Copyright John T. Reed
Like all West Point graduates, I am often asked by young people if they should go there. Sometimes, current cadets ask whether they should stay there.
My best answer to that question is the book I sell the most copies of—Succeeding. It is about how to match your unique combination of strengths and weaknesses to the optimal career for you and the optimal spouse for you. If you get those two decisions right, the rest kind of falls into place.
I am only one graduate. I advise anyone reading this to get other opinions and perspectives from other graduates. Talk to former cadets (people who left West Point before graduation), graduates who got out of the Army as soon as their commitment was up, and graduates who stayed in the Army for at least a 20-year career. That’s the whole spectrum of West Pointers. See which of them seems most like you. Listen to the specifics of how they describe the experience and their decisions to stay or leave.
Here is a photo of me taken in my cadet room in the winter of 1966 when I was a junior. I know the season and year because of the three rifles and saber in the right background. I was the C-2 company guidon bearer and a corporal then. As such, I was the only junior in the company authorized to wear a saber in parades and meal formations. Back then, only seniors wore sabers. Everyone else had a rifle except for guidon bearers. In my right hand is my slide rule. Its tan leather case is on my desk. I still have it. Electronic calculators had not yet been invented. The Barracks was Central which had been built in 1850. Each room had three cadets and a no-longer working fireplace. One of the binders in the top of the rifle rack is the “Blue Book” or Cadet Regulations which I refer to later in this article. The uniform I was wearing was the class uniform for the winter months. The shoes are spit-shined leather, literally. Now they wear Corfam. Believe it or not, one of my roommates took the picture to commemorate our room being a horrible mess that day. It was during exams and we were consumed with studying and inspections were eased up during such periods.
A couple of months after that photo was taken, they took our senior yearbook photos in the spring of our junior year when I was 20. Here is that photo:
Here is an email from a father of a former cadet-wannabe:
My son, whom your site saved from going into college AFROTC, is incredulous, but agrees he'd been warned about this kind of thinking within the military: by you.
Thanks again for saving my son from one of the worst mistakes he could have made in life. He's completely free of the desire to join the military now.
Feel free to quote my comments on my son. He said just two days ago that he can still here the sonic crack of the bullet he dodged when deciding not to go the military route as he'd dreamed of doing since his elementary school days. I credit several sources for the removal of the rose colored glasses about the military: your columns and your book Succeeding, a former Navy pilot-turned-history-professor who echoed your views to him, two recent Army veterans who told him that their experiences were even worse than what you guys talk about, and my own discussion about why I did not sign Air Force enlistment papers as an 18 year old.
Unfortunately, too many young men (and women) do not avail themselves of the advice that's out there. So many young people have had less-than-happy upbringings and can't wait to get away from home. Many watch a few artful war movies (the drill sergeant boot camp scenes in Full Metal Jacket seem to be the most influential!) and get the urge to join a he-man's gun club. Many go to air shows and watch the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds and think military service is all showbiz and glory. In short, there's a huge marketing and emotional buildup of military service that overwhelms the voices of sanity trying to tell how it really is. Some listen and benefit to those voices, and others either ignore or never hear them in the first place.
My son completed the cadet program in Civil Air Patrol, becoming Spaatz Award recipient #1800 and being awarded 2011 Outstanding Cadet …. He has continued his membership in Civil Air Patrol and promotes their Search and Rescue function. He continues to lecture to cadets at various squadrons and actually uses your articles as information he includes in his talks about applying to the Air Force Academy or the other Service Academies. He makes sure every cadet he comes across who expresses an interest in joining the military is made aware of your site and how to get to it. He does not militate furiously against the military so much as he tries to make sure they know that there are other experiences and views available to them that they would be well advised to carefully consider.
I expect that you're going to catch more hell for your latest article about women in the military. What you say makes sense to me and is most likely, again, how it really is in the military. My own observations of girls my family has known that join the military is strongly indicative that military life is not good for women. Nice girls (and boys) from good homes enlist and four years later return as exceedingly foul-mouthed, heavily tattooed, heavy-smoking, alcoholics, often with illegitimate children. I wouldn't wish the sort of environment that produces such maladjusted individuals on anybody's child, least of all my own.
Keep up the good work. My family deeply appreciates all you do.
On 10/10/07, the CEO of a Web site called west-point.org told me,
Articles on your Web site are being discussed on the West Point Forum. If you’d like to join the Forum and the discussion, go here: http://www.west-point.org/wp/wp-forum/ and click on “Subscribe Now.”
I never visited that Forum, but based on the above comments, there are apparently some other perspectives on the West Point experience available there. I pointed out to the CEO that my name, phone number, and email address are at the bottom of each of my Web pages in case anyone there had found any errors or omissions in my facts or logic. As far as I know, no one else from the West Point Forum has ever contacted me. I tentatively conclude that means they have found no errors or omissions in my facts or logic. If that is the case, then any adverse comments there about my articles about the military would have to employ intellectually-dishonest debate tactics, like questioning motives or name calling. There are comprehensive lists of intellectually-dishonest debate tactics at my article on the subject at www.johntreed.com/debate.html.
In his 2008 book A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, Temple University Professor John Allen Paulos captures the nature of chat group discussions quite well:
Chatroom denizens form little groups that spend a lot of time excoriating, but not otherwise responding to, opposing groups. They endorse each other’s truisms and denounce those of others.
Only a brief visit to these sites is needed to see that a more accurate description of them would be rant rooms.
Anything I posted at west-point.org would duplicate what I posted here. If anyone there has found any errors or omissions in my facts or logic, and brings them to my attention, I will correct them here. That covers all reasons for communications between me and the Forum.
A habitue of a Web site called College Confidential told me there was some discussion about this article there. It has a discussion forum for each college. The West Point one is at http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/military-academy-west-point/. It was some people criticizing me as “negative” and “a real jerk” and out-of-date and inaccurate as well as some people who defended my articles. As usual, my critics were vague and unspecific, relying totally on intellectually-dishonest debate tactics like name calling. No specific out-of-date information or inaccuracies in my articles were cited. My supporters, as usual in my experience, were specific and factual.
For example, one supporter quoted my admonition above to talk to former cadets, grads who stayed in the Army, and grads who got out of the Army. A critic said prospects should talk to current cadets, not former cadets.
I do not oppose talking to current cadets. I just did it myself in September, 2008 when I was there for about a week for my 40th reunion. But you need to keep a number of things in mind with regard to current cadets:
• They are very young and inexperienced
• Few have ever gone to another college to be able to compare West Point to other schools
• They are on active duty in the U.S. Army in the belly of the beast. They need to be careful what they say.
• Young people are less capable of admitting they made a mistake than older people. See the discussion of the psychological phenomenon of “effort justification” at Wikipedia. Effort justification is no doubt strongest during the effort which is the situation of current cadets. Here is a quote from another Web article about “effort justification:”
It also seems to be the case that we value most highly those goals or items which have required considerable effort to achieve. This is probably because dissonance would be caused if we spent great effort to achieve something and then evaluated it negatively. We could, of course, spend years of effort achieving something which turns out to be a load of rubbish and then, in order to avoid the dissonance that produces, try to convince ourselves that we didn't really spend years of effort, or that the effort was really quite enjoyable, or that it wasn't really a lot of effort; in fact, though, it seems we find it easier to persuade ourselves that what we have achieved is worthwhile and that's what most of us do, evaluating highly something whose achievement has cost us dear - whether other people think it's much cop or not! This method of reducing dissonance is known as 'effort justification'.
Click here to see a book discussion where working very hard to gain admision to a very selective college was the actual case study that demonstrated effort justification.
And here is one from a 1988 grad who married another 1988 grad:
I just read your article about whether a person should go to West Point or not and found it very informative. I have to admit, while I was reading the article I had an intense urge to get irritated by your observations, but deep down I knew them to be spot on. My husband and I are both West Point Grads (married at USMA right after graduation)…so I guess I am one of those women who went there for a husband. I'm kidding. I was already in the Army as an enlisted soldier when my Platoon Sergeant talked me into going to West Point Preparatory School at Fort Monmouth NJ. I was stationed at Fort Knox and hating it and I thought that would be a great way to get out of that hellhole. I suppose that is not the best reason to apply for an Academy preparatory school. I never expected to make it through the tough academic instruction, but I did. I had so much fun at Prep School that I was sure it would continue at West Point. Ha!
Honestly, I loved my time there. It may have not helped me get a great civilian job after getting out, but I have tons of impressive stories to tell my young sons (probably not the best reason to attend an academy either). My husband hated West Point…but he ended up going back there as an instructor and our children were conceived and born at West Point. He retired after 22 years of service. I left the Army after I served my 5 year commitment. Because we had our children late in life they only endured one school change when they were in elementary school. We are retired and having fun raising our children and being able to spend every minute with them (I don't know if my sons enjoy having so much time with their retired parents or not).
Anyway, I wanted to thank you for writing that article. My oldest son had expressed interest in attending West Point and I wasn't sure if I should encourage him or not. I think when he gets close to graduating High School I will have him read your article and let him make an informed decision.
USMA 88 (If you use my letter in anyway please omit my name. Thanks)
Here are two comments I got in 2010 from West Point graduates, one from the Class of 2007 serving in Afghanistan and another from the class of 2005 location unknown:
I just read your article on “Should you go to or stay at, West Point.” Everything mentioned was painfully spot on and I must congratulate you on your insight on the subject.
Class of 2007
I found your website by chance a few weeks ago. You are spot on with all of your articles about the military (army in particular). I am a 2005 West Point grad currently on tour #2 in Iraq. I was wondering if you had seen Lt. Col. Yingling's latest piece in the Armed Forces Journal. He echos your argument for the institution of the draft and return to the constitution with regards to war powers. I would be very interested to read your thoughts on the article (http://www.afji.com/2010/02/4384885). I am proud of Lt. Col. Yingling, but unfortunately he will never be promoted to full Colonel or hold any position of responsibility because he speaks the truth.
On another note, I just wanted to thank you for publicizing the truth about the careerism and utter lack of integrity in the army officer corps and its deleterious effects on our national defense. It is amazing to me how little has changed in the nearly 40 years since you were in the army. Please keep writing and saying what so many of us cannot say due to our indentured servitude status. I still have a few years to go because I chose to fly helicopters thinking it would be a better experience than the rest of the army (it hasn't been any better).
Please keep my thoughts anonymous.
USMA class of 2005
When I was in the Army, they began a program for growing their own doctors. During the Vietnam war, they had to draft doctors per se That is, they had a separate draft for doctors only. The doctors were not pleased. Apparently, this program of creating their own doctors continues. They now have their own medical school, one of the alumni of which is the Fort Hood mass murderer.
I know some non-West Point, career military doctors. They seem quite satisfied with their careers and those careers were quite different from typical military careers. The career military doctors I know were stationed here in the San Francisco Bay area apparently at the same hospital for almost their entire careers. If you plan to pursue a medical doctor career via West Point, talk to people who did that, not me, for help in deciding whether to do it. I would add that I do not believe the unique ordeal of West Point will make anyone a better doctor or even a better military doctor.
I expect that some of my complaints below and in my other articles about the military apply to medical doctors, but to a large extent, they seem to be so different from the regular line Army officers that I must make that comment for accuracy purposes.
In particular, I would exempt career Army medical doctors from such criticisms as routine lying and lack of expertise. In other words, I saw some evidence that career military doctors had integrity and ethics in doing their jobs. I saw no evidence that non doctor/lawyer officers did. Also, line Army officers are supposed to be experts at winning our wars. I saw no evidence that they have a clue about that. Army medical doctors, on the other hand, are supposed to have expertise at preventing and curing injuries and illnesses. And they do.
There is a pertinent marketing phenomenon: When people are unable to appraise the value of something, they often value it according to its price. In one of my fields of expertise—real estate investment—criminal TV infomercial gurus charge tens of thousands of dollars for seminars that are worse than worthless (because they advocate financially suicidal and/or criminally illegal strategies). In contrast, the books I sell about real estate investment—which are claimed by many to be the best available information on the subject—sell for a mere $30 to $40 each. To the rank beginners on whom the infomercial gurus prey, my top-notch, but cheap information seems to be worth only a fraction of the terrible, but extremely expensive, seminars. (Once, when I made a speech at the National Aparment Association convention, an attendee told me he had attended the annual three-day convention of one of my competitors and that he learned more listening to me for 45 minutes than he learned in the whole three days at that other, 20-different-prominent-gurus convention. I said, “Thanks, but that’s not saying much.”)
In the context of West Point, the “customers” are even more ignorant of the true value of various education opportunities than rank beginner real estate investors. For one thing, they are typically teenagers rather than adults. For another, there is a sort of cloak over the true value of a West Point education, net of its advantages and disadvantages, because of its mystique and the almost universal refusal of those in a position to know to comment negatively about it. West Point is highly regarded by the general public so prospective critics fear that they will be disliked by that same general public if they make negative comments about West Point.
To a teenager, the price of West Point in money is not high at all, but teenagers are not personally paying for college no matter where they go. Or they are borowing some of the money and have only vague, abstract notions about what it means to pay it back as a college graduate adult. But teenagers are actutely aware that the price of going to West Point in terms of effort, hours per day, months per year, discomfort, regimentation, demands, and so on are the highest of any college in America. Combine such a very high price with their lack of any other basis on which to appraise the true value of prospective educational experiences and you get erroneous conclusions that West Point education must be extremely valuable indeed. Otherwise, why would people pay such a high price for it?
Occasionally, an experienced, knowledgeable real estate investor attends one of the free, come-on real estate investment seminars designed to get prospects to sign up for the expensive seminars. Reports I have heard are that such ringers react almost violently to the bogus information about how easy real estate investment is and to the high-pressure sales pitches. They get into shouting matches with the commissioned sales people at the seminars and are promptly thrown out by the highly skilled and experienced con men. Does that ever happen at West Point? No, because unlike the TV infomercial seminars, West Point does not allow experienced adults. You have to be 17 to 22 to enter.
• Current cadets have never been West Point graduates and most have never been in the Army and having to spend five years in the Army after graduation is my main objection to West Point.
• Few have ever had any meaningful experience working as adults in the civilian world.
• The mere fact that they are still there tells you their basic position on the question of whether you should do the same. (Juniors and seniors cannot leave so some of them may regret their decision. Few of those would admit it to a stranger.)
Current cadets would be the best source for current details of cadet life. They are probably not the best source for much else regarding a decision to go there. Going to West Point is not a college-life decision. It is a decision about at least the very important first 12 years of your adult life, maybe about the next 20 or more years of your life, and maybe about the rest of your life—if you get killed in Iraq or Afghanistan as many recent graduates of West Point have.
One who criticized me at College Confidential said she was the mother of a cadet. Have you ever heard the expression “A face only a mother could love?” What’s a mom going to say? A. “Mr. Reed is right. My son was a fool to go to West Point.” or B. “My son’s going to West Point proves he is an academic genius and a sainted patriotic hero and extremely athletic and good looking to boot.” Rare is the mom who is capable of giving objective information about her cadet son’s college choice or anything else about her son. Hell, my mom kept Kodak film in business during my cadet days. She had a West Point decal on her car. She urged me to stay in the Army. Parents and other non-West Pointers are some of the most embarrassingly gray gray hogs on earth. More about gray hogs later in the article.
Here are three emails I got from the mother of an incoming cadet, with my request for permission to quote her in between.
Stumbled upon one of your overly glorified and lengthy articles. I did a google search about the desires of young people today choosing A West Point education. I did this because my son has received a Presidential Appointment for his academic and football talents. I am the daughter of a deceased World War 2 Army Infantryman. He was a willing participant in some of the most intense battles in American history. The Invasion, North Africa and the Bulge. My husband is a 21 year NavySeal veteran (BUDS class [redacted]), also a willing participant. I'm not sure how or why you were deserving of such an honor to attend a fine American institution, but it sounds like you were a big waste of tax payers money. While I admire your commitment( and this is the only compliment you'll receive from me) to the ideals of capitalism, they seem thwarted by the fight, perseverance and foundation that seems very much responsible for it's( capitalism ) induction into our society.
I'll end with a quote and the knowledge of what I'm truly grateful for, the fact that I don't think of assets or money as a way of determining someone's station in life. I'm glad I have instilled these values in my son and that he will never have any use for any of the opinions of which you share.
"Success is not measured by the position one has reached in life, rather by the obstacles one overcomes while trying to succeed"
— Booker T. Washington
Sincerely, [refused to be named]
May I quote you as an example of the typical gray hog mom whose knowledge of West Point and the Army would not fill the navel of a gnat, nor her objectivity about her son?
Correction to my previous email... world, not word. No you do not have my permission to quote me. Don't even begin to question my objectiveness regarding my son and his future. I am quite confident in my abilities as a parent, why the hell do you think I was searching for answers, dumb ass. And I know him well enough to know he would not find an ounce of credence to any of the opinions you hold. Why do think I wrote you to tell you how glad I was to stumble upon your swill in the first place. It's tough, I know, when you come across people who don't agree with you, but it must be even more difficult for you. My husband always said academy officers always made the worst kind of officers. I'm so appreciative for having uncovered these answers to my questions all by myself. Thanks again, dickhead.
Don't ever change. You so fit the bill of the typical defensive, antagonistic, lefty liberal stereotype. Resorting to name calling, how mature of a man of your age. You probably couldn't fight your way out of that navel of a gnat. Don't ever speak a word of my son, because unlike what you obviously didn't learn through your training as an officer, is that myself and those I love have the ability, resources and experience to come and kill you while you sleep. You don't deserve to breath the same air as me and mine. Just go on living in your bubble view of the word and counting all your money. Go Navy!
I am a Libertarian.
The reader who told me I was being discussed at College Confidential said of its service academy discussion groups:
Overwhelmingly, people that post on College Confidential Service Academy site are “unabashed” cheerleaders and refuse to admit that the academies or the services aren’t perfect. Consequently, I’m sure some candidates enroll and find they have made a mistake and they probably wish they had gotten more unbiased information before making the decision to attend.
Net discussion groups are almost invariably frequented by, and dominated by, people who:
• have an undisclosed agenda
• hide behind “handles” or false names
My agenda is disclosed, as is my real name. When you are hiding behind a false name, you can get away with saying a lot of biased or otherwise improper things. When you give your real name and contact information, you have to be careful what you say. That is even more true of a professional journalist like myself because my stock in trade is accurate information.
The short answer to the question “Should I go to, or stay at, West Point?” is “Probably not.”
No doubt some will be shocked that a West Point graduate would say such a thing. “It’s disloyal to the school. It discourages some wide-eyed eager young man or woman who was excited about going there.” Etc. Etc.
Actually, it’s a very complicated issue, much more so than deciding which civilian college to go to.
I got a couple of long communcations from a recent female West Point grad. I call her “LT 07:”
|Your articles have really opened up my mind to some self-exploration.||That’s always good and especially so for people in their early twenties.|
Loyalty is not necessarily a good thing per se. To evaluate one’s loyalty, you must ascertain his loyalty priorities because to be loyal to one thing means to be disloyal to all other things when the loyalties conflict. The key question is not whether someone is loyal, but to what are they loyal. When your loyalties conflict, in favor of which do you resolve the conflict?
The title of this article implicitly says that my loyalty is to the reader. Accordingly, I cannot be loyal to my college alma mater at the same time if there ever comes a point in the discussion where my loyalty to the reader and my loyalty to the Academy conflict. The title question of this article is, for many, a matter of life and death.
There is also the issue of what sorts of things one should be loyal to. Should you be loyal to a piece of real estate known as West Point, NY? Does a graduate of a college owe loyalty to the current people who administer the college you attended once upon a time? Or is the loyalty more properly directed to the principles the college taught? When we entered West Point, we took an oath, but it was not a loyalty oath to a person, place, flag, or group of people. Nazis took oaths like that, not West Pointers. Our oath that we took on our first day at West Point and again on our last was,
I, (your name), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;
That is a proper object of loyalty: the principles of the United States enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. The “constitution” of the United States Military Academy consists of:
As far as I know, all the discussion of West Point in my various military articles at this Web site complies with those principles and urges the people who currently run West Point and the Army to comply with them as well. No doubt those people would point to their current official positions at West Point and in the Army as evidence that they are complying with those principles—indeed, that they are certified paragons of that institution’s values. Not so. The recent Pat Tillman incident and the way it was handled by the Army, including many West Point graduates, was, and continues to be, a disgrace and clearly violated the principles taught at West Point.
Jamie Dimon’s take on loyalty
Jamie Dimon is CEO of JPMorgan Chase. In a March 26, 2010 letter to his shareholders Dimon said this about loyalty:
While I deeply believe in loyalty, it often is misused. Loyalty should be to the principles for which someone stands and to the institution: Loyalty to an individual frequently is another form of cronyism. Leaders demand a lot from their employees and should be loyal to them—but loyalty and mutual respect are two-way streets.
When I was a cadet, they made us learn and recite the Cadet Prayer. I have no problem with that. But they also forced us to go to chapel every Sunday. In doing so, the people who ran West Point violated their own oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, a Constitution which prohibits any official act establishing a religion.
Occasionally, a cadet would challenge the mandatory-chapel policy in court. When I was a cadet, the Academy would invariably respond to such challenges by immediately giving the cadet in question so many demerits for unrelated disciplinary infractions that he would be thrown out of the Academy for discipline and therefore have no standing to sue over mandatory chapel. By doing that, the people who ran the Academy violated the West Point motto of Duty, Honor, Country; the Cadet Honor Code—they lied about why the cadet in question was thrown out of the Academy—and the Cadet Prayer admonition to hate hypocrisy. Mandatory chapel was eventually eliminated after I graduated from West Point. That belated compliance with the Constitution was almost certainly forced upon the West Pointers who run West Point by outside non-West Pointers. That was also disgraceful and in direct contradiction of everything West Point stands for.
West Point’s appalling treatment of the first black cadet in the twentieth century, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., also violated the Constitution (Fourteenth Amendment equal-protection clause). He was never allowed to have a roommate. Other cadets refused to speak to him. He had to eat alone rather than at the normal 10-man tables to which the rest of the Corps of Cadets were assigned. As an officer, he was not allowed to enter the officers club.
My point here is wearing a shoulder patch that says you are currently a member of the West Point faculty or administration is not only no guarantee that you are upholding the principles of West Point, it says you are in the belly of the military bureaucratic beast and that beast has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to lie to the American people and otherwise violate the principles it teaches. Army officers place their personal career advancement over all principles. If you dispute that, please tell me the name of a U. S. Army officer who wanted to have a career in the Army as an officer but who felt compelled to lose that career because he had to speak out on a matter of principle.
I’m still waiting.
What I did not swear loyalty to when I was a cadet or graduate was the USMA Public Affairs Department (PR). My class was encouraged to become life members in the U.S. Military Academy Association of Graduates, which all 706 of us did. But we did not join a West Point booster club. The AOG ought to be in favor of making West Point better and pulling it back when it strays from its principles; not just taking a “my alma mater right or wrong” posture in response to everything West Point does or fails to do.
I do not know what the mission of the Association of Graduates is. I could not find it at their Web site. But I know that it ought to be to further the principles of our alma mater, not the careers of West Point’s current administrators. When politicians try to water down the Cadet Honor Code, as they have in the past, the AOG should fight against it. When the USMA administrators themselves go against those principles, like when a recent superintendent reinstated a male and female cadet who were expelled for getting married and having a baby—on the grounds that the marriage was annulled—the AOG should have opposed that.
When America lost the war in Vietnam and failed to achieve decisive military success in Lebanon, Somalia, and, as yet, in Iraq and Afghanistan, “Duty, Honor, Country” required that all West Point graduates and their association call on the Army and the Military Academy to update its training to achieve victory in our new types of wars. Instead, most grads, have taken the position that we members of the Long Gray Line have good excuses for our failure to achieve victory in Vietnam and elsewhere. That violates another of West Point’s principles: “No excuse, sir.”
The book Fool’s Gold is about the role of J.P. Morgan in the subprime meltdown. It was written by anthropologist Gillian Tett. On page 252, she made an observation based on her anthropology training that I think applies to West Point as well.
…the finance world’s lack of interest in wider social matters cuts to the very heart of what has gone wrong. Anthropology also instills a sense of skepticism about official rhetoric. In most societies, elites try to maintain their power not simply by garnering wealth, but also by dominating the mainstream ideologies, in terms of both what is said and what is not discussed. Social “silences” serve to maintain power structures, in ways that participants often barely understand themselves, let alone plan.
Credit was considered too “boring” or “technical” to be of interest to amateurs. It was a classic area of social silence. Insofar as any bankers ever reflected on that silence (which very few did), most assumed it suited their purposes well. Freed from external scrutiny, financiers could do almost anything they wished. And locked in their little silos, almost nobody could see how the pieces fitted together as a whole or how overbloated finance had become.[Emphasis in original]
For those who run West Point and the Army, the cause of the social silence is a little different. Intellectuals regard the military and what it does as intellectually beneath them, so they choose not to think about it. That permits the military to claim that they should be deferred to because they “know these things.” In fact, the military has a lot of explaining to do about the lack of results of our military operations since 1945. But they are not held to account for all those failures because non-military believe they lack the technical expertise to criticize the military.
Another aspect of it is civilians are intimidated by the fact that most of them chose not to serve in the military and by the fact that the military, on occasion, risk their lives. While true, those facts are irrelevant to whether the military is doing a good or adequate job. In fact, they are not, and when it comes to winning wars, West Point is no exception.
The third thing is that West Point has such a stellar reputation that few are courageous enough to challenge whether the place is currently living up to that reputation. Furthermore, I suspect the Military Academy would reform if they thought they had to, but their ability to get by resting on the laurels of long dead West Point graduates and the results of wars won before they were born has caused them to see not reforming as the easier, more politic path.
Finally, with regard to silence by West Point graduates and others knowledgeable about whether West Point is currently all that it could be or should be, I am reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s observation that
All professions are conspiracies against the laity.
When a group of people can be thought highly of, without justification, they are inclined to remain silent rather than point out the error. It is a mirror image of the old saying,
It’s better to remain silent and have people believe you’re a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
In the case of a revered, ancient institution like West Point, it should be worded,
It’s better to remain silent and have people continue to believe that West Pointers are supermen than to stop sinning by silence and urge needed reforms.
Or acknowledge that it is not necessarily in the interest of every top high school student whose attendance at West Point would add glory to its alumni to go to West Point. I think we who know the place owe prospective cadets the truth about it, especially after all the time the Long Gray Line has spent boasting about their honor and leadership, etc.
Although many members of the Association of Graduates help the Academy recruit new cadets, that should not be the mission of the Association nor is it the universal desire of the graduates the Association represents. Some members of the AOG do not think anyone should go to West Point. Some, like me, think only those who are well informed about who they are and what the Army really is about should go there. Other members of the Association of Graduates think every excellent high school student whose transcript would reflect greater glory on the Academy and its alumni should be recruited. I find that selfish and, to the extent that the student in question should not go to West Point, dishonest, which goes against the principles of West Point.
It is ultimately in the best interest of not only the prospective cadet or cadet, but also of West Point and the nation, to encourage only those who should go there to apply or remain. The security of the nation, and the welfare of the prospective West Point cadets and graduates, trump sucking up to the algorithm writers at U.S. News & World Report’s or Forbes Magazine’s college-guides.
Again, my best big-picture advice is to read my Succeeding book to see whether your unique compbination of strengths and weaknesses matches West Point and the ensuing five or more years in the Army.
To a large extent, the question “Should I go to, or stay at, West Point” is like the old issue of if you need to ask how much a yacht costs, you can’t afford it. If you are uncertain about whether you should graduate from West Point, you shouldn’t. It requires a powerful, long-term commitment.
West Point is not just a college choice. To start with one of the starkest issues, when you pick West Point, you may be greatly advancing the date of your death and choosing a violent death to boot. You could be captured and imprisoned indefinitely by an enemy. You may also be making a decision that will not kill you, but will gravely injure you and change every day of the rest of your life as a result. I’m talking about severe burns, paralysis, loss of limbs, and so forth. War is extreme violence.
William Tecumsah Sherman, West Point Class of 1840, famously said that “War is hell.” Then it follows unavoidably that during the Iraq and Afghan wars, West Point is a conveyor belt to hell. About a month after I entered West Point on July 1, 1964, I found myself on West Point’s intermittent conveyor belt to hell. The Gulf of Tonkin incident which marked the beginning of the Vietnam War occurred or was alleged to have occurred on August 2, 1964. Five years and five months after my first day at West Point, I stepped off the charter jet at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base in Saigon, Vietnam to begin my combat tour there. I was not killed or wounded but 20 of my classmates were killed there and many more wounded.
Which branch you choose upon graduation greatly affects the probability that you will die in combat, so when it comes to being on a conveyor belt to hell, there are West Point grads and there are West Point grads. But West Point ain’t Stanford when it comes to physical danger. More about branch choice, which greatly affects the probablity that you will die in the military, later.
LT 07 said two of her friends and more of her classmates had been killed already in just two years since graduation. One who died was the son of two West Pointers. Going to West Point is, to a real extent, a game of Russian Roulette. The more times you play that game, the greater the probability that your actual experience will match the expected value or experience, that is, that your family’s death rate at an early age will match that of the average of a West Point class. In the case of that particular three-West Point-grad family, the death happened to be unrelated to military service—a stateside hit and run. She said the deaths were a frequent part of being a cadet with names of the latest being announced from the mess hall poop deck at lunch and attendance at various taps ceremonies for the recently graduated and subsequently departed.
To young people, war and serious injury are abstractions. If that is the case with you, visit a cemetery, attend a funeral, and visit the serious injury wards at military or VA hospitals. See a West Point grad or other military person who got badly hurt. Get the abstraction out of your head and replace it with a concrete, real person with a name and personality who is not much older than you. Talk to him or her about the risk you are taking when you choose to enter the military including by attending West Point.
Since most of you are not going to follow that advice, here’s a lazy substitute. Read the book In a Time of War by Bill Murphy, Jr. It’s no great work of literature. It focuses on a handful of members of the West Point Class of 2002. It tries to put a favorable light on a lot of aspects of their lives, which is not what those considering West Point need. You need accuracy and completeness about both the good and the bad.
But In a Time of War does give you real people with real names and real personalities and real funerals attended by real moms and wives and siblings. It is also a recent class as opposed to my class of 1968 which graduated over 40 years ago and went to a different war in Vietnam. In a Time of War is required reading for anyone considering attending West Point, AND THEIR PARENTS, not only for the dying but also for the extreme difficulty of maintaining male-female relationships at West Point and in the Army and a whole bunch of other things you need to know, but are not going to read about in the West Point catalog.
LT 07 said she found dating at West Point “brutal.” She did not do it at all plebe year and dated less than we in the Class of ’68 did thereafter. She said many of the guys were too nerdy and there were other complications that resulted in fewer dates than outsiders would expect.
She said many guys felt they were “too good” for female cadets. I suspect I would have all but ruled out dating them because I hate situations where the females have a numeric advantage. I was that way with Ladycliffe (a now defunct girls college just outside the gate of West Point) girls—never dated one and turned down an offer of a date with the “best looking one there” once when I wrote a letter denouncing them after some Ladycliffe girl had falsely accused me of standing up one of her classmates.
