Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Over and Out

Well I guess this is it. I have spent the past three or so months exploring the ins and outs of the United States Military Academy in an effort to expand my knowledge of it. I must confess, while this blog may be drawing to a close, my journey of attempting to understand West Point is not. Trust me I’m not out of ideas or questions, just out of time. However, that’s the way it should be. Knowledge should be permanently under construction, and we should never ever halt our efforts to develop better understandings of all that surrounds us.
Over the course of the nine blogs (not including this one) I have written, I have explored a variety of themes: West Point’s history, the school’s Mission Statement, the difficulty of a military lifestyle, the motivations behind cadet participation, the role of doubt in a “no turning back” environment, and the function of language within West Point’s walls. I have used a variety of resources in my examination including personal interviews with attending cadets, the United States Military Academy website, outside books, and applicable articles. I won’t lie, it’s been a process. There have been times when I’ve felt physically angry at what I’ve read and/or heard. When I first received this assignment I thought “this will be easy,” but much to my surprise, I was wrong. I had to suspend my own beliefs (cultural relativism anyone?) and challenge my preconceived thoughts regarding the military.
I have learned a lot during this process of discovery. I have gained a deeper knowledge of West Point than I ever saw myself being capable of. I have been reminded that as civilians, we must separate our politicians from our soldiers. They two completely different categories of people, and the United States Army is not responsible for whatever armed conflict that we are involved in. I thought I was aware of this distinction before I began this blog, but I see now that I wasn’t nearly as understanding of it as I should have been. My views of the people who attend West Point have also changed. I see the men and women in attendance there as brave, selfless people, who have extremely strong motivations. They have made the choice to apply those motivations someplace very different than I would have, but that choice is not wrong in any way. It takes a very special person to attend the United States Military Academy, just as it takes a very special person to be a surgeon or a minister. I have a deep respect for those who choose to attend West Point, and I know that their talents and abilities will be put to good use.
I have truly enjoyed the opportunity to explore the United States Military Academy and then reflect upon it in this blog. A warm thank you goes out to the cadets at West Point who were willing to give me their opinions, and everyone who has left their comments.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Let’s take a step back from all the serious stuff going on at the United States Military Academy. This particular entry is nothing short of ridiculous, but I think it’s interesting, and certainly emphasizes the cultural importance of language, even at West Point.
Within the first dozen pages of Absolutely American, David Lipsky brings up “The Theory and Practice of Huah” (11). Huah? Right. In addition to basing everyday speech on acronyms, apparently the military has its own vocabulary. Lipsky writes “There’s a word you hear a lot at West Point: huah. […] Huah is an all-purpose word” (11). It seems that huah is something that you can say to anyone at any time. It can be attached to the end of a question signifying “right?”, it can be used as an adjective to describe someone who is ready for action, or it can be used as a response to most questions (“How are you doing today?” “HUAH!”). I guess that huah is the military’s version of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” something to say when there’s nothing else to say.
I decided to bring up the idea of “huah” with my ever-patient acquaintances at West Point. I received an instant response when I uttered the word, but it was not quite the response I had anticipated. I was immediately told that I was spelling it wrong. Apparently the spelling has changed since the publishing of Absolutely American in 2003. Nowadays it seems that this magic word is spelled H-O-O-A-H. Once we moved away from the technicalities of the word, I asked the cadets what hooah meant. I received an absolutely brilliant response: “hooah is everything and anything, but ‘no’” (Anonymous). The cadets then went on to describe how hooah is the Army version of “good,” except if you’re good then you’re alright, but if you’re hooah then you’re motivated, physically and mentally prepared, and ready to perform. It seems that hooah carries more baggage than one would originally think.
Tying this word into the anthropological study of culture, I think that it serves to create identity. According to the dictionary, hooah/huah is not a word, yet it is quite obvious that at the United States Military Academy it is a word, and a very important one at that. Hooah/huah is a word that unites members of the Army because it is unique and motivationally encompassing. People outside of the Army do not associate with this word, because hooah/huah carries a tone of shared experiences that can only be found within West Point’s walls.


Anonymous, Telephone interview. 22 April 2008.

Lipsky, David. Absolutely American. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Doubt. Ew.

