accelerated in taking more than the typical high school kid who spends four or more years at a civilian college being “young and irresponsible.”

Take-charge kinda guys

I think we were also transformed from normal people to men who see themselves as taking charge when someone needs to take charge and issuing orders that we expect others to obey. That is not as difficult to accomplish as most people probably think. It’s relatively easy to teach. You just have people follow such orders then you put them into the positions where they give the orders. You also teach the mechanical tricks of order giving (e.g., preparatory command, command of execution, command voice). Since West Point, I occasionally see many non-West Point adults put in a position where they are in charge of other people and they are obviously uncomfortable and often inept at directing the group and too tentative.

You may think we West Pointers are overbearing and too bossy. Some are but for most of us, the full command mode is something we are capable of, but know not to use in most settings. For example, when I hold my parent meetings at the beginning of coaching their sons in a sport, I take charge when the scheduled start time arrives by forcefully and loudly saying, “Good evening! My name’s Jack Reed. I’m your son’s head coach for this season.”

In most cases, the group is talking among themselves loudly when I begin, but they quickly stop because of what I did and how I did it. I do not call the room the Attention! military style.

Good transformations that happen to you at West Point:

• “no excuse, sir” responsibility taking
• comfortable and competent commanding other adults
• elevated self-esteem from getting admitted and overcoming obstacles to graduation
• learning subtleties of leadership from born-leader classmates
• non-athletes probably become more likely to engage in regular physical exercise throughout life
• slight fine-tuning of understanding of integrity like understanding how silence can be a lie in some circumstances

Bad transformations that happen to you at West Point

• becoming overly obedient and deferential to authority
• post-traumatic stress syndrome (lifetime of nightmares about being back at West Point)
• overly high opinion of self in relation to non-West Pointers
• five years of indentured servitude in the Army after graduation
• acquire the habit of bureaucratic approach to life

Accelerative changes in West Point cadets

• take responsibility much earlier than civilian peers
• comfortable with command sooner than civilian peers

Retardative changes in West Point cadets

• socially immature especially with opposite sex
• don’t learn how to dress in civilian clothes
• don’t learn how to handle alcohol (probably better now than when I was a cadet)
• don’t learn how to make decisions (they are almost all made for you)
• don’t learn how to apply for a civilian job or acquire skills and habits that serve well in civilian jobs
• don’t learn how to relate to non-military subordinates
• failure to develop wide-ranging intellectual curiosity as happens more often in civilian colleges
• don’t learn civilian business results orientation, process orientation instead
• general isolation from civilian world and failure to learn the habits and techniques for negotiating it

West Point experiences that people think are transformative but that are not

• honor training (I already referred you to many other articles that refute the notion that West Point graduates are all paragons of honesty)
• neat freak behavior in rooms and personal appearance (doesn’t last beyond the graduation ceremony—indeed, throwing our hats in the air at the end of the graduation ceremony was a metaphorical throwing off of the shackles of neat freakism—many grads are slobs afterward because they finally are allowed to be)
• marching in parades
• living a military lifestyle (saluting, reveille, regimentation, etc.)

Tom Ricks’ article urging shut down of West Point

A reader sent me a link to an article by Tom Ricks. He is the author of a number of books about the current military including Fiasco, which was about the first three years of our occupation of Iraq and The Gamble, which is about the Surge and related tactics. I am reviewing The Gamble at www.johntreed.com/Gamble.html.

The Ricks article from the Washington Post says the three major service academies should be closed. It mainly focuses on West Point. Ricks also has a blog where he put additional comments about why West Point should be closed. Rick is a military journalist and an expert on the military.

Generally, Ricks says many of the same things I have had at this Web article for many months. He missed some points, but provides a different slant and different data on many of the points I already made. I am not ready to call for the closing of West Point. I think it is a very special place to most Americans and that specialness should not be easily lost. However, I also think West Point has been living off distant past laurels and has not been recognizing that it is talking a better game than it is playing. I think they should be given another chance, perhaps one last chance, to clean up their act and make the place live up to its explicit and implicit claims (it costs a lot more to produce a West Point 2nd lieutenant than an ROTC one).

Ricks said,

[Service academy graduates] remind me of the best of the Ivy League, but too often they're getting community-college educations.

I don’t agree with that. My research and experience and observations of other colleges indicates the West Point education is probably in the top 50 to 100 four-year colleges in America. The post-West Point careers of West Point graduates, including graduation from top graduate schools, are significantly more accomplished academically than the careers of even the best community colleges graduates.

Oddly, I registered at Ricks’ blog and tried to post a comment like the above paragraph and I was instantly “denied access” from posting. I never post on blogs so maybe I am ignorant of the standard rules. For example, I put the URL of this “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?” article in my posting. Maybe any URL triggers a spam filter.

Anyway, I think Ricks generally got it right about West Point. Like any good journalist he provided not only his own expert opinion but also many pertinent facts. Now the critics of my article about West Point can explain why a long-time civilian military expert who did not go there is saying almost exactly the same things I say about USMA.

In his inaugural address in 1981, President Ronald Reagan said,

Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.

He was quite right and West Point and the U.S. military, are the government. That is the seemingly insurmountable, great difficulty regarding whether you should go to, or stay, at West Point.

In order for West Point and the Army to live up to their stated ideals, the ideals that draw fine young men and women to the Academy each July, they must decide not to behave like government usually does, nor let the government force them to do so. I see little hope that they will even try, let alone succeed.

William McGurn’s ‘Salute to West Point’ column in the 1/4/10 Wall Street Journal

“Main Street” columnist William McGurn has a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal. Basically, his nephew Timothy Dore got accepted to West Point (Class of 2014) over the Christmas holidays and McGurn was overwhelmed by the excitement and his pride in his nephew so he wrote a column celebrating the accomplishment.

He also noted that his nephew’s acceptance at West Point was seen by a number of people as evidence that the “free” education at West Point was his nephew’s only reason to want to go there. McGurn used this Wall Street Journal column “A salute to West Point” to inform his nephews’s acquaintances that the nephew had scholarship offers to go to other schools so West Point did not offer any cost advantage. While his loyalty to his nephew is admirable, my wife and I do and the Journal’s other subscribers not pay almost $400 per year to read argumentative messages that William McGurn is sending to his nephew’s high school classmates, through the Wall Street Journal, that his nephew did, too, get scholarship offers from civilian colleges.

As far as getting accepted at West Point is concerned, been there, done that. You can see a YouTube of a portion of a speech where I told of the day I was accepted to West Point. I know how his nephew felt. And I remember my friends and relatives being as proud as McGurn if not far more so.

Times have apparently changed.

‘Really smart’ then; ‘can’t get a civilian scholarship’ now

When I got into West Point in 1964, the people around me thought it meant I must be really smart. At the whole-school assembly where my acceptance at West Point was announced, a student behind me, whom I did not know, instantly asked me, “You got all A’s, didn’t you?” “No. 3 A’s 2 B’s and a C.”

When I commented years later that a real estate investment course I had taken was quite difficult, the top producer in our real estate company said to a friend of mine that it must have been really tough because “West Point grads are really smart.” How low the mighty have fallen that West Point admittees are now accused of inability to get a civilian scholarship and bargain shopping when they choose to go there.

I sent McGurn an email thanking him for the basic idea of the column. However, I had two bones to pick and did.

• McGurn’s repeating the party line about officers must have the highest integrity
• McGurn’s insufficient concern for the physical safety of his nephew and others who might be inspired by his article to go to West Point

I discussed the fact that the military and West Point talk a far better game than they play when it comes to integrity in this article and in others:

• Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?
No medals for moral courage
• The morality of obeying stupid orders
• Did U.S. military personnel really earn all their medals?
Review of Nate Sassaman’s book Warrior King
• The general who lied about Pat Tillman gets promoted to military’s highest rank and made head of Afghanistan
Why I created these military Web pages.
• The death of Pat Tillman and its aftermath
• Stuff that is Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory (OVUM) in the Army
• The suicide or murder of Col. Ted Westhusing (West Point Class of 1983) in Iraq
• Is the U.S. Army’s armor branch a fraud?