I also rejected the Red Cross girls out of hand in Vietnam even though they hung around at our battalion for some reason. Everybody was falling over themselves pursuing them. They were not attractive. They all got instant big heads because of the scarcity of American women. LT 07 said I was quite right that the dating scene was “horrible” for both sexes. I don’t know that I would use that word. It was unsatisfactory when I was there, but we worked hard to counteract the situation and had some success. It sounds like the addition of females—but way too few of them—may actually have made dating at West Point even worse now.
LT 07 knows of at least two classmate couples who got divorced within two years of graduating.
You should also read my review of In a Time of War. It adds a West Point graduate’s perspective to a book about West Point written by a non-graduate. I also give the perspective of a former war-zone regular Army officer. In a Time of War author Bill Murphy has visited the war zone as a reporter and he has been on active duty with the Army reserves as an Army lawyer, but that is not similar enough to being a combat-arms officer following orders in a war zone.
The Vietnam memorial in DC has the names of 20 of my classmates on it. They are abstractions to you, but I can picture their faces. They still stare forever young from the pages of our yearbook. West Point is not a war movie. The Corps of Cadets is an active-duty Army unit and after graduation, when you trade cadet gray for Army cammies, that will become belatedly clear to you if it had not before. I’m trying to make sure it is clear to you before you choose to go there.
Investment writer “Adam Smith” (nom de plume of George J.W. Goodman) says in his classic book The Money Game, “If you don’t know who you are, Wall Street is an expensive place to learn.”
Thayer Road, the main street of West Point, can be an even more expensive place to learn who you are because of the 8-year commitment to remain in the Army and inactive reserves after graduation and the potential dangers of combat. Even if you are not harmed by combat, being in the Army for five years of active duty after graduation will greatly harm your ability to pursue any career other than Army officer. The four years at West Point, while making you better in some ways, also have some negative effects. The five years in the Army are probably a net loss for almost all West Point graduates who get out at that point.
I breathed a sigh of relief when my “Freedom Bird” left Vietnamese airspace in 1970 at the end of my tour there. So did all my classmates when their tours ended and so did our class collectively when our last classmate got out of there alive. We thought we were done with war.
But we were shocked in October of 2008 when we all got an email telling us that the West Point graduate son of one of our classmates had been killed by an IED in Afghanistan. When he died, he had been the father of a new son himself for just 25 days. The human cost of war, which we thought had ended for us in the early 1970s, had suddenly sprung back to life. I did not know either the son nor his father, my classmate, but that news hurt more than the news of classmates dying in the Vietnam war. Stuff that happens to our kids hurts more than the same thing happening to us. At age 65, we know far better than we did at age 24 what the rest of his normal life span would have been like. We now know too much what he will miss and we know too well how much the death will hurt his parents, wife, and other loved ones.
The teenagers who go to West Point, and the parents who proudly send them there, trust their government and their military leaders to take great care with their lives. They are grotesquely mistaken in that trust. The federal government, notwithstanding its statements to the contrary, doesn’t give a damn whether your son or daughter lives or dies. They are just statistics to them. Indeed, I think the same can also be said for the troop commanders in combat who are one level up. In other words, the battalion comander does not care much about the death of platoon leaders from whom he is separated by the company comander. Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith said during the Iraq war,
I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even by criminal, I cannot support that any more.
3% of my class was killed in Vietnam. My impression is Iraq and Afghanistan have similar West Point KIA ratios. I recall no amputees in my class, but they seem to be common among Iraq and Afghanistan West Point vets.
But being killed or physically maimed is not the only way combat hurts veterans. I was reminded of this by the advance reviews of the miniseries The Pacific which started on 3/14/10 on HBO.
Here is a line from the Wall Street Journal on 3/12/10 by Nancy DeWolf Smith talking about the World War II Marines depicted in the miniseries:
Some survive but never regain the capacity to feel unbounded, guiltless joy.
And here are some quotes from Tim Goodman’s San Francisco Chronicle review:
He says the writers of The Pacific got much of their material from the books Helmet for my Pillow and With the Old Breed. I have not read either but they sound insightful for young men and women who seek genuine insight into combat.
…even if you learn that one of these real-life characters survived to marry his sweetheart and leave behind a string of grandchildren, there are no happy endings here.
What The Pacific does exceptionally well is wallow in the minutiae of what turns young fearful soldiers into jaded and spent killing machines. Holding on to humanity proves quite elusive. There’s no gung-ho here.
The randomness of who lives and dies and the suffering even beyond the actual fighting—everything from relentless rain and lack of food and water to poor or pointless commands from above—eventually take their toll.
[unlike The Greatest Generation]; the series focuses instead on how their souls and minds were broken in their youth.
I was not mentally injured in this way in Vietnam, nor were any of my friends as far as I know. Almost all of us did experience being shot at which does change you in a very specific, but limited way. I surmise that all combat veterans have the same series of thoughts when first shot at:
1. What the hell was that?! (Responding to the sound of an explosion or the sound or sight of bullets whizzing by or hitting things around you. Sometimes, your first indication is a sort of twinkling set of “Christmas lights” in the distant wood line or on a distant enemy aircraft. Those are muzzle flashes of enemy weapons shooting at you. The sound arrives later and is muted.)
2. Sonuvabitch! Somebody just tried to kill me!
3. What did I ever do to him?
4. Oh, yeah. I’m an American soldier in a combat zone. The enemy are supposed to kill me and they are allowed to.
5. Well, I’d better kill that SOB before he kills me!
6. Damn! I always I knew I would die some day in the future. But maybe today is that day! Maybe the next few seconds!
7. Oh, well. Nothing I can do about it. Gotta accept it and focus on doing my job. Now what was I trained to do in this situation?
Does this come back to mind later in life? Yeah. It’s deja vu when you get a biopsy or are in some non-health, heavy-duty life difficulty. Having accepted imminent death once before in combat, you just shrug it off and focus on whatever the task at hand is. Non-combat vets often freak out. Combat soldiers don’t do that in combat in response to the first shots (assuming they do not hit you) because, basically, they are too busy doing their job and taking care of their buddies. They do not have time to feel sorry for themselves.
Some well-read prospective West Point cadets probably know about the “thousand-yard stare” often seen in veteran combat soldiers. As I said in my discussion of mystique in this article and in my book Succeeding, combat veterans are one of the groups that automatically have mystique in the eyes of those who lack the same experience. Mystique means super human power.
I suspect many prospective West Pointers are, nevertheless, eager to acquire that mystique, that thousand-yard stare.
You do not want that. You misunderstand the value of mystique. Actually, it has no value to an honest man. It is only of value to bullshit artists. More importantly, you do not understand the cost of acquiring that thousand-yard stare or what it signifies. It manifests the rare-among-civilians experience of combat, but it also manifests the death of part of the human spirit of the veteran. The thousand-yard stare and other outward manifestations of psychological combat scars are to the human spirit what the stub of a blown-off arm or leg is to the former healthy limb.
A West Point class that fought in World War II asked its members to contribute a single thought about the war to a reunion book they published. Astonishingly, these independent thoughts written by veteran West Pointers scattered all over the world after the war almost all came up with the same phrase:
Man’s inhumanity to man.
Even though I am a Vietnam vet, I have not been through that. You don’t want to go through it, even if you think you do.
It occurred to me after writing the above that many teenage boys will be perversely attracted to West Point because of the post-graduation danger, especially the risk of death. One reaction to that is if you’re that damned insecure about your manhood, maybe it’s best for the evolution of the species that you go get yourself gloriously killed “for freedom” before you reproduce.
Then I remember that I did this 48 years ago when I went to West Point.
It has been said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. You insecurity about your manhood will go away in time. You do not have to unnecessarily risk your life or limb to make that happen. You can speed it up by taking calculated risks, rather than engaging in thrill-seeking or daredevil behavior—like going to West Point in a time of war.
You can, in civilian life, take courses in, and engage in, all sorts of calculated-risk activities that prove your manhood like hang gliding, parasailing, playing contact or collision sports, becomtng an EMT or fireman or policeman, going through a civilian course like Outward Bound, iron man competition, mountaineering school, SCUBA school, ski school. You can train to become an instructor at such schools. You can get a high certification like a black belt in karate or become a ski patrol member.
I did a lot of that stuff during and after the military. If I had my life to live over, I would just follow the advice Robert M. Hutchins, former President of the University of Chicago, once gave about exercising.
When I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes away.
When you feel you have not yet proven your manhood, lie down unil it passes. If that does not work, sign up for civilian courses like I just described.
Don’t get me wrong. I work out at the health club every other day lifting more weight than even before in my life. I take long walks, ride my Schwinn AirDyne exercise bicycle, and watch what I eat. But that is not to pove my manhood. It’s to stay healty.
But do NOT go to West Point, and then to Afghanistan, to prove your manhood. To those of us who have been there and done that, or the Vietnam or Korea or World War II version of it, we just think,
Dumb kid. I just hope he doesn’t end, or ruin, his life over there.
West Point is not for everyone. In that sense, my answer “Probably not” cannot be argued with. Most people should not go to West Point. Even the Academy and its graduates would agree with that.
We West Pointers owe it to the prospective cadets to make sure they understand that West Point’s eagerness to enroll the “cream of the crop” does not mean the place is the best one for everyone who is “cream of the crop” to go. Go there if the whole 12-year package matches your unique strengths and weaknesses and likes and dislikes better than any other next-12-years-of-your-life opportunity available to you.
But it’s very hard to make such a claim. It’s a big world. Because the young lack self-knowledge, they need perhaps more than anything exactly what West Point and the other service academies offer the least of: flexibility about which direction you go with your life as you gain self-knowledge and knowledge about the vast opportunities available to young, non-service-academy college grads.
West Point may be “free” in terms of cash outlay to go there, but it is about as far from free as you can get when it comes to potential loss of life and near certain loss of most of the vast options available to young civilian college grads during their first five years after graduation.
The government could fix much of this by letting Academy graduates have more choices including taking unpaid leaves of absence from the Army to do whatever. Unforgiving Minute author Craig Mullaney advocated that at a book signing in May, 2009. Don’t hold your breath, though. I suspect the Army would worry about “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree” syndrome if they let officers out for a couple of year sabbatical. I have already seen some problems of that nature from the Army sending officers to graduate school which is a full-time sabbatical of sorts. My classmates who conscientious objected out of the Army all seemed to do so right after they finished graduate school at the taxpayer’s expense. Also, those who availed themselves of a sabbatical would probably have killed their Army careers in the process by falling behind peers and raising questions about their commitment to an Army career.
My acceptance letter from the Army admitting me to West Point changed my life. It is framed and on a shelf in my office 51 years after I received it.
The second and third sentences in the second paragraph essentially say in different words what I mean when I say “probably not.”
It presents a challenge that will demand your best effort. Therefore, it is suggested that you give serious thought to your desire for a military career as, without proper motivation, you may find it difficult to conform to what may be a new way of life.
That part of my acceptance letter is trying to tell you that West Point ain’t UCLA. If you pick West Point for your college, you are getting into some serious shit that extends for at least 12 years after you enter the place: four at West Point, five on active duty, and three in the inactive reserves.
Craig Mullaney is a West Point graduate (2000) and Rhodes Scholar. After completing his five-year commitment to the Army, including a tour in Afghanistan, he got out of the Army and wrote a book called The Unforgiving Minute. I heard him speak in San Francisco and got his book. I think a more accurate title would be What I did last summer, and last winter, and the summer and winter before that, and the summer and winter before that. It is merely the journal of a 29-year old. Generally, unless they won the Super Bowl or some such, 29-year olds have not done enough, nor do they understand what they did well enough, to write autobiographies. Mullaney has two extraordinary degrees (West Point and Oxford) and he did a tour in Afghanistan as an infantry platoon leader, but thousands of people have done those things. Dozens have done the combination of them.
As you would expect of a future Rhodes Scholar, he had opportunities to attend other selective colleges. Describing his impressions of the various college visits he made, Mullaney says,
Afterward, flipping through their glossy brochures at home, I realize what was missing. They’d asked nothing of me.
West Point was the only school I visited where a bookworm couldn’t possibly graduate.
The glossy photos in the prospectus of helicopters, airborne parachutes, and rappelling captivated my attention. What was an Ivy League quad compared to a Ranger snaking through a swamp? A post in Europe or Asia was a world away from my home in North Kingstown, Rhode Island.
Perhaps the magnetic pull of West Point ultimately wasn’t rational but emotional. The history-laden rhythm of a military parade reverberated like the incense-scented rituals of Catholic mass. Walking around West Point, I was swept up in its call to, “Duty, Honor, Country.” Self-sacrifice, integrity, and leadership echoed between the larger-than-life statues of Eisenhower and MacArthur.
Whatever they had, I wanted. West Point offered more than an academic education. It offered an almost religious quest for perfection. I wanted to graduate a better man.
Heady stuff. As a 65-year-old West Point graduate, airborne, ranger, Vietnam veteran, Harvard graduate, Catholic school kid myself, father of an Ivy Legue Columbia graduate, I can relate to all of it.
Now let me respond to it point by point in a way to help see how those feelings relate to the reality of West Point and the Army.
|Afterward, flipping through their glossy brochures at home, I realize what was missing. They’d asked nothing of me.||Civilian colleges ask you to study, stretch your mind, contribute to class discussions, compete against your top peers from all over the nation and the world and avail yourself of the myriad extracurricular activities and opportunities to form lifelong friendships. West Point is a pale imitation of the top civilian schools academically and with regard to most extracurricular activities and has a less accomplished student body in every way than top civilian colleges. What Mullaney is referring to is the military training that takes place for two months over each of four summers and the neat freak military academy lifestyle during the academic year. You can get the military summer training in ROTC at a civilian college. The military academy lifestyle is a silly pain in the ass. If you insist, subject yourself to that at a civilian imitation West Point like VMI where you do not incur a five-year active duty obligation.|
|West Point was the only school I visited where a bookworm couldn’t possibly graduate.||Depends on your definition of “bookworm.” To get into West Point and graduate, you must pass various tests of physical aptitude, strength, and stamina. The average civilian college student could pass them. Some West Point cadets struggled all four years to pass them. (I had no trouble with them.) Probably, the percentage of students at my son’s Ivy League alma mater, Columbia, who would pass the various West Point physical aptitude tests would be lower than the percentage of a West Point class that passed, but I would expect it would be, say, 60% at Columbia and 90% at West Point. I would also say the weakest intercollegiate athletes at any civilian college are far stronger and more fit than the average cadet at West Point. There are plenty of bookworms in every West Point class. Read the USMA yearbook blurbs about each senior and you’ll see many. All one could say is that some civilian college bookworms would have neglected their fitness so much than they would not pass West Point PT tests. Cadets are not allowed to flunk PT tests.|
|The glossy photos in the prospectus of helicopters||You can ride helicopters for a fee at tourist attractions nowadays. Once or twice is enough. I rode them far too much in Vietnam. They get very old. You feel like your ear drums and body have been paddled after a ride.|
|airborne parachutes,||That’s a three-week school in the Army. You do not need to go to West Point to attend Army jump school. You do not even need to go into the Army. My son and daughter-in-law each made a jump from 14,000 feet as a lark. (military jumps are from 1,200 feet.) Their class lasted about an hour. They did not find it interesting enough to have any desire to do it again. See my article on airborne for much more detail.|
|and rappelling captivated my attention.||Rappelling down the face of a cliff is total bullshit from a military perspective. We did it in Recondo School in sophomore summer at Camp Buckner (at West Point) and again in Ranger school after graduation. Military rappelling is nothing but adolescent showing off. It has virtually no military application. In almost every case, it would be militarily better to find another way to get down the mountain than rappelling. Indeed, I know of no military operation in history where rappelling was needed and used in a way that was important for the success of the mission. If you want to learn how to rappel, sign up for a mountaineering class at a mountain park or in your local area at a facility with a climbing wall. It takes a couple of hours to learn it. I did it on a cruise ship when I was 60. No big deal. See my ranger article for more on rappelling. You sure as hell do not need to go to West Point to rappel.|
|What was an Ivy League quad compared to a Ranger snaking through a swamp?||
Ah! Been there, done both of those things. I have been to every Ivy League quad but Cornell. My wife and I are Harvard grads and lived on campus; my oldest son was a tailback at Columbia and played against all the other Ivy League schools—often with me in the stands. I also took my three sons on campus tours at Stanford, Cal Tech, MIT, the Little Ivies, some of the Public Ivies, Pomona, Claremont, etc. I know Ivy League quads. I am also a graduate of U.S. Army Ranger School including the swamp phase in Florida.
The whole comparison between an Ivy quad and Ranger School swamp phase is disingenuous when considering whether to go to West Point.
Again, you do not have to go to West Point to go to Army Ranger School. I am not aware of any civilian schools you can go to regarding “swampcraft,” but there probably are some. Graduates of the civilian equivalents of military schools (e.g. airborne, ranger) are generally as well trained or better trained as military school graduates. Plus you can retake civilian schools and they generally have advanced courses not offered in the military.
You probably know what an Ivy quad is: a pleasant attractive spot you frequently pass through when you are a student, a place to meet friends, and, in nice weather, a place to picnic or take an occasional class or play frisbee. It has no other pretensions. At tight-assed West Point, those sorts of activities are either prohibited or exist under a sort of cloud of military regimentation. There are picnic grounds, but they are tucked away and generally for the non-cadets stationed at West Point. The quad at West Point—my barracks were on the main quad called Central Area—is concrete and is a place where you march to meals, walk off punishment tours, get yelled at when you are a plebe, and have to salute officers and fear getting chewed out or written up by officers for some minor infraction. Generally, cadets to do not linger in the quad out of fear of upperclassmen and officers. We were not allowed to sit down there. Even if you were, you would have to stand up to salute an officer every few minutes.
The swamp phase of Ranger school lasts about three weeks and really sucks. The “Ranger snaking through a swamp” as Mullaney put it is so starved he will only be able to eat about half the New York strip steak they offer him for his final meal there. He is so tired from lack of sleep that he falls asleep standing up (I didn’t believe that was possible until it happened to me). The word “snake” to a Ranger in the Florida swamp phase primarily means avoiding being bitten by the many coral snakes that live there. I almost stepped on one while walking. I was only saved by the fact that I was looking at the ground at the moment. I pointed it out to the ranger cadre and they captured it for their zoo. They are the second most venomous snake in North America after the rattlesnake.
Any Ranger School graduate who would prefer snaking through the swamp at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to being at an Ivy quad is mentally defective, as is anyone who thinks you have to go to West Point to trek around swamps.
Mullaney generally knew what I just wrote when he wrote his book.
|A post in Europe or Asia was a world away from my home in North Kingstown, Rhode Island.||It is standard nowadays for civilian college students to spend a semester or a year at a foreign university. After graduating from a civilian college, you can seek jobs or travel on vacation to anywhere on earth. Foreign U.S. military bases are generally in extremely unattractive places. My father-in-law was a USAID CPA. He lived most of his adult life in exotic foreign locations as a civilian. He was hardly the only one. No West Point degree needed.|
|Perhaps the magnetic pull of West Point ultimately wasn’t rational but emotional. The history-laden rhythm of a military parade reverberated like the incense-scented rituals of Catholic mass.||
The military is really good at ceremonies. Mullaney also did a tour with the Old Guard in Washington DC. That is the Army’s top ceremonial, recruiting poster-type soldier unit that does various White House and Arlington National Cemetery parades and other ceremonies.
West Point is also an extremely moving, attractive collection of buildings, parade grounds, and monuments. Your tax dollars at work.
My main comment would be that the ceremonies and buildings at West Point are moving and stirring and inspiring to be near and participate in. But choosing a college, especially one that may get you killed or make it harder for you to realize your potential in life, requires that you place little weight on buildings, monuments, and ceremonies.
|Walking around West Point, I was swept up in its call to, “Duty, Honor, Country.” Self-sacrifice, integrity, and leadership echoed between the larger-than-life statues of Eisenhower and MacArthur.||
Me, too—when I was 15. The problem is Duty, Honor and Country is too much a slogan for recruiting teenagers to West Point and not enough a guide for graduates. Don’t get me wrong, the graduates are good guys. If and when there was truly an opportunity to serve duty, honor or country as adults, they would do so.
But look at what assignments I was given after graduation. Look at Mullaney’s assignments. After graduation, he went to Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar. Apparently, Rhodes Scholars do not go to class. Rather, they drink at pubs, bum around Europe and environs with classmates and occasionally meet with an adviser and write a thesis. Mullaney met his wife there. Sounds like a lark. Then he did a tour in Afghanistan. Then he was in the Old Guard. He also was a teacher at the U.S. Naval Academy. Then he got out.
When I met him in 2009, he was out of the Army. His book jacket says he “is currently a member of the Obama-Biden Transition Project.” Wikipedia says he is a civilian Pentagon paper pusher now. His tour in Afghanistan sounds Duty, Honor, Countryish. But the rest of his time in the Army sounds extremely academic and ceremonial. They also serve who dress really spiffy and practice marching every day. Studying and teaching are honorable activities, but they sound a lot more Ivy League quadish than Duty, Honor, Countryish. Then he got out of the Army. There sure as hell is no Duty, Honor, Country working for a leftist politician like Obama. It sounds like he is angling to run for president himself in the future—a not-uncommon malady of West Point Rhodes Scholars (e.g., Wes Clark, Pete Dawkins).
My father was in the Army in World War II from 1942 to 1945. Based on time in a war zone, my draftee, tech sergeant father did more “duty, honor, country” than West Point grad Mullaney. Unlike Mullaney, my father also never uttered a word along those lines. If you had asked about it, he would have said he got drafted and was assigned to a 79th Infantry Division artillery unit that went to Europe, period.
Except for his tour in Afghanistan, Mullaney’s adult life sounds academic and political. Indeed, it sounds Ivy Leagueish. Other than Afghanistan, there is no evidence of self-sacrifice or leadership. Eisenhower and MacArthur did not get advanced degrees or get out of the Army.
Actions speak louder than words. However much Mullaney was attracted to these soaring virtues as a teenager, he rejected a military career about as fast as possible after graduation and he spent most of his time in the military in untypical, academic or ceremonial assignments. And thus far, his civilian career is one that rejects all opportunities to lead men or be creative or be judged on his performance as he claimed he wanted in his book. If you look at his actions and ignore his soaring rhetoric, what he is and all he wants is to be is a student/bureaucrat.
I and most West Pointers would have turned down the Old Guard, which I believe is all-volunteer, on the grounds that it is too chickenshit. Been there, done that at West Point. If anything, he ended up almost exactly in the same place he would have ended up had he gone to a college with an Ivy League quad—only several years behind his civilian peers who have been building careers in the political/academic world while he was marching in DC and ªshowing presence” (his military mission) in Afghanistan.
|Whatever they had, I wanted. West Point offered more than an academic education.||“Whatever they had” is too vague. He should have investigated more closely and figured out exactly what they had before he “bought” it. He seemed to have fallen for West Point’s mystique. I warn against being swayed by, or trading on, mystique on six pages in my book Succeeding.|
|It offered an almost religious quest for perfection.||
The quest for perfection at West Point applies solely to the neat-freak behavior with regard to the neatness of your dorm room and clothing and grooming and to military marching and saluting and such. Academics at West Point are a couple of notches below those at the Ivies and other top colleges. The quest for academic perfection is at Cal Tech, MIT, Stanford, and the Ivies, not at West Point. The summer military training is introduction to everything and perfection at nothing.
Note that Mullaney’s phraseology is reminiscent of many cults. Elsewhere in my military articles, I discuss the fact that West Point and the Army have some, but not all, cult characteristics.
|I wanted to graduate a better man.||
So did he? The more complete question is did he graduate from West Point a better man that he would have been had he graduated from, say, Harvard College? I say no. He is a Rhodes Scholar. Harvard and several other colleges have more of those than West Point. He served in Afghanistan, which he could have done at Harvard by taking ROTC at nearby MIT. (Harvard banned ROTC on campus but allows Harvard students to participate in ROTC at MIT. Every year, a number of Harvard undergraduates are commissioned in the military via MIT ROTC.) Is he a better man academically for having gone to West Point rather than Harvard? Absolutely not. The professors, students, and breadth and depth of academic offerings at Harvard far exceed those at West Point. Does he have more integrity than if he had gone to Harvard? I discuss that later in this article and elsewhere at my military web site but not really. West Point spends a lot of time discussing such fine points as lying by silence, but otherwise, I do not believe that a, say, 26-year-old Harvard College graduate is necessarily less honest than a 26-year-old West Point graduate. If any reader believes otherwise, I would like to see the hard evidence, not an argument that talking about it more at West Point results in higher levels of integrity. Sadly, my article “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?” present strong evidence that West Pointers are less honest than college grads in general because they spend five years after graduation in an orginazation, the U.S. government, that is systemically dishonest.
If you ask Mullaney’s current everyday colleagues if they think he is a better man than his non-West Point peers, I expect they would be hard-pressed to cite any specifics.
I’ll bet the result of such an investigation would be that Craig Mullaney is a unique individual with strength and weaknesses, as are his non-West Point colleagues, and that if you researched a hundred Mullaney West Point peers with similar careers to Mullaney’s, you would find a hundred unique individuals who were, after all, relatively little affected by their having spent four years at West Point back in the 1990s.
I don’t want to pick on Mullaney. He seems like a nice, talented guy who is destined for much success. But his actual life is surprisingly similar to mine in broad terms. Both airborne, ranger, combat zone vets. We both got advanced degrees from top universities. We both got out of the Army ASAP. But I think his depiction of the virtues of West Point that attracted him as a teenager has a first-love quality to it. Like me, he fell in love with the romantic ideals of the place. But unlike me, he has not yet become objective about the reality of the effectiveness of West Point’s training or of the amount of Duty, Honor, Country in the day-to-day life of a West Point graduate officer in the real Army. Ultimately, we both rejected that reality and, ironically, we are probably both closer to Duty, Honor, Country outside the Army than in it.
I wrote an article about the feelings my class and I had on the day we entered West Point as teenagers on July, 1, 1964. It is my version of Mullaney’s story. But mine acknowledges that we were naive and lacking in self-knowledge and knowledge of the Army and the alternative opportunities for young men when we entered West Point. The decision to go to West Point should be as little influenced as possible by naiveté and lack of accurate knowledge about the West Point-civilian college opportunities.
Service academy graduates—especially West Pointers—have mystique. So do ex-cons, FBI agents, CIA, SEALs, POWs, and an eclectic assortment of other persons who have been through an extreme experience behind closed doors.
One way I define it is that if the experience in question—like graduating from West Point—is mentioned in a media story about you that is unrelated to the mystique experience, it must be mystique. For example, my best friend in high school went to Michigan State. If a news story were written about him, they would probably not mention that he graduated from MSU. But If I did the exact same thing and triggered the exact same news story, it would probably mention that I was a West Point graduate and Harvard Business School, too. I have never looked myself up in the Nexis new database, but I expect if you did, you would find many stories and disproportionate references to my being a West Pointer compared to the number of references to undergraduate education in stories about comparable non-west Pointers.
Arguably, I have done a number of things that carry mystique, namely:
According to Merriam-Webster, mystique means
1 : an air or attitude of mystery and reverence developing around something or someone
2 : the special esoteric skill essential in a calling or activity
Microsoft Encarta says,
a special quality or air that makes somebody or something appear mysterious, powerful, or desirable
Note that there is little or no substance behind mystique. It is a quality very well illustrated by the Wizard of Oz who is revealed by Dorothy’s dog Toto to be nothing but a bombastic, ordinary man when he pulls the curtain back at the end of the movie. Dorothy, appropriately, scolds him for perpetrating such a fraud and scaring people with his Wizard act.
Mystique comes more from the curtain of secrecy that Toto pulled back and the inevitable metaphorical “curtains” of secrecy behind which West Point, the FBI, POWs, and so on operate. In my article about the SEAL snipers who shot the Somali pirates and rescued the sea captain, I decried the SEALs official policy of secrecy about all SEAL operations as a gratuitous, cheap stunt to achieve and maintain illegitimate mystique. Indeed, the words mystique and mystery have the same root and both stem from hiding behind real or metaphorical curtains. At West Point, the “curtain” is those “Cadets and Guests only” signs. I am not advocating letting tourists wander around in the mess hall and classrooms. Rather, I am just noting that a by-product of those signs is mystique.
My team mom one year when I coached high school football said I was too open and should employ more mystery. She meant that my ability to make a good first impression combined with the halo effect would produce a higher opinion of me on the part of the parents in the long run if I simply did my first-impression thing, then clammed up. It’s a variation on the line,
It’s better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you’re a fool than open it and remove all doubt.
Or as many I do not respect do,
It’s better to play to your strengths when you first meet people, then clam up so they have to draw all conclusions about you based solely on your strong suits.
That stuff is discussed in greater detail in my book Succeeding.
That game is bullshit. My approach is to reveal myself to those who are interested as various topics come up without holding back. And I am well aware that means I will lose fans with each additional piece of information I reveal. So be it. If clamming up would have retained them as fans, they were really not fans of me but fans of an imaginary incorrect image of me. A friend is someone who knows all about you but still likes you. I have no interest in “friends” who like me only because I have prevented them from knowing all about me. Many, maybe most, have doing precisely that as their goal.
Was I guilty of seeking mystique? Yes, in my youth. But I must say I assumed there was substance behind it. When I learned there was not, I stopped seeking it.
When I say substance was not there, I do not mean that West Point or Harvard Business School are total frauds. The fraud, to the extent that it exists at all, is in any suggestion that graduates of those places are more than the details of their training. We had a lot of interesting instruction at West Point and a lot of great instruction at Harvard Business School, but neither place turns its graduates into supermen in a general sense.
I despise people who trade on mystique. The above-mentioned SEALs policy of unnecessary secrecy is a prime example of that. My articles on airborne, ranger, military medals, and others are strenuous efforts to pull the curtain back on bullshit artists who are trading on those mystique experiences.
My article on John McCain rips him for shamelessly trading on his POW experience more than any of the other 800 Vietnam POWs. People always protest “Oh, but he doesn’t.” Really?! And how many times have you seen that photo of him lying on a bed in a POW hospital talking to reporters? Who the hell do you think paid for the ad in which you saw it? Barrack Obama? Had McCain not been a POW and traded on it shamelessly, none of us would ever have heard of him. He would be a retired Navy Lieutenant Commander playing golf at his local base officers golf course.
We West Point graduates are ordinary people. Can we do things that ordinary people cannot? We know the West Point shtick of marching in parades, barking at plebes, wearing the cadet uniforms, and so on. But we do not know much of substance that non-West Pointers do not know as a result of graduating from West Point. The same is true of the SEALs, POWs, FBI, and so on. Each of those groups has had some specialized training, but it’s only a couple of months. The benefit of the experience is extremely narrow. People make the mistake of attributing generalized superman abilities to those perceived to have mystique.
West Point has an extremely narrow focus. It is to prepare you to be a career (at least 20 years) Army officer. Should you be a career Army officer? How the hell would you know? You’re just a teenager.
For me, going to West Point was a big mistake.
Why? At age 17 (when I entered) I did not know who I was and I did not know what the Army was. I had no business at that age signing a document that committed me to nine years of West Point and the Army. That is the precise definition of indentured servitude, which has long been illegal in the U.S. for all except active duty military personnel. And West Point had no business asking me or any other teenager to do such a thing.
Indeed, if you really think you want this, the best advice I could probably give would be to go to a civilian college for a year or two, then enlist in the Army, then apply to the USMA Prep School which is part of the Army, then enter West Point at age 22, the oldest you can be. That probably still is not old enough to make such a decision, but at least you will be as mature and experienced about yourself and the Army and the alternatives to West Point as possible while still meeting their age limit.
