First Capt. Rob Shaw is twenty-five years old: tall, modest blond, square-jawed, the kind of cadet whom West Point adults – higher, as they’re called in academy lingo – can look at and say, “Ah, the admissions process is working like a top.” For cadets like Shaw, the Army functions as a kind of secular religion. There’s a word you hear a lot at West Point: huah. (It’s the word Al Pacino rode to an Oscar as the retired infantry colonel in Scent of a Woman.) Huah is an all-purpose expression. Want to describe a cadet who’s very gung-ho, you call him huah. Understand instructions, say huah. Agree with what another cadet just said, murmur huah. Impressed by someone else’s accomplishment, a soft, reflective huah. Rob Shaw is huah.
Shaw’s military rank is Number One, twelve spaces ahead of Whitey Herzog. As a screen saver on his desktop computer, Shaw keeps a rotating sequence of Successories, the inspirational corporate slogans you see advertised in airline magazines. When I’m in his office, Rob’s Successory shows the profile of a pretty, noble-looking eagle above the words “DUTY – A CALL HEARD BY THE BRAVE.” Shaw speaks in clipped, dialogue-size versions of Successories. Moving with an athlete’s physical economy – you almost never see clumsiness at the academy – he tours me around his office in brigade headquarters, shows me the plaque of all the former West Point first captains, signatures in wood, reaching back deep into the 1800s: “You look up and you see Robert E. Lee, William Westmoreland, Douglas MacArthur – General MacArthur went on to do great things, as you know. Those are some big shoes to fill. To be selected to lead people of this caliber, it’s just very humbling.”
Shaw’s childhood was the classic moving-around story: His father had health problems, and the relocations followed his treatment. After high school in Raleigh, North Carolina – “My grades were horrible; I liked to have too much fun” – Shaw ended up at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It was another classic story: Everyone was going to college, and even though Rob had always wanted to go Army, he got on the same train. First year there, Rob pledged a fraternity, drank, blew off classes. “I partied entirely too hard,” he says. He dropped out, got a job folding T-shirts at the Gap. Then he enlisted in the Army. “My mother wasn’t too thrilled,” he says. “She shed some tears over it. She kept saying, ‘Why don’t you go back to school? We’ll pay for school.'” But Rob loved the infantry, and after two years his platoon leader recommended him to West Point.
At Fort Bragg, for the first time in his life, Rob felt completely at home. His voice turns evangelical when he talks about it. “The Army just clicked for me,” he says. “I liked the demands, I liked the schedule, I liked the way I was treated. Some people will tell you, you get treated like a child in the Army. But more often I see you’re told to do something, and if you fail to do it, you’re held to a standard. You’re treated as a man.” Rob had cut through the tangle of civilian life onto the clear, broad plains of the military. “Just stand in the middle of Fort Bragg in the middle of the day – there’s such a sense of urgency. Airplanes are flying over. Everybody’s camo-ed up, going out to train. Artillery rounds are being shot on the range; the windows rattle. At my college fraternity, we called each other brothers and did rituals, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’ But at Bragg I realized what real brotherhood was like – kind of a fire that melds people together. You’re doing tough, challenging, dangerous things, for a good reason. It’s just an awesome feeling.” Rob doesn’t like to imagine the Rob Shaw who would have stuck with the out-of-uniform world. “One of my friends from high school, she works for IBM. She’s making money, but she doesn’t get any fire from it. She’s not personally motivated to work other than to pay rent and these sorts of things.”
One weekend at Fort Bragg, Rob’s dad came to pick him up. They drove off-post, passed the long, heavy rows of aircraft at Pope Air Force Base. “And my dad just turned to me and said, ‘You feel like you’re a part of something big and good, don’t you?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely.’ And that’s exactly what I was feeling: part of something that is big and powerful and inherently good – and I believe the Army is inherently good. You’re not chasing money or anything like that. I think it’s a noble profession. That’s why they call it the service. I literally would wake up in the morning – and I still feel this way, not as much, because I’m not in the field Army – but when you see U.S. ARMY, it’s a good feeling. It’s a good feeling to be part of that organization.”