‘Entitled to my views’

McGurn wrote back to me that he found my allegations that the Army’s integrity was not what is should be or what the Army claims it to be to be “unpersuasive.” He allowed I was entitled to my “views.”

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts. This article on whether you should go to West Point, and my articles on other military subjects, are chock full of facts and logic. Another thing no one is entitled to is to characterize their debate opponent’s facts and logic as merely being his “views” or opinions. Characterizing your debate opponent’s facts and logic as just opinions is intellectually dishonest. Therefore William McGurn is intellectually dishonest. It should be noted that the first place I formally studied logic was at the West Point McGurn is now so fond of. I also spent an undistinguished year on the West Point debate team as a plebe.

I knew nothing about McGurn so I Googled him. He was a George W. Bush speech writer. That explains a lot, including his intellectually-dishonest debate instincts. His bio includes no mention of military service.

One of my West Point classmates is also an admirer and acquaintance of McGurn. After he read this article, he assured me that McGurn’s a great guy. I suggested he tell McGurn that I, too, am a great guy and I do not appreciate receiving emails from a non-West Point, non-military vet talking down to me about West Point, integrity in the military, and combat. Maybe McGurn and I should have a [root] beer summit in the Rose Garden of his former place of deployment.

McGurn’s nephew is following in my, not McGurn’s, footsteps

Timothy Dore is neither my nephew nor under my command, but I feel protective of him now that he has stepped into the same situation I was in when I was his age. I also feel his Uncle William has done several disservices to Timothy and to all the young men and women like Timothy who will be influenced by McGurn’s column. Below is an open letter to Timothy Dore, to other high school kids who may be considering West Point, and to any other uncles who might feel compelled to insert themselves into their nephew or niece’s decision to attend, or stay at, West Point.

Dear Timothy,

Congratulations on your acceptance to West Point. It is a great accomplishment and I am happy and excited for you, but also concerned.

Unlike your Uncle William, I have been where you now are as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed high school senior overwhelmed with the excitement and forthcoming adventure of going to West Point. Also unlike your uncle, I am a former U.S. Army soldier and war veteran. William McGurn is a chicken hawk. When it comes to war, chicken hawks are “do as I say, not as I did” hypocrites. As I said at the beginning of this article, you certainly should get other West Point cadet and graduate perspectives than just mine on going to, or staying at, West Point. But you will be better off if the number of chicken hawks you get West Point advice from is zero.

And your uncle is not just any chicken hawk. He is a chicken HAWK with a capital H because he was a speech writer for the biggest chicken hawk ever to be president: George W. Bush.

Bush avoided service on active duty and in Vietnam by joining the National Guard. In recent years, ironically when Bush was commander in chief, he sent tons of reserves and guards to Iraq and Afghanistan. Grandparents have been killed over there as a result. That was virtually unheard of in Vietnam.

Ask someone who was college age or older during Vietnam and they will confirm to you that reserve and national guard service were draft dodger havens then. Indeed, when Bush’s father chose Dan Quayle as his running mate, there was an instant scandal because he was in the national guard during Vietnam. George H.W. Bush (senior) who was president during Desert Storm, was a Navy torpedo bomber pilot during World War II in the Pacific and was shot down by the Japanese. Bill Clinton, whom I have no use for, was another Draft Dodger in Chief, but he sent almost no one overseas to die while president so he is not a chicken hawk, just a chicken. Mogadishu, which he continued but did not start, did result in the deaths of 18 American soldiers.

One of my amateur psychologist theories about chicken hawks is that their post-military-age hawkishness is to compensate for, and distract attention from, their chickenness back when they were of military age, but dodged or avoided military service. I think the proclamations of military patriotism that come from the mouths of chicken hawks are manifestations of draft-dodger guilt, rear-area guilt, and survivor guilt. Timothy, get advice on going to West Point from lots of people, but not draft dodgers or post-draft military service avoiders. Your uncle’s column may have been motivated in part by his own personal-problem need to deal psychologically with the fact that he did nothing resembling that which you are about to do—during a war.

Remain anonymous

The salient challenge of West Point is plebe year. As you probably know, but other readers may not, it starts around July 1st in the summer before your freshman year. Notre Dame grad McGurn never went through a plebe year like the one he is so enthusiastic about propelling you toward. 46 years ago, my classmates and I went through a tougher one than you will get, but it’s still no picnic.

There are two key pieces of advice for surviving plebe year:

• Remain anonymous
• Cooperate and graduate

Your bull-in-the-china-shop-of-your-young-life uncle thinks he learned all he needed to know about West Point from attending a commencement and football game there. Not so. He was apparently unaware of your need to remain anonymous during your plebe year. You probably now have no chance of that because of his naming you in his Wall Street Journal column. West Point cadets do not normally read the Journal, but they will darned well have been told about McGurn’s “Salute to West Point” column.

I predict you may find that you were nicknamed “Wall Street” before you arrive. You may have the additional duty of delivering financial reports at your meals in Washington Hall. You don’t get to read them. You have to memorize them.

Hey, Wall Street!

Yes, sir!

Let’s have the financial report.

Sir, Yesterday, the Dow closed at … The S& P 500 was higher at … and the NASDAQ ended the day at …

Why?

Sir, I do not understand!

Why did the NASDAQ close lower than the day before?

Sir, I do not know!

Find out, Wall Street. Don’tcha think we need a little context here. I mean was it “profit taking” or reaction to financial news? From now on, you will also provide reasons for changes in the DOW, S&P and NASDAQ, capeche?

Yes, sir!

The next generation

Timothy, your uncle also threw in this gem which caused me to wince when I read it.

…the promise is not that West Point will produce the next generation of Grants, MacArthurs, Eisenhowers or Petraeuses—though it will

Here’s that would likely have affected you in 1964.

On your first day at West Point, your cow (junior) squad leader in Beast Barracks (first two months of West Point in July and August before academics begin in September) hands you your uncle’s column with the phrase I just quoted highlighted.

Wall Street, read the name of the author of this to your classmates.

William McGurn, sir!

And who is he to you?

Sir, he is my uncle!

Read the highlighted part to your squad mates.

Sir, …the promise is not that West Point will produce the next generation of Grants, MacArthurs, Eisenhowers or Petraeuses—though it will…

So which are you?

Sir, I do not understand!

Are you the next Grant, MacArthur, Eisenhower, or Petraeus?

Sir, I do not know?

Didn’t your uncle tell you which one you reminded him of?

I guessed you might get the nickname “Wall Street” from your uncle’s column. You could just as easily be nicknamed “MacArthur 2.0” by the upperclassmen. And if you graduate and survive “showing presence” in Afghanistan or unarmored drives through Baghdad IED alleys, your classmates will probably still be calling you “Wall Street” or “2.0” at your 40th reunion.

I was unable to be anonymous

How do I know this? I was a non-anonymous plebe. My classmates and later classes are unaware of this, but my name, John Reed, was famous with the classes before mine. Reportedly, West Point made a maudlin, melodramatic recruiting film that started a fictitious cadet name John Reed. The classes ahead of me had seen it. I was warned before I went there about it.

One of “Cadet John Reed’s” lines they told me about was that at the end of his beast barracks, he commented how “great it was going to be to have the Corps back together again in Reorgy Week.” Reorgy Week is short for Reorganiztion. It was the first week of September.