I would also be OK with Army brats (children of career Army officers) going there. They know, or ought to know, what they are getting into. For a 17-year-old civilian son of a World War II, draftee, non-career sergeant like I was, lack of self-knowledge and lack of understanding about what it meant to be in the military makes the soliciting of my signature on the 12-year commitment almost a criminal act by the military. (I note later in this article that 41% of the 2008 freshman class at West Point are children of career military. I am unhappy about that because it means West Point is turning disquietingly even more narrow, more inbred.)
Craig Mullaney is a West Point graduate Rhodes Scholar Class of 2000. He said at the book signing,
I went to West Point not quite knowing what I was getting myself into.
Obviously, he is smarter than most, yet he still screwed that up. Do not go to West Point “not quite knowing what you are getting yourself into.” Princeton? OK. Stanford? Also OK.
But when the choice is West Point, the stakes are far too high to not know what you are getting yourself into. This article is primarily about preventing you from doing that. As of the book signing, Mullaney had resigned from the Army, when he was a captain in his late twenties. Not what West Point and the Army hoped its Rhodes Scholars would do.
I realized I had made a mistake almost precisely halfway through my time at West Point. Like all cadets, I was sent on a one-month internship called Army Orientation Training (AOT—some general with no authority to do anything meaningful has since made himself feel important by changing it to CTLT or some such). My internship was with an artillery battalion in the 101st Airborne Division. I was appalled by the “real Army” and changed from committed career officer to committed let-me-out-of-here civilian after about ten days of that internship.
During that internship, I learned in ten days crucial facts that would have, if I had learned them earlier, saved me from a nine-year mistake that almost got me killed once in ranger school and twice in Vietnam. I strongly recommend in my Succeeding book that anyone considering a career or just a stint in any organization find a way to spend time watching people in that career or organization doing what they really do on a day-to-day basis. In my case, I should have gone to my local Army base, Fort Dix, and tried to get a West Point graduate lieutenant or captain let me follow him around for a day. That might not have saved me at age 17. But it would have started to correct the false Hollywood version of the military that was unfortunately in my head when I decided to go to West Point.
My Succeeding book strongly recommends internships, shadowing, interviewing people who were in the field or organization in question and got out of it. It recommends talking to those who like the career or organization about why as well as talking to those who left about why—then comparing the thought processes of those who liked and disliked the thing in question with your own way of looking at things.
My book Checklists for Buying Rental Houses and Apartment Buildings makes a big deal about interviewing tenants, managers, neighbors, and previous owners of a building you are considering buying. They can tell you more in five minutes than you could find out in a year with a platoon of engineers and building inspectors. An ounce of observing with your own eyes or talking to objective, forthright people in the know is worth a ton of recruiting brochures, view books, recruiting films, campus tours, and pep talks from true believers in the career or organization in question.
There is a concept in law known as a personal-service contract. You can sue someone for “specific performance” to force them to sell you something or to buy something from you if a contract required it. But you cannot force someone to work for you. Back when you could, it was called indentured servitude. Most people think indentured servitude is the same as slavery. Nope. Indentured servitude was voluntary at the outset. But once you signed on the dotted line, you had to stay for the duration of the contract, sort of like marriage back when divorce was illegal. Also, indentured servitude was limited to a set number of years like three to seven. Extremely similar to military contracts today. Slavery, on the other hand, was involuntary and forever.
You can get monetary damages for breach of a personal-service contract, but no specific performance—except in the military. As far as I know, enlistment contracts, ROTC, and West Point contracts with the military are the only remaining enforceable personal-service contracts. I agree with the need for a draft, but I oppose personal-service contracts for the same reasons they have been made illegal in every area of American life except the military. Entering West Point and staying there beyond the first two years literally puts you into seven years of indentured servitude—possibly ten depending upon the fine print of inactive reserves and events.
A whole bunch of people have told me that anyone who got into West Point would be crazy not to go because if you graduate from there, you can, “write your own ticket.”
That’s total bull!
Here are some quotes from a 3/30/08 Los Angeles Times story about military veterans having a hard time finding jobs.
Daniel Ortiz, department service director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S., says the military misleads young recruits into believing that a stint in the armed forces turns them into attractive job candidates.
“I don’t put it past our military to spin stories that soldiers will get the best training and, when they get out, they’ll have the world at their feet,” said Ortiz, a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. “It is a false promise.”
The problems according to the Times story are that military experience is too specialized and does not translate well to any civilian jobs other than entry-level police, security, and physical-fitness training. Also, the veterans were used to just showing up and being assigned in the military and seemed bewildered by the need to sell themselves to get a job. 81% said they felt unprepared for job hunting.
Reuters did a 10/29/11 story titled “Jobless US vets say military experience not valued.”
In April 2010, I had lunch with a graduate of Royal Military College, the combination West Point, Annapolis,and Air Force Academy of Canada. He works in the U.S. in high-tech sales. He did an interesting research project. He was curious as to whether graduates of West Point and RMC and the other U.S. major service academies really do get better jobs as a result of their undergraduate education. He figured Google was the most sought-after company in the world. Using Linkedin, he searched for service academy graduates who work there. He found some.
And what is their job description? All were in federal sales. That is, they sell federal government bureaucrats of purchasing various Google services. When I asked a classmate who is very familiar with Google employees what jobs he thought West Pointers there would have, it went like this.
Are you kidding? Those jobs go to PhDs from MIT, CalTech, and IIT.
General management or operations?
Zero as far as I know. They get their leaders and managers from other colleges.
In other words, Google gets their Willy Lohman’s from West Point—and only lets them represent Google to government bureaucrats. One presumes that is because they still have many colleagues in those agencies and/or because they are on the same mental wave length as government bureaucrats.
Later in April 2010, I met an executive recruiter whom I asked about whether corporations see West Point graduates as great management material. He said he only had one client specifically seek West Pointers. That company, which he declined to name but which sounded like Nokia, only wanted West Pointers to be salesmen to the Pentagon.
So West Point is apparently not the great leadership school it claims. Rather, it is in fact a great producer of salesmen to the federal government.
Put that on a statue.
Here is a fascinating email I got from a friend in response to another article on the military’s propensity to think their good intentions, occasional tiny progress, and talking a good game and looking the part are sufficient. I have redacted his name and company. The company is a large, household, name publicly-traded corporation. He is talking about career U.S. military personnel who are convinced they are better than civilians, but who have never worked anywhere but the military since they were teenagers.
But then again, they have been living in an "alternate reality" since they were 18...so the tragedy is that "they don't know that they don't know", like a catholic priest giving marital advice.
At [redacted company name], I worked alongside a few smart qualified Russian immigrant professionals who had grown-up in the Soviet system, and then emigrated here. They were good, smart, and tough workers, but occasionally they would say and do strange things, and come to absolutely bizarre conclusions about how to respond to a given interpersonal or organizational situation.
Everybody commented on it. They never made it to management. It was because their formative adult experiences were the "alternative reality" of the Soviet Union, and they could never get past their early imprinting...like ducklings.
And here is the kicker: I noticed the EXACT SAME PHENOMINA in the handful of 20-and-out retired lifers that worked at [redacted company name]. Nobody trusted them to operate autonomously because they operated (from our perspective) on their own bizarre, but internally consistent to them, "the-military-is-reality" mind-set.
We had a few retired Lt Cols, a few retired Master Sergeants (these guys specialized in yelling and bluster when ever anybody called them on their bullshit...the Colonels were more subtle), and one retired Brigadier General who lasted only 18 months when the CEO finally figured out that the guy was all show and no go, and was completely and utterly helpless without a phalanx of flunkies (newly exited Captains that he hired) wiping his ass and filing his expense reports.
I have never seen a bigger disconnect between appearances and personal capability than this guy in my life! He was the company joke...the other SVP's just rolled their eyes and smirked whenever his name came up.
The 1-star retired general (might have been a 2-star, don't remember) was very personable. His shtick was the OPPOSITE of the gravel-voiced, jaw-thrusting "damn fine officer...balderdash....I-am-a-very-important-and-serious-person-with-Gravitas" stage act. We called him "General Glad-Hand".
He was a proud West Point grad, and wore one of those gigantic rings....about the size that some black rapper have that are encrusted with diamonds and gold. He liked to display it too... I believe the term is ring-knocker ? I had never encountered a person who was proudly displaying their college ring TWENTY YEARS (!!) after earning it. Oh well, to each their own, was my attitude. [Reed note: I was the only one in my class not to buy a class ring. I may be the only one in the Long Gray Line who did not buy one. No big reason. It was expensive, ostentatious, I never wear a ring including a wedding ring although I have been married for 37 years. I have never owned a ring of any kind. I did not want to be a “ring knocker” as West Pointers are called in the military. And the company that made the rings can make one at any time if I had ever changed my mind, a service normally used by guys who lose their ring. A large percentage of West Point grad wives wear a miniature version of their husband’s West Point class ring a their engagement ring. I asked my wife a few months ago if I was correct to think she would have vetoed that if I suggested it. After a thoughtful pause she said, “Maybe back then I would have considered it.” Not now.]
General Glad-Hand was an expert at all the prehistoric Mayflower WASP social graces...and his wife was "a perfect and gracious hostess from 1957". I went to a dinner party at their house once. I swear I thought I had been time-travelled back to the stage set and mannerisms of "My Three Sons"....or "Mad Men" without the edge. And this was 1990 !
General Glad-Hand had served at the U.S. embassy in Moscow during the Cold War, where his job (as he explained it) was literally to go to cocktail parties at other embassies 7-nights a week, standing around with drinks in his Formal Mess Uniform, chatting with the other Military Adjutants from other countries, hoping to pick up a little military intelligence.
He told me he was the 1st to break the news that the Soviets-and-the-Chinese were shooting at each on their border again, and that "scoop" got him his generalship. Later on, he was President Reagan's "football carrier". The guy with the briefcase with the nuclear launch codes. (Why you need a general to silently carry around a briefcase that is never opened, and to speak only when spoken to, is beyond me..)
He came to the attention of our "Steve Jobs" like founder CEO, who had no military experience, was big on actual leadership, and wanted to give a general a try. General Glad-Hand was a superb presenter and briefer...entertaining, clear, personable, likeable, and so on....provided he was handed his script and overheads. He was completely incapable of generating (or even comprehending) his material, but like a superb actor, just give him a script, wind him up, push him out on stage, and he will entertain and impress the audience ! (But NEVER let him answer the questions about the material after his pitch...have someone else do that...our CEO learned to his embarrassment.....also just like an actor.)
Our CEO gave him a real-job to start with, but after it became obvious what he was, he was just trotted out for Board Meetings as "Reagan's football carrier" so the Board Members could rub shoulders with "a hero" and be suitably impressed and feel good....so they would sign-off on the CEO's budget and initiatives with nary a question, which was General Glad-Hands true usefulness.
I encountered General Glad-Hand early one morning (before everybody else got there) staring in befuddlement at the filter-cofee maker. I took pity on him and showed him how to make filter coffee. It was obvious that this 45 year old man had not made himself a cup of coffee since percolators (remember those?) went away and were replaced by filter coffee makers in offices. General Glad-Hand also hired an extraordinary number of "personal assistant" staff. Even the CEO had 1 secretary and 1 personal assistant aide-de-camp. All other senior managers had 1 secretary. General Glad-Hand had 4 or 5 people (all ex-military) who had various titles, but their real job was to personally cater to him....very noticeable and out-of-step with the corporate culture.
Oh, and the good General was a HORRIBLE driver. Possibly from having been sitting in the back of staff cars and such his whole entire life.....like some sort of Chinese Dowager Empress, unable to walk because of her bound feet.
General Glad-Hand left of his own accord after a couple of years, and got himself appointed to the Boards of a variety of Firms doing mucho business with the Feds and the Pentagon. I believe the proper term is "cashing in his stars" ?
Our CEO never hired another General again. Been there, done that. If ya need an empty-suit presenter, you can find them in the civilian world that can actually do their own Q & A sessions.
Name redacted on my initiative
This reader says I must insist that all cadets and would-be cadets watch this YouTube from Pirates of Penzance. I have no such authority. I actually think graduates would be the ones most likely to recognize the insight of the Gilbert recognizing the overeducated nature of West Pointers with regard to purely military duties. We were required to learn calculus at West Point. We were not required to use it as Army officers. I am 65 and I still have no idea what calculus was about or how it is relevant to being an Army officer. Yet we had to study it six days a week plebe year and more as sophomores.
The YouTube is a performance of the song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” with subtitles to make sure you miss none of the very fast-moving lyrics. The reader says it precisely depicts the West Point major general he speaks of above. Apparently, it either was written with West Point graduates in mind or the British were afflicted with the same sort of officers in 1880 when this Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera debuted in London.
Here is another email from a West Point class of 94 guy responding to the General Glad-Hand email. [my comments in red]
I can't agree enough with the article in which your friend castigated General Glad Hand. I just had the same experience myself, with an O-6 [full colonel] recently retired from the [military] Medical Field and looking for a second career. Boy had a resume as long as your arm and was honestly one of the best-looking paper candidates any of us had ever seen. When he came on board we rapidly discovered that none of our patients cared to be treated by him in any way, shape, or form. He refused to adhere to protocols and spent much of his time bragging about the "good old days in uniform." When he found out that I was USMA '94 and his brother (USMA '79) had been one of my professors at the Academy, all work effectively stopped as he ignored his entire schedule to regale me with tales about all the "Army heavy hitters" that we both knew. I actually had to tell him to "at ease" and return to work because we weren't paying him to sit around and shoot the shit. He yelled at the front desk administrators because they (no shit) did not stand at Attention when I walked in the door (he considered me equivalent to a Brigade XO, and wondered how the subordinates could not figure out the respect due my "rank"). He excused all of his ignorance, stupidity, and incompetence by stating that he did not have the "support staff" he had grown used to whilst serving as an O-6. Getting rid of him was a relief. He was absolutely flabbergasted that a "kid" would speak to him in such a fashion and would neither tolerate nor support his excuses and blame-laying. Even more interesting was to see this supposed "rock-hard leader of men" reduced to tears. No, I'm not kidding. Crying like a baby. I couldn't get his ass out the door fast enough. Nobody in this organization is in a hurry to hire an ex-military person ever again.
…[H]e himself was ROTC. This didn't, however, stop him from eating, sleeping, and dreaming the Army and basking in the glow of his hallowed, deity-like West Point graduate brother. And worshipping his and his brother's past superiors and compatriots who now were at the "top" of the Army food chain.
He also expressed disappointment that his brother had retired after 20 years' service to go work for a Fortune 500 company rather than stay in and make it to the General Officer ranks, even though he could not stop bragging about how much money, power, and success the brother now enjoyed in the civilian world.
I guess the dichotomy shouldn't surprise me (having seen it so many times on so many occasions) but it was still a bit disturbing as it played out. I actually find it kind of sad that this gent is going to live out the rest of his life in such a delusional state. But better him than me I guess. [Unfortunately, he has many equally delusional peers who are still in the military at high rank and positions and think they are competent at something called national defense when in fact they have spent their entire adult lives in a results-are-not-necessary bureaucracy wasting taxpayers’ money and endangering the U.S. and the Free World through incompetence at military matters. See my article “Is there really any such thing as military expertise?”]
He considered me a "traitor" for having "milked the system" by getting my degree from West Point and then "jumping ship" at the first available opportunity. He said that it was "shocking, disappointing, and nauseating" that a graduate of those "hallowed halls" had not been inspired to stay in the Army until the very end, as the sacred tradition established in 1802 demanded of its "spawn." [Been there. Done that. The phrase that was thrown at me was that I had it made as an Army officer and I “couldn’t wait to throw it all away.” In fact, West Point graduates do not have it made in the Army. They are a discriminated-against minority in the officer corps. But he was right about how I could not wait to“ throw it away” or as I put it at the time, escape from this Kafkaesque nightmare.]
I told him that I had found the Army so ridiculously nauseating that had I stayed in one moment longer I would have puked myself to death. He could not conceptualize this, and said that I evidently had some sort of ingrained personality "flaw" to not have embraced in its entirety the blessed society into which I had matriculated during my Plebe Year. [Reminds me of Catch 22. Only those who lack common sense and a desire for liberty want to stay in the Army and those characteristics are precisely ones that should result in such people being excluded from the Army.] At this point I reminded him that we were not in the Army, that it was I (not him) who was actually in charge in the current situation, and that we were paying him to treat patients, not bask in his past glory, so to please drop the subject and get back to work.
Thanks for continuing to tell the truth! Have a good one!
Jeff Owen USMA ’94
Make sure you recognize the full implication of West Pointers being hired only to sell to government employees. The party line is that West Pointers are sought after because of the values they learn at West Point; duty, honor country, leadership training and experience, discipline, patriotism, and coolness under fire.
In fact, the Google and Nokia (if that’s who it is) hirings of service academy grads seem motivated, if anything, by the opposite of those values. Rather, they hire service academy graduates for purely cynical reasons, namely, a hope that government purchasing employees will engage in cronyism when choosing which vendor to buy from. An argument could be made that such soliciting of former colleagues should be illegal.
I expect I will now hear from the public relations departments of both companies. I look forward to it. Please have ready the names or number and positions of service academy grads who are in jobs in your companies that suggest you value the party line West Point values listed above.
In fact, I am a bit surprised by the Google and Nokia (?) use of service academy graduates. Government sales only is worse than I actually expected. It makes my point that being able to “write your own ticket” in civilian employment as a result of graduating from West Point is simply bullshit unsupported by empirical evidence. The true general feeling about service academy graduates in civilian employment is that they are not useful for technical, private sector marketing, or general management positions, but might work out calling on their former military colleagues.
Perhaps someone could do a longitudinal (long term) study that compared those who were awarded appointments to West Point and chose not to go there with civilians who did not get admitted to West Point and those who did graduate from West Point. I suspect that the West Point appointees who did not go there fared better in civilian life than both their fellows who went to West Point as well as their civilian peers who did not go to West Point. My point here is I believe those who are admitted to West Point are truly a cut above those who are not—on average. But I also believe that actually graduating from West Point actually reduces your post-college success because of the isolation and ineffective emphasis at West Point and the Kafkaesque five years in the Army after West Point.
Some military vets are physically or psychologically maimed. I would add that because of thousands of slackers loudly complaining that the military turned them into drug addicts, wife beaters, and post traumatic stress syndrome basket cases, and left-wing activists and Democrats echoing those myths to advance their agendas, the military has acquired a public image that veterans are damaged goods. Similarly, accurate media stories about 8,000 criminals a year getting “moral waivers” so they can enlist in the Army and about street gang members joining the Army damage the reputation of everyone who serves the way affirmative action casts suspicion over the diplomas of every minority including those who had the grades and test scores to earn the diploma. My Succeeding book has a chapter on the importance of checking out the reputation of the companies you apply to because working for a company with a bad reputation gives you a bad reputation. The Army has a bad reputation in many ways and you will be tarred by their brush if you associate with them for more than a year or two.
You can’t even write your own ticket as an Army officer as a result of being a West Point graduate. Colin Powell did not go to West Point. Nor Tommy Franks. Air Force General Richard Meyers who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the beginning of the Iraq war graduated from Kansas State, not a service academy. The last West Point Chief of Staff of the Army was Eric Shinseki, Class of 1965. The current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Dempsey, is West Point ’74. (the top U.S. military officer, which rotates among the four services, like who plays right field on a tee-ball team, for the same reason: office politics)
My “career” as a military officer was very short and unusual, but nevertheless, my being a West Point graduate actually hurt me a great deal when I was an officer. How?
I never had an immediate superior who was a West Point graduate. Once, for four months, my battalion commander was a West Point graduate. He was one level above my immediate superiors who were the company XO and CO. On all other occasions, the closest West Pointer above me was at least two levels up and I had little or no contact with them.
In my experience, many, maybe a majority of, non-West Point Army officers hold great resentment for West Point grads. A former Army officer who was not a West Pointer sent me an email that said I and all other West Point graduates were “assholes.” They believe we have some huge advantage. Talking with my classmates who stayed in the Army, my impression is that they had a variation of the same experience as I did, that is, they were hurt by non-West Point resentment of West Pointers.
When I went through Army Ranger School with my classmates, the Ranger Cadre hated us West Pointers and told us so on a number of occasions. The Ranger School flunked so many of my West Point classmates out of Ranger School that the Pentagon ordered them to award the Ranger tab retroactively to X additional number of my West Point classmates so that our percentage of my class graduating from Ranger School was the same as the historical average for previous West Point classes.
A member of the Class of 1991 from West Point said a similar thing happened to his class when we was a cadet and he attended an Army school during summer training. He said,
Hi, I'm a 1991 West Point graduate - I enjoy reading what you have to say about the Army. ... my similar experience occurred Air Assault School. ... when I was a cadet, one option during the summer was to attend Air Assault school in Camp Gruber, Oklahoma. It was run by the Oklahoma National Guard. When I attended, it was roughly 60% West Point cadets. ...I failed the sling load test (my own fault), which was in the 2nd week and I was grateful to be able to come back later in August to pick up where I left off. I graduated, but did note to myself that the 2nd time around it seemed like a much more "slack" class, much, much more relaxed. During the 2nd version, it was probably 97% national guard soldiers attending (and there were maybe 3 cadets, myself included). For example, there was a lot of cheating going on before the sling load test—people were turning around in line, talking to each other as they figure out the gigs beforehand. No such behavior was tolerated during the 1st version of the class.
I'm not so sure I wasn't "sabotaged" the 2nd time around—during one of the rappels from a helicopter (about 100 feet up), my belay person seemed to be pulling down on my rope with all his might—I just couldn't get the rope into the center of my back and kind of "burned" in to the ground. The friction got my BDU shirt and glove so hot that I instantly had big blisters on my chest and hand. I recall the 2 NCO's running the site having a good laugh at my expense...
I am not exaggerating. The majority of those in the Army seem not to care for West Pointers. When they can, they sabotage the careers and even injure West Pointers physically to amuse themselves. They are gleeful when a West Pointer screws up. A non-West Pointer I once coached with repeatedly and gleefully told me of a screw-up by a West Point graduate he served in the military with. Is it wrong and unfair? No question. So whom are you going to complain to in order to get it fixed? Chief of Staff of the Army George Casey? He is a Georgetown University graduate. Could you have complained to his predecessor, Peter Schoomaker? University of Wyoming. After you left the complaint session, Casey or Schoomaker would probably have related what you said to some ROTC friends with a smirk on their faces.
Stark mathematical fact for you: West Point graduates are a minority in the U.S. Army officer corps. A March, 2009 Baltimore Sun article by David Wood said only 15% of the officers in the Army are West Point graduates. Since about one-third are at the second lieutenant rank, it appears that West Pointers get out of the Army subsequently at a much greater rate than non-West Pointers get out.
In the mid—2010s, Obama said he would reduce the size of the entire Army to 400,000—its size before World War II—during the Great Depression—when the total population of the U.S. was about 120 million! It’s now 325 million. With an army that small, if they do not shrink the student body size at West Point, it may be that all new 2nd lieutenants are West Point grads.
One of the principles of democracy is that majority rule must be combined with minority rights. But that’s theory. Do minorities in the U.S. ever complain that their rights are being denied? Is the Pope Catholic? Furthermore, as far as I know, there is no regulation or other official acknowledgement in the Army that West Pointers are a minority or that they have any rights or that they have ever been discriminated against. For example, there is no regulation prohibiting discrimination by source of commission. Outside of bull sessions, I have never seen anyone but me point out that West Pointers are the objects of dislike and discrimination and harassment within the Army. You occasionally see it in Hollywood war movies where a West Point officer’s West Pointness is referred to contemptuously by an actor playing a non-West Pointer.
Everyone assumes that West Pointers have the inside track to promotion to high rank in the Army. That is probably the opposite of the truth. If you doubt me, research it rigorously À la Freakonomics.
In 2011, the Air Force fired 157 pilots just before they would have been able to retire with their pensions and other benefits vested at 20 years. At least one was a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate major with 250 combat missions. Ask him what a great advantage being an academy graduate is in the military.
Here are stats on the number of West Point graduates who stayed in the Army for a 20-year career among recent years who have reached the 20-year point. One 1988 grad told me he thought these numbers were incorrect. He thought about 40% got out as soon as their five years were up in 1993. I got these numbers from the on-line USMA Association of Graduates Register of Graduates.
The number graduated jumped up in 1968 (my class) because Congress voted to increase the size of West Point from about 2,500 to about 4,400 in May, 1964 just before my class entered. (I was appointed to West Point as a Congressional principal nominee on April 29th, 1964, before Congress voted to increase the size of my class and subsequent classes.) I do not know why the number graduated increased thereafter from 1969 to 1985, then declined. I assume it must have been a higher ratio of graduates to admits up to 1985, but I do not know why that happened. The incoming classes to fill a 4,400 student body should have been about the same every year starting with my class.
Why did the attrition rate go down starting in the mid-1980s? I don’t know. Probably peace time and Desert Storm which raised the prestige of being in the military.
Also, the civilian economy affects not only enlistments but also stay-in-or-get-out decisions, including those of West Point graduates. If there is a recession when a West Point graduate’s commitments is up, he often will decide to stay in the Army a little longer. But around 8 to 10 years, most feel they cannot afford to get out because they are too close to their extremely generous retirement benefits vesting.
The fact that recessions turn guys who want to get out of the Army into career officers creeps me out.
1. You guys say it’s a calling, not just another job. If you chose it because of a recession, apparently it’s just another job. Same goes for the selfless-service crap.
2. If West Point is the best college in America (Forbes rating 2009) and its graduates can “write their own ticket,” why would the big bad West Point graduates be afraid of a little old recession? In recessions, about 8% to 10% are unemployed. Why would the graduates of a purportedly fabulous education fear being in the bottom 8% to 10% of the work force?
The answer is West Point is not such hot preparation for any civilian career, especially after you spend five to ten years in the Army. Many West Pointers probably have trouble getting jobs in recessions—more trouble than a graduate of a civilian college who began work in the civilian work force right after graduation would have.
The differences in the number on active duty come from the fact that I used the 2008 Register of Graduates for the class of 1970 and thereafter and the 1996 Register of Graduates for the prior classes. It doesn’t matter. Only the total of “retired” plus “active” matters. Both of those categories made careers of the military. That sum is the numerator for the % career calculation. What is important is that the references I used were both published in years that were more than 20 years after the classes in question graduated.
Being discriminated against by the majority of non-West Pointers is probably part of the reason for most of the West Pointers who got out early.
I exacerbated my situation by making no secret of the fact that I was getting out of the Army as soon as I was allowed. (As far as I know, all of my West Point classmates who were planning to get out ASAP denied that intention so that things would go better for them while they were in. I can confirm they were correct that such a revelation would have made life harder on them. When I discussed this with one recently, he asked, “Why didn’t you bullshit them and say you were staying in?” Uh, it would be dishonest and would be contradicted by my behavior—like refusing to sign false documents—on a daily basis.)
My giving years of notice of my resignation enraged the non-West Pointers. They often said we should have to stay in twenty years to pay the taxpayers back for our “free” education. One was outraged at me because his Army officer son, a non-West Pointer, was in the process of being RIFfed (laid off during the reduction in force after the Vietnam war). He was a reserve officer and trying to get a regular Army officer commission which I, as a West Pointer, always had. “Lieutenant Reed [me] had the RA commission my son would give his right arm for and couldn’t wait to throw it away.” At that time, West Pointers were “Regular Army” officers and most non-West Pointers were “reserve officers” even thought they had always been on active duty. At that time, only reserve officers could be RIFfed. Shortly thereafter, they extended RIFs to West Pointers and other Regular Army officers.
In any bureaucracy, one needs to blend in. Being one of the relatively few West Point graduates among a sea of ROTC and OCS officers absolutely prevents you from being “one of the boys.” Paradoxical though it may sound, to a large extent, the U.S. Army officer corps hates West Pointers.
So tell me again how going to West Point lets you write your own ticket.
Getting a Regular Army commission straight out of West Point was one of the big advantages of going there. Now it has been eliminated. The Army seem to be saying that West Pointers are no better than ROTC or OCS officers. Really? Well, then why are the taxpayers spending so much more money to create West Pointers? Seems to me that the equal treatment policy implicitly says West Point is not worth the huge amount of additional money it costs to operate compared to ROTC and OCS. They can’t have it both ways.
Ever since I was a cadet, I have thought that West Pointers are overqualified for the Army. To put it another way, the high school class presidents, athletic team captains, “A” students, and so forth that West Point attracts would generally not consider becoming Army officers if there were no West Point. They go to West Point to be West Point cadets and West Point graduates, and only accept the Army as a sort of unattractive, but also unavoidable, part of the package. Furthermore, the Army part of the package is far worse than they think.
You may say, “OK, so the Military Academy tricks higher quality people into joining and committing for a long term to a low-quality organization that otherwise would not get such people. That’s still good for America and the Army, isn’t it?”
No. As any experienced employer can tell you, you do not want either under- or overqualified employees. Neither fits in with the group. Overqualified people tend to quit once they realize what they’ve done. Thus the high resignation rate among West Point graduate officers.
In my Succeeding book, I warn readers of the need to be similar in pertinent ability and like-minded if you want to succeed in any group whether it’s a company or non-profit organization or an athletic team. If you are better than the group, you will find them frustrating. If they are better, they will be frustrated by your inability to keep up.
When she graduated from college, my wife took a job at the Penn Central Railroad, a AAA-rated Fortune 100 company at the time. Two weeks later, they went bankrupt.
That was a big surprise. AAA companies generally give a little more warning before they go bankrupt. The U.S. military, owner and operator of the U.S. Military Academy, is going bankrupt. Unlike Penn Central, there will be no surprise. The current debt-to-GDP ratio of the U.S. is 103%. Economists Reinhart and Rogoff, authors of the book This Time is Different, said the tipping point is 90%. We are past that. Greece defaulted on its national debt—the biggest such default in history, in March 2012. When they defaulted, their debt-to-GDP ratio was around 150%. The European Central Bank is currently trying to get the Greek debt-to-GDP ratio down to 120%. We hit 120% around Marc
I wrote a book titled How to Protect Your Life Savings from Hyperinflation and Depression.
Based on my research for that book, I predict the following will happen:
1. World bond market stops buying U.S. government bonds.
2. Unable to borrow to pay its bills, like military pay, retired military benefits, and other defense spending, the federal government will “print” money.
3. “Printing“ money causes hyperinflation.
4. Hyperinflation wipes out the purchasing power of bank accounts and pensions (indexing moves too slow to keep up).
5. After a year or two, all the people of the nation and the world will refuse to accept a U.S. dollar for anything.
6. At that point, the U.S. government will be forced to “live within its means,” that is, spend no more than tax revenues and will have to cut spending around 60%. That is precisely what happened after World War II: the debt-to-GDP ratio hit 122% after World War II and spending was cut 60% (discharging the military and ending most war spending).
7. That will result in massive layoffs of federal employees including military as well as massive cuts in federal pensions, including military, and health care benefits. Most retired military will have to go back to work to survive.
8. Probably the Corps of Cadets at West Point will be shrunk or even eliminated when we reach step 5. Many graduates may be excused from their five-year obligation because the government cannot pay them and does not need them for the greatly reduced U.S. Army. Many if not most graduates who are already in the U.S. Army can expect to be RIFfed (Reduction In Force—laid off). Those allowed to stay will find opportunities for command and promotion greatly reduced. And America will be militarily timid because of its federal government bankruptcy.