Doubt is a scary thing. Just the word doubt conjures up images of indecision and low self-esteem. Doubt. Ew. Besides, why is there a “b” in doubt anyway? Overall it’s just a terrible word. Relevant to this blog however, how does doubt play in to the lives of those involved with West Point? Up until junior year, cadets have the option of leaving the United States Military Academy without financial or military commitments. One of the cadets I interviewed noted that following junior year attendance there’s a sense of finality, and people begin to more fully believe in the military. During a cadet’s freshman and sophomore years, questioning commitment to the military is accepted, however following the obligation that comes with getting so far into your junior year, there’s no turning back. Then what? My guess is that you’re expected to believe fully in the military, no doubt allowed, but my question is: really? Is that possible? We’re all humans, which often means that we’re never fully satisfied. Isn’t life just an ocean of questions? Am I really supposed to be in this field? At this college? With this person? Are my goals achievable? Are they noble? I’ve decided to take a moment and investigate how doubt plays into the United States Military Academy.
It’s just an educated guess, but I’d say that the last thing the military wants is someone who doubts their participation in the army. As stated above, the first two years don’t matter all that much, but once you’re in, you’d better be all the way in. It makes sense; you don’t want someone operating on your brain who doesn’t really want to be a surgeon, why would you want someone in the army risking their lives against their will? In Absolutely American, author David Lipsky describes a mandatory speaker the senior class attends, where the cadets are “assured that their work is important, challenging, of selfless value to their country” (14). Keeping doubt at bay is a crucial task that requires the military’s attention.
I guess I’m a free spirit, because for me the idea of being locked into a certain lifestyle makes me nervous. Many people would look at that and say I’m undisciplined, or undedicated, but it’s just how my mind works. It takes a different kind of person to lock his or her future in place. Then again, maybe it’s a sense of security, which sounds just as reasonable. In his article “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness,” Jon Gertner presents evidence that “challenges our common assumption that we [are] happier with the option to change our minds when in fact we’re a happier with closure” (3). Therefore, maybe knowing what the future holds shouldn’t be considered imprisoning, but rather a promise of stability.


Gertner, Jon. "The Futile Pursuit of Happiness." New York Times 03 Sep 2003 : 1-7.

Lipsky, David. Absolutely American. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Another Look

In my ongoing quest to discover the ins and outs of the United States Military Academy, I think that it is extremely important to continue to look into stories of the individual. No two cadets will have the exact same reasons for attending West Point, and therefore it is necessary to look into a variety of motivations. I have begun this process with an initial interview of an attending West Point cadet in a previous blog, but I hope to continue investigating the driving factors of others who are currently at, or have been present at the academy.
During my research, I have discovered an amazingly helpful resource. Absolutely American is a detailed account of West Point written by Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, who was granted full access to the United States Military Academy. Due to his reputation at Rolling Stone as a “young-person specialist,” Lipsky was assigned to West Point in 1998 and followed a specific company of the school for the full four years they were in attendance. His book caught my attention because it appears that at the beginning of his research, he had the exact same questions as I do. In the preface of Absolutely American Lipsky writes “What kinds of people still wanted such a regimented life? Why would cadets willingly put themselves through it? Didn’t they realize the way they were living was out of date? Those were the questions I set out to answer” (xiv). Therefore, for the next blog or two, I intend to use Lipsky’s book in order to help me answer some of my own questions.
Within the first chapter of his book, Lipsky identifies two cadets who attended West Point for very different reasons. One of them will be described in this blog. First Captain Rob Shaw described his early schooling experiences as a time when fun overruled responsibility. After dropping out of college, he enlisted in the Army and was soon recommended to West Point as a prior-service candidate. According to Shaw, at West Point “you’re treated as a man” and “you’re doing tough, challenging, dangerous things, for a good reason. It’s just an awesome feeling” (qtd. in Lipsky 12). Even though for Shaw, the military was not an initial plan, he was able to find strong purpose and meaning in its goals and methods.
The testimony given by First Captain Rob Shaw in Lipsky’s book Absolutely American is interesting to me because it proves that one does not need to be born with a military mindset. I’ve always been under the impression that a person must feel a sense of meaning with the military before becoming involved, and I find it remarkable that I’ve been wrong. Now, there’s a good chance that I am completely misinterpreting Captain Shaw’s words. However, for the first time I am currently able to imagine a way in which the military gives purpose, not just direction, to someone’s life, which is in my opinion, something they should be proud of.