During the summer back then, the new plebes were at West Point along with many junior and seniors who trained and harassed them. The sophomore class was all at Camp Buckner, out in the West Point boondocks west of the main campus with many seniors who were their cadet leaders. The remaining juniors and seniors were in Germany doing internships with the regular Army. Juniors also spent June at West Point and Seniors spent June on the firstie trip, a visit to all the headquarters of the major Army branches from which we had to choose in the spring of our seniors years.

At the beginning of September, they all came back to the main barracks, Plain, and academic-buildings area that tourists like McGurn see. During Beast, the plebes outnumber the upperclassmen by about 5 to 1. During the academic year, the upperclassmen outnumber the plebes by about 2.5 to 1. This is not a good thing for plebes. Furthermore, since New Cadet “John Reed” in the recruiting film had never experienced Reorgy Week before, what the hell would he know about how great it was to have the Corps [whole student body] “back together again?” In short, no real plebe would ever say such a thing.

Sure enough, I was instantly famous. I believe the first incident when the first time my squad leader took roll.

So, you’re the infamous cadet John Reed.

In one of the first outdoor platoon formations, all the upperclassmen came around to see “Cadet John Reed” in the flesh and made thousands of mocking remarks.

When a new recruiting movie was made of West Point while I was a cadet, they gave me a small scene all by myself, but I heard it ended up on the cutting room floor. However, the upperclassmen in our company grandly introduced me to the film crew, who had seen the Reed film as part of their research, with, “This [dramatic pause] is the real Cadet John Reed!”

You can see the film that was made when I was a cadet by that film crew. I am in it. See my article at http://www.johntreed.com/West-Point-recruiting-film-from-when-I-was-a-cadet.html. It includes a link to a YouTube of that recruiting film which was made during my four years there and released when we graduated.

One of the early incidents was reminiscent of your uncle’s blundering implication that you may be a future Douglas MacArthur.

So, Mr. Reed. Did you ever think after you got accepted and decided to come here anything like, “Grant, Pershing, MacArthur, Eisenhower, Patton,—and now me?”

Yes, sir!

Squeals of delight from all the upperclassmen in the area.

When I would go to another company—always a terrifying experience for a plebe—wearing a uniform that included a name tag, upperclassmen would spot the name “Reed” and ask,

Hey, Mister. Your first name’s not John is it?

Yes, sir.

Whoa! Hey guys! Come look! It’s the real smackhead plebe John Reed!

During my Beast Barracks as a plebe, one upperclasssman made me walk across Central Area when it was crowded with cadets returning from lunch screaming at the top of my lungs,

Sir, My name in New Cadet Johnny Reed and I love it here!

over and over.

So, Timothy, enjoy your uncle’s “just knowledgeable enough about West Point to make your plebe year harder” column. He made you famous. Unfortunately, he assumed being famous is as much fun for a West Point plebe as it is in the White House or the Wall Street Journal.

It’s not.

Authorities will protect you?

Some may think maybe the Superintendent of West Point, the head guy, will put out the word not to single you out because of the Journal column. Such Supe-in-a-china-shop behavior might make things far worse.

Yeah, the supe’s the big boss, but he ain’t there 24-7 in the cadet barracks. The upperclassmen figure dealing with plebes in their department and would resent interference by the Supe. If the Supe tried to grant you some sort of immunity from plebe year, the uppers would be really pissed, and would tell everyone including your classmates, that you were excused from the plebe year they and your classmates had to endure. That would be very bad for you and would not be conducive to the cooperate-and-graduate teamwork you need to survive the place. You might even hear some remarks like one upperclassman ostentatiously saying to another,

Oh, Scott. Remember, you can’t make “Wall Street” recite The Days. He’s protected by the Supe. And his big shot uncle at the Wall Street Journal may write a column that ends your officer career about the nasty upperclassman who harassed his nephew.

Supes are all grads, so they would not make that mistake, right? Depends on which they rate higher, your welfare or their own potential career embarrassment if your uncle wrote another column—a negative one about West Point because of his nephew being harassed.

We always heard that if you ever wrote your Congressman, the Pentagon would stamp “PI” for “political influence” on your file folder. I would not be surprised if they stamp “MI” or some such for “media influence” on yours, now, courtesy of your “probably well meaning but just smart enough to be dangerous to your cadet career” Uncle William.

Pressure to go and stay there

The more outrageous thing Uncle William has done to you is to put a huge amount of additional pressure on you to go to West Point and stay there until graduation. Other admittees can change their minds between now and the start of their third year as a cadet and few will know or care. But not you. You’re famous. Because of your uncle’s column, it will be harder for you to decide not to go there, or to quit after you do.

That is way out of line. It’s your life, your college, your conveyor belt to deadly combat. He had no right to do that to you. Ignore that pressure and make your own decisions regardless of the heightened embarrassment that may result from the Wall Street Journal column.

Many of my classmates and I discussed when we were new cadets that we wished a doctor would knock on our cadet door and tell us we had a medical condition that was overlooked. Then we could go home. Because we all got such a big sendoff—newspaper articles in our local papers, announcement at the school assembly, etc. in my case—we felt we could not quit. When they spotted us back home, people would ask,

Why are you here? I thought you went to West Point?

At which point we would have to say,

I quit.

Word would then spread among those who participated in the big send-off.

Did you hear? Reed quit West Point.

I cannot speak for all my classmates, but in the bull sessions at West Point, the consensus seemed to be that about 90% of us wished for that doctor visit. Then the answer to the question would have been,

I did go to West Point and got through he worst part of it, but then the doctors there said I had a such and such which meant I had to be discharged even though I wanted to stay. So what’re you gonna do?

That‘s a much better story than “I quit.”

For almost all of us, the doctor never came, so we graduated from this unbelievably oppressive college called West Point that we would have been thrilled to get medicaled out of. It is one of many unexpected realities behind the public image of the Long Gray Line that non-grad gray hogs like McGurn are so fluent in. (A gray hog is a person who is totally enthralled with all things West Point.)

If I had it all to do over, I would not have applied to or gone there. I could not quit at any time back then because the Vietnam War, which was supported by a draft, began five weeks after I entered. At that time, leaving West Point pretty much meant simply switching from being an active-duty West Point cadet to an active-duty private (corporal or sergeant if you waited until September junior year or later to resign).

Should you go to West Point, Timothy? I do not know you well enough to say for sure, but probably not. Read the rest of this article and others at my Web site. Research other sources than me. Make a point of seeking out both the good, which is about all you’re going to get from most sources, and the bad, which will require digging. But you owe it to yourself, and your current and future families, to really find out what you are about to get yourself into. West Point ain’t Princeton.

Conveyor belt to hell

“War is hell.” So said Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, West Point Class of 1840.

We are currently fighting two wars.

West Point is, therefore, a conveyor belt to hell. True, some current cadets are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I do not understand their thinking. And a heck of a lot of other West Point grads, including veterans of the current wars, feel the same as I do about that.

War is a shit job, like being the executioner at your state prison—only the executees can shoot back in war. You do it because Congress declared war and the American people supported the war strongly enough that they allowed all their sons and daughters to be eligible to be drafted into it. If you get drafted, you go and do your duty. You do not volunteer to execute people.

Current U.S. solders and marines bitterly complain that,

We went to war and America went to the mall.

If America is going to go to the mall, which is definitely not what they did during World War II, the last war we won, you should go to the mall, too, Timothy. If you get drafted, go and fight. If Iraq and Afghanistan are not important enough for all Americans to be eligible to sent sent there to fight, then they are not important enough for you or your classmates or your men to risk death there.

Here is a statement I heard on 1/29/10 on the Military Channel from a Korean War veteran.

When I returned to the United States and saw an different America that was sitting at home fat and sassy watching the newly introduced phenomena[sic] of television and a total lack of concern for the lives of the wonderful young men that were squandered by an ill-prepared nation in an ill-directed conflict, I became quite bitter.