You’ve heard the expression “hitch your wagon to a star?” Going to West Point in the 2010s appears to be a case of hitching your wagon to a shooting star. The notion that graduating from West Point and staying in the Army for 20 or 30 years then retiring with an generous pension and even more generous health care benefits is almost certainly a thing of the past, although it is not yet well understood. Whether it is widely-understood or not is irrelevant. It is what it is. Do the same research as I did—by reading my book unless you like reinventing wheels—and it will lead you to the same conclusion I and most other experts have drawn.
The U.S. government and its subsidiaries like the Army and West Point are in danger of going bankrupt in the foreseeable future—regardless of the economic recovery or raising tax rates on the rich or any of that nonsense. Because of that, your most promising future is in the private sector, maybe in another country that has not bankrupted its federal government, not the U.S. federal government.
Also, differing world views make for bad relations. I am, it turned out, an ambitious entrepreneur. Career Army officers are generally at the opposite end of the spectrum from entrepreneurs, Officers are obsequious, security-seeking, future pensioners who go along to get along. Or they are Machiavellian careerist politicians. When I got “counseled” in the Army, the colonel and I would talk completely past each other. They could not understand why I did not think being a West Point graduate Army officer was the greatest thing in the world. I could not understand why anyone would want to spend their life in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. You can see the script of the Army’s standard “counseling” session I received in my article “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?”
My wife is a Harvard MBA and worked many years for the FDIC. I had a discussion with one of her old bosses at a party in our backyard once. He said it was rare for a graduate of an elite university like Harvard to work out in the FDIC. “Why?” “They tend to have a superior attitude. The others sense it and shut them out. Because no one cooperates with them or helps them learn the job, they fail.”
You may think, “That’s easy to fix. Just don’t have a superior attitude.” The graduates in question are superior, at least when it comes to their high school and college academic performance and test scores. They probably also got a superior education. West Point certainly “claims” both selective admissions and a great education. When I was a cadet, some famous person was telling us about once a month that we were the “cream of the crop” from the poop deck in the mess hall. If you are superior, pretending you are not is both dishonest and difficult to pull off. Plus, you will be miserable the whole time you are doing it. My wife has a unique personality that enabled her to enjoy and be accepted by her FDIC colleagues in spite of her Harvard MBA background. Most people cannot do it.
Here is a quote I got from an email from a kid who went to the U.S. military Academy Preparatory School then quit after its basic training month or so. He quit because of the superior attitude of a rising junior West Point cadet who was assigned summer duty at USMAPS:
There was one thing at the Prep School, and I am assuming West Point as well, that I did not love and I could not get past. The officers and the cadet cadre exuded an attitude and atmosphere of bloated self importance. I was first exposed to this when a [West Point rising junior] cadet [working at USMAPS for the summer] said, in essence, if you do not graduate from West Point you are inferior. He said that, being at West Point, you will learn to hate ROTC guys and other non West Pointers. He went on to say that the officers who come out of ROTC and OCS are "mostly pieces of shit". I was astonished to say the least. I could not believe that this cadet held these beliefs. I kept thinking about two officers, both colonels, who were leaders in my Scout Troop. These two men were my role models as an adolescent and were my inspiration for wanting to join the military. I passed that cadet's attitude off as just an ignorant 21 year old with a "God Complex".
For the record, I never heard of any such attitudes from fellow cadets or fellow graduates. ROTC and OCS got less training and were in less selective officer-producing schools when I was in the Army and West Point back in the 1960s and 1970s. OCS guys had far less education as a group than either ROTC or West Point. We rarely thought about or talked about ROTC or OCS guys when we were cadets. We were explicitly and officially told by a panel of master sergeants that OCS made the best company grade (lieutenants and captains) officers because of their experience as enlisted men. That ROTC made the best field grade officers. I do not believe that. I think it was just a political sop to the ROTC guys. And that West Pointers made the best generals. I am not sure I believe that either. I tend to agree with the OCS being better as platoon leaders and maybe company commanders. Otherwise, I think it’s military office politics that decides promotions above field grade. OCS tend not to compete for general because of lack of college degrees and often late start as officers.
West Point graduates also have many, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto” moments after they leave West Point and go into the regular Army. Actually, “I don’t think we’re in Oz anymore, Toto” would be more accurate.
Our superiors at West Point were impeccable. My ordinary Army superiors sometimes wore their uniform brass on the wrong side or at the wrong angle. At West Point, the officers would wait until everyone they outranked got fed before they would get into the chow line. In the Army, the officers would go first and sit at tables with linen table cloths, china, and silverware in the woods while their troops got fed later, received smaller portions, and sat on the ground eating out of their mess kits.
Soldiers spend money like drunken sailors to a comical degree. The mess hall in regular Army units is empty at the beginning of the month (pay day is on the 1st) and packed at the end of the month (they ran out of money to go elsewhere). There are lots of pawn shops around military bases other than West Point because the troops blow their pay at the beginning of the month on stuff they can’t afford, then hock it before the end of the month to get some spending money. The typical non-West Point Army officer reminds me of the fuddy duddy PC guy in the Apple Mac commercials—except that Army officers are usually less intelligent and have less of a sense of humor and timing than the PC guy.
After a couple of months of associating with people like that, many, if not most, West Point graduates feel like they are definitely in the wrong organization and start working secretly on their escape plan—like P.O.W.s at Stalag Luft 13.
The public thinks the young people who go to West Point, but do not graduate, are the weakest among the cadets. Actually, most who did not graduate fit that description to an extent, but surprisingly many were at the opposite end of the spectrum. Here are some guys who quit or flunked out of West Point that I knew.
• the first class president of my Class of 1968
• my company-mate/classmate who ranked highest among those in our company in “aptitude for the service” (leadership ability as ranked by his classmates and upperclassmen and officers)
• the classmate who ranked highest in our whole class in aptitude for the service
• a high school football quarterback and team captain in the class of 2008
Why did some of the top guys in my class quit? I suspect they already had a ton of self-esteem and did not need the additional self-esteem provided by graduating from West Point. Others at the medium ranks of the class simply decided it was not for them and left. They probably had no self-esteem issues, just independence of mind, that is, they were not going to make such an decision based on what other people might think. Good for them.
I do not mean to suggest that half the guys who quit West Point were top guys. It was more like 5% to 10%. And there were probably another 10% or so who would have had no trouble graduating who quit. The rest quit or flunked out because they lacked academic discipline, intelligence, time-management skills, integrity, a willingness to submit to the restrictions of West Point, or the limited athletic ability required of all cadets.
Oddly, a few “quit” by deliberately committing an honor code violation, then turning themselves in. This enabled them to go home and look like heroes in spite of quitting West Point. “Suicide by honor code.”
My main point here is that it is incorrect to assume that all those who quit West Point did so out of weakness. Some did so out of strength. Similarly, to the extent that those of us who graduated did so to avoid the “disgrace” of quitting or because we needed the self-esteem boost of being West Point graduates, it could be argued that graduating itself was a manifestation of some weakness in part. I hasten to add that the place was a very tough four years, so any weakness manifest by graduating rather than quitting was only a small and temporary part of the overall make-up of the graduates.
A cadet I knew recently said, before he went there, “I’m no quitter” about the possibility of leaving West Point before graduation. (He left in September of his plebe year.) Many a West Point graduate probably became a grad rather than a former cadet solely because of the power of that slogan. It’s a bullshit slogan.
A quitter is someone who habitually reacts to difficulty by quitting. By definition, quitting West Point, alone, does not prove you are a quitter because a single instance of any behavior does not constitute a habit.
Also, the statement “I’m no quitter” implies that you never make a mistake. If you make the mistake of joining an organization that you should not have joined, you need to quit. Only those who never make such a mistake can claim, rationally, “I’m no quitter.”
The statement “I’m no quitter” also suggests that mistakes of the joining-something variety should never be corrected because that would require quitting and quitting is a worse behavior than prolonging a mistake.
Here are excerpts from an email I received from a recent West Point graduate on Thanksgiving, 2009.
I just finished reading your article on the Ft. Hood Massacre. Great, straight-forward writing as usual. I regularly visit your website to steel myself against what I know that I have to face on a daily basis. …thank-you for saying what every person in the military knows but can't/won't say.
My "sponsor," (the other PL in my company) has been relating his experiences to me ever since I arrived. What stuck out to me was how similar they are to what you experienced in the military, even though our experiences are almost forty years apart.
I know you relate the experiences of those who email you, and I feel your message to those who are thinking about joining the military is important. It would have helped me when I was younger. I signed the dotted line at the beginning of my cow year not knowing who I was. If I had known that then, I would have left West Point.
And here is a quote from a kid who quit the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School in 2010:
When I voiced my intentions to resign, you would have thought I spit on the bible, burned the flag, or performed some similar act of dishonor. I was ridiculed as a quitter by many of the cadre and heard all the lines that "I had the golden ticket in my hands", "I am making the worst decision of my life", and that "I will always think back on how much of a mistake I am making". Its funny though, whenever I explained my reasons to a cadre who was willing to listen, they understood! I did not hear one person who took the time to talk to me say my reasons for leaving were bad, misinformed, stupid, or anything like that. My fellow classmates who allowed me to explain myself thought I was making a really smart choice, and wished they could do the same but felt their only option was to stay at USMAPS.
In fact, quitting is a decision. So is not quitting. I studied decision theory at Harvard Business School. Since then, I have studied it at every subsequent opportunity. I have also taught correct decision-making in seminars, coaching clinics, and in writing over 100 how-to books and over 5,000 how-to articles. You might think that studying decision making would make you smarter about it, but not teaching or writing about it. Actually, all those activities make you smarter about it. Teaching and writing about something make you think about it more, research it, and learn more about it from your students and readers.
Am I an expert on decision making? Close to it.
The correct way to make a decision is to know yourself, then choose goals appropriate to who you are and what you want to accomplish in the future. All decisions answer the question, “What is the optimum way for me to get from where I am to where I want to be?” To the extent that outcomes values and probabilities of various possible outcomes can be quantified, you should choose the decision with the best expected value.
Should you ever stop pursuing a particular course just because it’s hard? Generally that is not a good reason to quit, but it can be if the price to be paid for the object in question is higher than anticipated and the object in question is not worth that higher price. For example, I urged each of my three sons to go to Stanford, our local top quality college. Each went there with me. Each agreed with my admonition, and each decided against it when I told them what they would have to to get admitted. They wanted to go to Stanford, but they did not want to pay the high price necessary to do so. It was a legitimate choice on their part. (They went to Columbia, UC Santa Barbara, and Arizona instead.)
Can it be said that everyone who quits West Point did so because they were not up to the challenges it presents? No. Some fit that description. But others, as listed above, were quite up to the challenges. They simply did not want to continue down that road for other, good reasons.
West Point is hard so anyone who quits is suspect of not being strong enough. But West Point is a lot of other things besides hard. It is narrow. It requires five years service on active duty and three in the inactive reserves after graduation. It has weaknesses as a college. And it has both other negatives or positives that do not appeal to everyone as I mentioned above.
One legitimate reasons to change a decision, like the decision to go to West Point, is new information. Incoming cadets are mostly teenagers. They lack self-knowledge. But self-knowledge is sine qua non to making a decision about the next twelve years of your life. Furthermore, as I say at length in my book Succeeding, which is mainly about picking the right career and spouse, those decisions are all about the match between you and the career and you and the spouse. By definition, to make a good career match, you must have both self-knowledge and detailed, comprehensive, objective knowledge about each of the career alternatives being considered.
When I entered West Point at age 17, I knew neither who I was nor what the Army really was. Halfway through West Point, I had much better information on both and realized I was at the wrong place. (I stayed to graduate because it was during the Vietnam war and my choice was to go to Vietnam as a West Point graduate or as a draftee or low-ranking enlisted transfer out of West Point.) It is highly likely that the vast majority of West Point cadets are in the same position—lacking in self-knowledge and non-Hollywood knowledge of the military when they enter—and possessed of significantly more of both after a couple of years at West Point. It is not at all surprising that the majority of cadets and graduates quit either West Point or the Army after West Point—once they get that new information.
When you get significant new, different information about either who you are or which is the most appropriate goal for you or which is the optimum way to get from where you are to where you want to be, changing course—including quitting—is indicated. You made assumptions about who you were and what the Army was when you chose to come to West Point. Assumption is the mother of all screw-ups. If you find that one or more of your important assumptions were wrong, you need to remake the decision. Failure to make the appropriate course correction because of some crude slogan like “I’m no quitter” is a childlike mistake.
This applies both to the cadet’s self-image as well as to what other people will think. Other people aren’t you. To the extent that they are not West Pointers, they don’t know what they are talking about with regard to West Point. To the extent that they are West Pointers, they still are not you and are profoundly ignorant of the alternatives you are considering over West Point. A Coast Guard Academy guy told me all his classmates said he would be crazy to quit and go to a civilian college and career. What the hell would they know about it? They had never taken that route. (A similar thing could be said about my discussing quitting West Point. I did not quit. I stayed and graduated. So I have no experience dealing with either the internal and from-other-people reactions to quitting West Point.)
Deciding to stay at West Point is the same as deciding to go to West Point. The notion that deciding not to go and deciding to leave are different because the latter constitutes “being a quitter” is bogus. Do not fall for that bullshit slogan whether it comes out of the mouths of people at West Point or your friends or relatives. Make the decision based on the best information and logic as described above. If you are considering quitting simply because it’s hard and not because you no longer believe it is the best way to achieve your goals, then I would agree that quitting is a sign of weakness that you should resist.
We each get one life to live. Live yours the way you think is best. The people urging you not to quit West Point are trying to live both their lives and yours. Tell them to live their lives and leave you alone to live yours.
Her is an email from a guy who never went to West Point, but who read this article about West Point, about his experience with quitting.
I wonder how many readers of your website have read all or almost of your web articles on coaching, and your entire 100+ page piece on whether to go to or stay at West Point, when they themselves (and none of their family) have any direct interest in either of these subjects?
I ask this because I am one such person. Your writings almost always interest me, regardless of subject, and often make me smile and feel better about myself and my life. Occasionally they make me feel worse about myself, but that's okay, too. Reading your writings has helped me get through bad patches of my life. I'm in one right now, on Christmas Eve, with a 96-year-old mother that I just put in hospice care at her home. She is in very poor health, in a lot of pain, hasn't walked for four years, and in the last four months has come to the point where she doesn't recognize me or know who I am.
I admire your success but can make little similar claim for myself, as that honor would have to go to my grandfather. He was the self-made man whose success allowed his children and grandchildren to attend the best schools they could get into and enjoy other comforts and advantages, without having to get on the "conveyor belt to hell," as you did.
You regularly ask for corrections/additions/counter-arguments to your writings, and I'd like to give you a few. First, a little background: My two sisters (both Smith '68) are your age, while I am eleven years younger (Amherst '79). I well remember the discussions I had with my sisters when they were in college, which were the same years you were at USMA, so reading that piece took me back to that time.
WEST POINT ARTICLE
The one thing I think you should change or delete in this piece is in the section near the end where you have a list of the negative effects USMA had on your life. One is the PTSD of recurring nightmares that you are back in school, unprepared for class, can't find where the test is, etc. This isn't a West Point issue; EVERYONE has those nightmares! I have them periodically about Amherst as well as private high school, and both those institutions had none of the BS rules-for-the-sake-of-rules nonsense you describe. Ask around and I think you'll find that many people have these same dreams decades after graduation, regardless of institution. Don't you ever have them about HBS? [Reed note: I acknowledged that civilian college grads also have nightmares about their college already in the discussion about nightmares. I asked my wife if she had nightmares about going to Drexel University. She said she did when she was a student, but not since. Most of my nightmares about West Point related to its military requirements, not academic. I never heard of any civilian college kid having nightmares about ROTC. I never had a nightmare about Harvard Business School in spite of that place being pretty intense. One of my sectionmates there once asked me which was harder, West Point or Harvard.]
Your West Point article often addresses the issue of the pressure on young people to avoid being branded a "quitter," and you urge rational thought in this area. GET OUT of a bad situation if it is dangerous to your health and/or future, you advise.
This hit home, and it involves high school football, of all things. You may find this story interesting.
The private high school I attended, [redacted], is a coed school with about 80 students per grade. They play in what here is called the A-B-C League, where there are three teams per school for each team sport like football, field hockey, basketball, soccer, and baseball. C Team is almost all freshmen, with a few of the smaller or less-talented sophomores. B Team is mostly sophomores, a few talented freshmen, some juniors, and maybe a senior or two. A Team is the varsity, almost all juniors and seniors with one or two exceptionally talented sophomores.
I played C football in 9th grade (1972) as an offensive lineman in a T-formation, and was okay. I started every game but that was no great feat as we didn't have a terribly deep roster. The drills often struck me as boring and unrelated to actual football (such as using the blocking sleds) and I had no great love for the game, but football was what you did there in the fall unless you were hopelessly uncoordinated or underweight, and I was neither. We lost our final game to our arch-rival … and ended up tied for second in our league.
The next year I played on the B team and what a difference! The coach [redacted] ran what everyone called a Single Wing, an unbalanced line with a shotgun, where the quarterback was ten feet or so behind the center. I think you say that a shotgun means the ball is snapped to someone else, not the quarterback, but that is how we did it. [Reed note: The single wing uses a long snapper who looks at his target through his legs like a field goal team long snapper and makes an extremely accurate dart like snap. The shotgun center has his head up looking at the defensive line when he snaps and does a not-very accurate lob.]
Under Coach [redacted], we almost never passed. He told us this would be the case on the first day of practice. I say almost because after three quarters of never getting a pass to intercept, one or more of the defensive backs would quit covering the receiver. He told us this would happen on the first day of practice also. And it did. I do not recall a single incomplete pass the entire season. There must have been some, but my memory of every pass that I saw was one of the ball going to a receiver with no one around him.
Our practices that year were shorter than either the C team or the A (Varsity) team by about a half hour per day. Gone were the mile long runs I hated. With my short legs and lineman's build, I always came in at the back of the pack. Instead we ran wind sprints (gassers?) of 50 yards or so, and I was pretty good at those. At the end of one exceptionally good practice session in the middle of the season, where all of us seemed to be doing everything right, Coach [redacted] told us to break for wind sprints. We lined up on the edge of the practice field and he blew his whistle from 50 yards away. About halfway through these sprints, he announced we'd had a great practice and we'd only need to do one more sprint before hitting the showers. As we were all about to jog back to the start, I don't know what came over me, but I yelled out "Coach, I'll do an extra one for every guy that beats me!" His face was utterly blank, then split into a grin worthy of Jack Nicholson. He turned to our offensive line coach and yelled "Did you hear what your man just said?"
We ran our last sprint and at the end I yelled "How many, Coach?" At least three guys had beaten me, but not by a lot. "Too close to call," he said. "Go take a shower."
Coach [redacted] had a policy that after every winning game the team had lunch at a small (and inexpensive) local independent steak house. His team was informally known as "The Steak House Gang." We ended the season league champions, 8-0. I started every game and sometimes didn't get a substitute. I even got called to play on defense one game and sacked their quarterback. It was Coach [redacted] third straight undefeated season championship. I think he went something like 34 winning games before he had a loss or tie. Football with him was fun.
The following year I was on the A Team (Varsity) as a junior. We were back to the T formation that my C-team coach had used two years before. The previous year a donor named [redacted] had gifted the school a large tract of land about 100 miles south, in rural Missouri, to be used for educational purposes. The school called it [redacted], built cabins and a mess hall on the property, and used it on weekends for 7th grade orientation, biology trips, etc. They also decided to send the "A" football team down to [redacted] for two weeks of preseason practice in August, before school started.
It was awful. The players immediately re-christened the place "Die [redacted]."
As I recall we ran three miles every morning before breakfast and then had four two-hour practices a day. I was in constant fear of heat exhaustion, compounded by the fact that we were NEVER allowed any water during each practice session, despite being in full pads and 95 degree heat. I threw up more than once, and I wasn't the only one.
About a week into the session I was walking to breakfast after our morning run and I scraped the side of my ankle on something. I was so dead tired that I didn't pay any attention to it and got on with the day, although I felt even worse than usual during every practice. I got yelled at, specifically by name, several times that day. My former coach [redacted] had only yelled at me specifically twice in the entire previous season.
The next morning I woke up with a fever and drenched in sweat. My foot and ankle were almost double size, and it appeared my foot was infected. I couldn't put my shoe on. When the assistant coach saw this he took me immediately to a small town clinic about twenty miles away, where the doctor examined and questioned me. I thought my scrape had become infected, but the doctor said I had been bitten by a poisonous snake, probably a copperhead. He gave me antibiotics and told me to stay off it until it looked normal again.
The snake bite kept me from practicing for about two weeks. After I got back on the field, I only started in two games, and got subbed out quickly in both. Our practices seemed longer and less fun than any I'd ever had. I don't remember what our season record was. Middle of the league, I think.
The next year I was a senior, and I thought with the additional size and strength I'd gained from the previous year, I'd be able to handle the two weeks of hell in preseason practice at [redacted] better than I had the year before, and be a decent player for the team.
It seemed even worse than my memory of the previous year at [redacted]. One player collapsed during the last practice of the second day, though he seemed to be fine once he got some water in him and rested for a bit. Once again I felt as if heat stroke might hit me at any moment during every practice.
I went to talk to the coach in private after dinner on that second night. I told him that I didn't want to play football any more. I told him that I'd thought about it for a long time, and that I'd realized I wasn't getting anything out of football that made me think I was improving anything about myself in any way. I told him that I hadn't thought of myself as the person in the worst physical condition on the team, but that I must be because I often felt that I literally might die during practice. I told him I thought if I stayed on the team I would make the team worse, rather than better, and though I realized that I was letting him down, I would almost certainly let him down even more if I stayed around.
To my surprise he seemed neither angry nor argumentative. He seemed preoccupied, as if he were only half listening to me. He didn't try to talk me out of it. He looked me in the eye and said "I understand." I then told him I didn't think it would be good for me to hang around the team for twelve more days and if he could get me to a phone, I could call my uncle to make the two-hour trip and pick me up immediately (I was going to call my uncle because my dad had died four years earlier and my mother was not too good at driving after supper.) He seemed startled and a bit flustered at this, and explained that one of the assistant coaches had a family issue he had to take care of, and I could ride back with him in a few minutes if I was ready.
I had a mild dread about the ride home, but the assistant coach was nicer than I'd ever seen him, and preoccupied, the way the head coach had been, the entire ride back. I assumed it was about his family issue, which I didn't ask about.
I wondered if any of my classmates would give me a hard time when school started, but nothing like that happened. A couple of them actually laughed and thanked me, explaining that the practice sessions had instantly become more about executing skills and not about exhaustion.
The team ended up with a better record that year, despite the fact that it had quite a few sophomores on it, which was unusual for the top teams in our league.
The next fall, in 1975, I went off to Amherst College a thousand miles away. Trying out for the Amherst freshman football team never once crossed my mind. Memories of near-exhaustion in full pads were far too recent. I discovered the school had a rugby club, one that played other clubs from around the area, and I joined that and did pretty well. Our coach was one of our players, the college Dean, an Englishman named [redacted], who was a great guy and probably our best player. Our most memorable game, to my mind, was when we played a team from a New Hampshire private men's club. They beat us by some ridiculous score, and their average age was maybe 55. A lot of them had grey beards and were bald, and this was many years before white guys shaved their heads as a fashion statement. During the game, they were giving us genuine advice on how we could play better. Then they treated us to drinks and dinner at their private club, which had the first projection TV I had ever seen. Rugby was great.
I came home on semester break to discover that my high school football team had been undefeated the entire season, went on to win all the other games they were in, and were now State Champions. This flabbergasted me, and then one parent made the comment "This year, they had a team that just didn't know how to quit."
I am sure the man who said this didn't know who I was, and I would bet money that he didn't even know that one of the team members from the year before had dropped off the team before the first game. He was just using a timeworn phrase to talk about a hard-charging winning team. However, his words made me think "Yeah, you're right. The team got better when I left."
Mr. Reed, I have had enough successes in life that I have never felt I was a "quitter," and I have always felt I did the right thing when I stopped playing football. Two things have recently made me feel that I did more than just the right thing FOR ME, and instead made me think I may have done the right thing for everyone in 1974 when I quit football. The first was a few days ago when I read your comments about "Bataan Death March" philosophies of West Point and some football coaches. "Right on!" I thought when I read that. Then something else happened last night.
It has now been 35 years since 1976. Members of the class of '76 were seniors on the football team that became State Champions in the fall of 1975. I happened to run into some of these people at a restaurant, where they had had an informal 35 year class reunion. There were several former players, and a guy who had been a very low level assistant in the athletic department back then.
They were talking about that championship season, and the former low-level assistant nodded towards me and said, "Here's the guy whose name should have been engraved on the trophy." The others nodded, then saw my look, and the former assistant said, "You mean you don't KNOW?"
"What are you talking about?"
"When that kid collapsed in practice at [redacted], and then a few hours later you quit the team, and told the Coach you felt like you were literally about to die during every practice, the staff freaked. The assistant coach you rode back with didn't have some family problem; he went back to talk to the Board of Trustees about potential damage control, in case the kid had some permanent brain damage or something. [redacted] was already worried about his job because he hadn't had a League Championship yet, like we'd had many times before he was hired, and if he ended up having some kid get permanently crippled from his crazy practice sessions, the parents would sue the school out of existence. Or worse."
"But what does that have to do with ME? If anything, the guy that collapsed would have been the wake-up call."
"Nonono. Coach said at the time he just got worn out. When you quit, and wanted to go home immediately, and were going to call your uncle to come pick you up, that set the alarm bells off. Had you ever quit ANYTHING else? No. And the light bulb went on that your uncle would have KILLED him if you'd had a heat stroke because of his crazy shit, and there were probably other fathers who would have done the same thing, except they would have contracted it out."
This last comment was a reference to my uncle's involvement in WWII as a sniper who killed (among other enemy soldiers) the German equivalent of a four-star general at over 500 yards from a church bell tower at dawn at the very outset of the D-Day invasion (the bell tower was leveled about 45 seconds later.). "THAT's why [redacted] leadfooted it back to the city, not because of some family problem. You saved the coach's career, and maybe his life."
I sat there with my mouth hanging open. I have no idea if the things I was told last night are an accurate representation of what really happened back then, or if they've been distorted by the passage of 35 years. In any event, both they and you have made me feel good about something that has been a tiny pinprick in the back of my mind for two-thirds of my life.
Again, thanks for your writings.
P.S. I laughed out loud when I read how your friend at the reunion asked "if you had ever had an unpublished thought."
[Reed note: If John Ross had not quit that football team, he might have died of heat stroke there. Listening to your body is part of the good judgment you need about when to quit. West Point generally takes good care of its cadets—although one died of heat stroke in Beast Barracks there in 2010 or 2011 I believe. There is no excuse for that. The more important part of Ross’s decision was that he no longer felt the benefit of being on the team was worth the effort. West Point cadets are not in a great position to make that sort of analysis because they are so young. But if they read this article, which discusses the effort and benefits thoroughly and is based on 47 years of experience and perspective, they are in a far better and probably adequate position to decide whether to quit.]
If you are a cadet now and you have been doing well academically, athletically, and/or in being given cadet stripes, you may be inclined to lean more toward an Army career on the grounds that you seem to be good at it.
When we were cadets, we knew who the sharp guys were. We assumed they would do well in the Army. At West Point, they did: good grades, athletic success, and lots of stripes on their sleeves senior year.
HOWEVER, had the Ghost of Christmas Future visited us and told us who among us actually would get promoted early to major and higher ranks and who would achieve multi-star rank in our class, our reaction would have been about 10% “that makes sense” and 90% “Are you shittin’ me!?” The class in general would have been extremely angry and many who stayed in for a career after we graduated would have gotten out as soon as they could instead if they knew then what we later found out.
What happened in the event is that the Pentagon’s anointing of some of our class as its favorites and others as also rans was very close to random from our perspective. Unfortunately for the very sharp guys who turned out to be Army also rans, the realization that the Army was doing this was very slow in coming—too late in coming for them to make a timely switch to the civilian world where there abilities and performance would almost certainly be more appreciated and rewarded.
We assumed that the sharp cadets in our class would get the early promotions and general’s stars in the Army. Not even close. My roommate Dan Kaufman becoming the dean of West Point (and a brigadier general) was about the only high ranking classmate that made sense to me. He was a sharp guy as a cadet. The other early promotions and generals were such that we would have reacted as I stated above when we were cadets.
There was another story from the opposite end of the spectrum in my cadet company. In the 1960s, juniors or cows were either corporals or privates. Freshmen and sophomores were all privates. Seniors were all sergeants, lieutenants, or captains unless they lost their stripes as a result of a punishment. During our cow year, half my class in my company were corporals for first detail (fall) and the other half, including yours truly, were corporals second detail (winter). There was one exception. One classmate in our company was never a corporal cow year. (Spring or third detail corporals were the guys who ranked in the top half of the company in aptitude.) I had never heard of a cow never being a corporal before. I guess there are only so many jobs and the number of jobs times two details added up to one less than the number of cows in our company. My class may have had a higher-than-normal-retention rate in that company. He was odd man out. Why? He probably had the lowest aptitude-for-the-service ranking in the company.
Fast forward to the second half of their careers for my classmates who stayed in the Army. The cadet who never made corporal in my company was on the tiny list of classmates who were promoted early to major and lieutenant colonel! In other words, he ranked in the bottom two or three dozen cadets in my whole class of 706 graduates in the opinion of other cadets as to how well he would do in the Army as an officer. Then, as an officer, he ranked in the top dozen or so in the class!
Some may figure that maybe he improved greatly. I doubt it. Cadets lived with each other, including having many different roommates during our cadet years. We spent 24-7 together in class, on the athletic fields, at three mandatory meals a day, on the parade field, on double dates, and in summer combat field training. You get to know a guy very well. In contrast, those in the Pentagon who were promoting him early like some sort of class crown prince, could barely pick the guy out of a line-up and even his immediate Army officer superiors only saw him during business hours in a narrower range of situations than we experienced at West Point. Furthermore, I never heard from classmates that he had changed in any way. I did hear that about other classmates.
So if you are a cadet now, look at the cadet in your company who ranks lowest in aptitude for the service. If they changed the terminology—which they love to do—I’m talking about the guy who is likely to get the fewest cadet officer stripes senior year. There is a decent chance that he may outrank you in the second half of your Army career and become the class star as far as officer careers go. You may end up saluting him and calling him “Sir.” I kid you not.
In David Hackworth’s book About Face, he tells of a West Point career officer who went nuts every time a promotion list came out calling up his West Point classmates and venting over the phone about, “Can you believe who’s on that new promotion list!?” That is probably the rule rather than the exception among West Point grads.
Do you doubt me? Then I have a simple homework assignment for you. Go to the West Point library and get a recent Register of Graduates and a yearbook from the 1960s—my era. Write down on a note pad who from the Register of Graduates who in that class made general and how many stars they ended up with. Then go back to the yearbook and figure out who the studs were senior year from the cadet rank listed next to their picture in the yearbook and from the brigade, regimental, and battalion staff group photos. For the 1960s, you can also see the General Order of Merit in the order in which grads are named in the Register. Later classes are alphabetical in the Register (Corps has). You probably figure that the guys who were high in General Order of Merit—which combines academic grades, conduct, and aptitude for the service ratings—and who were cadet captains senior year, were the ones who made general. Ha! See how many of the generals in that class were studs in the yearbook. I predict you will find almost no correlation between cadet success and career officer success.