Lipsky, David. Absolutely American. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003

Friday, April 4, 2008

A Moment To Think

At this point I’ve been blogging about the United States Military Academy for a few weeks, and since I’ve reached the “halfish” point in this process, I think it’s time for some reflection. I began this blog with very little understanding regarding the “whys” of West Point. Since that point, I’ve had the opportunity to ask questions and do research about the Academy. What have I learned? Well, to begin with, West Point is one tough place. During the first summer there, new cadets are exposed to a lifestyle that is strict, rigorous, and stressful. They emerge from Cadet Basic Training as official cadets with a completely new lifestyle. The intensity continues throughout the academic year as coursework is added to the physical and military academics of their lives. Listening to the account of the cadet to whom I spoke, I felt a deeper level of respect for the men and women who join the military. When I began this process, I did already respect servicemen and women, but throughout my blogs this respect has been built upon and deepened. As Americans, I think that it is important to respect the military, regardless of what our political, religious, or cultural views may be. Examining my mindset now, I realize that I didn’t respect our armed forces as much as I should have. I thought I did, but it’s very difficult to respect without understanding. Many people disrespect the military because they disagree with whatever armed conflict is going on. However, it’s not the Army, Navy, Marines, or Air Force that makes the decision to fight or go overseas. It’s extremely hard to remember this, especially when we are constantly exposed to images of military men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq. We can’t help but make an association. We see an American serviceman in an Iraqi village, and forget that it was our politicians who put him there, not other soldiers. I readily admit that in the past I have fallen victim to this misconception along with everyone else. However, since doing this blog I have learned to distinguish between the military and politics, and therefore developed a deeper level of respect and support for those who are working hard for this nation.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Thus far in this blog I’ve explored several aspects of the United States Military Academy. I’ve looked at its history, and discovered its deep traditions; I’ve investigated the mission statement, and what it means to those who have the responsibility to live it; I’ve looked in to the stressful daily lives of West Point’s cadets, and understood how strong a person must be to endure the everyday challenges that present themselves at the academy. However, in order to better understand and accept the United States Military Academy, there is another (somewhat enormous) question that must be asked, and that question is, why on earth would anyone want to attend this school? The fact that I even need to ask this question is a demonstration of my ignorance. Thousands of people have attended, and are currently attending West Point, and clearly they’ve all had reasons to do so. Therefore, the time has come to investigate these reasons, and the only accurate way to do this is by going straight to those who have them, mainly the West Point cadets.
For this blog, I spoke with a cadet (who again will remain nameless in order to protect his privacy) who explained his motivations for attending the United States Military Academy. According to the cadet, he attended West Point because he was under the impression that the military would challenge him in three aspects of his life: the physical aspect, the academic aspect, and the spiritual aspect. While most colleges focus primarily on developing academics, the military was appealing to him because it would build him as a well-rounded character. It’s no secret that West Point is challenging both academically and physically, but I was confused about the spirituality aspect of which he spoke. He explained that West Point is known for the strength of its ethical code. It also has a high percentage of Christian students and multiple active church groups. Therefore, according to this cadet, West Point boasted an all-in-one reputation, which was enough to get him involved (Anonymous).
The cadet I interviewed raised some extremely valid points. West Point can certainly offer a challenge to anyone who wants it. It’s difficult for me to relate to someone who’s constantly looking for a way to challenge themselves to the extreme. Personally, I like to be busy and challenged. I enjoy a healthy level of stress and I love working hard. I don’t like my classes to be a waste of time, and I always push myself as hard as I can during my workouts. However, that comes from me. I’m not a fan of someone standing over my shoulder and telling me to work harder. I work as hard as I can for the benefit of myself only. However, understanding that there are other people in the world who have different lifestyles than me is crucial to leading a relaxed life. My first step toward making sense of the United States Military Academy will come from my ability to think outside my own comfort zone. I need to remember that people, like the cadet I spoke to, have different motivations in life. The cadet I interviewed wanted to push himself as hard as he possibly could in every aspect of his life, and that’s why he was at West Point, and I know I’m learning when I can honestly say, that’s a good reason.