I agree wholeheartedly with that as a Vietnam vet and an observer of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who said that? General Alexander Haig, West Point class of ’47, former Secretary of State, White House Chief of Staff, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Vice Chief of staff of the Army

Again, Uncle William, who made his living writing speeches supporting the war, is not objective or experienced enough to comment on the matter. Also, there is occupational hazard from being an advocate which renders that part of your brain incapable of objective consideration of the subject you argued one side of for years.

The banality of combat death

The main thing I think current cadets do not understand is the banality of death in a war zone. You would think dying in a war would be the most important day of your young life, and it is. But you would also think it would be a really special day like a wedding or commencement or Christmas. Almost certainly not. The super realistic Army “video game” made by Onion captures it perhaps better than anything else I have seen.

It is viewed from the point of view of an unseen U.S. combat soldier in Afghanistan. He stares for a long, boring time at the distant terrain while on guard duty. Then the screen suddenly turns read and the words “You died” appear. A sniper shot you in the head without warning. No combat. No glory. No great battle. No bravery. Just instant, final death that benefited no one but the enemy’s body count. Just another banal day at the U.S. military office. A split screen could show a young civilian your age at the mall buying Auntie Anne’s pretzels and Cokes for himself and his fiancee.

Dying for the battalion commander’s career

In Vietnam, I was a commo platoon leader in an artillery battalion. Our battalion commander ordered our batteries to fire at least X number of rounds of huge 175mm and 8-inch shells every night. At what? Nothing. Why? Because the brigade commander kept a chart of how many rounds each battalion fired. No battalion commander wanted his line to be shorter than the others.

That brigade commander also happened to be the officer who unwittingly changed me from a career officer into “let me out of the Army ASAP” when I was a cadet intern at the 101st Airborne. He was the battalion commander there who took a liking to me, took me under his wing, and taught me about all the inside tricks to advance your career, like making sure you have a Minuteman flag in front of your battalion. It meant 95% participation in the savings bond payroll withdrawal program. You illegally pressure your subordinates to sign up to achieve the 95%. I was appalled and disgusted and instantly decided I wanted no part of an Army career. That officer was not a West Point graduate. My battery commander at the 101st was a West Pointer. His role in my decision to leave the Army was to confirm that the battalion commander’s depiction of how to have a successful the Army officer career was not some sort of joke as I initially assumed.

I was never in an infantry unit in Vietnam, but I’ll bet their brigade commanders also had charts listing how many patrols or body counts or whatever their battalions were doing and that battalion commanders were sending their companies out on dangerous, unwise, unnecessary patrols to push their line on the chart up. And that West Point graduates and their men died or got maimed to push those lines, and the careers of the graph keepers, up. Toward the end of the Vietnam war, American soldiers began to refuse to go out on such meaningless patrols because we were pulling out of the war. They were right to do so. The wonder is that more did not. There is an episode of the true TV miniseries Band of Brothers where the commander is ordered to take out a final-days-of-the-war patrol to capture a German prisoner and pretends to do so, but does not. His lie was wrong. Refusing to take out the patrol was not.

Most young people who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan probably did so because the occupations were a bad idea that just continued because Bush and Obama cannot figure out a way to get out that did not make them look bad. If truth-in-advertising laws applied to the letters commanding officers have to write to parents and widows regarding the death of their next of kin, they would say things like,

Your son was killed riding in a semi-armored humvee on a known IED street. The purpose of his final ride was to show presence which has no military value but lets the current commander in chief look like he’s doing something about terror and prevents the opposing political party from criticizing him for being weak on terror in the next election campaign. The Re-elect Bush [or Re-elect Obama] campaign thanks you for your son’s ultimate sacrifice in the cause of keeping the current commander in chief and his party in political power. Hope you enjoyed the free flag folded in the shape of a triangle we gave you.

West Point graduate Lieutenant Colonel Nate Sassaman was the most successful Army quarterback in memory. He was a battalion commander in Iraq. Initially, he wrote the required letters to the parents or widow of his men who got killed there. But he could not stand to do it and later refused, putting the duty on his XO. (Sassaman was subsequently forced out of the Army for telling a West Point platoon leader in his command to lie about an incident. The platoon leader went to prison for the lie. See my review of Sassaman’s book Warrior King.)

Almost killed three times

I was almost killed three times as a result of graduating from West Point. Once in Ranger School where I came close to drowning because some body-temperature-IQ sergeant got impatient about our crossing of the Yellow River. The second time was an even dumber spec 4 hot-rodding in a deuce-and-a-half truck with the words “No brakes” in grease pencil on the inside of the windshield he was looking through as he slammed on the “brakes” The truck plowed into the building I had just walked past.

The third time was when I and my platoon sergeant were made to drive alone in a jeep on Route 13 from Phu Loi to Loc Ninh (Firebase Wade) which was 5 kilometers from the Cambodian border in the Parrot’s Beak region. You were supposed to do that only in convoys or by helicopter. We went through a North Vietnamese ambush that was not triggered on us. It was triggered on a convoy far enough behind us that we did not know it was there.

My sergeant was so outraged by what almost happened to us that he invoked “sole surviving son” and was instantly shipped out of Vietnam as a result. (The plot of the movie Saving Private Ryan is based loosely on the sole-surviving-son policy.) That sole-surviving-son invocation embarrassed my battalion commander, so he switched the routine. Thereafter, he took me to Wade in his loach helicopter but refused to bring me back, thereby forcing me to hitch hike back to Phu Loi via that same dangerous road (a three-day trip when you hitch hiked).

Had I been killed, my battalion commander, who got me killed for no good reason, would have sent my mom some bullshit letter about how I died “for my country” and “freedom” and all that. But the truth is most West Pointers and others who have died in our post-World War II wars have died in some stupid, unnecessary incident or patrol like the ones that almost killed me. Most line-of-duty deaths nowadays result in no equal gains for national security or taking an objective or killing the enemy or destroying enemy materiel or infrastructure. They are just fatal versions of all the non-fatal mistakes the federal government makes thousands of times a day—like letting the underwear suicide bomber whose own father ratted him out directly to the CIA get on a plane to the U.S. The military portion of the federal bureaucracy is the gang that couldn’t shoot straight most of the time and ineptitude, from the commander in chief on down to the private standing next to you, is what causes most “combat” deaths.

That is really how it happens, or quite representative of how it happens. Combat is not abstract, or even heroic in most cases in the current wars. Famous triple amputee Max Cleland is often lauded as a great combat hero of the Vietnam war. Maybe so, but the people who see his gruesome wounds as the evidence of his heroism are wrong. He lost his legs and right forearm because a private next to him dropped a grenade getting out of a helicopter. Furthermore, that recently-arrived-in-Vietnam private had previously had the bright idea to loosen the pins on his grenades for faster use in combat. They were not in any enemy contact at that time. It was just a routine chopper ride. Cleland came very close to being “gloriously” killed “in combat” for “freedom,” to use the inaccurate phraseology that typically accompanies such stupid deaths..

Not a single American shot is fired when a fatal IED goes off. An Iraqi teenager earning bounty money to buy a DVD pushes a speed dial and some young West Point graduate father of a newborn dies. The murderer goes back to his coffee. In a sense, he is “at the mall” just like the rest of America, when he kills you.

Because of his lack of military or patrolling-in-combat experience, your Uncle William doesn’t know about all the shit that really goes on. If he did, I expect he would not have written the column, or he would have written it much differently.

The end points of the two wars you are likely to be sent to look like Vietnam. We try for years to accomplish something positive, then we just give up and go home and the country in question reverts to the way it was before you died there.

Timothy, I do not want any of that to happen to you, or your classmates at West Point, or to one or more of your men. Indeed, your death, if it occurs over there will probably be quick. The death of one of your men, on the other hand, will haunt you for the rest of your life.