Here’s an actual case history for you. The most successful West Point graduate of the mid-1960s was Eric Ken Shinseki who became Army Chief of Staff—the highest job there is. He later became Obama’s head of the Veteran’s Administration. How big of a stud was he as a cadet? The 1965 yearbook—my plebe year—lists him as a soccer player his first two years. No other corps squad (varsity NCAA) athletics. He was a member of five cadet clubs off and on. The only one he did all four years was Sunday School Teacher. He was not a star man (top 5% academically). His cadet rank was lieutenant indicating he was a platoon leader or training officer or some such as a senior. (Even I was a freaking cadet lieutenant for the first part of my senior year!) He was not on battalion, regimental, or brigade staff. In the group photo of his company’s seniors, he is one of several cadets who are very slight of build.
Would you like to know what happened to the top three cadet officers in Shinseki’s Class of 1965—the guys whom we cadets back then assumed would become Chief of Staff if anyone would?
First Captain Bob Arvin: Killed in action on 10/8/67 in Vietnam, awarded two silver stars and a purple heart. Gym at West Point is named after him
First Regimental Commander Mark Walsh: Retired as a colonel, class president, never attended a reunion
Second Regimental Commander (star man) Buddy Bucha: Resigned in 1972 as a captain after winning the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam (Bucha’s response to my discussion of him regarding awarding of medals is at http://johntreed.myshopify.com/blogs/john-t-reed-s-blog-about-military-matters/69822403-did-u-s-military-personnel-really-earn-all-their-medals)
In my own Class of 1968, where we had four rather than two regimental commanders because of an increase in the size of the student body, the career results were:
Cadet first captain: Retired as a lieutenant colonel
1st regimental cadet commander: Retired as a lieutenant colonel
2nd regimental cadet commander: Resigned as a captain after five-year graduation commitment
3rd regimental cadet commander: Killed in action in Vietnam on 7/21/70
4th regimental cadet commander: Killed in action in Vietnam on 7/15/69
Lieutenant colonel is the lowest rank you can retire from normally. So the first captain and 1st regimental commander in my class apparently had minimal success as career officers. The Class of 1965 first regimental commander was one notch up from that retiring as a full colonel. As cadets, we expected those guys would retire as four-star generals.
In case you’re wondering why the disproportionate number of KIA in the 1965 and 1968 highest-ranking-cadets group. It probably relates to their branch choice—infantry. The cadets who get the most stripes senior year tend to be, or claim they are, gung ho, which is part of why they got the stripes. The most gung ho branch choice is considered to be infantry.
For a while, I had a theory that the West Point grads who stayed in for a career were the bottom-of-the-class types. One day, I decided to check out my theory. I was wrong. What I found instead was that the guys who thought—erroneously in most cases as it turned out—that they were doing really well with the Army and destined for higher rank, were the ones who stayed in. By the time they realized the promotions were essentially random with regard to ability and performance, it was too late for them to get out because the present value of the retirement benefits was too high and/or because they had incurred additional service obligations from attending grad school or Army schools.
A higher percentage of West Point graduates would get out of the Army before 20 years if the Army did not play a series of effective games to trick people into staying in a little longer, then a little longer, then all of a sudden, it’s too late to get out. The most common game is paying for you to go to graduate school or an advanced Army course that results in your incurring an additional one-to-four-year commitment. Nowadays, I heard that they start these games while you are still a cadet!
When I was a cadet, it was common to ask each other, “Are you gonna make a career of the Army?” The two answers you got were either “No” or “Yeah, I want to to go to grad school.”
I always thought the latter answer was humorous on two counts:
• They imply no one would stay in unless they were going to get a bribe like grad school for doing so.
• They imply that it is not possible to go to grad school unless the Army sends you.
Most graduate school students are actually not in the military. It is actually possible to go as a civilian—really. My wife and I went to Harvard Business School after I got out of the Army. I got about $300 a month during the school year from the GI Bill. I paid the rest out of my pocket. My wife borrowed a little from Harvard and paid the rest out of her own pocket. At the time I went to Harvard—1975-1977—I believe active-duty military officers could not go there because Congress banned officers from attending any university that did not have ROTC.
Even bigger news flash, as a civilian, you can go to whatever grad school you can get admitted to and study whatever subject you want. If the Army sends you, you can only go where they say and you can only study what they say.
This “Yeah, I want to go to grad school” mind-set is typical of the “tenure” too-good-to-leave and womb-to-tomb take-care-of-me-Daddy mentality of career military people. They fear the cold, cruel outside world. I have actually heard them use that phrase—even West Point grads who were much higher in the class than I was. At a West Point reunion, one guy still on active duty asked me wide-eyed, “What’s like out there?” Those were his exact words. My Succeeding book has a chapter that warns readers not to fall into “The Tenure Trap.” It’s called “Tenure and other deals ‘too good to leave’.”
They wonder what we civilians do when we get sick or injured? (HMO or Blue Cross or whatever plan you sign up for) How will we survive without the military pension? [home equity, 401(k), business equity, IRAs, SEPs, continue to work, etc.] What do we do if we get fired? (Get another job or become self-employed) The question to me is not how do we survive after we get out but how can you and your family stand it if you stay in.
At the 15- to 20-year reunions, we who got out had a tendency to group together separate from the lifers. We occasionally would marvel at the stunted development of the lifers. We felt like college graduates who were back at school several years after graduation visiting younger underclassmen whom we knew who were still there. They would chatter excitedly about some rumored change in PX privileges or retirement medical care rules or about where they and their families might be shipped next. We civilians would talk about business ventures or the best places to live.
In the spring of 2009, I was at a talk by West Point grad author Craig Mullaney talking about his book. The audience seemed to be mostly West Pointers. During the question period, one said that career officers and guys who got out of the Army don’t speak to each other at West Point reunions. “Wow!” I wondered. “What class is he?” He looked about my age. When I spoke to him later, I learned he was a career officer who did not attend West Point. In other words, he had no first-hand knowledge about West Point reunions.
I have never seen or heard anything like he depicted. I would simply say there is a very subtle underlying tension between the two groups if the topic comes up. But in probably half the conversations I had at my 40th reunion neither I nor the guy I was talking to even knew whether the other had stayed in or gotten out. It did not come up and neither of us cared.
A classmate with whom I discussed this said his theory was that the poop schoolers—guys who were in the Army before they came to West Point—seemed to do the best in Army careers. I wonder if that is because of the extra Army experience or their more advanced age upon entering West Point. Probably both.
Actually, I had not thought of this before, but the poop schoolers, in a sense, go to West Point for five years, not four. The poop school is at Fort Monmouth, NJ. I read it was moving to West Point itself although I see no mention of it at the poop school Web site.
In my Succeeding book, I noted that my West Point classmates who were older seemed to do much better not only at West Point, but for a decade or more afterward, because of their greater age when we entered West Point and when they graduated. That was true both of guys who were previously in the Army and guys who went to civilian colleges before they came to West Point. You can be 17 to 22 when you enter West Point. I was 17. When I went to Harvard Business School, I was 29—a little older than most students there. At Harvard, I was president of two clubs and the main columnist in the school newspaper—positions I attribute to my being older than most of my classmates.
A recent West Point grad told me current poop schoolers were significantly dumber than the civilian new cadets and flunked out at a higher rate. When I was there, I saw no such distinction. They just seemed a bit blue collar and cliquish to me. Since it was apparently harder to get in as a civilian than as a soldier, I always thought their mildly superior attitude toward the rest of us was puzzling.
Deciding to go to or stay at West Point means you are implicitly making the following statement:
I am certain that a career as a U.S. Army officer fits my unique combination of strengths and weaknesses and likes and dislikes better than any of the infinite number of worldwide civilian careers could.
When you state it like that, the unlikelihood of it being true kind of jumps right out of the wording.
In my career as an author, I know where I will be ten years from now—in my home office—and what I will be doing—typing on my computer keyboard. I could change if I wanted and I have from time to time throughout my life. But if I ask a West Point cadet similar questions, the dialog would go like this.
Reed: So where will you be geographically ten years from now?
Cadet: Probably at a U.S. military base somewhere in the world.
Cadet: Well, I could be at a civilian college or on some officer exchange assignment or something else I would not think of now.
Reed: And you can’t even pin it down to a particular continent?
Reed: But you say a career as an Army officer is the best thing for you?
Cadet: Yes, sir.
Reed: Pardon me, but how can you say it’s the best alternative for you when you don’t even know where in the world you will be? How can an unknown be better than a known?
Cadet: Well, I know generally the sort of things I would be doing.
Reed: OK. So what, pray tell, will you be doing ten years from now—somewhere on planet earth?
Cadet: I might be a troop commander. I might be a staff officer. I might be in a school as a student or instructor. I might work in the Pentagon.
Reed: You’re sure that’s a complete list?
Cadet: Actually, no. I could be doing other things like working on some project or being a prisoner of war.
Reed: Or dead from wounds?
Cadet: That could happen, too.
Reed: And you’re certain that each and every one of those possibilities beats the hell out of the best, custom-fit-to-you civilian career you could have? Doesn’t that imply an absurdly low opinion of the entire world outside the post gate?
In fact, this is yet another area of consideration where the prospective cadet or graduate should read the Register of Graduates. There you will find that those who graduated 20 or 30 years ago have had an eclectic series of brief jobs and probably have changed which continent they lived on about every three years. Who in civilian life do they most resemble? Temps, like substitute teachers, except that even temps typically stay in the same metropolitan area their whole lives.
Reed: So you think being a nomadic, intercontinental temp is a better fit to your unique abilities than any civilian career could possibly be? Like coaching a college football team? Or being a much beloved and respected professor at some ivy-covered university? Or starting your own company and taking it public? Or writing a series of well-received books? And you’re sure that your current or future spouse and kids share your affection for pig-in-a-poke, surprise-package temping around the world?
How could such an eclectic career path match you so well? How could it match anyone? Do you have multiple-personality disorder? Aren’t you afraid that you might get a military job you like and are extremely good at—then be transferred out of it after three years never to get such a job again? Indeed, isn’t that almost certainly the best thing you can expect to happen to you during an Army career? (The worse alternative being that you never get that job during your whole Army career.) Why wouldn’t you be better off in a civilian job where, if you are good at it and like it and your co-workers, you can stay there with them forever?
At West Point, and in post-West Point training that took another year for me, we learned how to lead men in combat. The self-image of career officers is that they are leaders of men.
Sounds impressive, doesn’t it?
Actually, I didn’t get to do that very much. But I figured it was just me pissing off my bosses. Then I read some books about other West Pointers. It wasn’t just me. Not getting to command men may be more the rule than the exception.
I spent five full years being trained to lead men. To be specific, leading men in the Army means being a platoon leader, company commander or battalion commander. There are higher commands like brigade, division, and corps, but you have to be a sort of super star to get those. Actually, you have to be a super star to be a battalion commander, although I must say I only had one I thought was worth a shit. He was also the only West Pointer I ever served under other than generals high above my rank.
So how do those leadership positions go over the course of a 20-year career? You typically get to be a platoon leader when you are are lieutenant. I surmise that most people get to be a company commander when they are captains, but not all. I actually was a company commander when I was a first lieutenant, but then I was a first lieutenant for three years at a time when about 98% of officers were only first lieutenants for one year. (I had Vietnamese embroiderers make me a cloth black first lieutenant’s bar with a gold star in the middle of it befitting my rank as the “command first lieutenant”—longest time in grade—of the whole U.S. Army. I still have it. A master sergeant talked me out of having them sewn onto my jungle fatigues.)
You don’t get to be a battalion commander until you are a lieutenant colonel which happens at about 17 or 18 years. Plus, battalion command slots are few and highly sought after. My impression is that only a minority of lieutenant colonels ever get to command a battalion. So I expect the typical West Point grad gets to command men for a year or so as a platoon leader and a year or so as a company commander. That’s it. Total. Finis. If you really want to command men, become a civilian football coach or construction foreman.
Then there is the issue of what is actually means to have one of those jobs. Here is a little bit of detail on what I did at my few “real” jobs.
|year||job title||duration||what I actually did|
communications platoon leader, infantry battalion, 82nd Airborne Division, Ft. Bragg
got ready for CMMI (maintenance inspection) at the beginning of the summer
spent all day every week day in a clearing in the woods presiding over a heavy mortar squad that rehearsed an end-of-the-summer firepower demonstration twice a day
communications platoon leader, mixed heavy artillery battalion, Vietnam
about three months I think
Told the wire squad switchboard operators and phone repairmen “Keep up the good work” every day, which they did
Got part requisition numbers from the repair squad because the battalion commander demanded them whenever a radio was being worked on and would not trust his officers’ word that they had requisitioned the part
Switched the battalion to alternative FM frequency every month because undisciplined South Vietnamese units would use our assigned frequency, got an automatic repeating device installed for our two radios on top of Nui Ba Den mountain, connected an antenna wire to a radio at Alpha Battery (the Commo squad there could not be bothered—they were not part of my platoon)
Was forced to drive to fire bases in a lone jeep until my platoon sergeant freaked about it and invoked Sole Surviving Son to get out of Vietnam; thereafter, the battalion commander repeatedly took me by chopper to the most remote battery (Fire Base Wade?), in Loc Ninh next to the Cambodian border (enemy sanctuary), then made me spend the night and hitch hike back to the battalion, which always took three days because there were no direct connections (he did not like my refusing to eat supper with him, my platoon did not much need a platoon leader, so he just used his power to torment me while I was in his battalion)
Company commander of Signal School AIT 400-man company
about three months
made mess hall run smoothly, oversaw personnel matters and discipline of troops, made sure barracks were properly cleaned and repaired, met with all troops weekly—kind of a fun job, actually
10 months in 3 units over three years
My other jobs were non-jobs: assistant to a guy who was not authorized to have an assistant.
My leadership positions in the Army—during a war, mind you—remind me of the Peggy Lee song “Is that all there is?”
Let’s see, I spent five years getting the world’s best leadership training at West Point, Ranger School, Airborne School, and so on at a cost to the taxpayers of about $500,000 in today’s dollars—all so I could spend ten months total being a leader, sort of, in three different units over a three-year period.
At the 2011 West Point Founder’s Day dinner in Oakland, California, the guy sitting next to me at the next table was the general’s aide to three-star general Huntoon, the superintendent of West Point and the main speaker at the dinner.
I was shocked to see that he was a major in rank. I guess they have some rule that a one-star general gets a first lieutenant for an aide; a two-star general, a captain, and a three-star general, a major. Whatever. I thought it was a high rank to be an aide.
The guy was about 30, handsome, super fit, inspection-order perfect in terms of personal grooming and uniform—dress mess which is a sort of tux for Army officers. Based on my general knowledge of West Point and the Army, I believe the following is probably accurate:
• He was captain of his high school football team and maybe another sport team
• He was president of his high school class and voted most likely to succeed in the yearbook
• He was an A student in high school and at West Point
• He was a cadet captain on brigade or regimental staff when he was a senior at West Point
• He is an airborne ranger with multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan
• He has a masters degree
• He taught a subject at West Point for a couple of years after getting his maters degree
• He was one of the 5% or so of captains who were promoted early to the rank of major
If knowledgeable West Point officers talk about him, they would say, “He is having a great career.”
So what was he doing on Founders Day? He was pushing a button for the General’s power point presentation whenever the general said “Next!”
In 1998, I and Brian Billick were clinic speakers at a convention called American Football Quarterly University in Fort Worth. At the time, he was the extremely successful offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. The following year, he became the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens and won Super Bowl XXXV. He and I attended each other’s talks at that convention.
His was the first power point presentation I ever saw. Who pushed his “next” button? He did. It was actually better than having someone else do it because there was no reaction-time issue. I don’t know about you, but I regard an NFL Super Bowl-winning head coach as higher on the food chain than a West Point superintendent. I think it’s telling as to the culture of a process-oriented organization like the Army bureaucracy that they give such people a 30-year-old “aide” in contrast to the culture of a result-oriented organization like an NFL football team where they do not.
Now, let’s think about where the aide’s high-achieving high school peers have been and are now, which is where he could be if he was not pushing that button.
They probably went to a top civilian college like Cal Tech, MIT, Stanford, the Ivy League, the Little Ivies (Williams, Amherst, Pomona, etc.) or a “Public Ivy like UCLA or Michigan. They did well there, maybe playing an intercollegiate sport, and subsequently went to a much sought-after employer like Google or Apple or to a highly rated professional school of law, medicine, business, or engineering.
Where are they at thirty? Probably in a wide variety of fields and positions with the status, pay, job description, and future prospects of these:
• law firm partner at a top firm
• C-suite executive of a start-up
• college or university professor
• promising executive in a large corporation
• self-employed entrepreneur
• government bureaucrat
• elected official
• high school, college, or pro coach
• real estate developer
• non-government charity executive
• environmental engineer
• foreign service officer
I suspect that none of the aide’s high school peers in terms of class president and such were pushing a “next” button at age 30.
If I were his best friend from high school, and learned he spent Saturday evening on March 12, 2011 pushing the “next” button for a general’s power point, I would probably say something like this to him.
Jesus H. Christ, Jeff! You were voted most likely to succeed. You had everything going for you. How in the hell did you end up pushing a “next” button for someone else’s power point? What happened to, “be all you can be?” I heard you were doing well in the Army. What happened to that? The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow turned out to be pushing the “next” button for a general’s power point!?
I don’t know what that particular major would say, but a generic response to that in the Army would probably be along the lines of
I am doing great. I made major early. That’s top five percent. Being the aide to the superintendent of West Point is a plum job for a major. This is not the end of the rainbow. That comes 20 years from now. That’s when we find out if I make general or not.
To which I might reply.
Oh, golly! You wean you could actually end up making some future 30-year-old, former high school Mr. Everything push your “next” button when you do power points!? Well, that’s obviously worth the four-year ordeal of West Point, risking your life and limb in Afghanistan, and 30 years of chickenshit like pushing “next” buttons. I stand corrected.
But seriously, Jeff. You coulda been somebody. You coulda been a contender.
And if I were General Huntoon’s best friend,
Jesus H. Christ, David. I sat next to your aide. All he did all night was push the “next” button. Why didn’t you leave the poor guy back at West Point with his wife and kids? Don’t you have some important projects he could have been working on while you were traveling?
Lest anyone miss my point, I think the aide would have been far more successful and far more satisfyingly employed at age 30 if he had stayed the hell away from a service academy when he came out of high school. The Army appears to have prevented him from being all he could be which is ironic when you consider that “Be all you can be” was the official Army recruiting slogan not long ago.
Once, when my class were sophomores at West Point, our tactical officers, who were about 30 years old, were ordered by the Commandant of Cadets to check in the middle of the night to see if we were wearing the proper uniform for sleep: nude or West Point-issue pajamas, no underwear. (I wore briefs only when I slept there—in violation of the regulation. Like many other cadets, I also slept on top of my made-for inspection bunk so I would only have to tighten it when I got up in the morning. That was also against regulations.) To accomplish this inspection, the Tacs each went into each room full of sleeping cadets and gently pulled the covers off of cadets. If you were not wearing either West Point pajamas or nothing, you got demerits.
I kid you not. Ask any grad who was there in the 1965-6 school year.
We cadets were mad as hell about that. At the time, I still intended to be a career Army officer. I recall explicitly saying,“ I will be goddamned if I will be doing anything like THAT when I am 30 years old!” Add pushing the “Next” button for somebody else’s power point to that list.
Did the aide demonstrate that he was a “leader of character” during Huntoon’s speech? All I can say is that he never missed a cue. Perhaps “follower of character” would describe him that night.
I was never a general’s aide. I never applied to be one if one can do that. However, I did get interviewed for the job once.
In November of 1964, my freshman year at West Point, the pre-Army-Navy Game pep rally speaker was General Tom Rienzi. (There is a group photo from Vietnam in 1969 on that Web page. It does not identify Rienzi. He is the one with the Hawaiian print bathing suit. You can see his personality in his body language and expression in the photo. I arrived in Vietnam around then.) He was a former Army football player, World War II vet, and a signal corps (communications) officer. His speech was the best we heard in our four years of West Point. The title of it was “Blood, Snot, Sweat, and Tears.” My roommate and I were both planning on going artillery after graduation, but I commented that I would switch to signal if I were guaranteed a tour as Rienzi’s aide. My roommate said that he would, too.
In the summer of 1966, during my 30 days summer leave, I joined the cast of Sing Out 66 also known as Up With People. I am listed at that Wikipedia site as a “notable alumnus” of that group. One of our performances that August was at Fort Monmouth, NJ. General Rienzi was the base commander.
After our performance, I went up to him and introduced myself as a current West Point cadet. I told him I had been in the audience for his 1964 pep rally speech and what my roommate and I had said about being his aide at the time. That was not a job application. There are no guarantees of particular general’s aide assignments if you pick a particular branch. I just thought he had earned the compliment and that failing to pay a compliment that someone has earned is akin to embezzlement.
There was a reception afterward and he invited me to ride to it with him. I sat in the right rear seat, which I realized after we got going was his place in the car. Ooops.
He was a special guy, famous throughout the Army for his personality. He introduced himself to all ranks as “Tom Rienzi.” I still knew to call him “sir.” He said nothing about my taking his seat.
I adopted that introducing myself as “Jack Reed” to subordinates. During my hearing where they were throwing me out of the Army for “Defective Attitude” in 1972, a captain who was my company commander in Vietnam testified against me and tried to make a big, negative deal out of my introducing myself that way to my men. The brigadier general president of the board, without any prompting from me, asked him,
Captain, have you ever met General Rienzi?
How did he introduce himself to you?
‘Tom Rienzi,’ sir.
That was the end of that discussion. It was a total, stinging put-down of the captain, like something out of a Hollywood movie script. Such was the power of Tom Rienzi over all who had met him.
One of my characteristics is I treat everyone as if they are the same as me. Rienzi seemed to be the same, but he was on top and I was on bottom of the Army officer corps at the time. I sensed that he appreciated my being relaxed and myself and not fawning or ass-kissing with him. Being surrounded by nothing but sycophants is one of the reasons it’s lonely at the top.
Two years later, I graduated at West Point, threw my white hat in the air at Michie Stadium and all that. A few minutes later, I was standing with my mom, uncle, and brothers, other relatives, and girlfriend on the site of the graduation ceremony when General Rienzi walked up to me in full uniform, slapped me on the back, and said,
The Great Reed! Congratulations lieutenant (our brand new rank)!
He called everyone “The Great _______!” He was a phenomenal politician with the requisite astonishing memory for names, faces, and details about them.
I told him, “Sir, I guess I’ll be seeing you in about six months. I chose signal corps and I’m assigned to radio officers school at Monmouth in December.”
He said he would not be there then. He was on orders to Vietnam. He wished me luck, then he went off to chat up the other “´´Great ______s” in my class. My adult relatives were very impressed with him and that he knew my name. He knew everybody’s name.
During my tour at Monmouth taking the radio officers course, a major called me out of class to tell me he was interviewing West Pointers who were at Fort Monmouth at the time and that Rienzi had put me on a list of lieutenants he was interested in. During the interview, he chewed me out about my shoe shine. My shoes were OK but not award winning. That major was in love with another of my classmates and told me he was going to recommend that guy instead of me.
That classmate of mine was about 5'6". Rienzi was something like 6'4" or 6'5". And Rienzi was into the“ theater” of being a commander. I doubt he was excited about the Mutt and Jeff image he and that lieutenant would have presented. Rienzi chose another classmate of ours who was about 6'1" or 6'2". I was 6'0" at the time. I expect Rienzi wanted an aide he was taller than, but not an aide who was not himself tall and he had already met me so I was apparently tall enough. I do not believe he ever met the short classmate the major favored.
Rienzi’s aide went to Harvard Business School after he left Rienzi. I went to Harvard Business School three years after I got out of the Army. I do not know if the short classmate was ever a general’s aide but he did get a general’s daughter pregnant and married her so he did have an opportunity to get to know at least one general really well. My shoe-shine habits may not have impressed the major, but my condom habits were better than those of his favorite candidate. I never found out which would have been more important to Rienzi.
I spent some time with a retired Rienzi in San Francisco in the 1980s when he visited a classmate of mine whose career Army father knew Rienzi in the Army. I commented about how screwed up a couple of Army operations were and Rienzi seemed to get annoyed and shot back, “You’re saying every single Army operation was all screwed up!” “No, sir,” I said. “I was just talking about those two. Some are screwed up. Others are well done.”
So I suspect Rienzi and I might not have gotten along had I been chosen as his aide. I heard he asked my classmate who did get the aide job to extend his tour in Vietnam and the aide refused because he was scheduled to go to Harvard Business School the following Fall. I heard that Rienzi was not pleased and gave the aide a bad efficiency report.
Rienzi was an amazing guy. Being his aide might have changed my time in the Army for the much better, or maybe not. I did not know him well enough to predict. I would have been great at the substance of the aide’s job, and probably would have enjoyed helping Rienzi with his theatrical approach to the job, but I do NO ass-kissing. If he wanted any of that, he would have fired me soon after I arrived.
We were taught that you spend the first three months in a new command with your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open. Only after that 90-day period should you start making changes. That means I was able to start making changes only at my first assignment because none of the others lasted more than 90 days. What changes did I make in my platoon in the 82nd? None. Since I was in the woods with an infantry mortar squad none of whom were in my platoon, I never got 90 days with my platoon.
My whole class (or at least those of us who volunteered for Vietnam right out of West Point) was supposed to spend four months in a stateside unit before going to Vietnam. It was an often-violated Army rule. Why was I in the 82nd for four months anyway? Because they did not want us to go to Vietnam without having some time to learn how to do our jobs in a stateside unit. Did I accomplish that? No. All I did was the CMMI inspection. They didn’t have those in Vietnam. And watching a mortar squad all day the rest of the summer did not help much for being a communications officer in an artillery battalion in Vietnam.
In October, 2009, I was surprised to learn that former VA head and U.S. Senator Max Cleland had more or less the same job that I did. He was a communications officer in an infantry battalion in the 1st Air Cav in Vietnam—same job I had in the 82nd Airborne and almost the same job I had in a mixed-heavy artillery battalion in Vietnam. He got a silver star in the Battle of Khe Sanh but received his famous injury—losing his right arm and both legs—at the hands of a stupid U.S. enlisted man who got the bright idea to loosen the pins on his grenades. (So he could throw them quicker?) One fell on the ground when they were getting out of a helicopter at a cold LZ (no enemy fighting go on) where he was to set up a radio relay station. The pin came out and the handle popped off starting the 4-second fuse burning. Cleland assumed it still had its pin in and bent over to pick it up. When his right hand was five inches from the grenade, it blew up.
So what the heck was I doing the rest of my 38 months as an Army officer? I had five months total of paid leave and three months of unpaid leave. I had ten months of training. Before I was a company commander, I was XO of the same company for 90 days. And the rest of the time I was an assistant to an officer who was not authorized to have an assistant, including assistant platoon leader, assistant to the corps artillery signal officer, assistant to the training brigade assistant supply officer, and assistant to the Officer Student Detachment commander. Also, between every assignment, there were typically a number of days of nothing because you usually arrive at various schools days or weeks before you start. You have to sign in every day in case they get some miscellaneous job for you to do. They rarely do.
I had a little more time as an assistant than most West Pointers, but in books like In a Time of War, I learned that most West Pointers were doing roughly the same thing—nothing—for much of their time in the Army as well. One said they got really good at playing the game Risk. We got extremely good at playing ping pong at one of my units in Vietnam. I also never worked for a West Point grad. I expect I might have gotten a little more to do if I had.
Your tax dollars at work.
So after that, I was ready to go out and wow civilian employers with my leader-of-men resume. They were especially impressed with my experience as assistant to the assistant brigade supply officer. (He said sarcastically.)
Impressive stuff, huh? I wonder who’ll play me in the movie version.
Hey, go to West Point, subject yourself to an eleven-month-a-year ordeal, then another several-month ordeal in ranger and officers basic, and you, too, can lead men—for three months. If you are unable to contain your excitement, you can let off steam by yelling that stupid HOOOAH noise they make now.
This has always been the way in the U.S. military. My father-in-law was a navy officer in World War II. After getting trained at Harvard Business School by the Navy, he spent the whole war in Hawaii. My dad took typing in high school for no particular reason. As a result of being the only guy in his artillery battery who could type, he spent World War II in Europe as a company clerk, the job made famous by Radar O’Reilly of M*A*S*H fame. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Ralph Nader got peace-time drafted and was a cook in the Army. Ditto Elvis Presley only he was a tank crew man.
The U.S. military does not much care about utilizing the training it gives its members, even including a West Point education. And, notwithstanding all their whining about not having enough troops and officers, West Point produces too many officers each year for the Army to put into leadership positions. The number of platoon leader, company commander, and battalion commander jobs is too small to occupy even the West Point classes, about one-third of new officers—even during recent wars. Officers have to take turns in those jobs just to get their tickets punched and not everyone is even guaranteed a chance to to do that. In Vietnam, company commanders only had that job for six months so another guy could get his ticket punched. We lost that war. D’ya think maybe there was a connection?
I was one of the top cadets in my class in the Russian language. Studied it for three and a half years at West Point and several years before that on my own. How did the Army make use of my knowledge of Russian during the Cold War? They made no use of it. Zero.
I read about a cadet who was the top student of Arabic in the 9/11 era. He was eager to use it in Iraq. They ordered him to Afghanistan where they speak Pashto and other not-Arabic dialects. They don’t even speak Arabic in the country next to Afghanistan: Iran. They speak Farsi there. When he went to his brigade commander to complain and get transferred to a unit going to Iraq instead, the commander said, “They all speak that shit [Arabic] over there.”
Your tax dollars at work. Your highly educated and cultured fellow professional Army officers at work. Your efforts to make yourself a better officer rewarded Kafka style.
If nothing else, career military personnel are geniuses at spinning how great their lives are. The above mix would be praised as letting them see the world, meet all sorts of new people, make new friends, experience different cultures, different challenges.
Spare me. When my classmates who stayed in the Army for a career start spouting that stuff, I ask them to name anyone on earth who lives like that when he or she does not have to. Civilians, if they wanted, could try to structure a life where they take very different jobs every one to three years and move to a different continent each time. Virtually none do.
My classmates, like all other military career people, get out of the Army when they are young enough to continue working—and usually have to in order to pay the bills. When they start telling me how great the Army was, I ask, “So why do you not still live like that? Why are you staying in the same house and job for decades? Why not move every couple of years like you did in the Army? See the world, meet all sorts of people, make new friends, experience different cultures and challenges. Essentially, after you got out, you started living like I have been living—like the vast majority of civilians live. For someone who proclaimed to love and prefer the Army life style, you sure glommed onto the civilian life style in a hurry—and without the slightest indication you miss your old Army life style.”
When a cadet would complain about some stupid thing at West Point, one of the committed career cadets in the bull session would always say, “Well, this isn’t ‘The Real Army’. This is West Point. In a couple of years we’ll graduate and join ‘The Real Army’.”
My first assignment after West Point was Ranger School. Complaints there among Ranger students were met with, “This isn’t ‘The Real Army’. This is Ranger School. In a couple of months we’ll be back in ‘The Real Army’.”