There are a number of acceptable answers to the question, What brought you to West Point? The one response you should never give is “mom and dad”; the idea is that your parents’ ambitions will never be enough fuel for the rigors and sacrifices of four years at the Military Academy. But Rob came to West Point because of his dad in perhaps the one allowable context. Robert Shaw Sr.’s medical problems – which had kept the family on the hop – stem from injuries sustained in Vietnam. Before the war he was a high school All-American – “a great football player,” says Rob – with athletic scholarships at Dartmouth and Harvard. When the war began he enlisted. A couple of months into his tour, his platoon was on patrol and broke for lunch. “My dad just called it ‘a bad day,'” Shaw says. All of a sudden, they’re in an ambush; mortars raining everywhere, slugs, North Vietnamese pouring from the trees. His father’s platoon leader lost it – hid in a ditch, wouldn’t act, wouldn’t touch the radio, wouldn’t command.
“My dad got torn up pretty good,” Shaw says. “They put him on the chopper not thinking he was going to make it, he was that blown up.” The medic who rescued him was killed by a shot through the head; the helicopter that airlifted him to a field hospital was so riddled, it never flew again. For years, Rob’s father walked with a cane; there’s still shrapnel near his spine. Rob never found out what happened to the lieutenant who was his father’s platoon leader. “But judging from discussions with my dad,” Rob says carefully, “I don’t think he’s alive anymore, because most of his unit was killed. So I guess for me, I look at my father and say, ‘I’m going to be the lieutenant that takes care of that Private Shaw in the future.’ I want him and my troops to get home because I did the right thing all the way through.”
A week into the second term, I follow Shaw and the senior class to a mandatory presentation on Bosnia in the flag-draped auditorium of Thayer Hall. The firsties enter wearing their dress uniforms, in large groups; one thing you notice after a few hours at West Point is that cadets are almost never alone. They find familiar seats (“Front left, baby, front left – I haven’t changed my spot in four years”) and toss their gloves into their hats; uncapped, the auditorium becomes a bumpy sea of very short haircuts. The presentation has been arranged because there are only 125 days until graduation (a bit of the Knowledge that plebes are expected to recite on command), and as Shaw says, “the Army is becoming real for us. When you’re new, the goal is so far off, you don’t even think about it.” The doors shut and lock at 1900 hours. Lieutenants just returned from Bosnia – young officers with only a couple of years on these cadets – step to the microphone and give quick briefings. Throughout the hour, officers walk the rows, looking for sleeping cadets. They shake them by the shoulder, whisper in their ears and lead them to the back of the auditorium, where they have to watch standing up.
Lt. Jon Byrom, class of ’95, grins throughout his presentation. “I was in the southern part of Bosnia – mountains, beautiful area,” he says. “I had a great time. An example: You’re a lieutenant, suddenly you get a call over your radio: ‘We need help, sir. We got eight Serbs with AK-47s pointed at us, telling us to drop our weapons. What do you want us to do?’ Well that has some strategic implications right there.” The firsties shout huah. “It’s tough. It’s fun, too. I’m jealous of you all. You get to go out and be platoon leaders.”
Dave Stephens, a stocky twenty-four-year-old lieutenant, takes the lectern. “Everybody awake?” Huah. “How many of you guys going infantry?” Huah. “Two years ago, I was going through pretty much the same thing as you guys, which was, ‘What do the next couple of years have in store for me?’ Well, Bosnia. And I can guarantee you, a lot of you guys will be going to Bosnia, too.” He tells them about Hill 562. “All kinds of missions – you name it, we did it. We ran that hill.” He ends not on a note of excitement but on the non-rousing note of safety. Force protection. “I don’t know what it’s worth to you,” he says, “but a lot of stuff over there to me wasn’t worth losing a soldier. So you just gotta remember, in any kind of confrontation, your Number One thing is to get all these guys back home. Unless you want to explain to their parents it was worth it to you.” When the presentations are over, the firstie class snaps up from its seats as a unit, holds at parade attention. The captain at the lectern says, “Dismissed,” and the cadets leave together; another night they’ve been assured that their work is important, challenging, of selfless value to their country.