Your not going does not force another young man to go in your place. They all can, and should, do what I am urging you to do. A nation that has an all-volunteer Army cannot wage war without the consent of the IED fodder to be. The fodder to be, including those who go to West Point, are giving that consent way too casually. They should demand a clear, specific, plausible mission, the tools and manpower to accomplish it, and a national commitment to victory as irreversible as the death they are risking, or they should just say no to participating until America is willing to give them that.

Drill sergeants have a shtick where they tell a troop to “do pushups until I get tired.” The American people, those who are at the mall while you are in combat, those who have no close relative in combat, will let you fight and die until they get tired of you being over there. The most you can expect from them is a “Support the troops” car magnet and a “Thank you for your service” if you survive. Your uncle gave me one of those.

One of these days some guy my age is going to thank me for my service and I’m going to respond with,

Well, you were over there, too.

No, I wasn’t.

Oh, really. Why not?

If you are going to risk all that, please research the matter thoroughly and make your decision based on what’s best for you and those you love and will love in the future, not some abstract speech writer’s Hollywood image Uncle William gave you that you now feel obligated or pressured to live up to.

All the best,

John T. Reed, USMA 1968
P.S. If you would like to read a column that is similar to McGurn’s in tone and subject, but written by someone who knows what he’s talking about, read my article The Class of the Gulf of Tonkin written for the 40th reunion book my class published in 2008.

Maybe I should have gone to Coast Guard

On 1/21/10, I saw several documentaries about the four U.S. service academies on the Military Channel. Here are a couple of observations:

• If I wanted to go to a service academy, I probably should have gone to Coast Guard. Why? After graduation, they have a real job and they are on their own when they do it. In the Army, including in Vietnam, I most loved being “far from the flag,” that is, the battalion commander’s flag—the boss. Generals who were assigned to the Pentagon shuddered at the memory. There, two-star generals get coffee for four-stars, or so I heard. In Vietnam, the time I enjoyed most was when I was in the most danger, at a way-forward base called Bunard—many miles from my boss. The Coast Guard has lots of boats—small boats—commanded by junior officers and even NCOs. And they have a real mission. They are literally far from the flag out in the ocean or other body of water. Even some of their land units are sometimes small and far from the flag. They risk their lives, but for good reason in most cases I surmise. In the Army, on the other hand, you may risk your life for your buddies, but that begs the question of why the hell you all were put in that position to begin with. I was one of millions who served in Vietnam. 58,000 of us died. For what? Nothing, as it ultimately turned out. We were there to prevent the Communists from taking over South Vietnam. Then we abandoned South Vietnam to the Communists who are still in charge of that country. I figure the same is going to happen Iraq and Afghanistan. Our sarcastic gallows humor message to the dead in Vietnam? “Sorry ’bout that, GI.” In the Coast Guard, it looks like you have a good reason for risking your life: to save people in trouble in the water. It must be nice, and rewarding. The Vietnam memorial in DC is just sad. What a waste!

• The Coast Guard cadets could stand a course in posture. They might start by watching those documentaries and seeing how the West Point upperclassmen stand when conducting their official business. The CGA guy they focused on postured like some guy you might see on a street corner in civilian life.

• Cadets are too young to realize the importance of such things, but the Coast Guard probably has by far the best assignment locations of any service. By definition, they locate mostly on beach front and lake front properties in populous areas—some of the most sought-after, high-priced locations in America. Note also that phrase “in America.” They have some boats in the Persian Gulf and had some in Vietnam, but the coast they guard is almost always the U.S. coast. Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force personnel spend something like 40% of their careers overseas, often in unaccompanied locations (can’t bring spouse and kids). The Army and Air Force have many of the most miserable assignment locations on earth. The Navy ain’t bad when they are not on a cruise, but when they are on a cruise, I’d rather be at Minot, ND Air Force Base or Army Fort Huachuca, AZ—two examples of the Air Force’s and Army’s many miserable locations.

• Air Force, Navy, Marine Air, and Coast Guard grads operate equipment. Navy guys who go into the ground Marines and West Point guys deal mainly in people. That may sound more “people who like people-ish,” but one aspect of it is you cannot bullshit a machine. There seems to be plenty of bullshit in the Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard, but they have to get their plane or boat from point A to point B. One of my fantasies about the Army is to have the power to order the 82nd Airborne Division, my first unit, to immediately haul their asses to the Mall in Washington, not far from Fort Bragg, NC, in their vehicles. Then I would go down to Bragg and laugh my ass off as the generals and their subordinates shit their pants trying to find enough vehicles that could actually run to do it. They would probably have to ferry the entire division in about 10% of their vehicles because they rest are nothing but Potemkin Village facades not unlike the inflatable trucks and tanks the Allies used in England in 1944 to make the Germans think we were going to invade at Pas de Calais. Even with ferrying, the TV coverage would show aerial video of dozens of broken-down 82nd trucks all along the road from NC to DC. Because the Army never gets ordered to do that, they can be a much more bureaucratic, bullshit operation—and they are.

• Beast Barracks (July and August before freshman year) at West Point in the year shown, apparently 1998, was 1964 Beast Barracks ultra lite. There is no video of what we went trough. They absolutely would not have allowed it back then. Our moms would have killed the Supe if they had known. Take shower formations. They were so horrible that I stopped describing them because I got tired of being called a liar. Ask a grad from the class of 1969 or before what they are. Maybe you can find one who is not tried of being called a liar about it yet. Am I saying we were better men? Nah. But we had to be tougher. At the time, I would have said it made us better. But looking back on life from age 63, yes, we went through it, but I see little benefit from it. Generally, being yelled at makes you better at being yelled at. Crawling through mud makes you better at crawling through mud. If you want to get better at more important things, like leadership, lead. We did that too, but we spent a ton more time folding underwear and shining shoes. Spare me the bullshit that such things translate to attention to detail in combat. The world is full of people who pay enormous attention to detail, and who never attended a military academy. They have training and/or experience that taught them to pay attention to certain details in their work and they do—like emergency medical technicians or copy editors. If you want to get better at X, do X. Doing A because it has some remote, slightly logical similarity to X is a stupid way to learn how to get better at X.

• Every time I see a documentary on West Point, I remember the My Way lyric:

To think I did all that.

But the fact is they show you the most fun, telegenic stuff. We were introduction to everything, masters of nothing when it comes to all that summer stuff like shooting cannons or building bridges. Looks good on paper or TV, but don’t mean much in reality when you only do each thing for two hours. We were sort of military tourists. The more typical reality of West Point for my class consisted far more of going to reveille at 0559 AM on a weekday in February in the freezing rain in the dark. No fun. No cameras. No audience. No hats in the air. No high fives. Virtually no talking. Just another day trudging in and out of our “little green cells” and living our overscheduled, difficult (often for no good reason), little lives.

‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ situation

The difference between the hype about West Point and the reality of it is one of many “Emperor’s New Clothes” situations in modern life. I am like the little boy in that Hans Christian Anderson tale. Here is the Wikipedia explanation of the metaphor.

Most commonly, the statement "the emperor has no clothes" is used to refer to a situation in which (at least in the opinion of those using the phrase) the majority of people are unwilling to state an obvious truth, out of fear of appearing stupid, unenlightened, sacrilegious, or unpatriotic, or perhaps out of "political correctness." In such cases it is often implied that the motive and rationale for not seeing the obvious truth has become so ingrained that the majority do not even realize that they are perpetuating a falsehood.

Here is a link to a very candid and knowledgeable YouTube animation about how officers get promoted in the real world of the U.S. military.

And here is an item sent to me by a reader. It is a passage from the sci fi book Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card. It sounds like it was written about West Point graduates and their Army careers.