Next was Signal Officers Basic—a “gentlemen’s course” as they say in the Army officer corps. Long lunches. Leaving early in the afternoons. No parades. No inspections. No paperwork. If you flunk the test, they give you the answers and let you take it again. (I passed it first time without being told the answer. Half of my West Point Signal Corps classmates flunked and passed only after being read the answers and retaking the test.) Still, it generated occasional complaints. As before, a member of Future Lifers of America would always chime in with, “But this isn’t ‘The Real Army’. This is Fort Gordon. We’ll get to “The Real Army” after this.”
Then Airborne School. Not “The Real Army”—but just another tolerable delay on the way to “The Real Army.” The “Real Army” is apparently a “leg” unit. [short for “straight leg” it means non-airborne—paratroopers are taught to bend their legs when they hit the ground]
Then Radio Officers School at Fort Monmouth. Another “gentlemen’s course.” Occasional bureaucratic annoyances. Not “The Real Army.”
Then Satellite Communications Officers School. Ditto.
Finally, more than a year after graduating from West Point, I got to my first “real” assignment: platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division. Chickenshit a foot deep and none of the intelligence we had among the administrators of West Point. Then I heard a lifer respond to someone’s complaint. “But this isn’t “The Real Army’. This is the Airborne.”
Isn’t the Airborne the epitome of the gung ho Army? Apparently not. Apparently the Airborne is a bullshit subsidiary of “The Real Army.” If you want “The Real Army,” you need to stay out of the Airborne. “The Real Army” is a leg unit.
Next stop: Vietnam. A war zone, but very little difference from stateside garrison duty at Fort Bragg—other than far worse living conditions and weather and the occasional enemy rocket attack. Chickenshit in Vietnam was about a foot and a half deep. Then I heard it. “Yeah, but this isn’t ‘The Real Army’. This is war time.”
War time is not “The Real Army”?! Jesus H. Christ! If wars are not “The Real Army,” what the hell is all the training about? The career people were put out about the war. It upset their comfortable routines. Apparently, “The Real Army” is leg garrison duty in the U.S. or Germany in peacetime. A sinecure where people have to salute you. Sort of like a tenured professor at some sleepy liberal arts college who occasionally has to teach a class.
Career military people sedate themselves in one lousy assignment after another by telling themselves and each other than they are actually members of a wonderful organization called “The Real Army.” There is another Army which is a bureaucratic, Kafkaesque nightmare. Members of “The Real Army” do have to spend some time in that purgatory called “not the real Army.” They get through it by simply reminding themselves that they will soon be back in “The Real Army.”
Never in my years as an Army officer did I hear a fellow officer describe his or my current assignment as “The Real Army.” I ultimately came to the conclusion that there is no actual “Real Army.” It apparently is a figment of the imaginations of prospective Army officers and those who make a career of being Army officers—a motivational carrot on a stick dangled endlessly in front of career officers by the officers themselves out of a need to cope with a series of unhappy assignments. “The real Army” has no bureaucracy or chickenshit. Any Army officer who engages in, or unit or base that has, such things is promptly declared “not the real Army.”
As near as I can tell, the closest Army officers ever get to “The Real Army” are those “gentlemen’s courses” they attend every so often—typically without their wives and kids. These are various basic and advanced courses that are conducted almost entirely in classrooms at various Army schools the Armor School, the Advanced Course (for captains), Command and General Staff College, and so forth. Generally, those courses are short in duration—TDY—and therefore your spouse and kids are not with you.
In other words, if you are at West Point now, you are about as close to “The Real Army” as you’re ever gonna get. After graduation, you occasionally visit various West Point Lites around the U.S. like the National War College, but mostly you spend your career trudging through one Kafkaesque nightmare after another surviving each by reminding yourself mindlessly that your next assignment—finally—will be “The Real Army.”
There is a pertinent chapter in my book Succeeding. It is called “Tenure and other deals ‘too good to leave’.” It is about people who get into a situation where they have what many others regard as a super deal. Examples include tenured college professors, rent control tenants, union members, and career military people who have not yet reached retirement age.
My main message in the book is that you must always keep your eye on your current goals and the best way to get from here to there. Staying in a situation that prevents you and/or your family from being happy or from reaching your goals in the most expeditious way possible—just because many consider your situation to be “too good to leave”—is a serious mistake. You only live once and you are only young once. Putting up with a situation you dislike or hate to get overly generous retirement benefits is suicidal to your soul—especially when you consider that the cemeteries contain lots of people who died before they received any, or many, of their retirement benefits.
Oh, also, some successful cadets think their cadet success is known by and cared about by the Pentagon for career officer promotions and assignments. If you did really well academically at West Point, good chance they will bring you back there to teach. Otherwise, unless you got the Heisman Trophy or a Rhodes Scholarship—maybe First Captain, forget about it. As far as I know, a cadet regimental commander, star man who was All-East in football is just another second lieutenant in the Army to the Pentagon.
Months after I wrote that about the hypothetical All-East football cadet, I read the book Warrior King by Nate Sassaman, a star Army quarterback who led Army to victory over Michigan State in the Cherry Bowl. I surmise from the book that Sassaman thought the Army was going to take care of him because of his Big Man on Campus at West Point history. If so, his book reveals he was wrong about that. Here is part of the review I wrote of his book.
Sassaman is an excellent example of a disturbing phenomenon I have noticed before. Young men who lead exemplary lives before going to West Point and while at West Point, then are treated like bad guys by the Army, then they get out and resume the exemplary lives they led before the Army. It is too early to say for sure that Sassaman will lead an exemplary post-Army life, but I’ll bet that he does.
The most successful Army football coach ever—Red Blaik—was himself a West Point graduate. One of the most noteworthy events of his tenure as coach was a honor scandal that wiped out 37 members of the Army starting team in 1950—including Blaik’s son. In his book You Have To Pay the Price on page 296, Blaik said,
These young men came to West Point as respected honorable youngsters, many of them idols of their communities. It would be considered an indictment of the leadership at West Point, if after two or three years of Academy character building, they are returned branded in the eyes of the public as no better than common criminals.
I am not going to excuse the 1950 cadets who violated the honor code, but Blaik has a point. West Point put those cadets under a lot of pressure and offered an unnecessary temptation that has been central to a number of honor scandals at West Point, namely, giving the exact same test on successive days to different cadets. West Point also tells the football players and other athletes that they are privileged characters in many ways so it is not a total surprise that they might conclude that they are above the honor code as well.
One of my classmates was the sort of high school kid Blaik describes. He was literally an Eagle Scout. And a star athlete. He could hear other teenagers whisper his name in awe as he was spotted around the region during his senior year in high school. He had no trouble at West Point or the approximately one year of officer training we went through right after West Point (except that he did flunk the final exam in a brief communications course we had to take). At jump school, he was the first student out the door on our first jump. I was right behind him. He had a black belt in karate.
After my friend got out of the Army, he graduated from one of the nation’s top MBA programs, worked for many years as an executive of a household name cooperation. He got into real estate investment at my behest, became a multi-millionaire as a result, and retired to world travel while still in his fifties. What about when he was in the Army? He was somewhat resistant to some of the Army’s bullshit. Inspired by my example, he stopped wearing his medals, ranger tab, and airborne wings. His superiors did not like him because of his resistance.
He got RIFFED (albeit partly at his own request in order to get the severance pay). Although the Army initially refused to RIF him and was angry at him for making such a request, they later decided he deserved to be RIFFED. RIF means Reduction in Force and it refers to a devil-take-the-hindmost firing of personnel because the size of the Army is being dramatically reduced. He got an honorable discharge and severance pay like a civilian layoff. He is a far better man than the vast majority of Army officers who were not RIFFED.
I talk in my V.I.P. deaths article about a Navy commander who crash surfaced his submarine to impress some civilians on board and killed some Japanese maritime students as a result. He was forced out of the Navy in disgrace. But there is no question in my mind that he was one of the Navy’s stars and that he was a far better officer than the vast majority of those who continued to have successful Navy careers after he left. Generally, only bureaucratic careers will do that to a person. If you are in a career where your true performance is easily, cumulatively, objectively measured, there is generally no single incident that can destroy your career so decisively.
I had a similar experience: unblemished record in high school, at West Point, and in my first year in the Army which was all attendance at Army schools. Then I hit the Army units where I absolutely refused to “play the game.” After escalating pressure on me unsuccessfully for several years, the Army gave me an honorable discharge and severance pay. (I had decided while I was a cadet to get out of the Army as soon as my commitment was up and told my superiors that wherever I went in the Army. Their discharge of me eleven months early was a “you can’t quit, you’re fired” way to salve their wounded pride.)
I then went on to such success as you would expect of someone who could get admitted to and graduate from West Point, as a Harvard MBA, financial success as an entrepreneur, 37-year marriage, career success as an author-publisher. On average, my classmates who were severenced-paid out of the Army probably were more successful than the average member of our class. I did not study them systematically, but I know some others who became successful doctors and lawyers.
I cannot think of any college you can go to, other than service academies, where you can be a great guy and do a great job for years then suddenly be declared a pariah during your career.
Someone should do a study of the many guys who were successes in high school, at West Point, in Army training, and after they got out of the Army, but not while in the Army. What causes that? The military is inept and corrupt and punishes those who refuse to conform to, or at least help cover up, those group norms. Also, as in Sassaman’s case, the Army sometimes punishes those who do conform to the group norms—in cases where the public becomes aware of the ineptitude or dishonesty in question.
In other words, the path to Army success is to conform to or cover up the group norms of ineptitude and dishonesty, but don’t get caught doing so. If you refuse to conform, as I did, or get caught conforming, as Sassaman did, you’re dead, and your superiors will dishonestly claim to be “shocked, shocked” by your behavior as they sacrifice you to limit damage that might otherwise reach them.
In contrast, high school, West Point, and the post-Army civilian world make decisions about people more on a merit rather than bureaucratic bases. Thus do we have the Army discarding many quality officers as “not good enough” who somehow did great before and after they were in the Army. Indeed, they did great while they were in the Army in some ways. How many times have you seen a media account of some military officer or other bureaucrat getting hammered by his bosses and his lawyer protesting that all his previous efficiency reports were near perfect?
How often does this happen? I was astonished to learn that about 10% to 20% of West Point classes between 1970 and 1988 left the Army for “All Other” reasons in the statistics published by the United States Military Academy’s Office of Policy, Planning & Analysis for the month ending May 2007. They also have stats for classes after 1988, but those are not yet eligible for retirement so the total of “All other” is too preliminary. Although the trend is the same: for the class of 1989, for example, 165 have already been discharged under “All other” out of 1079 who graduated.
“All other” includes “court martial, misconduct, early release program, reduction in force, weight control, disability, non-selection permanent promotion, substandard performance, miscellaneous/general reasons.”
In the incident that got Sassaman run out of the Army for his role in the cover-up, the two guys who actually ordered the Iraqis into the pond were a platoon sergeant and a West Point lieutenant. They both were court martialed and sent to jail.
Am I saying no West Pointers should ever be discharged under “all other” categories? No. But I will say that the percentage who deserve to go out that way is about 1%, not 10% to 20%. If you’re overweight, you’re overweight. If you have a legitimate disability, you’re disabled. One of my classmates deserted to Sweden during the Vietnam war, then came home, turned himself in, pled guilty, and was court martialed. Hard to argue that he did not deserve that. Another hard-to-argue career end was of a classmate who had an extramarital affair with his enlisted driver. Such clear-cut misbehavior is very rare among West Pointers.
RIFfing a West Point graduate, however, is ridiculous. The standards to become a West Point graduate are orders of magnitude higher than the standards to become an officer by other means and the standards of even those other commissioning schools are too high in most respects compared to what Army officers actually do on a day-to-day basis. For example, you don’t need a college degree to be a platoon leader or company commander. I’m not sure you need one to be a battalion commander. Add to that the fact that West Point grads are usually also made the enormous extra effort to become airborne rangers and the majority of Army officers, including those who do not get RIFFED, are not.
A West Point graduate would have to become a substance abuser or turn into a paranoid schizophrenic or some such to warrant being classed as one of the hindmost of 52,000 active duty Army officers. If not, why are we spending so much money to recruit and train West Pointers? How can West Point not see that the guy is not up to snuff in four years of almost 24-7 observation under countless challenges?
I’m not calling for special treatment for West Pointers or giving them a pass. I’m just making the obvious point that leopards do not change their spots and that saying that men and women who were admitted to West Point (only 10% of applicants) and successfully completed the extremely demanding course there (about 2/3 of admits in the 60s) are not as qualified to be officers as some graduate of a four-month OCS course or two ROTC classes a week at Podunk State is ridiculous.
The two West Pointers and the sergeant in the Sassaman incident probably should have received a verbal admonition to refrain from ordering detainees to jump in a pond—especially in the post-Abu Ghraib era. They probably should not have been punished in any way, let alone court martialed or forced out of the Army.
If you are a current cadet who is having no problems with West Point, you may assume that what happened to Sassaman and other West Point graduates (e.g., see my articles on the Tillman incident and the Tillman cover-up) won’t happen to you. Why not? Because you’re a good guy and you would not screw up?
It doesn’t work that way. This is “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” stuff. It is unrelated to your “good guy-ness” or screw-ups.
Going back to the percentages above, I would say that 1% of the “all others” deserve to be forced out of the Army for cause. Maybe 2% are no-fault issues like becoming disabled. The rest, about 7% to 17% are “wrong place at the wrong time” events. Furthermore, those percentages are also the probabilities that it will happen to you. In other words, I estimate that if you graduate from West Point and stay in the Army for a career, there is a 7% to 17% probability of your being forced out of the Army—maybe court martialed and incarcerated—for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is, you are behaving the way everyone in the Army behaves, “playing the game,” but suddenly the public spotlight falls on your conduct for some reason and your superiors run for the hills claiming they are “shocked, shocked” by what you did even though what you did was unofficial SOP. Then they throw you to the angry mob to limit the damage so it does not reach their careers.
Can you avoid that by not “playing the game?” Hell, no! That’s what I did. If you do not “play the game,” there a 100% chance that your superiors will throw every retaliation in the book at you at a rate of about one “punch” per month. They can and would do it faster, but they figure each “punch” will break you and wait to see if it did. Also, every time you get reassigned, the process starts over from step one because the new command assumes your not being promoted must have been a personality conflict and feel great empathy towards you—until you refuse to sign your first false report or attend your first “command performance” party. You’ll be out of the Army for certain in about three years if you refuse to “play the game.”
Does this happen in other careers as well? I can only think of two where it does: politics and entertainment. You occasionally see a politicians or entertainer who has been successful suddenly end his career because of some gaffe or wrong-place-wrong-time event. Examples, 1968 presidential candidate George Romney, Mitt’s father, saying his original position on the Vietnam war stemmed from his being “brainwashed.” Many Hollywood notables were wiped out by McCarthyism in the 1950s. A comedian named Foster Brooks made his living portraying a drunk. He lost his career when drunks stopped being considered funny because of MADD. Most other civilian careers are sufficiently merit oriented that a lifetime of work cannot be wiped out by a single comment or wrong-time-wrong-place minor event. And I would argue that military officer, politician, and entertainer are not three different occupations. Rather, they are three variations on the same theme: external validation, that is, spending your life going hat in hand to groups of people to get them to anoint you to some position based on subjective criteria. I discussed external validation in my article on people who are process-oriented, like the military and other bureaucrats, and those who are results-oriented like entrepreneurs, trial lawyers, coaches.
Everybody who has been a military officer can tell you such a career is largely politics—office politics at the lower ranks and plain old politics at the higher ones. I have also commented a number of times in my military Web pages that military people are inexplicably and rather shamelessly theatrical and melodramatic—from their costumes to their parades to their bands to their saluting and so on. General Eisenhower said he studied acting under General MacArthur. Talking a good game and looking the part is not far from entertainment.
Don’t get me wrong. I did the right thing when I was an officer. I felt I had no choice once I graduated from West Point. About the only thing I would do differently if I had it to do over again starting at graduation is go to the Pentagon and explain my vow to not play the game and ask them to assign me to jobs where that will not cause problems—like paper pusher in the Pentagon or liaison to the Greenland Army Signal Corps in Thule or LRRPs in Vietnam. If the Signal Corps lieutenants assignment guy was not a grad, which was the case the whole time I was an Army officer, I would go over his head until I found a grad who would understand my Cadet Honor Code perspective.
They would still probably tell me that I will get the same assignments as my West Point classmates and how dare I make such a request. Then I would go through the same routine with every battalion commander I was assigned to and tell him I tried to avoid being in his unit but Washington refused me. I would tell him I did not want to mess up his career, but that I will not be signing any false reports or joining the officers club or any of that other OPUM or OVUM and suggest that he find a place for me where my refusal to play the game will not foul up his career.
Here and now, I am just warning you that you will be put through hell if you refuse to play the game. You still have to do just that, though, if you want to be able to look in the mirror for the rest of your life.
Your two choices are “play the game” and hope you do not get caught by the press or public, or get out of the Army ASAP. The worst strategy is to play the game for a while, then stop playing the game. That is sort of what Sassaman did. He frequently stood up to, and thereby greatly angered, his brigade commander before the pond incident. That is a total no-no under the rules of “the game.” If you play the game then stop, they can use your prior game playing, mainly signing false reports, to court martial you. Or in Sassaman’s case, his telling his subordinates not to say anything about the two Iraqis getting forced to jump into the pond.
Playing the game as a military officer is like being pregnant. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” as they say in England.
Most West Point grads in my era played the game until they day they turned in their resignations, which was in the five-to-eight-years-after-graduation time frame. In other words, they played the game, but got out of the Army ASAP, probably because they hated playing the game. By minimizing the number of years they played the game, they reduced the probability they would get caught and punished and I know of none who did.
I do not recommend that. It’s dishonest and wrong and you have to look at the man in the mirror who did that the rest of your life. But pragmatically, they did not go through hell while they were in the Army and never were held to account for the playing-the-game stuff they should not have done.
So much for any theory that Big Man on Campus status as a cadet insures the Pentagon will be your guardian angel throughout your career all the way to four-star general.
Some who read this may conclude that I must be exaggerating. Well, there’s one sure way to find out, isn’t there? Graduate from West Point, go through your post-West Point schools, and report to your first assignment. If you find out then that I’m right, which you will, you’re screwed because you committed to at least five years on active duty and three more in the inactive reserves.
I’m just one graduate so I can understand skepticism. But I strongly recommend that you investigate what I am saying—right now—through other sources whom you can trust. Refer them to this article and ask “Is this accurate?” If you are a cadet, you know or can track down guys who graduated two or three years ago. They are listed in the Register of Graduates often with their contact information. The best sources would probably be grads from a little over five years ago who got out. They have little or no reason to lie to you. Nor do I for that matter.
I predict the following response from candid, now-civilian grads who have no conflict of interest (like family members who are career officers—also, most will refuse to admit they signed false reports even if they did). My answers to the responses I expect you will get from them are in [red brackets]:
• Reed’s overly harsh [They did not try steadfastly refusing to play the game throughout all the time they were in the army so how the hell would they know?]
• Reed was in the Army at a different time so some things have changed [different bullshit, not less bullshit—the basic structure, which is the cause of the problems, is the same]
• Unfortunately, Reed is roughly correct. It is like he says in the Army too often. [I did not write about the occasional times when things went as they should because I am a journalist and one of our main rules is that stories must be man-bites-dog to be interesting.]
The games the Army plays to keep West Pointers in a little longer—until you pass the point of no resignation—mostly revolve around figuring out what young West Point graduates want, and trading it to them for a few more years of commitment. Young West Pointers want special forces, graduate school, teaching at West Point, choice assignments like Hawaii, choice branches like engineers, and various other Army goodies. So the Army uses those things as carrots to get the young officers to stay a little longer. And they do it repeatedly to try to get you to the 8- to 10-year or so point which they know from the past is the point of no resignation for the vast majority of young officers.
If they can suck you into that game two or three times, you will probably stay in for the rest of the 20 years because you are too close to extremely generous retirement benefits to “throw it away.” The tenure trap.
Plus, much of these goodies are frauds being perpetrated on you. After the Army trains you, they generally treat you like a warm body, not a trained professional.
I studied Russian for three and a half years at West Point and for years on my own before West Point. I was section marcher of first section Russian about half the time (top Russian student in my half of the student body) How did the Army make use of all that training? They did not. They did not ever make the slightest effort to do so or apologize for wasting all my time and effort and the taxpayers’ money. If I had ever brought it up, they would have looked at me as if I had lost my mind. So if you are thinking about busting your ass to get better at this or that, forget about the Army giving a shit. Your men might care if it’s relevant. But the Army never will.
Grad school is another carrot they dangle in front of you to get you to commit to three more years in the Army after West Point for a total of eight years of active duty after graduation. You’d better read the fine print on that one. I suspect it says something like they will let you go to a grad school that meets their requirements to teach you a subject they want you to study and that they can unilaterally get out of it if the needs of national defense require tem to renege.
Here is what I will “guarantee” you if you tell them to shove their grad school carrot up their lying asses when you are a cadet:
You can attend any grad school to which you can get admitted whenever you want and study whatever subject you want. You can pay for it out of your own pocket, with the GI bill, with whatever financial aid that you can obtain, with work study, or whatever combination of the above that you wish to use.
While cadets often talk and behave as if it would be impossible to pay for grad school without the Army, that is belied by the fact that about 99.9% of all grad students in the U.S. manage to get graduate degrees without any help from the Army.
When I applied to Harvard Business School, I had no interest in any other graduate school so I applied to no others. I got in and went there and graduated. During my first year there, my wife decided to apply, got in and graduated in the class behind me. At the time, if I recall correctly, active-duty military officers could not go to Harvard because it got rid of on-campus ROTC.
My wife and I paid for Harvard out of our pockets, with some student loans for my wife, and, in my case, with a modest GI bill which, at the time, was about $340 a month for the nine school attendance months each year.
When I chose my branch and schools and first assignment during the spring of my senior year, I was able to get signal corps, the longest signal corps school—Radio officer at Fort Monmouth, NJ (A path famous at West Point in the phrase “Signal Corps, Jersey Shore, Out in Four” which is precisely what ultimately happened to me”). I also chose the 82nd Airborne as my first assignment. By doing so at that time, I was also volunteering to go to Vietnam four months after arriving at the 82nd which is precisely what happened. Had I chosen Korea or Germany as my first assignment, I probably never would have gone to Vietnam. Also, at that time, you cold not go to airborne school unless you chose an airborne unit as your first assignment. There were no airborne units in Germany or Korea. So to go to airborne school, you had to volunteer for Vietnam. I wanted to go to airborne school. If I had it to do over, I would have chosen Air Defense Artillery which at that time meant no ranger or airborne, assignments typically to major metro areas, not rural southern Army bases, and no two-year detail to a combat arm. (When I graduated you could choose a lot of branches, but you you had to be in a combat arm for your first two years unless you were physically disabled from doing so. I could have had the last MI slot in my class. Had I chosen it, I would not have gotten airborne or been sent to ranger school, but I would have been one of the first guys in my class to go to Vietnam and it would have been in the infantry.)
Russian language—no utilization ever A recent West Point graduate told me he busted his ass to be the top Arabic language student a West Point, then they sent him to Afghanistan where they speak
Ranger school—volunteered for D co. 75th rangers in Vietnam, sent there to fill that slot, did not get it because West Point classmate with the same resume arrived the day before me As far as I know, he did not want the slot. His getting it rather than the guy who volunteered for it was typical Army warm body personnel utilization. The only time I used my ranger training was to take out one reconnaissance patrol in Vietnam.
Airborne school—spent 4 months in the 82nd Airborne Division mainly acting as squad leader of a heavy mortar squad in the woods rehearsing twice a day all summer for a VIP demonstration.
Signal Corps officers basic course—irrelevant to my being a mortar squad leader in the 82nd Airborne Division and to my being XO and CO of an AIT training company
Radio officer course—irrelevant to all my time as as officer except for about five months in Vietnam when I was assistant platoon leader to an OCS draftee who was getting out of the Army the day he left Vietnam. I should have been platoon leader and he should have been my assistant, or better yet, given a real job somewhere else. There is no such position as an assistant platoon leader. Some may say he was there first, why should he lose his job just because he did not go to West Point? Because I had five years total training at great expense to the taxpayers and at great cost to me. If I could have gotten the platoon leader job by partying through college, getting drafted for two years, and going to 90-day wonder school, why should I have put myself through five years of hell and heck? What is the point of all the time and money the U.S. taxpayers spend producing West Point graduates and turning them into airborne rangers if they are going to “used” as “assistant platoon leaders” serving under a draftee with five months training in a war? The worst Signal Corps officer school was commo officer. That school was a Fort Sill, OK—ugh. The other schools were all at Fort Monmouth NJ which is almost in sight of New York City. I avoided that school by ranking higher in my class academically at West Point. So what Signal Corps jobs was I assigned to in the 82nd Airborne and in the artillery in Vietnam? battalion como officer—the job they taught you how to do at Fort Sill not the one I learned at Fort Monmouth. Did they not train enough commo officers? Nah. They probably arrive at their assignment when they needed radio officers and they got assigned to radio officer jobs that I was trained for. Warm bodies.
Satellite Communications officer course—When my radio officer class finished, we thought we were moving on to our first assignments. Nope. The Army had just created a satellite officer course and needed warm bodies to fill it. So since we were graduating about the same time the satcom course was starting, they put our warm bodies into that course. It was fine with us. More TDY pay and more of rather nice classroom study. Thus did I become one of the U.S. Army’s first satellite Communications officers (in 1969). Did I ever utilize that training? Nope. At my first unit in Vietnam—an ADA unit ironically—the battalion commander asked me in the first meeting whether I wanted to be his battalion commo officer. I said I did not. He had gone on at some length about what a great position it was for a career officer and that career officers all over the world were trying to get into the unit. I said I was not career so I should not be depriving one of them of the slot. He then asked where I did want to go. I said my first choice was the rangers but I had been aced out of that so my second choices was the only satcom installation in Vietnam which was near where I was in Vietnam. He was so disgusted by am ember of the first satcom course ever wanting to be a sat com officer that he threw me out of the unit 20 minutes after I arrived.
My point is that once you complete your training at West Point and afterwards, you become a warm body. Your training, including your West Point training, is irrelevant to those who make assignments. In my article “A football coach analyzes the military,” I noted that if the Indianapolis Colts were an Army unit, Peyton Manning might have ended up on the third deck selling hot dogs if that happened to be what they needed the day he arrived.
There is also the issue of branch choice. Had I gone ADA, I would have ended up in that ADA unit they threw me out of. Why were ADA in Vietnam—considering the enemy had zero aircraft? Because the Army treats a war as a shit detail and everyone has to take a turn. So how were air-defense artillery trained officers used in Vietnam? They commanded ADA soldiers who used World War II era quad 50s and 20mm ack ack guns as anti-infantry attack weapons at various forward infantry and artillery bases. In other words, they took the anti-aircraft machines guns and cannons and pointed them horizontal to shoot at enemy who might attack the small Army bases out in the jungle.
Basically, you can choose any branch you want at West Point, but if you go to war it will be as what they need: infantry. A lot of West Pointers lately have agreed to another three-year commitment to get armor branch (tanks), only to learn when they were deployed to a war in Iraq or Afghanistan that in current U.S. Army wars, armor is a tankless job. One member of the West Point class of 2002 was all excited to get armor as his branch, got trained in armor after graduation, was assigned to stateside armor unit, then, when it came time for his unit to do their shit detail—war—they were informed they could not take any tanks. Apparently, tanks look ferocious but can be easily destroyed by enemy children in urban areas. So he went to Iraq with nothing but unarmored humvees. He was killed by an IED while riding in one. Had he been in a tank, he would not have been hurt.
The only utilization of training I ever heard of was that after a West Pointer was sent to grad school, he usually returned to West Point to teach the subject he studied in grad school. The actually called it a “utilization tour.” But other than grad school and teaching at West Point, I never heard of the U.S. military giving a damn about utilizing the training or experience they gave you or that you acquired on your own. If you were the top mechanic in Nascar for eight years, enlisted in the Army and requested vehicle maintenance, they would probably make you a cook or paralegal.
The training you receive at West Point and the Army is halfway decent. But the idea that anyone will try to use the fact that you successfully completed that training to decide where to assign you is a colossal joke. The Army and Pentagon could not care less where your warm body ends up regardless of how many tabs and badges you’ve earned. Nor do they care how few such things other officers have earned when assigning them to be your bosses.
The other game they play is to keep you in the dark as to how your career is going compared to your peers. That way, they can get hundreds of grads from each West Point class thinking they are doing great as Army officers. In fact, that’s mathematically impossible.
There are only a handful of officers in each class who will make general. So only a handful are doing great as junior and middle officers. The Pentagon knows who the handful are, but they damned well will not reveal that to the officers because they need the uncompetitive officers to stay in to fill the ranks of majors and lieutenant colonels so the generals have someone to boss around and so they can fill the various positions that the size of the Army requires.
If the Pentagon gave you a tight-lipped “No comment” when you asked, keeping you in the dark would be less troublesome. But that’s not the way it’s done. Rather, they encourage all junior officers to believe they are doing great and on track to become generals. For my class, the first list of the tiny minority who were really doing well—as opposed to the many who thought they were doing well—came out around our tenth reunion. In other words, around the point of no resignation.
What they ought to do out of fairness and honesty is what they did when we were cadets at West Point. That is, publish a general order of merit weekly, monthly, quarterly or semi-annually. They should list all the officers in date-of-rank groups according to how well they are doing in their officer careers so that the early promotion to major list is not a surprise. True, there will be some movement over time as officers who were doing well do less well and vice versa, but the early list should not be a tremendous shock as it was when I was in and probably still is.
But the Army will not do that because they know that many officers who were planning on an Army career will figure, “I guess being a general is not my fate. I’ll try civilian life.”
In other words, the percentage of West Point grads who should stay in the Army is actually worse than the stats suggest because not only were they tricked into going to West Point, they were subsequently tricked into staying in the Army for a career with various goodies-for-additional-commitment trades and with misinformation or lack of information about how they were doing compared to their peers.
So is there any way for a cadet to forecast how well he or she will do as an Army officer? Nope. Will working really hard and doing a great job as an officer guarantee you high rank? Ha! Jeez, you guys are naive!
The Pentagon will swear the promotion decisions are anything but random, but ask some retired grads who did not make multi-star general how it seemed to them. Also, what’s in and what’s out changes over time in the Army. When I was in, special operations was the kiss of death for your career. Now it’s hot. You may choose a focus that is hot now with the Pentagon only to find it’s not fifteen years from now. I have just one word for you about how well you and your cadet buddies will do during your Army officer careers.
The verdict you pronounce upon the source of your livelihood is the verdict you pronounce upon your life. If the source is corrupt, you have damned your own existence. Did you get your money by fraud? By pandering to men's vices or men's stupidity? By catering to fools, in the hope of getting more than your ability deserves? By lowering your standards? By doing work you despise for purchasers you scorn? If so, then your money will not give you a moment's or a penny's worth of joy. Then all the things you buy will become, not a tribute to you, but a reproach; not an achievement, but a reminder of shame. Then you'll scream that money is evil. Evil, because it would not pinch-hit for your self-respect? Evil, because it would not let you enjoy your depravity?
Cadets, the Pentagon, and the career Army are one big happy family. Ironically, that seemingly loving relationship between the Army and West Pointers who did not die while on active duty almost always ends in “divorce.”
