Ben Arnold tried to sell West Point—
Attempting, in his spite
To hand over a fortress
To our foes, without a fight.
The fort became a school; a place
Of trial and misery—
And that “hell upon the Hudson”
Forged a nation’s chivalry.
The uniforms were grey,
The honor code was black and white—
Graduates, rough men, stood ready
To defend us in the night.
But now come alarming tidings, for
A messenger relates—
That at some point a Trojan horse
Was welcomed through the gates.
Cadets divided, black and white—
The honor code now grey—
Thank God that Eisenhower
Never lived to see this day.
Are the forge’s fires cold now?
Will we allow it to be
One more bland and sullen temple
To our mediocrity?
Our culture is in chaos and
The times are out of joint—
But this, at least we must restore—
Otherwise . . . what’s the Point?
A deeply disturbing open letter from former West Point professor, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Heffington, relates a severe decline in the United States Military Academy. He alleges some practices that are not uncommon at civilian schools (such as lower academic standards for athletes) but still much more concerning when they occur at a college supposedly dedicated to producing high-quality U.S. Army officers. Other breaches of discipline and tradition are specific to the West Point environment.
One aspect, however, of the apparent rot which Heffington decries, is especially striking because it is simply a failure on the part of our military academies to establish any kind of strong contrast to the default moral settings of civilian academia. Among his allegations, Heffington notes in passing that cadets refer derisively to their American history class as the “I Hate America Course,” and that their required course in world history now amounts to gender grievance propaganda. Such classes are likely redundant given the currently-popular historical narratives in which many cadets were indoctrinated during their high school tenures.
Meanwhile, the Army is considering a return to the “pinks and greens”—the prestigious dress uniform design of the Second World War. Perhaps if the Army is in the mood for some “retro” culture, it might better consider pulling out the syllabi of the American history courses which were used to teach the West Point officers who served in World War II. Dressing our officers up in the manner of their great-grandfathers might be a sound idea, but only if we ensure that the deliberate imitation goes deeper than a couple of layers of uniform cloth.
West Point and the other academies certainly do face a daunting challenge, instilling martial virtues in young people of the postmodern era. Our military academies have always struggled against being defined too strongly by the cultures of their own times, but never has the cultural tension been quite as strong—or the rot been quite as pungent. A typical product of 21st-century American culture and education, on entering into a military college, must be reoriented from the default mentality of the civilian world to what may seem to him to be an anachronistic mindset. The professional military ethos is built on honor; academic culture today, however, is largely defined by grievance. The contrast is stark.
A culture of grievance focuses on collecting real and imagined debts; a culture of honor, on fulfilling the obligations of duty. Grievance scours the past for wrongs that can serve as demands for compensation or at least sympathy; honor looks there for guidance and even inspiration. Grievance seeks attention but shifts responsibility; honor assumes responsibility and scorns extravagant display. They are, in short, mutually exclusive—and honor cannot be cultivated where grievance is indulged. Heffington draws no direct connection between the decline of the honor code—which he notes before moving to the problems with current academics—and the worldview promoted by grievance-based history courses, but the connection is undeniable.
Honor is defined in West Point’s famous code, by four negatives: cadets are not to lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate amongst themselves those who do. The code is, in other words, explicitly intolerant, with no points given for the identity, the personal history, the special circumstances, compensating gifts, or lack of privilege, of the alleged liar, cheat, or thief.
Yet how can such a zero-tolerance policy be promulgated, in an academic atmosphere which does not acknowledge “truths” or “lies,” but only “competing narratives?” What is “cheating” within a system you’ve been taught is rigged? And the presumption that theft has occurred and continues to occur, from disadvantaged groups and individuals, is foundational to grievance politics. How can a cadet so instructed take special notice of the kinds of petty theft that may occur on campus when it seems to them that these larger injustices are noted but excused? The greatest proponents and examples of American military officer honor from our past appear as the epitome of lying, cheating thieves. Why should cadets respect a code, they are told, produced so much dishonor?
The greatest tragedy in the history of West Point, the division of the nation’s finest officers against one another during our Civil War, hinged on a question of honor; many officers in good faith and in accordance with what they had been taught by their own mentors and models, accorded their principal loyalty to their home states rather than to the nation. When those states went to war with one another, each followed his duty as he understood it. The reunited nation rebuilt a professional officer corps with its loyalties more clearly and uniformly defined—to the principles of our nation, clearly expressed (an officer’s oath is to the Constitution of the United States).
So much for state loyalties. Yet how much more disastrous, not only in times of crisis but during the ordinary peacetime operation of the Republic, must it be if each officer’s first loyalty is to his (or her or xis or xer….) grievances?
If Heffington’s letter gives us an accurate picture of the state of our Army’s national academy, then West Point appears to need a severe, mission-focused, and deeply insensitive overhaul—one of the sort General George Patton gave the defeated and demoralized II Corps in Africa, in 1943. Are men like Patton still available in the senior ranks of the Army to bring such an overhaul about? We had better find some if we mean to restore West Point’s capacity to forge the Pattons we most certainly will continue to need in future generations.