Wasn't this whole school set up in order to find and train the best possible commanders? The Earthside testing did pretty well – there were no dolts among the students. But…how were the teachers chosen?
They were career military, all of them. Proven officers with real ability. But in the military you don't get trusted positions just because of your ability. You also have to attract the notice of superior officers. You have to be liked. You have to fit in with the system. You have to look like what the officers above you think you should look like. You have to think in ways that they are comfortable with.
The result was that you ended up with a command structure that was top-heavy with guys who looked good in uniform and talked right and did well enough not to embarrass themselves, while the really good ones quietly did all the serious work and bailed out their superiors and got blamed for errors they had advised against until they eventually got out.

That’s a very accurate description of America’s service academies and their graduates in the military as career officers. My reader who sent me this says Card was never in the military and "is not a flaming liberal." Well, then I am suspecting his father was in the military or he has a close friend who graduated from a service academy and got out of the military ASAP. Mr. Card knows far too much abo the way it really is to have gotten this from his muse.

First critical email from a West Point graduate

Here is an email from a person who says he is a West Point graduate. It is the first negative one I have received from a West Point graduate other than one young guy who said my statement that they do not teach critical thinking at West Point was wrong as evidenced by an instructor he had who did encourage such thinking. I actually had one of those, too, but it was just a momentary discussion that he could not resist about whether hippies were wrong to be bums and panhandlers and live on welfare. Why not? He asked and indicated that he was unable to answer the question himself.

Anyway, this guy below is the sweeping negative comment I have been expecting for years but never got until now. I will give it my frequent two-column response:

Bermudez Reed
Your observations about the Army, and about West Point in particular, while not entirely inaccurate,

“not entirely inaccurate” is a convoluted way of saying they are accurate, at least in part. I wish I could tell readers which parts he says are accurate. It would buttress those points which I assume Bermudez would want.

“Not entirely inaccurate” also implies my article “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?” is mostly inaccurate. But conspicuous by its absence is his citing of even a single inaccuracy in my 125-page fact-laden analysis

are laced with resentment, if not with venom.

This uses intellectually-dishonest debate tactics (There is a comprehensive list of such tactics at my article on that subject) namely:

1. Name calling

2. Changing the subject

3. questioning the motives of the opponent (questioning the motives of the opponent was ruled out of bounds by Henry Martyn Roberts in his famous Roberts Rules of Order. Mr. Roberts is also a West Point graduate class of 1857)

4. Citing irrelevant facts or logic

11. Vagueness

25. Innuendo

27 Insinuation

The notion that nothing I say has any value because of alleged “resentment” and “venom” manifests an ignorance of all the celebrated writings in history that were hardly anything other than resentment and venom. For example, click here to read a brief document that you are familiar with but may have forgotten the details of. It’s pretty resentful and venomous. Indeed, resentment and venom was pretty much its entire point.

Here is another written by one of my fellow journalists and also much read and celebrated in our schools.

As the two-linked-to writings indicate, resentment is a universal life experience and a proper subject of writers. Venom is an effective writer’s tool when appropriate. There is a time for everything, including resentment and venom. In some circumstances, if a person does not feel resentment, they are not paying enough attention or have a loose screw. A recently-deceased prominent person—Osama bin Laden—inspired much resentment and venom, every bit of it appropriate.

We have vastly different perspectives but similar experiences (USMA, Airborne-Ranger, Field Artillery, Columbia M.S.).

I think he means conclusions, not perspectives. We were both cadets, ranger students, etc. Those are perspectives.
Again, while not intellectually dishonest, A pattern is emerging here. When Bermudez uses the word “while” it means he is grudgingly admitting my article is correct. In the Watergate scandal, they had the “nondenial denial.” This is the non-critical criticism.
it appears that you did not pass on ANY opportunity to cast USMA in an unfavorable light.

Ah! Welcome to journalism where “man bites dog” is the rule for all writing. We professional writers want people to read what we write. That, in turn, requires that we only write interesting stuff. New and different from what has been said before about the topic.

The following is a statement about West Point which I believe but is “dog bites man,” i.e., boring and already well known. It is not “news” if it is already well-known. Being boring and writing “me, too” articles does not inspire people to read the articles.

West Point is a college which athletic intelligent young men and women ages 17 to 22 enter each summer and take a very rigorous, challenging, broad curriculum before graduating.

My article is directed at prospective cadets and prospective graduates who are already cadets. It is not directed at alumni like Bermudez who, by definition, can no longer make the decision contained in the title question: “Should you Go to, or Stay at, West Point?”

Prospective cadets and graduates need the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to make that decision which as we grads all know, is often a life-and-death decision.

Actually, I passed countless more opportunities to cast USMA in an unfavorable light. There are many unfavorable facts about West Point that do not relate to whether one should go or stay there at the present time.

I wonder: "Why would someone WANT TO DO THAT? "

I thoroughly explained that in my article “Why I created these Web pages on military issues.” It is kind of annoying for me to spend time writing that article then go to the trouble of listing in the most prominent position—top left—in my list of military articles and then have someone express exasperation in ALL CAPS at my failure to explain myself.

I ALREADY ANSWERED THAT THOROUGHLY. DO YOUR HOMEWORK BEFORE YOU CRITICIZE.

….there must be an emotional component?

Here we have James Bermudez criticizing James Bermudez, but saying he’s criticizing me. He does not know me. Never met me. But he knows himself. When people do not understand why other people behave the way they do, they often assume the other person is like them and must have done X for the reason they would do X.

I googled what I just said and found these phrases:

the analytical trap of mirror-imaging: seeing the other as we see ourselves

Often we fault in others what we see in ourselves.

The faults and personality traits we can't stand in other people, are often traits of our own personality.

None of these was any sort of authoritative web site so I do not offer links. You can do your own Google search of it.

This is also another example of the intellectually-dishonest tactic of name calling. No one should pay any attention to the writings of someone who has resentment, uses venom, or who is emotional, right? It’s easy to win an argument if you can just say a magic word like “emotional” and the audience has to dismiss everything your opponent says.

I would gladly counter many of your observations But, in fact, he counters absolutely none of them so we’ll have to take his word for it that he could do it.
but I suspect Based on what? Another look in your mirror?
that there is more to YOUR experiences than you choose to disclose

Whoa! That accuses me of dishonesty. I explicitly ask readers to point out any errors or omissions in my facts or logic.[emphasis added] This West Point article has been up for years and I have had virtually no omissions pointed out.

Among its readers are classmates who served with me at West Point and/or in the Army. Classmates, squad mates, companymates, teammates, ranger buddies, fellow students in Army courses, stickmates in parachute jumps, guys who were in the same unit with me in Vietnam, and guys who testified for me at the hearing where they discharged me. In other words, guys who were standing next to me when these unnamed “experiences” Bermudez cites took place.

None of them have commented that I left out a pertinent fact.

At my 40th reunion, a companymate who was with me in the same company for three years at West Point asked rhetorically if I, “ever had an unpublished thought?” That is the opposite accusation from Bermudez’s “suspicion.”

This is a better example of the intellectually-dishonest debate tactics of innuendo and insinuation than the first sentence. Here are the definitions of those two: Innuendo: an indirect remark, gesture, or reference, usually implying something derogatory. Insinuation: a sly, subtle, and usually derogatory reference

that have profoundly shaped your beliefs so as to make any effort pointless.

I asked readers to point out errors or omissions in my facts or logic. In my military articles, there are a number of places where I said I received such communications and I either admitted my original comment had been wrong and changed it or I retained my original comment but added the reader’s recommended change so people could decide for themselves. I have been a professional journalist for decades. We absolutely must admit errors or omissions and correct them.