As I already told you, approximately 24% to 63% of West Point grads in the classes of 1965 to 1988 left the Army prior to the 20-year point that constitutes “making a career of the Army.” If you talked to them, most would probably soft pedal their reasons. But actions speak louder than words. They came. They saw. They concluded, “This is not for me.” They voted with their feet against an Army career in spite of seemingly being set for life by having graduated from West Point into West Point’s parent organization.
What about the others who did make a career of the Army? Sooner or later, they were almost all forced out by the Army’s “up or out” policy or were required to leave the Army for other reasons. My West Point class of 1968 only had one guy still on active duty in recent years—a chaplain—which may give new meaning to the phrase “up or out.” He retired in 2007. None of my other classmates made it to the top of the Army: Chief of Staff. The last West Pointer to do so was Eric Shinseki, Class of 1965, who was still forced out of that job because he honestly answered the Congressional question about how many soldiers would be required to occupy Iraq. He said, “Several hundred thousand.” The Bush Administration was aghast. They fired Shinseki or something akin to firing him.
As far as I know, everyone else in Shinseki’s class reached a point where they were not moving up so they had to move out. Same seems to be true of the classes of 1966, 1967, and my class. It reminds me of making the playoffs in my football coaching career. You are elated that you make the playoffs, then you realize that the season of everyone who makes the playoffs ends in the downer of a loss—except for the one team that goes undefeated in the playoffs and wins the championship. I wrote an article titled the “30-year, marathon, single-elimination suck-up tournament or How America selects its generals.”
So there is about a 99.9% chance that if you graduate from West Point and do not die while on active duty, that your military career will end either with your resigning short of retirement age or with your seeing a new promotion list that you are not on and that you had to be on to remain in the Army. No doubt many read the handwriting on the wall before that list actually comes out and retire in anticipation of being forced out.
What about civilian employers? Are they enamored of West Point?
I went to two so-called elite higher education schools: West Point and Harvard Business School where I got an MBA. My wife also has a Harvard MBA. And my oldest son graduated from Ivy League Columbia University in 2003.
Here’s the way it really works. There are a handful of corporate employers who really like West Pointers. AT&T was one for a while. You can see which companies they are by perusing the annual USMA Association of Graduates Register of Graduates which has little bios of the vast majority of grads.
Harvard Business School also has such a lista longer list. HBS MBAs are hired in great numbers by Wall Street investment banking firms and management consulting firms like Mitt Romney’s only employer: Bain. Some other employers like Procter & Gamble and others also have liked Harvard MBAs at times.
Similarly Columbia grads get hired by Goldman Sachs (Wall Street investment banking firm) and ConEd (NYC electric company) and so forth. The Columbia list is more regional than the HBS list.
In most cases, I suspect that the fondness of a particular company for West Pointers or Harvard MBAs stems from the CEO or various other executives being one of them. For example, EDS was big on hiring service academy grads. Their founder and owner at the time was Ross Perot, an Annapolis grad. I had supper with him once in my capacity as co-president of the New Enterprise Club at Harvard Business School. At that time, he was the nation’s only billionaire.
Once you go outside of the list of companies who seem to love graduates of the school in question, having West Point on your resume gets you a combination of “That’s nice” or resentment from other civilian employers. I am a Baby Boomer. The vast majority of college-educated Baby Boomers were draft dodgers. So explain to me how a draft dodger, who feels somewhat guilty about that, is going to love seeing West Point and Vietnam on my resume.
I have never wanted to work for any of the companies that love West Point or Harvard. My son has never wanted to work for a company that loved Columbia grads. They’re mostly in New York City. He wanted to come back to California.
Companies that hire West Pointers disproportionately may do so for the wrong reasons. They may see the place as a reliable source of Babbittesque, organization men in gray flannel suits—well-behaved yes men who will make a good appearance and impression, but not rock the boat. Fortune once said in 2006 or 2007 that corporate recruiters were not all that fond of the top MBA school students. Screw corporate recruiters! We did not go to Harvard Business School to impress corporate recruiters. We went there to found our own companies. West Point supposedly produces leaders. Corporate recruiters are looking for followers.
I had a mildly interesting and pertinent discussion with one AT&T exec. When he learned I was a West Point grad, he volunteered that his company hired many academy grads but that they noticed and commented on the fact that when they hired a guy from Air Force or Navy, they did not know what he was like until he arrived. But with the West Pointers, they knew what he would be like before he arrived.
He wondered why. I said it was probably because West Point was far more restrictive and its cadets, far more isolated, than those of the other academies.
He seemed to think this uniformity was a virtue. I would say it certainly indicates that West Point has more of an effect on its graduates than the other two major academies. But that is not necessarily good and probably is not good. Everyone who ever entered any service academy was a unique individual. Based on the AT&T exec’s comments, they still are after graduation if they went to Air Force or Navy, but less so if they went to West Point. Note that the exec did not say the West Pointers were better, only more uniform.
I would note that he did not hire me or a number of other guys I knew at West Point who would not have inspired such a comment. There is a certain amount of self-selection in that not all academy grads would want to work for AT&T. Only a certain type would. So he did not see the whole cross section of West Point grads.
No one should want their individuality stripped away, even in part. Military trainers unabashedly say that’s part of what they do. Break you down then build you up. It’s crap. Although as my life and those of other West Point grads illustrate, letting your individuality be stripped away, even in part, is not certain at West Point. But it is a significant danger.
In that same uniformity vein, I must comment on what I call “The Look.” I first noticed this when I was a cadet at West Point and commented on it to my classmates. They agreed and said that they had noticed the same thing. I found it spooky and wondered if the place was having a little bit too much effect on us.
Our dates often complained that when they went to Grant Hall to meet us at the beginning of a weekend at West Point, they were very disconcerted by the fact that we all looked alike. That was largely due to the uniform which, when the hat was on, covered us entirely except from the top of the neck to just above the eyebrows. But had you dressed a bunch of non-West Pointers in the uniforms, there would have been far less similarity. Basically, at West Point, we were taught not only how to wear the uniforms, but also the approved demeanor of a West Point cadet. Serious. Confident. Alert. I can’t totally describe it.
“The Look” simply means that West Point cadets and graduates have a certain similar appearance when they are out of uniform. In New York City, we used to see a guy 50 to 75 yards away, recognize him as a fellow cadet, and exchange nods. Did we know the guy from West Point? No. We could just tell from his appearance and demeanor that he was a fellow cadet.
True, there were several clues like age, haircut, and body shape (physically fit). But that was not enough to make such an identification. After all, as the old TV series Naked City used to say in its sign-off, “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” Everyone in New York City with short hair between the ages of 18 and 26 and in good physical shape is not a West Point cadet. Furthermore, it was not just a suspicion. We would recognize each other as cadets—not cadets we knew—just looking like cadets to the point where we were certain each other was a cadet. We exchanged those nods with no doubt that we were saying hi to a fellow cadet.
This also applied after graduation. I have seen men wearing shirts with “West Point” or “U.S. Military Academy” on them and laughed at the notion that they thought they could pass as West Pointers. They did not have “The Look.” On other occasions, I have noticed a man who was in civvies and thought, “He’s a West Pointer.” On a number of occasions, I later met the person in question and learned that he was, indeed, a West Pointer.
I have seen military officers interviewed on TV and thought, “He’s from West Point” or “He’s not from West Point.” Then I went and looked them up in the West Point Register of Graduates and I was almost always right. It even happened a time or two with female Army officers, but I am less able to do it with females. There were no females at West Point until eight years after I graduated.
Once, I was in a hotel lobby in Dallas. A man walked by in a suit. When I saw him, we exchanged glances. No nods. I thought, “He was a West Point professor.” I did not recognize him as a professor I knew, just as a generic professor. (When I was a cadet, 98% of the professors there were West Point graduates.)
Later, I was on an elevator in that hotel and that guy got on the elevator when it stopped. I said to him with total confidence that I was right, “Sir, do I remember you from West Point?” He extended his hand and said, “Mike Collins, Class of 1952.” “Jack Reed ’68,” I said. “That was after my time,” he said. “Were you a professor when I was a cadet?” I asked. “No,” he said. Then it hit me. “Oh, you’re Mike Collins the astronaut?” “Yes,” he said and got off the elevator as I continued up to my floor.
Now you may think that I recognized him from TV appearances as a result of his being one of the Apollo 11 astronauts. Perhaps. But I did not recognize him as Mike Collins astronaut or as a TV person that day in hotel. Rather, I was just sure he was a West Point grad, which he was.
Years ago, I noticed a guy who jogged by my house a couple times as a probable West Pointer. One day, I was out front when he went by and he asked me if I was a West Pointer. In other words, he had the same thought about me. He was a little older than I was and was a cadet when I was for a year or two, but we were not in the same regiment, which graduates will recognize means we had no contact as cadets. We might have laid eyes on each other momentarily while we were cadets, but that was true of about 7,000 guys who were younger or older and there at the same time over four years.
How long do you have to be a cadet at West Point to acquire “The Look?” Eleven months—from around July 1st when you enter West Point until around June 1st when your plebe year ends.
Plebes do not have “the Look.” In fact, they have an even more distinct look called the “Plebe Look.” It is easy to describe: a combination of deer in headlights and paranoid terror. Actually, that was how it was in 1968. I would not be surprised if it’s different now from changes in the Fourth Class System (rules relating to the different way plebes are treated). How long does it take to acquire the Plebe Look? About a half hour.
My son Dan has A look but it’s not “The Look.” When he was in the Fall of his eighth grade year, Stanford gave me two tickets to one of their home games because I was a local high school football coach. I had to pick them up at a recruits will-call window. It was a little confusing so I went over to some coach-looking guys with my son to ask if I was at the right place. They took one look at Dan and asked if he was a prospective recruit. “Jeez! He’s only in eighth grade!” Fall college football recruits are all high school seniors by NCAA rule.
The following year, I took Dan to an Army football game at West Point. On the way, we attended a minor league baseball game in Maryland with some classmates. One of them took one look at Dan and commented on what a good-looking kid he was and that he should go to West Point because he looked like a recruiting poster for the place. At the game itself at West Point, one of my West Point roommates, Dan, and I ran into another of our classmates: Mike Palone. He was our class’s top athlete and has his name engraved in Holleder Center at West Point as a result. He was with his dad—retired, long-time, revered, Army soccer coach Joe Palone. Joe took one look at Dan and said, “You should come to West Point. You’d make a great cadet.”
Dan is 6'2", blue-eyed, broad-shouldered, athletic, and handsome enough to be chosen to be a blazers-and-slacks model for a GQ magazine spread during his Columbia tailback days. He was also recruited off the street in Times Square with some of his Columbia football teammates to appear repeatedly in a speaking part on MTV’s Total Request Live show with Carson Daily. He has been my son his whole life. I work at home so I spent tons of time with him from birth on. He was recently in a bull session debate with friends about whether religion makes people behave better. A friend said “Fear of God” made Dan behave better when he was growing up whether he admitted it or not. Dan responded that it was not “Fear of God,” it was “Fear of Jack” (that’s me), that made him behave.
But he does not have “The Look” of a West Point cadet or graduate in spite of my influence and DNA. He never commanded adult men. Unlike West Pointers, he never learned by instruction and example the proper demeanor and bearing for a cadet marching in a parade or an officer giving commands to troops.
What about the various movie stars who have played West Point graduates in Hollywood? Guys like Ronald Reagan, George C. Scott, John Wayne, Karl Malden, Laurence Olivier, Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum. Did they have “The Look?”
Not even close. Indeed, no depiction of any military officer in Hollywood, West Point or otherwise, comes close to what a real military officer is like. Real officers are timid and deferential. See my article titled The 30-year, marathon, single-elimination suck-up tournament or How America chooses its generals. General Petraeus showed the world what a real Army officer behaves like in his 2007 public appearances before Congress. Can you imagine John Wayne or George C. Scott replicating that? Some officers are bombastic bullies to their subordinates, but never to their superiors. Al Haig, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Patton come to mind. Hollywood “West Pointers” have far too much personality and individuality. They are far too assertive and self-confident. In a bureaucracy like the Army, anyone who acted like that would be smacked down immediately.
You don’t need to be a West Pointer to recognize “The Look.” My Uncle Jack, a non-West Pointer who worked for several years as the assistant manager of the Hotel Thayer at West Point, was once in a bar in Arizona after his time at West Point. He spotted several young men at a table. He went over and asked, “What service academy do you guys go to?” They were Air Force Academy cadets. Again, they were young, had short hair, and were fit, but that could describe anyone in the military or, back in the 1960s, any athletes. The Air Force Academy is in Colorado, not Arizona, so there was no geographic reason to believe that several guys in a bar in Arizona were cadets at any service academy.
The Zoomies were surprised he could tell and asked how. My uncle said, “I worked at West Point for years. I can spot you academy guys a mile away.”
Below, I list the ten guys whom I figure are the most well-known living West Pointers. Do they have “The Look?” Absolutely, with the possible exception of second-man-on-the-moon Buzz Aldrin, who always looks a bit bewildered to me. Is there any reason why he would have lost “The Look?” Yes. He is an admitted long-term alcoholic. My father was an alcoholic. Alcohol sweeps all personality, training, and experience before it. If you are an alcoholic, nothing else you ever were matters much.
Can I describe “The Look?” Not really. It has to do with confidence, perhaps the demeanor of one who has been in command of other men, a certain level of intelligence, perhaps a habit of carrying oneself in a certain way as a result of all the posture corrections and image consciousness at West Point. Take the bearing and demeanor of a West Point cadet marching in a parade or standing at attention in ranks before a parade and soften it a bit with a dash of “Hi. Howya doin”?’ and that’s sort of it. Otherwise, I cannot articulate or put my finger on it. But we generally recognize it when we see it.
On 10/20/11, I was watching Charlie Rose. He was interviewing a guy named Ray Dalio. I did not know who Dalio was. No mention was made of Dalio’s education. He did not say anything that would suggest specific education. But after about 40 minutes of watching and listening, I thought, “This guy’s got to be a Harvard MBA.” I walked over to the computer and Googled him. Indeed, he is a Harvard MBA—born three years after me but got his MBA four years before me.
I could not pick that up just from looking at him the way I often had with West Point cadets and graduates. But I did pick it up from the way he talked about the economy and deficit. It was distinct enough that I could think, “He’s a Harvard MBA” and be right about it.
The conclusion I draw is that I was smart and lucky to go to West Point and Harvard Business in the sense that those are two extremely intense, know-who-they-are schools. Neither of those schools is generic. They are each extremely distinct to the point where merely looking at another West Pointer and merely listening to another Harvard MBA can cause me to recognize them as such.
Be sure you note that I cannot spot graduates of other service academies or MBA programs. That is, I have never watched anyone on TV or in person and thought, “That guy’s a service academy graduate” or “That guy got an MBA somewhere.” (An exception in the latter case would be a guy who throws out one MBA buzz word per sentence. I saw the Linkedin founder Jeff Weiner on Charlie Rose, too. He uses an MBA buzzword about every ten seconds, but I did not feel he was a Harvard MBA. Sounded like he must have gotten an MBA somewhere, though. When I Googled it, he did indeed get an MBA—from Stanford. If he had gone to Harvard and ever talked like that there, his fellow students would have pilloried him during class discussions.)
I have commented in these military pages that the military in general, and West Point in particular, are theatrical. You can often spot a veteran stage performer by the theatrical way they sometimes move or talk. Marching in parades or commanding troops are theater to a large extent. It may be that same mechanism that is at work in creating “The Look” among West Pointers.
Is “The Look” a good thing? Probably slightly. Does it indicate that West Point has a significant effect on its graduates? Probably slightly, at least in a superficial way. I only disclose it here in the interests of full disclosure. I do not draw any big conclusions about it.
This is another line I often hear.
To an extent, it is true. But coming out of the mouth of a teenager or a cadet or a non-West Point grad, it has two major flaws:
It does not open as many doors as you think, and it closes some doors.
“Opening doors” is less important than you think.
I suspect that I have gotten some jobs faster, and maybe gotten some jobs that I would not otherwise have gotten, as a result of being a West Point grad. I sense that prospective employers figure a West Point grad has a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.
In July, 1966, after my “internship” with the 101st Airborne Division, the traveling show Up With People, also known as Sing Out ’66, put on a performance at Fort Campbell. They had previously performed at West Point and a classmate and I discussed that we would like to join the cast during summer leave (30 days) if possible. Unexpectedly, the day before my leave was to start, there they were.
I told their boss about the discussion I had at West Point. He said, “You’re welcome to join us right now if you want.” “Don’t I have to fill out an application or something?” He smiled and said indulgently, “No. We figure that if you meet West Point’s standards, you meet ours.” So for the next several weeks I was in the cast of Up With People. (They later performed at West Point again when I was a junior. Since I knew the song and dance routines, I asked them if I could sneak into the cast and perform at West Point. I did not ask permission from the officers at West Point. My friends told me not to do it because they thought I would get into big trouble. Up With People got me one of their blazers, shirt, pants, and make-up, and I slipped into the cast and did the whole performance. One of my professors recognized me and commented to me about it, but no other officer said anything. You can see me in a photo of the performance on page 202 of the ’67 Howitzer yearbook—first male face visible from the left. Compare it to the picture of me as a member of the C-2 second classmen on page 162. Had I sought official permission to do it, I would probably still be waiting for an answer.)
I think a number of those who hired me to coach athletic teams and to work in real estate and banking thought the same thing. They figured I had been thoroughly vetted. Last I heard, the FBI liked to hire former military officers.
But I am sure it closes some doors, too. West Point is not universally loved. Democrats generally do not like the military, notwithstanding their protestations to the contrary. Liberals do not like the military. I doubt that being a West Point graduate helped anyone get a job in the Clinton or Obama Administrations. One Army officer in the Clinton White House complained that a female Clinton executive refused to shake his hand because he was military. As I said earlier, draft dodgers do not like the military. Academia seems hostile to the military so I doubt our diploma would be a big help in getting tenure at a liberal arts college or university.
More importantly, opening doors is less of a benefit than you think.
As I explain in my book Succeeding, you may be “the West Point guy” the first week you arrive at a new job, but after that you’re Jack or whatever your name is. West Point may have gotten you in the door, but your long-term success will be determined far more by what you do after you get in the door and that is on you as an individual, not related to your resume.
Also, the importance of “doors” is a function of what you do as a career. I write books and a newsletter. Does West Point in my “about the author” help sell books? Probably a little. But readers are far more interested in what I know about the subject of the book than where I went to college.
My best friend from West Point is a professional magician. Does being a West Point graduate help him get gigs? Probably in some cases, but they are far more interested in how good of a magician he is.
The world is full of careers where being from West Point is irrelevant or of little importance like farming, founding your own company, medical research, medicine in general, and so forth. So whether you will need “doors” opened depends on what you are best suited for. Not all careers are door-type careers.
Another line I often hear, from grads and wannabes alike, is stated as Gospel truth: “At least you know you’re going to get a great education at West Point.” And even if you are not getting to write your own ticket or open doors because West Point is on your resume, you still have the great education that will help you no matter what you do.
When I went to West Point, we went to class five and a half days a week from 7:45 AM to 3 PM on weekdays and from 7:30 AM to about 11:30 AM on Saturdays. Furthermore, our schedule was like high school only without study halls. We were in class all morning and all afternoon. A lot of guys who quit West Point were moved ahead a year at the civilian college they transferred to. For example, a cadet who would have been a sophomore had he stayed at West Point would be a junior at the civilian college or a sophomore cadet would transfer into a civilian college as a seniorbecause he already had so many credit hours.
I heard they no longer go to school on Saturday—except to take some tests. I also heard that they are considering resuming Saturday classes to some extent. A recent grad indicated that started school earlier in the morning now and did not finish until 4 PM rather than 3PM. To see how many hours of class cadets have now, you’ll have to check with West Point. But it used to be an extraordinarily large number of hours. It probably still is, only less so.
We also almost always had 10 to 15 cadets per classroom. That was excellent, although the professors were Army officers so you could not form the sorts of beneficial relationships that civilian college students often do with professors. You couldn’t even linger after class to talk to the professor because we were so over-scheduled that we always had to hustle away to the next class, lunch formation, and athletics or parade.
My sons who went to Columbia, U.C. Santa Barbara, and Arizona say they typically had huge class sizes with little interaction between students and teacher. But they could form friendly relationships with some professors.
The professors at West Point are there to teach. At civilian colleges, they are often more interested in research, publishing, and consulting.
At civilian universities, you are often taught by grad students, not professors. In many cases, the grad student in question cannot speak understandable English! This is an outrage. Never happened at West Point. All our professors except a tiny number of civilians (mostly languages and PE back then) were captains or majors or colonels in the Army and were there to teach, period. It was a three-year tour so they would go to grad school in the subject in question, teach at West Point for three years, then go to the 101st Airborne division as a battalion commander or some next job like that.
However, I also went to a graduate school with the same focus on teaching: Harvard Business School. There, the teaching was sometimes so good that my section mates and I gave the professor a standing ovation at the end of the class. (Most notably Steve Starr in marketing and John Shank in control, which is what most people would call accounting—a section at HBS is 85 students who sit in the same amphitheater classroom all day every day for the first year).
CNBC aired an excellent hour-long documentary about HBS on December, 17, 2008 on the occasion of HBS’s 100th anniversary and the financial meltdown. My wife and I are actually in the documentary although in the far background because some of it was shot at my wife’s 30th reunion. At one point, the CEO of Time, Inc., Ann Moore, notes that there were only eight women in her section at HBS. My wife was one of the eight.
A great many, maybe most, of my Harvard classes were like the one class you had one day in high school or college where the class was scintillating and thrilling, but was actually about the subject being studied, not some let’s-talk-about-something-else lark.
My wife’s aunt was a high school art teacher. She was distinctly unhappy about my wife going to HBS. Then my wife took her to a day of three classes there. Afterward, she could not stop raving about how “creative” it was. (All instruction at HBS is via the case method, that is, discussions of important, recent decisions that needed to be made by actual companies.) I never heard of any such thing happening at West Point. If it did, it was exceedingly rare. (I have been told that some West Point classes now use the case method. I still have not heard that any visitors observing a West Point class raving about the creativity of it.)
None of my classes ever applauded a teacher at West Point. I never heard of anyone ever doing it at West Point. The teachers there were focused just on teaching at least for those three years, but they were workmanlike, not great. Many of the teachers at Harvard Business were great. Ovations were commonplace there.
I got a great education at Harvard. At West Point, I got a good education. Roughly speaking, the Harvard Business School professors are full-time, long-term teachers. The West Point instructors are just passing through and they are primarily trying to succeed as Army officer bureaucrats, not teachers. As teachers, they are temps.
A recent West Point grad said that it’s not fair to compare the instruction at West Point, which is an undergraduate college, with Harvard Business School, which is a graduate school. Why not?
Where is it written that grad schools automatically have better instructors than undergraduate schools? If West Point wants to have great instructors, they can scour the nation looking for college professors who are highly rated as instructors and offer them whatever it takes to get them to go to West Point. That is essentially how Harvard Business School does it. The instruction at HBS is better than at West Point because each institution made a decision to have the quality of instruction it has. The main problem at West Point is using it as a temporary three-year tour for regular Army officers rather than employing all or almost all professional career instructors.
Based on discussions with my son, the instruction at West Point was apparently better on average than at Columbia, but the best professors at Columbia were better than the best at West Point. Indeed, I recall no discussion of who was best at West Point. The professors were as uniform as their clothes. All workmanlike.
A large percentage of cadets and military officers fall into a union-member mentalitythat is, they seek to get as much as possible for the least possible effort. Union members oppose individual excellence. To try to be the best professor at West Point would be considered unseemly rate-busting or Stakhaonvite behavior. At civilian schools, they often publish student ratings of the professors and professors compete to be the best. West Point would never, ever publish ratings of active Army officer professors by subordinate cadets, even though doing so would improve the quality of instruction there.
When I went to West Point, we were tested every week in every subject. That was a very good thing. It forced you to make a continuous, even effort to master the subject. My impression of civilian college students is that loafing and procrastinating are big, followed by cramming or all nighters when they have a test or a paper due. At West Point, we were not allowed to be that stupid about study habits.
During exam weeks, it was hard to get a tennis court. Why? We would all sit down to study the subject of the next exam, realize we already knew the material as a result of having studied it daily all semester, then get a buddy to go play tennis. But it was suddenly hard to find a court, even though West Point had a zillion of them, because everyone else had the same experience.
At UC Berkeley, which is near where I live, they have parking spaces reserved for Nobel Prize winners. They say, “NL only” as I recall. I do not believe there are any such parking spaces at West Point. There the reserved spaces say, “Superintendent,” “Commandant of Cadets,” “Dean of the Academic Board.” Rank, not academic merit, rules at West Point.
I don’t know that undergraduates get to spend much time with Nobel Laureates at Berkeley, but their presence speaks volumes about what U.C. Berkeley is about and their absence at West Point does the same.
West Point does have more than its share of Rhodes Scholars, although I am suspicious of how hard the Academy works to get such scholarships. That sort of thing is the kind of recognition about which West Point would probably get overly competitive and game the system.
And West Point’s ranking in the production of Rhodes Scholars is suspiciously out of character when you take into account the various other academic honors that graduates of the other Rhodes Scholar-producing colleges win, like median SAT scores, PhDs, articles published in peer-reviewed publications, tenured professorships at civilian colleges, and Nobel Prizes.
It reminds me of the Taiwanese Little League teams winning the Little League World Series every year but sending virtually no players to the Major Leagues. Turned out that the Taiwanese were systematically cheating by sending a national all-star team rather than a local all-star team as required by the rules and by falsifying birth certificates of over-age players. They no longer participate in the Little League World Series.
America’s great universities annually produce tens of thousands of scholars who, in turn, produce great volumes of scholarship. The alumni magazines we get from Harvard and Columbia are full of items about such things. The alumni magazine I get from West Point, on the other hand, is almost devoid of such things. It is more of a military-history and cadet-life publication.
Many West Point graduates say that West Point is the equivalent of an Ivy League college.
No, it’s not. Maybe it was in the past when it was smaller and the military was more popular with the public, but not now.
If you peruse any college guidebook in a book store, you will find where West Point stacks up in SAT scores. Here is a comparison of West Point SAT scores with those of colleges with similar scores and with two Ivy League schools. (Source: US News & World Report Ultimate College Guide 2005)
SAT 25/75 percentile range
|West Point||1170-1350||unranked because service academy|
|Yeshiva University||1170-1350||46 among national universities|
|U. of Maryland at College Park||1170-1360||56 among national universities|
|Skidmore College||1170-1340||45 among liberal arts colleges|
|St. Mary’s of Maryland||1160-1360||87 among liberal arts colleges|
|Occidental College||1170-1370||42 among liberal arts colleges|
Now a couple of Ivies
|Harvard University||1400-1590||1 among national universities|
|Columbia University||1310-1510||9 among national universities|
So, West Point ain’t bad. But it ain’t Harvard. The school it most closely matches is Yeshiva University which has the same SAT scores. The closest non-religious schools to West Point are Maryland and Skidmore.
A lot of people, including West Pointers, point to its ratio of applicants to admissions to prove how hard it is to get in and how great a school it must therefore be. First, games can be played with those numbers. How do you define an applicant for a place like West Point which has a convoluted, Congressional application process? Also, is the low acceptance rate proving high student standards or the attraction of a free education? In fact, it is the latter as evidenced by the relatively low SAT scores in comparison to the other schools with similarly low acceptance rates like Harvard.
A recent West Point grad said the SAT scores are misleading because West Point admits a lot of soldiers from the Army by law and they tend to have low SAT scores and flunk out of West Point.
I do not know if that’s true. A former professor at West Point from the Class of 1958 told me the 2007 flunk-out rate of poop schoolers is actually a few percentage points lower than the non-poop schooler flunk-out rate. When I was a cadet, we had the same percentage of guys from the Army (called poop schoolers). I do not recall observing that they were dumber than those of us who had never been in the Army before. Nor do I recall anyone else ever making such an observation.
Also, even if it’s true, so what? West Point’s student body is whomever they admit. If those guys are dumb, they should stop admitting them. If they admit them, they have to suffer the consequence of a lower average SAT score than the Ivies.
Plus, the difference between the Ivies and West Point SAT scores are so dramatic—300 points for chrissake!—that you would have to have one heck of a lot of super dumb poop schoolers to make them solely responsible for the 300-point difference.
This is an example of an individual West Pointer taking my criticism of West Point as an institution as a personal criticism of him alone. The guy doing the complaining may be smart enough to have gotten into the Ivy League. I would not know. But for whatever reason, he chose to go to a college with SAT scores that are 300 points lower than the top Ivies. You makes your choice and you pays the price.
He also complained that I relied only on SAT scores. I would be glad to use GPAs and other criteria to make the comparison more valid, but West Point refuses to release that information. Other colleges do. You can see it in the college guides. Also, GPAs are notoriously unreliable because they vary so much from high school to high school. The colleges have adjustments they make for each high school’s grades to remove inflation. I have no access to those adjustments.
Also, it is extremely likely that the GPAs correlate with the SAT scores. In other words, the GPAs would probably just provide more proof that West Point students are far below the Ivy students.
Does that disprove my statement that West Point is not an Ivy League equivalent? I don’t think so. Here’s why.
First, let’s look at the SAT scores of the Forbes top ten and ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?”
SAT 25/75 percentile range
I have more familiarity than most with that list because all of the colleges on it that had football teams at that time, except Princeton, recruited my oldest son. (Caltech and Wellesley were the only schools on the list that did not have football teams in 1999.) We visited Princeton and talked with the coach, but they chose not to recruit my son. They had a bad taste in their mouths from a recent prior recruit from my son’s high school. The Dartmouth offensive coach recruited my son the most heavily, in spite of Dan’s not even having applied to Dartmouth initially. After a belated application, long after the deadline for such, he was immediately accepted there. Dartmouth is not on this top ten list, but the Dartmouth offensive coordinator in question became the Princeton head coach the next year and still is. Harvard initially called my son and said they were going to fly him to Harvard for an official visit, but changed their minds several weeks before the trip. Dan went to Columbia and played tailback there in competition against the other Ivies for four years. He also got into Yale as a football recruit. Dan and I visited every school on that list except Wellesley, a woman’s college.
My source on the SAT scores is the 2005 U.S. News & World Report Ultimate College Guide. Why 2005? Because that’s the last year I had a kid choosing a college. My youngest son is now a senior at the University of Arizona. Why did I not go out and buy a current college guide to get he most up-to-date SAT scores? Because they probably have not changed significantly and I do not get paid to write this article.
As you can see, the West Point SAT scores are about 200 points below the others.
Forbes created a composite ranking score.
I am a nationally known real estate investment expert and writer. One of the recent trends in magazine articles has been to rate cities and states as the best place to live or the best place to invest or the best place to operate a business. These are circulation-building publicity stunts for the magazines. U.S. News & World Report’s college ratings are another example. As, now, are Forbes’ college ratings.
To maximize ratings, the magazines need to create “horse races” where the winners are different each year. In fact, common sense tells you that Harvard is probably the best college year in and year out and San Francisco is the best place to live (as evidenced by its having the highest cost which is the market’s way of voting). But you do not sell magazines by saying that Harvard and San Francisco are always best. Plus you piss off everyone but Harvard and San Francisco. With rotating winners, you can tell unhappy losers to try again til next year. The magazines want to sell to the residents of all cities and the graduates of all colleges.