Anonymous, Telephone interview. 27 March 2008.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Military Life

The transition from civilian life to military life is challenging. Incoming freshmen sacrifice most of their summer to take part in Cadet Basic Training (CBT), also known as “Beast Barracks.” CBT is described by West Point’s website as “challenging, stressful, physically demanding and rewarding” (“West Point Admissions: FAQS about Military Training”), an experience several steps up from the average college orientation. Alright, so what’s it like to actually attend CBT at the United States Military Academy? What is a normal day like? West Point’s web site doesn’t mask the fact that military life is intense, but in order to get a better understanding of just how intense this so-called “Beast” is, I interviewed a cadet about his summer training experience. In order to protect his privacy, his name will be omitted from this blog.
According to the cadet, during the summer the day began at 5:00 in the morning. Around ten of 5, you could hear the upperclassmen in the hallways checking to make sure no one was up ahead of time. He said people would always try and get up fifteen minutes early, in order to get a head start on the day, but if the upperclassmen caught you then they’d yell and send you back to bed. As soon as the clock hit 5:00, the halls went from silence to pandemonium. The upperclassmen would instantaneously begin yelling, and kicking in and banging on doors. He said that once they played Marilyn Manson loudly as a wake-up tactic. The new cadets were given two minutes to get on the wall, and within these two minutes they were expected to make their beds, shave, and get in uniform. These unrealistic time demands were what prompted so many to try and wake up early. The particular cadet to whom I spoke usually aimed to wake up at 4:40am. Following their rapid wake-up, the new cadets stood and awaited further attention. If it was a Formation Day, they would stand until the 5:20am flag raise, and then they would proceed to physical training (or PT). PT consisted of either running or muscular/strength/endurance training that would last for approximately 1 hour before breakfast. Following PT, the new cadets returned to their rooms, where they were given five minutes to shower, change, and be back on the wall. They then marched to the mess hall, where ten minutes were allotted for breakfast. However, according to the cadet I spoke to, whether the chain of command actually let you eat for those ten minutes was entirely up to them. The body of the day was taken up by a variety of military trainings, briefings, placement tests, and issue points (the picking-up of West Point assigned objects and clothing). Also, as transitioning members of the military, the new cadets needed to learn how to march and drill. Lunch was placed somewhere during the day, and was similar to breakfast. At night, the new cadets were allowed a half hour of “personal time.” However, this time was almost always used to catch up on things you weren’t able to complete during the day. Lights were out strictly at 10:00pm, but according to my interviewee many new cadets spent some time in the dark writing letters to their families and friends with a flashlight (Anonymous).
During my conversation with the cadet, I was surprised at how strongly his words effected my emotions. Hearing the intensity of his daily life during the summer caused me to feel anxiety on his behalf. The above-described routine doesn’t even include accounts of actual military drills and training, such as handling/firing a weapon, rock climbing, or field training. After hearing his recollections, I am more convinced than ever: those who are in the military deserve our complete respect, regardless of our political views.
Thus far in my blog I have learned that military life is exhausting, stressful, and challenging. So why do it? What is it that calls people to serve? Is it a sense of duty? Family pressure? Patriotism? In my next blog I plan so explore the question of why people attend the United States Military Academy.


Anonymous, Telephone interview. 25 March 2008.

"West Point Admissions: FAQS about Military Training." United States Military Academy. US Army. 25 Mar 2008 .

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Mission Statement According to a Cadet...

It is impossible to get an accurate view of the United States Military Academy completely from outside its walls. Therefore, in order to obtain well rounded information regarding the school I spoke with an attending cadet.
William Guinther is a freshman, or “plebe” at West Point. He has been in attendance since July 2nd, and has participated in a variety of courses and extracurricular activities. In addition to surviving six weeks of Cadet Basic Training over the summer, he has been a part of West Point’s varsity swim team, water polo team, and scuba diving team. He has dealt with rigorous academics and hazing by upperclassmen, and feels overall that West Point has been, and continues to be an intense experience. During our conversation, I asked him specifically about West Point’s mission statement, and how it plays into his life. He began by impressively reciting the mission statement word-for-word, a task that even the most theatrically-savvy would struggle with. The first aspect of the mission statement that he addressed was interestingly the order of words. He found it notable that West Point’s goal to “inspire” was last on the mission statement list, after “educate” and “train.” Cadet Guinther said that the United States Military Academy wanted people to arrive at the school already inspired. You were supposed to come knowing that you wanted to become part of the military. He noted that at West Point, inspiration takes a back seat to education, where at civilian colleges; the reverse tends to be the case. He went so far as to say that West Point does inspire you, just only in one direction. Cadet Guinther also mentioned that at West Point, those in attendance are told that their major does not impact what they will be doing in the military. It is more important that cadets acquire critical thinking skills that can then be transferred to their service in the army. Personally I found this particular mindset similar to that of a civilian college, where learning applicable life skills is more important than memorizing vocabulary words.
I then asked Cadet Guinther whether or not he thinks that in general West Point achieves its goal as outlined in the mission statement. He said yes, and that the school is based upon a doctrine of slow immersion into a military lifestyle that begins on day one. CLDS (Cadet Leadership Development System) begins the moment freshman walk on to campus, and concludes with graduation. The four years at West Point are spent gradually building higher military expectations with lower supervision, a system that thus far seems to be creating strong military leadership. Despite the foreignism of West Point’s mission statement, based on my conversation with Cadet Guinther I have to believe that it serves a purpose (Guinther).