Not every complaint is truly an error or omission in facts or logic. Some seem to think I am required to take dictation and all they want is for me to spin facts differently. Bermudez is the first West Point graduate to complain so until we get his specifics, I am inclined to think the only changes he wants are spinning my writings about West Point so that they sound like they were written by the USMA PR department.

We were there (USMA & Army) at very different times in our history… I went there in 1964 to 1968. I don’t know when he claims to have gone there. Or what this has to do with anything. It sounds like the beginning of some speech but just peters out without ever getting anywhere.
and they are the contemporaneous reflection of the society….

Ditto. What point is is this starting to make?
"Try being an honest lieutenant at the bottom of that pile."…. This is a quote from my review of the book The West Point Way of Leadership. You might want to read it to get the context.
I too was challenged, many times, but acted honorably. You should only speak for yourself.

Ah! Now here we get to the heart of the matter. In various articles I have noted that about 99.9% of the long-term (you have to at least serve in a line unit, not just attend or teach at schools or be a staff officer) officers in the Army, and I assume in the other services, are handed false documents to sign. They are most often motor vehicle maintenance reports, training schedules and pecuniary liability investigations. Had I stayed longer, I am sure I would have encountered others. Long-term officers do not care for me saying there is a 99.9% probability that they signed a false document or suborned such false swearing by a subordinate.

Tough. I stand by my story.

And forget saying I only have one man’s experience. I was not Lieutenant Dances With Wolves stationed at a one-man fort in the desert. I was always in battalions with many other officers and at bases where there were many other West Point classmates of mine and guys who were in the seven other classes I knew at West Point (three before mine and three after). It’s a very tight group. Everyone knew what everyone else was signing.

Note that Bermudez admits that is the way it is in the Army when he says, “I too was challenged many times.” That statement profoundly damns the integrity of the Army officer corps in a way that the Army officially denies in the most vehement way. It supports my depiction of the Army in my article “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?”

It is.

Then he says he “acted honorably” when he was “challenged.”

I am going to get real serious now. I am an investigative journalist. I have better things to do than turn my training and experience in such matters on some Joe Schmoe West Point graduate. But If I ever get pushed into it, as a real estate guru I criticized once pushed me, I would start something like this:

1. Get military record of the person in question. I got the record of real estate guru Robert Kiyosaki author of the best-selling financial book of all time. You can read my analysis of his military record and his book at www.johntreed.com/Kiyosaki.html.

2. Identify the line unit assignments and any others that might have involved signing false documents.

3. If I had been sued by the grad in question, that would give me subpoena power and I would subpoena every document he ever signed in his life in or out of the military. I would also subpoena all CMMI reports from units where he was a motor officer or the superior of a motor officer.

4. Then I would seek people who would know whether the document in question was truthful when signed. For example, if you search online the name of virtually any military unit you find news groups and reunions and all that from former members. I would contact everyone I could find and ask did you see this officer in action when you were in that unit? Do you know others who did or might have?

5. I would post all my search efforts and results on my web site which would result in my receiving communications from all sorts of guys who heard about my investigation before I found them.

6. In a litigation setting, I would demand that Bermudez identify and describe in detail each and every time he was “challenged” to sign false documents and exactly what he said and did and what, if anything, happened to him.

I will stop there. I don’t know for sure what Bermudez did or did not do when he was “challenged” to sign a false document. But I suspect that 99.9% of the long-term Army officers who read what I just wrote about investigating them are already in a cold sweat.

But I do know what happened to me when I was asked to sign false documents. You can read about it at my integrity article. I was instantaneously relieved of my command and shipped out to more dangerous duty on one occasion. On others, I heard through the grapevine that they forged my signature. In other words, there was a zero-tolerance policy for those who refused to sign false documents and the retaliation was fast and ferocious.

For an Army officer to claim that he repeatedly refused to sign false documents and make no mention of anything happening to him is to depict a world I never experienced or even heard about when I was an officer and there is no reason to believe military bureaucracy has changed. Indeed, the various lies and cover-ups in the Pat Tillman incident were plenty of proof for anyone who might think the Army has cleaned up its act since I got out in 1972. One of the most common comments I get is that that recent graduates are amazed at how the stuff I went through 45 years ago is almost exactly the same as what they are going through now.

I spent most of my brief time in the Army in the Army officer’s equivalent of detention. No one else was there with me except for one officer who later went to jail as a civilian. No superior officer who was chewing me out for refusing to sign a false document ever told me a cautionary tale about some other lieutenant who refused to “play the game.” That’s because there were no such other officers to tell me about to scare me.

Indeed, one general said the opposite: “Everyone else can’t be out of step, Lieutenant Reed.” Being in step meant “playing the game” which meant signing false documents and complying with OVUM. In other words, that general was telling me that I was out of step, the only one refusing to engage in those misbehaviors.

Bermudez now tells me he was the second officer to do that. The Army is a sort of small town. Everyone moves on average once a year. After a little of that you know a lot of guys, especially in your branch. No one around me ever said of my refusing to sign false documents, “Oh, yeah. I remember Lt. X did that at Fort Hood.” As far as I could tell from the total absence of such stories, I was the only one doing it.

I’m not claiming to be some sort of hero. Seems like I was just meeting the minimum standard. A cadet does not lie. But I caught hell for it and I neither saw nor heard anyone else catch hell for similar behavior. The guy who went to jail after he got out of the Army was not in trouble for refusing to sign false documents. He was in trouble for refusing to get a haircut and report to the battalion commander to prove that he did. He went to jail for greenmail activities on Wall Street.

If other officers were doing what I did, they would have caught the same hell for it. I would love to meet such guys. But I start out very skeptical about such claims.



Unless A[association] O[f] G[graduates] is flat-out lying, the vast majority of West Point graduates would "do it all over again" if they had the chance. Are we all nuts, John?

Best Wishes

I acknowledged many grads feel that way in the beginning of my article. It is annoying to have a reader say I do not know what I am talking about then prove it by saying something I said in the article in question. See the early discussion about reluctance to admit a mistake, effort justification, and all that.

And as far as West Point grads being willing to go through it again is concerned, the more accurate widespread feeling is a quote I got from Red Reeder’s book First Class Year about “Cadet Clint Lane.” He said the graduating seniors were saying,

I wouldn’t trade it for a million dollars and I would not go through it again for a million dollars.

So it is not my understanding all grads would like to go through it again. I would not, however, be surprised if most grads say they are glad they went or things of that nature.

But more fundamentally, this is another version of “Everyone else can’t be out of step, Lieutenant Reed.”

Most professionals are, or claim to be, seekers of truth. As a how-to writer, I seek best practices of the fields I write about. That’s a form of truth. With regard to my writings on the military, I also seek the truth.

One does not find the truth by taking a poll. Only politicians think polls are the way to figure out what to do or what to think. You find the truth by finding pertinent facts and applying logical analysis to them. I am not surprised that Bermudez is revealing himself to think like a politician. His whole email to me seems designed to get him elected to Association of Graduates office. My article on whether someone should go to West Point has never been accused of that.

GO ARMY!


James M. Bermudez
Principal

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jmb@invictusllc.com

T: (203) 546-0505


WWW.INVICTUSLLC.COM
Go Army is a sort of ritual salutation among West Point graduates as is BEAT NAVY. As a writer, I do not care for cliches or trite expressions. It is sort of a manifestation of group think which is consistent with Bermudez’s views of West Point as his resorting to a purported poll of graduates, rather than facts or logic, to prove he is right and I am wrong.

My article “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?” is, according to one classmate who printed it out, over 125 pages long. It is jam-packed full of facts and logic. It acknowledges a number of positive things about West Point. Yet after reading that article and apparently some others like my review of the West Point Way of Leadership, this email is all Bermudez can come up with and he is, thus far, the only graduate to challenge my article as a whole!?

