Ten years ago – before CLDS, the Cadet Leadership Development System – leadership training at West Point was simple: Once you stopped being a plebe, your assignment was to make new plebes miserable. It was a three-on-one, the upper classes competing for the command experience of getting plebes to quit. (The old attrition rate was around forty percent; it stands at twenty percent today.)
That’s all gone now. As of 1998, the cadets have ranks: Plebes are privates, yearlings are colonels, cows are sergeants, firsties are officers. They have the responsibilities that those ranks carry in Army life. This is part of a system of changes at West Point so global that inside academy walls they’re referred to simply as The Changes.
In a society like West Point, information is a closed ecosystem, circulating like weather: It travels upward through chains of command, accumulates, pauses and then rains down as orders. So when a cadet flunks an academic course – or gets into honor trouble or, like George, fails an APFT – the data works its way from company cadets to their TAC and finally to the Brigade Tactical Office, the eye in the sky, which watches everything. “The cadets think we’re just a big spy network staying up twenty-five hours a day,” explains Col. Joseph Adamczyk, the brigade tactical officer. Adamczyk, in his forties, has the stringy, whittled, cheerful look of a man who’s just parachuted behind enemy lines to attend a surprise party. Cadets call him Skeletor – after the needly villain of the cartoon He-Man – because he’s the academy disciplinarian. Walk the post in scuffed shoes, in a wrinkled or otherwise unserviceable uniform, with sideburns below ear tips, and Adamczyk will appear beside you to ask why you aren’t meeting the standard. His reasoning is militarily sound: If you can’t keep the amateur military hardware of West Point mission-capable, how will you make out with a helicopter, or a tank? Adamczyk tells me the following joke: “West Point represents 200 years of tradition unhampered by progress.” He graduated with the class of ’72 – when being in the Army meant being in the Army in Vietnam – and understands the need for The Changes. “Society has certainly evolved,” he says, “and West Point has evolved.”
The smaller changes are atmospheric, as if the academy has been receiving transmissions from Oprah. Cadets now take courses in stress reduction, eating disorders, nutrition and what’s called wellness. Plebes learn the Wellness Wheel. “It’s a circle with spokes coming out from the center,” explains Col. Maureen LeBoeuf, whose official title as director of physical education is Master of the Sword. “The spokes are emotional, physical, spiritual, intellectual, career, social. If it’s not balanced, the wheel won’t roll.” Tobacco – that Army mainstay – is now frowned upon; alcohol – the serviceman’s rowdy old pal – has become the kind of guest who’s not really welcome in the house. (A poster called Risky Business is required decoration for cadet rooms. The poster begins, “The decision to drink is Risky Business.”) Even racy photographs have made their way into an annex to the USCC SOP: “Cadets need to refrain from displaying or viewing sexually explicit materials that could be offensive to others…. The decorum expected of a society of ladies and gentlemen dictates …” (I follow Adamczyk on a barracks inspection, during which he lifts a framed snapshot and turns to the cadet: “We’ve got a picture here of a young lady celebrating what is obviously some sort of a birthday party – 1.5-liter bottle of wine up to her lips. I’m not too sure she would be too flattered to know that various and sundry folks were lookin’ at it.”)
Each of the thirty-two West Point companies has a separate chain of command with posts the cadets fill – honor representative, military development officer. The companies also include a respect-for-others officer to promote racial and sexual awareness and a community-service officer, who encourages cadets to dust their hands off and get involved. “They do wonderful things,” says Col. Barney Forsythe, vice dean for education. Serve in soup kitchens, bang together A-frames with Habitat for Humanity, design Web sites for women’s shelters. In the spring, cadets are “huggers” at the Special Olympics; they wait for athletes at the tape with a hug. Which raises a question: I ask Forsythe whether this ever interferes with the Army’s traditional role of applying coercive violence. He talks for a second about “broad spectrums” and “operational requirements.” Then he says, “It’s really tough. I won’t speak for the Army, I’ll speak for myself in this regard. I don’t know that we’ve fully sorted all this out yet. How to, on the one hand, prepare people for the violence of combat yet equip those same people for the midrange peacekeeping operation and the humanitarian maneuver. Helping cadets not only to learn the sort of traditional warrior spirit – physical courage, obedience to orders in the heat of battle – but also to develop a genuine respect for other people and their welfare is a huge challenge.” These are elements of what some cadets call the “Nice-Guy Army.”
The largest changes involve plebes. “In 1968,” Col. Adamczyk says, “when I came to West Point, society lived on the myth of West Point toughness – the physical harassment, the verbal denigration, the deprivation.” Hazing – even after CLDS – had always been unofficially tolerated at West Point. A firstie could grab a plebe for shower detail: Put him in a poncho, yell, lock him up at attention against a wall, make him recite Knowledge for hours until he passed out. Plebes would sweat so much inside the poncho that it looked like someone had showered there. A plebe who kept making Knowledge mistakes might be ordered to a firstie room for hanging out or swimming detail. Every cadet has a wall locker, a closet with two doors that swing out. For hanging out, a plebe would dangle by his pits between the closet doors. For swimming detail, the plebe would lie across the tops of the doors and make swimming motions for however long – minutes, half hours – the upperclassman felt was deserved. (As a plebe, Rob Shaw was forced to wear a female uniform and had chicken nuggets dumped on his head.) The administration itself engaged in a kind of haze; whatever privileges you’d managed to win as an eighteen-year-old, you surrendered instantly. (Going to the Military Academy was like being sent away to a military academy.) No music, no telephone, no opportunity to go off-post; TV was a glowing, distant memory. As late as 1995, plebe year was so frightening that new cadets would pee in their own sinks rather than risk the walk to the bathroom, where upperclassmen were probably ready and waiting with some kind of haze.
In 1997, Commandant Gen. John Abizaid, West Point’s second in command, arrived and began enforcing the no-haze policy. As of 1998, if you hazed a plebe with even violent yelling, you’d be reprimanded; if it happened repeatedly, you’d be expelled. (The USCC SOP: “Cadets found to have committed hazing…[are] subject to separation and/or court-martial.”) The model now is to correct plebes in a firm, polite voice. Plebes no longer have to “ping” – a kind of race-walk – between barracks or wear knee socks pulled all the way up, which made them both eyesores to the landscape and unmistakable as targets. Plebes can listen to music through their computers the first semester they arrive at West Point; plebes are given walking privileges outside the reservation; plebes have phones in their rooms; plebes have TV cards in their computers, which take major channels plus CNN. Hardline graduates e-mail the superintendent, complaining that the place is soft, will turn out soft officers. In the world of abbreviations that is West Point, the old graduates have developed a shorthand expression for what’s wrong. They say, “The corps has” – which is short for “The corp has gone to hell.” Adamczyk doesn’t have much patience for corps-has: “No class – although they will always tell you – has a tougher plebe year than any other class.” But there’s even some corps-has among cadets. “When I was a plebe, we stuck in our rooms out of fear,” Whitey Herzog tells me. “Now the plebes are staying in their rooms, but they’re watching TV. They’re watching Friends.”