Guinther, William. Telephone interview. 04 March 2008.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Historically Speaking...

I’m choosing to begin the discovery process of this blog with some basic facts about West Point, including its history and mission statement. Long before becoming an academy, West Point was used for military purposes. Strategically placed on the west bank of the Hudson River in New York, West Point proved its value as a military fortress during the Revolutionary War. It was founded as a military academy in 1802 by legislation bearing President Thomas Jefferson’s signature. The school’s primary academic focus was engineering, and West Point graduates are credited with most of the construction of American railways, bridges, and roads during the first half of the nineteenth century. The United States Military Academy gained recognition for graduate leadership during the Mexican, Indian, and Civil Wars. Its list of alumni includes such names as Robert E. Lee, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ulysses S. Grant. Following the Civil War, the school’s curriculum was expanded beyond engineering, and during the World Wars of the early nineteen-hundreds, both enrollment and facilities at West Point were expanded. In more recent years, West Point’s core of cadets has grown to include women, as well as a higher population of minorities, and its academics span a broad variety of subjects (A Brief History of the Academy).
West Point is grounded in a long, deep history that reaches back for centuries. Upon learning about this history, the reasons behind the military traditions of the school are more clear. The reasoning behind many of West Point's practices seems to be that "it's always been done this way." It's no secret that traditions are hard to break, and I guess that this fact applies to West Point as much as it does anywhere else. However, it is POSSIBLE to bend, mold, and break traditions. The question then becomes, SHOULD they be broken? Many people would argue that we are currently fighting a very non-traditional war, and therefore traditional military tactics will not work. Is this the case? Should West Point begin to alter their traditions? Even if these traditions are, in a way, historical landmarks?
Upon reading all of this information on West Point’s website, I noticed a repetion of the words “duty,” “honor,” and “country.” These words appear in the United States Military Academy logo, on the top of every page, and variously throughout the website’s text. These three words define West Point’s mission. In its entirety the United States Military academy’s mission reads as follows:
“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” (USMA Mission). For the next few blogs, I’m going to further explore this mission statement. I wish to examine it through the eyes of current West Point cadets; do they think it’s too broad? Too narrow? Do they think it’s an achievable goal? How do the cadets’ opinions of the mission statement compare with the academy’s opinions as expressed on its website? The United States Military Academy is rich which history and tradition, but is that history and tradition enough to hold up a mission statement? This is the ultimate question that will be addressed in my following blogs.

"A Brief History of the Academy." The United States Military Academy at West Point. 2001. US Army. 25 Feb 2008 .

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Asking "Why?"

I like to understand things. When something is broken, I want to know how it happened. When someone’s angry, I want to know why. When I don’t know something, I ask. The topic of this blog is the United States Military Academy (also referred to as West Point), and during this writing process I will ask and answer the question of why. Why does West Point do things the way it does? Why does it follow traditional training methods when America is fighting a very non-traditional war? Why is so much emphasis placed on uniforms and room organization? For the next several months I plan to further my understanding of the United States Military Academy with the help of a variety of sources, including interviews with attending cadets, and web resources.
A native New Englander, I grew up in a democratic household with a family of self-described liberals. Although my grandfathers served in the Army and Navy, none of my relatives have been involved with the military in recent years. As a household, we do not support the invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq, and are fully behind bringing our troops home. Personally, I have a great respect for the men and women of our nation who make the selfless decision to enlist in the military, and deeply admire their courage. Those who are accepted to West Point attend the school for four years, graduate as an officer in the Army, and then spend a minimum of five years in active duty. Getting in to West Point is not easy. With an acceptance rate of 14% ("The United States Military Academy"), those who are selected for admission are at the top of their games both physically and academically. However, with the possibility of a nine year commitment, attending the school cannot be taken lightly. I’m under the impression that those who endure the tedious application process and challenging enrollment must have a strong motivation to do so. Therefore, it is my goal in this blog to discover what that motivation is, and use this information to determine why the United States Military Academy does things the way it does.

"United States Military Academy." The Princeton Review. The Princeton Review. 19 Feb 2008 .