This long-awaited criticism from a West Point graduate reminds me of what a reader said about the above-mentioned Rich Dad Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki.

The reader loved Kiyosaki.

Then he read my critique of Kiyosaki and hated me as a result.

Then he read a rebuttal of my critique that Kiyosaki posted and said it was so lame he switched sides figuring if that was all Kiyosaki had to say after all the charges in my review of his book, that I must be the one who was in the right.

Even I think my article probably has some errors or omissions. I am just one guy. Tens of thousands of others went to West Point and lived with the degree afterward. I have begged many of them to read it and tell me what they think. Many have. I am sure there are still errors and omission to correct and I truly want to correct them ASAP. But I am not getting much help. No one has any obligation to help me. But the alternative to helping me is to be quiet, not hurling vague, intellectually-dishonest nonsense at me. Indeed, I expect this email from Bermudez will cause any skeptics to think the same thing the Kiyosaki fan concluded: “That’s all they have to say after 125 pages of Reed’s analysis of West Point?”

Here is another email from a former Coast Guard enlisted man who also found me via Kiyosaki. Although he did not go to West Point, his confirmation of my general depiction of the military is extremely articulate and pertinent to this article.

Mr. Reed,

I have been a long time reader of your website, which I discovered randomly a few years ago doing a search about Robert Kiyosaki. I was one of the many who had read his book long ago and felt that it was a bunch of nonsense. First of all let me say thank you for exposing that idiot for what he really is, it was a breath of fresh air to read your logical, no-nonsense style of writing. I work as a financial planner and from time to time have new clients mention Kiyosaki's books, at which point I immediately refer them to your website so they can read your article. I have also bought "Succeeding" and "How to Protect Your Life Savings from Hyperinflation and Depression", both of which I enjoyed thoroughly. I especially enjoyed the latter since I work in finance and learned quite a bit as well from reading it.

What I enjoy most of all about your site though is the military articles. Having served in the US Coast Guard (2001-2005) I have found them all very relevant, entertaining, and amazingly accurate. Many of the things you mention in your articles are thoughts I have had for years, some of which I just never put into words or was able to pinpoint exactly what I was feeling. More than a few times when reading your site I have literally exclaimed "Yes! That's right! I've been saying/thinking that for years!" as well as other "of course!" moments. Your article about process vs. results was one of the best things I have ever read that breaks down the mindset of military vets and others who have been raised in that system. I also thought the one on leadership was excellent and very eye-opening.

I enlisted in the CG when I was 18, thinking that the military was wonderful and was where "real leaders" and "real men" were. Much of this I'm sure was influence from my Navy officer father and my career Air Force grandfather. After about a year in I knew I wanted to get out. Granted, the CG is slightly different from the Navy and Army, as the demographic tends to be more middle class (80% + WASP, as I recall the statistics at the time) than the other services, but the same problems persist. I think no matter what branch of service the concentration of people is the same, the 80/20 rule (80% dirt bags, 20% good people). It was amazing to me to see 20 year, "career E-4" types who just wanted to do the bare minimum possible, earn a paycheck, and then blow most of it at the bar. I also noticed the trend of anyone with any ambition and intelligence getting out as soon as they could. I observed that the officer ranks were more motivated and intelligent than the enlisted generally, but the sycophancy and shameless ass-kissing was unbearable. I was glad to be enlisted at times after watching all the O-1 and O-2s run around the ship tripping over one another, desperately trying to impress the CO in the hope that their next evaluation would be high enough to make the next rank.

I was stationed in the Caribbean and did counter drug patrols, which would seem exciting and cool to the layman, but after hours and hours of drilling, training, and rarely finding anything, it all becomes distressingly routine, not to mention very dangerous. I think of the incidents in some of the military books you reviewed as my teams and I were ordered to do things that made no sense at all and put us in danger just because the CO and XO had an "ops checklist" that they "have" to complete. Only the military can turn a one hour, simple, routine exercise into an 8 hour, all hands, waste 500 pieces of paper in briefings debacle. I also experienced the same "you are wasting your opportunity" counseling as well… I made E-6 in less than four years with about 8 months left to go, and on the same day I was promoted I had the yeoman fill out my discharge forms. I had more than a few people tell me that I was "wasting my rank", "now is when things get easy", etc. It seems people had a hard time understanding why I didn't want to reach E-7 and then "ride the wave till 20." I had many superiors try to talk me into going to OCS, etc., but I wanted nothing to do with it.

Needless to say I got out and never looked back, nor have I ever regretted it for a second. Many of the people I worked with are unfortunately still in the military, who can't get out now because they are "past 10". Others who did get out work at low wage, dead end jobs. Only two I know besides myself went to college and had success in the civilian world. The sad reality is that the structure of the military seems to attract and retain a majority of below average citizens, and is no place for anyone with ambition and a drive to succeed. I have younger siblings that I encouage not to join the military and tell others who are willing to listen. Thankfully there are websites like this that I can show them! I think you are doing a great service with your articles and books, and I look forward to reading more!


The Best,

Justin
[last name withheld at his request]

Here is an email from a father of a West Point graduate reacting to my email. It points up what I said at the beginning of this article about moms’ inability to be objective about criticism of their son’s alma mater. Conspicuous by its absence in this email are any citations of errors or omissions in my facts or logic.

Just read about half of your ranting and raving! Maybe a third, I couldn't make it through the myriad of self promotion and obvious distain for the path you obviously chose. ( oh I forgot you shouldn't have been able to make that decision at age 17 lol)

I didn't go to West Point, I was in the Marine Corps at 17. yes I am a VietNam vet as well.

What happened? Someone at West Point snatch your binky one night?

You went on to go to Havvvvad, and now your self promoting on the web, what could be better? See Jack West Point did you some good afterall! Hehe , if nothing else it sharpened your insight… into BS! LOL

Self promote and rant to the masses that will receive your rhetoric, I couldn't stand officers when I came across them when I was in the service, now I read your sorry ass account woe is me and detailed personal history of what people should and should not do and I see why!! Lol

I may not be an educated man, but I can recognize sour grapes!

I'm glad your kids went on to superior schools like Columbia! Im glad they were members of an Elite football ball powerhouse such as Columbia! Hehe ( have they won a game since the depression?)

My son is a graduate of West Point, thanks Jack for enlightening me on the poor decision he made in choosing to attend. All this time I was proud of him, graduated Georgetown, four combat tours and isn't dead!

Now I have to rethink my whole way of feeling!! Geez, I guess I shouldn't be proud of him….after all jack says what he's done and accomplished isn't worth shit! Well thanks jack! I'm sure after I digest all this blather that you have spewed forth in obvious hatred. I will gather myself together and get the courage to let my only son know that he isn't worth crap…why? "cause jack says so! Hehe

You're an idiot…even an uneducated man like me can see through your shallow ass!

Good luck battling those demons jack hehe

I asked the guy if the son who graduated from West Point was his biological son. He wrote back “yes.”

That’s a scary statement about the current standards for admission and graduation at West Point.

I also asked if I could quote him. He said no. That is why you do not see his name and email address here. He put the letters USMC after his name. I thought they stood for U.S. Marine Corps. In light of the policy of one web site to make people give their real name or identify themselves as “anonymous coward,” you can also interpret the “mc” to mean moral coward.

POW Bowe Bergdahl’s final email before letting himself get captured by the Taliban—severe indictment of the U.S. Armyand its line-unit leadership

Here is a letter by a former Naval Academy professor about the extremely low standards at Annapolis stemming from affirmative acion admission and retention pressures. I have no reason to believe that West Point is not doing the exact same things because of the exact same Pentagon pressure. Indeed, my article about the Army Spring Football game at Fort Benning seems to indicate affirmative action is now a dominating force at West Point.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out, constructive criticism and suggestions.

John T. Reed

Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military

John T. Reed military home page