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.