Consequently, the algorithm writers at the magazines try to create lists of variables and weights that cause the winners to change frequently even though common sense would say that they do not. They also change the variables and weights annually, claiming to do so in order to improve accuracy. In fact, they do it to make sure the winners change frequently.
To make a composite score, you must select a number of variables by which to measure each college or town. Let’s say there are 100 possible variables to choose from. Obviously, which variables you choose changes your rankings. If you choose, say, variables one to ten, you get one set of rankings. If, instead, you choose variables eleven to twenty, you get a different set of rankings, and so on. So the rankings are highly sensitive to which variables you choose to use.
Furthermore, you must weight whichever variables you choose. Even treating them all equally is a weighting of 10% each. In fact, the algorithm writers do not weight them equally. Rather, they make subjective value judgments about which are most important. As with choosing which variables to look at, choosing different weighting schemes, even with the same set of variables, changes the rankings.
Look at rating cities. Money magazine typically uses housing cost as one of its variables. The higher the home prices in the city in question, the worse the city looks as a best place to live.
First off, housing cost is the only variable you need to look at to see where the best place to live is. Housing cost is the vote of the market on the matter and the market is well-known to be the best decision maker in a great many areas including housing. That is not to say that San Francisco is everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not. But holding high cost against a city is like holding high cost against a baseball stadium seat. The best seats in a baseball stadium are the ones right behind home plate and the sky boxes—and that was determined from over a century of selling seats to fans. To say that the best seat in a baseball stadium is one just outside the left foul pole 332 feet from home plate because of some composite formula that penalizes seats that have high cost is stupid.
Indeed, one of the reasons West Point ranks so high in the Forbes rankings is they included average college debt at graduation as a bad thing and they only counted monetary debt, not things like West Point’s five-year active-duty and three-year inactive reserve obligation and, at present, probably for two or three tours as a ground pounder in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.
To avoid skewing the comparison, Forbes either needs to not consider college debt at all or to monetize the West Point eight-year indentured servitude (I mean indentured servitude literally—see my article on the need to reinstate the draft) obligation. How? Ask about 1,000 randomly selected students of the other nine schools how much money it would take to get them to agree to spend five years in the Army and three in the inactive reserves immediately after graduation. Or use the amount of college aid given to honors ROTC scholarship students to get them to agree to the same service obligation.
Here is the Forbes methodology (they hired a company named The Center for College Affordability and Productivity to do their rankings) and my comments about it. The (parentheses) show the weight assigned to each component.
The Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) compiled its rankings using five components:
John T. Reed comments
|1. Listing of Alumni in the 2008 Who's Who in America (25%)||
I was in that for many years, but not in 2008. I received an email that I was back in for 2009—actually in Who’s Who in the World, not America.
I also read once that Who’s Who automatically lists all generals of two stars or higher.
I suspect that West Pointers were hurt by this component. As I say elsewhere in this article, considering all the hype about what great leaders West Point graduates are, an amazingly few living West Pointers are prominent in American life. That fact that I am one of the most prominent is a manifestation of the lack of prominence of other West Pointers, not any objective prominence I have achieved by the standards of, say, Harvard.
|2. Student Evaluations of Professors from Ratemyprofessors.com (25%)||
Here is what I got when I went to that Web site:
Find Your School
You searched for: U.S. Military Academy
We found 0 results. Please try another search.
Who makes sure these ratings are not the electronic equivalent of stuffed ballot boxes—that each student only gets one vote—and that each college is equally represented by the number of votes one way or the other for professors at that college—especially now that Forbes will base best-college rankings on them?
Note to West Point cadets: If you want to start ranking your professors at Ratemyprofessors.com—professors who are active-duty Army officers under whom you will likely serve in the future—use an off-campus computer that cannot be traced to you.
|3. Four-Year Graduation Rates (16 2/3%)||West Point is part of the federal government. They want a certain number of cadets to graduate each year. They adjust cadets’ grades to achieve that number. That is, they grade on the curve. For example, when I was a cadet, flunking one course—even P.E.—meant you were out of West Point. We all had to take nuclear physics. It was too hard. My impression was that every cadet other than the star men (top 5% of the class academically) flunked it. But they graded on the curve so that all or most passed. The “Four-year graduation rate” at West Point is predetermined by the Pentagon and has no meaning other than showing how the Pentagon budgets West Point as an officer school. (You get X dollars to produce Y officers per year.) West Point will game the system by setting higher “four-year graduation rates” henceforth now that Forbes is calculating a “best colleges” ranking using that component.|
|4. Enrollment-adjusted numbers of students and faculty receiving nationally competitive awards (16 2/3%)||As I say elsewhere in this article, West Point apparently games the system to win more than its share of Rhodes Scholarships, etc. I say “more than its share” because they have far fewer Nobel Prizes—maybe none—than the other schools that rank high in Rhodes Scholarships. I do not know the details of how West Point games those systems, but there is no question whatsoever that its Rhodes Scholars-to-Nobel Prize winners ratio is way out of whack compared to other colleges that have either types of award winners.|
|5. Average four-year accumulated student debt of those borrowing money (16 2/3%)||This is a colossal joke as I explained above. What the hell does this have to do with anything anyway? It penalizes colleges that admit poor people. God help Cooper Union which only admits poor people. Does admitting a higher percentage of poor, but excellent, students mean the education at the college is less excellent? Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.|
I am a longtime subscriber to Forbes which I greatly respect. My wife and I just went to a super lecture by Steve Forbes at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club last week (8/08). Memo to Forbes: Are you guys kidding? You do a great job on the Forbes 400 and your ratings of the most profitable companies and highest paid entertainers and such, but this looks like some poorly-thought-out, college freshman paper. As a professor might write on such a paper, “This is not your normal work. You know how to do much, much better.”
If West Point now starts touting this ranking, shame on them. It is very poorly designed, as they would quickly have said if they had come out toward the bottom of it. If they are as honorable as a college with the word “honor” carved all over its walls should be, they will promptly dismiss this ranking for what it is: poorly conceived and of no value to either West Point or its potential applicants.
West Point did indeed put out a news release about the Forbes ranking on 8/14/08. I could not find the news release at the USMA Web site, but you can read a synopsis of it at http://www.usma.edu/homeart/. As a graduate, I am embarrassed. West Point has many legitimate educational advantages like class size and number of credit hours required and legitimate academic accomplishments like standardized test scores. They do not need to, and should not, tout a poorly-done rating like this. I am quite confident that if, when I was a cadet, I had turned in a paper that applied identical analysis to a topic other than the wonderfulness of West Point or the Army, my West Point professor would have given me a failing grade on it. He probably would have added a few caustic comments about my poor reasoning, arbitrary weightings, and reliance on sources that have little relevance to a federal military academy.
I will respond to that only with a phrase from my journalist profession:
I stand by my story,
that is, this article including my analysis of last year’s #6 ranking in Forbes.
The 2009 Forbes article has no new information other than several criticisms of West Point. The magazine quoted them but did not explain why they were not valid. The criticisms were similar to some that I had in this article already.
My wife knows a lot of my West Point classmates and other West Pointers from almost monthly meals with West Point friends and Founders Days and such. She has been to West Point many times and was with me when I sat in on and spoke to a class in September, 2008. She could not have attended West Point because they did not admit females until years after she was college age. She is, like me, a Harvard MBA and, with me, parent of a Columbia grad, so she knows two of the other contenders for best college fairly well. She thinks I am a little too hard on West Point when I criticize it. Nevertheless, my conversation with her on 8/7/09 about the Forbes #1 ranking went like this.
Me: What college do you think Forbes magazine just rated the best college in America?
Her: (detecting from my question that it must not be one of the usual suspects) Stanford?
Her: Cal Berkeley?
Me: No. Would you believe West Point?
Her: (Pause to get over the shock.) Are they nuts?
I think “Somebody up there (in Forbes Headquarters at 90 Fifth Avenue) likes [West Point].”
A reader sent me the following New York Times op-ed article by a current professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, West Point’s rival across the field at he annual Army-Navy Game. I highly recommend it. It is mainly about Navy but the author says it applies to all three major service academies.
And here’s another he wrote in the same vein:
It would appear Mr. Fleming has tenure. I am guessing the lifers at the Naval Academy will either end tenuree altogether to shut him up or keep book on him until they come up with some trumped up reason to fire him.
One of the main, unheralded ways you get a college education is from associating with your classmates. I got more benefit from my fellow cadets than from the West Point formal program. A similar thing happened to me at Harvard, but not as much.
Generally, the teaching at any college is aimed at the median students. At West Point, the median student is a Maryland/Skidmore equivalent. At Harvard and Columbia, they pitch the classes at a much higher level median student.
What did we study at West Point? Everything. We were jacks of all subjects and masters of none. When West Pointers went to engineering grad schools, they sometimes had to first take a semester or two of undergraduate engineering because we did not get enough to constitute an engineering major at West Point. A classmate who got a masters in civil engineering at Stanford told me he did not have to take any undergraduate courses in engineering after West Point. He may have taken advanced courses at West Point because of his high class rank. Also, civil engineering masters may have fewer undergraduate prerequisites than masters degrees in other subjects like electrical engineering.
When I went to West Point, every cadet took the same subjects. Now, they can major. Perhaps this problem has been corrected. Although a recent graduate told me they now have an extraordinarily high number of required courses outside the major.
I always thought we were over-scheduled at West Point. Indeed, I had the impression that they taught us everything so they could show Congress and the taxpayers how hard we were working and how much they were getting for the money they were spending on us. The length of the list of the subjects we studied was extremely long. But the depth was extremely shallow as a result of the length. We took introduction to everything and 201 of almost nothing. I had three and a half semesters of Russian, but no more than two semesters of anything else.
Is that a great education, or a great PR ploy?
West Point certainly has the opportunity to be the great leadership school. It only lasts 47 months, actually rather brief nowadays when kids take five or six years to graduate. But look at the hours.
My youngest son’s college, Arizona, requires 30 credit hours to graduate. West Point required that we take 40.5 credit hours freshman year, 45 sophomore year, 43 junior year, and 44.5 senior year.
We went to class six days a week. The only Saturdays when we did not have morning classes were when we went to the Army-Navy Game, another away football game each year, and to march on Fifth Avenue in the Armed Forces Day parade in Manhattan. Plus we had mandatory intramural athletics twice a week all academic year long, mandatory parades two or three times a week weather permitting in the fall and spring, and two months of five-and-a-half days a week summer field training.
And don’t think the intramurals and parades were not training. Seniors were coaches, officials, and administrators of the vast intramural program and seniors and juniors commanded the parades. We also marched into three meals a day on weekdays and one on weekend days, again with seniors and juniors commanding. Hell, even each ten-man mess table had a commandant and plebes executing several daily duties. In the movie The Recruit Al Pacino’s character said again and again, “Everything is a test.” At West Point, everything was either training or a test—even meals and intramurals.
The only times we could wear civilian clothes—and this only came in when I was a senior—was we could wear a navy blue blazer, gray wool slacks, a white shirt, and tie to leave West Point or to return to it after leave. Once you put on that outfit, you had to go straight off the post or straight to your room to change into your uniform. I almost got in trouble once for stopping at the Hotel Thayer, which is next to the gate leading out of West Point, to pick up my date on the way off post.
So if you add up all the mandatory stuff we had eleven months a year, you get something like a ten-hour day, roughly six days a week (Saturday morning, mandatory Sunday chapel to which we marched, and Sunday supper), about 44 weeks a year for four years. That’s 10 x 6 x 44 x 4 = 10,560 hours!
Here is line from the Wikipedia write-up on Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.
Throughout the publication, Gladwell repeatedly mentions the "10,000-Hour Rule", claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.
Here is a line I propose for tee shirts to be sold at the West Point Association of Graduates gift store.
I spent 10,560 hours doing mandatory stuff in college and all I got was this undesignated bachelor of science degree!?
If you spent that many hours doing work toward your degrees at a civilian university you would would end up with a couple of bachelors, a couple of masters, and a PhD. What students do 10,560 hours in colleges and universities? About all I can think of would be medical doctors. Can medical doctors do something others cannot? Hell, Yes! Like surgery.
Can brand new West Point graduates do something that others cannot after their similar volume of training? Not really, unless you count giving parade commands or making their room look really neat really fast.
So if West Point would focus on something with all those hours—instead of making us so well-rounded (we had a mandatory non-credit course in “Cadetiquette”) and such jacks of all subjects but masters on none—we would be the premier college grads on earth at whatever they trained us that many hours at. Say civil engineering. West Point was created more or less to be a civil engineering school because back in the late 1700s and early 1800s building good fortifications was a key military activity. For a while, the emblem on the cadet hats at West Point was the symbol of the Army Corps of engineers, a little castle with a turret on each side. Suppose we had spent about 10,000 hours just studying civil engineering and 560 on maintaining physical fitness? The Long Gray Line would be the main force in civil engineering worldwide dominating construction, academic civil engineering departments, peer-reviewed periodicals, and research and development in the field.
But the people who run the Military Academy wasted most of those 10,560 hours by spreading it so extremely thin. We finished not even well trained enough for the platoon leader and company commander jobs we almost all ended up with before we got out of the Army.
In On the Waterfront, Marlon Brandon as boxer “Terry Malloy” laments that he “could a been a contender,” one of the most famous movie scenes and lines of all time. We graduates of West Point could have been contenders, too. We had the potential when we entered that storied institution. We were willing to spend the 10,000 hours going through an extreme ordeal. We did spend the 10,000 hours! But we were betrayed by the olive drab office politicians who run the place who by their politician efforts to be all things to all people. They spread our 10,000 hours of striving so broadly and so thin that we ended up with little to show for them. They treated our education and training like some weapons system that has to create at least a few jobs in every single Congressional district so it can never be canceled.
Grads from my era and before can’t even claim to have majored in anything in college! 10,000 hours and we are not even masters of a single academic discipline! I remember hearing the following repeatedly about top-of-their-class recent grads while we were still cadets. They arrived at civilian grad school only to be told they had to take some undergrad courses first because, in spite of our orders-of-magnitude-greater academic workload at West Point, they had still not yet completed all the prerequisites for the masters program they were admitted to!
The four-year West Point program may be the most egregious example of “jacks of all trades and masters of none” extant. The people who design the curriculum at West Point seem to get points for the number of trades they can make us jacks of but no credit for our mastering any of them.
I have often described our military training at West Point as “introduction to everything but expertise in nothing.” One week at Camp Buckner I drove a road grader, built a timber trestle bridge, set off C-4 demolitions, and built a pontoon bridge. If it’s week two, it must be engineer training. Sounds like some kids summer camp where they try to fit as many activities into the brochure to make the parents think they are really getting their money’s worth. Indeed, Camp Buckner is actually a former kids camp that was called Lake Popolopen.
Then I never had any occasion whatsoever to use what I had learned in engineer training. Ditto many of the academic subjects we had to study: nuclear physics, automotive engineering, ordnance engineering, surveying, golf, handball, Never used any of it for a single second in my life, let alone in the Army. (I do acknowledge benefiting from learning to think like an engineer.)
I also spent three and a half years studying Russian getting mostly A+s. That created a bit of actual expertise. And the Army had absolutely zero interest in ever making the slightest use of it. What was it all about then? West Point simply wanted to brag to Congress and the general public about having many students like me studying Russian. West Point and the Army, in their usual form over substance mode, sees the Army’s college as a credential, not an education. Process orientation, not results orientation. Look at all the stuff we studied! Not, look at all the things we actually learned how to do!
Apparently, they only made us study all that stuff, including in the summer field training, so they could brag about the fact that we studied it. We got a million academic and military tickets punched then graduated without proficiency in any of them. And our lack of proficiency was exceeded only by the Army’s lack of interest in any such proficiency
The lack of leadership success by West Point graduates is especially maddening when you look at how many were class presidents, team captains, most likely to succeed, etc. or all of the above in high school. My first roommate freshman year was all those things. Another roommate who was my best man more or less was, too. Those guys were very common at West Point. They probably would have become CEOs and other types of leaders in greater numbers if they had NOT gone to West Point.
Maybe if fired Procter & Gamble CEO McDonald had spent more of his cadet time on management and leadership and decision theory and results orientation instead of process orientation, and less on properly aligning his shoes under his bed and marching in parades, he would still have his job.
With those 10,560 hours of cadets’ time, West Point has the greatest opportunity of any college in America to impart know-how.
With their willingness to spend 10,560 hours acquiring know-how, during their college years of all times, West Point’s cadets are potential great students and contributors to making a better America.
But because the cadets trust the administrators of West Point, and those administrators squander the 10,560 hours, every year, West Point and its cadets more or less put that most precious commodity—time at the beginning of their adult lives—into a huge pile and set fire to it.
As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in Outliers, spending 10,000 hours focused on one skill produces greatness. By spending the 10,000 hours, but being totally and utterly unfocused, West Point is the un-Outlier, the anti-Outlier, the polar opposite of a place that creates outliers, the institution where thousands of young men and women who would otherwise have become accomplished, exemplary outliers go to see their diligence and ambition die a very ceremonious, bureaucratic death.
West Point takes the extreme work ethic, talent, and willingness to spend 10,000 hours becoming a better person of cadets and, instead of concentrating it like a laser or magnifying glass, atomizes it into a million ineffectual particles. How many high schools’ “most likely to succeeds” experience such a crushing response to their extraordinary ambition, talent, and hard work then manage to still become all they could have been? The answer to that question is in the annual West Point Register of Graduates almuni directory where you see the irrefutable record of tens of thousands of extraodinary high school students having been transmuted into middle-manager government bureaucrats by the Military Academy and the five-year, post-graduation Army active-duty service obligation.
Imagine what “We of the Corps” could have accomplished in our lives if we had graduated at age 22 having spent those 10,000 hours focused on something useful instead of West Point chickenshit and trying to impress people with the sheer number of different things we were exposed to.
A West Point graduate reader notes that whatever we did learn at West Point academically atrophied starting immediately after graduation. Although West Point and the Army officer corps in general have extreme intellectual pretensions, the fact is that the work of a recent West Point grad in the Army is approximately as intellectually stimulating as attending a DMV orientation program for new trainees or supervising a crew of day laborers clearing weeds on the side of a highway. Your ability to differentiate equations or to apply the right-hand rule fades.
Here is his email:
Bravo--another excellent article!
The 10,560 etc. hours computation was surprising--but the math holds! Holy crap! I guess we really did all that.
And what to show? I graduated with a BS in Mechanical Engineering. [Reed note: This is a more recent grad. They now major in a subject there.] The first 2 years after graduation, my comparing notes with the MIT folks showed that my level of knowledge was equal to or greater than theirs.
The problem was that, by about year 3, I had forgotten most of what I had learned because I WAS NOT USING IT! All my knowledge and training had atrophied away whilst I babysat a bunch of drunks, carousers, and drug addicts. Any hint of intellectual prowess was laughed down by officers and enlisted alike as not "cool." Even Military History and hand-to-hand skills were laughed down as "not cool"--in a profession that is supposed to use combat knowledge/skills to defeat the enemy.
So why the overkill at USMA if all of it went out the window immediately upon graduation?
Also can't figure out USMA's obsession with "every Cadet an engineer." The Roman Army was said to have defeated more enemies with their shovels (combat engineering) than with their swords. None of them had engineering degrees--yet the ramp they constructed from scratch to conquer Masada (67 AD?) still stands today. Sort of pointless to cram calculus of the highest order down everyone's throats (and Philosophy, and Physics, and Statistics, for that matter) only to have 99% of us NEVER USE IT AGAIN FOR THE REST OF OUR LIVES!!!
Sort of continues to support the position that they should shut down the Service Academies. An old, old WWII vet once told me a joke post-graduation: "what is the most worthless thing in the Army?" Punchline: "a Second Lieutenant." He seems to have been correct. No other successful army in the history of the world (prior to the 1600's, I believe) ever trained a bunch of sequestered youngsters to such an extent that they were "combat geniuses" by the age of 22. They grew their leadership from the ranks--from people who had proven their war fighting and leadership abilities on the battlefield.
One of the main things colleges do is teach their students how to think critically, creatively, how to think for themselves, independently.
How does West Point do in that department?
Surely, you jest.
Once, at West Point, I participated in an extemporaneous speaking contest. The assigned topic was the anti-war protesters. This was at the height of the Vietnam War. I said that the lack of such people was one of the reasons Germany and Japan went so far wrong in the years leading up to World War II. I got my ass chewed for the content and logic of my speech, not my public-speaking ability which was the only thing the contest was about. An officer judge called my reasoning “incongruous” and threw me out of the competition.
At most college campuses, federal public policy and the wisdom of elected and appointed officials are hotly-debated topics. They should be, although I get annoyed when a college town or a dorm room adopts its own foreign policy.
At West Point, those are more or less taboo topics. When you attend West Point, you are an active-duty member of the U.S. Army and the federal government, as are your instructors and administrators. You may not criticize public policy or officials, period. I think it’s even illegal unless you complain directly to a Congressperson.
The recent West Point grad who complained that the school’s SAT scores are pulled down by poop schoolers said I was “dead wrong” about critical independent thinking. But the only evidence he had to offer was that some professors encouraged cadets to challenge the officers in class. I’m glad to hear it. I saw no such thing in the 1960s nor did I ever hear of it. But even if it’s true, it pales in comparison to evidence of critical independent thinking at other colleges.
As I said, I believe it is literally illegal under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for active-duty military personnel—including cadets, professors, and administrators at West Point—to criticize government policy. Professors at, say, the JFK School of Government at Harvard, frequently criticize current government policy in class, in speeches, and in journal articles. I would be astonished if you could find more than a tiny bit of such public criticism from active duty military cadets or officers stationed at West Point.
Military expert journalist Tom Rick wrote a Washington Post article that called for closing West Point. One of the Army studies he quoted said West Point graduates were not so hot at thinking “outside the box.”
In the 5/12/08 Fortune “Best Advice I Ever Got” article, West Point grad General David Petraeus, speaking about getting his Ph.D. in international relations at Princeton said,
I found the truth there about what General Galvin occasionally described as “the grindstone cloister” existence of military officers—we live a somewhat cloistered existence...grad school also gives most folks a healthy dose of intellectual humility. That was certainly the case for me, and that’s not a bad thing either.
The grindstone cloister mind-set is very unhealthy for the students of West Point.
Civilian colleges have recently been rightly criticized for stifling speech that does not please their liberal group norm. But you ain’t seen nothing regarding stifling opposing views until you’ve tried to debate whether there is a God or capitalism versus socialism or U.S. foreign policy at West Point.
You could debate whether there was a God in an informal barracks bull session when I was there, but a professor would have been afraid to touch the subject. Nowadays, I understand assertive evangelical Christians dominate the Army and the service academies and that you would likely suffer from such heresy as a cadet or officer even if you only revealed your feelings in a private bull session. See the discussion on fundamentalist Christians becoming dominant in the U.S. military in my article on the need for a draft. A recent cadet said he thought what I just said about private bull sessions was true in the Army officer corps but not at West Point.
In his book Warrior King, Lieutenant Colonel Nate Sassaman (West Point Class of 1985 and the Army quarterback back then) revealed this President John F. Kennedy quote about the U.S. military’s promotion system from Paul Fay’s book In the Pleasure of his Company,
The demanding promotion course has its advantages and disadvantages. Certainly it rewards the industrious, bright, ambitious officer, but only so long as he conforms to the pattern of the Establishment...If you express a position in opposition to that of your commanding officer, who might be very unimaginative, even though you are confident it is a much better approach to the problem at hand, you’re playing with dynamite. Number one, it is unmilitary; and number two, by the nature of the promotion system senior officers will most likely be in a position to stick it into you for years to come. So what happens? You end up with hard-working, industrious men but notoriously lacking in original thought as compared to their counterparts in civilian life.
That’s correct except that Kennedy understated the problem. The officer who verbally opposes his commander, even in private to the commander, is not playing with dynamite, he is committing all but certain career suicide. The ability of senior officers to “stick it into you” over a period of years is irrelevant. They only need one “stick” to kill your competitiveness. As I state elsewhere in this article, senior military officers have astonishingly little authority to do anything, with the sole exception of their absolute authority to end the career competitiveness of any officer with a single flick of a pen.
In addition to being Commander in Chief, John F. Kennedy was a Navy PT boat commander during World War II. He won the Purple Heart and a medal for saving the lives of some of his crewmen after his boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer that ran over it.
Some critics try to get readers to dismiss my comments on the military as “disgruntled” and such. (Such counter arguments are intellectually dishonest—see my article on those debate tactics) But it is easy to find other observers of the military, like Kennedy, who cannot be described as “disgruntled” who said the same things. Indeed, the military itself periodically creates blue-ribbon commissions of senior officers who produce reports about the state of the U.S. military and how to improve it. Those studies which I quote here and there, also say the same things, namely:
• dishonest reports are commonplace in the military
• dissent or suggestions to superiors are unwelcome
• superiors exert improper “command influence” on subordinate officers to force them to do things that are improper or officially voluntary
By the way, the socialism versus capitalism debate does not occur at West Point because they know which is best: socialism. The U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. military are both run on strict Marxist principles.
From each according to his rank. To each according to his family size.
Free, unlimited medical care for your whole family with no deductible from cradle to grave.
Free housing, legal advice, clothing always and meals when you travel or are in the field.
Soviet-style central planning.
You work in the job they tell you, where they tell you, when they tell you.
Military service is characterized, like Soviet life, by lots of standing in lines. Hurry up and wait.
No freedom of speech or press.
U.S. military officers are expected to be political eunuchs.
By definition, a college that gives you a two-inch thick loose leaf binder with extremely detailed instructions as to how to “display” your underpants is not encouraging its students to think either critically, creatively, or independently. On a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is best, West Point’s rating for teaching critical, creative, independent thinking is about a minus 2. That’s not to say no West Point graduates are capable of such thinking, only that it was neither taught nor encouraged at West Point. I think it’s fair to say that, as a group, West Point graduates are not known for critical or creative or non-party-line commentary.
One of my favorite quotes is this one from George Bernard Shaw,
Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.
Roughly speaking, West Point is about recruiting and/or turning you into a Shawesque “reasonable man.” The military officer brass hates Shawesque “unreasonable men.”
In contrast, you cannot even get admitted to my graduate school alma materHarvard Business Schoolunless you convince them that you are a Shawesque “unreasonable man.” To put it in a phrase that cadets used in the sixties, Harvard Business only admits
rompin’ stompin,’ hard-chargin,’ movers and shakers
The superior performance of HBS grads, as a group, over USMA grads, as a group, is almost certainly attributable to that difference in recruiting and training. The military occasionally has a rompin’ stompin’, hard-chargin’, mover and shaker, like a blind pig occasionally finds an acorn. They ultimately brag about such people, but typically not until they have fired, court-martialed, or otherwise harassed them. Examples include George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, Hyman Rickover, Billy Mitchell. I was amused to read on page 49 of Douglas Waller’s book A Question of Loyalty (about the court martial of Billy Mitchell) that Douglas MacArthur’s father, Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor winner Lieutenant General Arthur MacArthur, was passed over for higher command because he was too outspoken. That same book says on page 180 that Eisenhower and Patton were both warned between the world wars that they might be court martialed if they continued to agitate for a separate armor branch. They should not have. See my article on the armor branch.
David Lipsky wrote a 2003 book called Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point. It is very laudatory about West Point and very popular with the Long Gray Line. Among other things, it tells about a real-life, rompin’ stompin’ hard-charging West Point officer named Lieutenant Colonel Hank Kiersey. West Point seemed to be very proud of him and trotted him out in front of the cadets and visitors on numerous occasions, before they forced him to resign from the Army (pages 112 and 113).
Another way to describe what West Point and the Army want, and will insist on turning you into, is to use some literary metaphors, namely,
Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt
Sloan Wilson’s Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
William Whyte’s The Organization Man
You’ve heard the phrase “Pecking order.” It is a real-world phenomenon among animals including chickens. The head chicken will peck your eyes out of you are not the head chicken and you hold your head up too highliterallyin the barn yard. West Point and the Army are about driving your head down to the level befitting your rank and this applies even to four-star generals because they are outranked by civilian appointees and elected officials.
You might think West Point is about teaching you to become the head chicken. No. No matter how big of a “chicken” you become in the Army, you always have to hold your head lower than the “chickens” who outrank you. Holding your head appropriately low, figuratively speaking, is a sine qua none for advancing in a career as a cadet and a U.S. military officer.
At Harvard Business School, in contrast, everyone is a future head chicken because there is no rank order in civilian business when you are, as many if not most Harvard MBAs are, the founder and CEO of their company, including me.
They have many statues and other memorializations of famous graduates at West Point. I do not have a list, but certainly prominent among those memorials are the graduates like Patton and MacArthur who were fired. So, in the abstract, after they are dead, they recognize the powerful influence of these men as among their best. But during the event, the Army bureaucracy attacks them for their un-bureaucrat-like behaviorthe same non-bureaucrat behavior that makes them extraordinary.
Harvard Business School is often called “The West Point of American Business.” I surmise that just means that both schools train relatively young men who years later emerge as top leaders in their respective fields. I actually found a lot of similarities between the approaches of the two institutions when I was at Harvard and wrote a column about it in the school paper.
But the differences are profound. I described one above with regard to whom the two schools seek to recruit.
We studied three actual business cases a day every day at Harvard for two years. If I recall correctly, we had exactly one case in two years about a bureaucracy. Some Harvard MBA, government bureaucrat executive who was new to the government found he had an incompetent, brazenly lazy employee. That’s a common experience in government. My roommate at Fort Monmouth worked in an office where they had a 300-pound woman who refused to do much work or even show up. Every time they even said anything to her, she would say, “I’m black and I’m civil service. You can’t do nothing to me.” And they didn’t.
The subject of the Harvard case asked an assistant to get him the regulation about how to fire the individual. When he came back from lunch, he found the assistant had wheeled in a double book shelf that had about forty volumes of loose-leaf government regulations on employees. That was the assistant’s way of saying, “Welcome to the government, rookie.” Members of my Harvard section had various suggestions about what the new executive should do. When it was my turn I just said,
Resign. Life is too short for this nonsense. Everything that takes an ounce of effort elsewhere takes a ton of effort in the government. Staying in situations like this is clinically masochistic.
The fact that we never had any other cases about being a government executive makes me think my reaction was the one they were looking for and they figured one such case in a two-year program would be enough to get that across.
West Point is big on this. When I was there, phys. ed. was mandatory all four years and flunking only phys. ed meant you left West Point. Two of my classmates in my companyout of about 30 guysflunked out on PE when I was a freshman.
In addition, you also have to be in intramural or intercollegiate sports for all three seasons during the academic year at all times. They also put you through various physical tests and runs which cost you your meager privileges if you fail. And you only get 30 days or less off during the summer. During the other two months you are generally involved in strenuous physical training including reveille runs, camping and hiking (military style), hand-to-hand combat, etc.
Speaking as one who has coached 35 athletic teams at the youth, high school, and semi-pro levels, and written 15 books on coaching, I found the physical program at West Point to be overly eclectic and crude—like some 1930s regimen for building up your “pep.” Not unlike the academic course list, we were jacks of every sport and masters of none. The physical program I now follow is cardio aerobics and weight training on alternate days. Something like that is what West Point ought to be doing. It is what serious athletic trainers do. West Point and the military in general are big on appearance and image, or as it’s often stated, form over substance.They like the claim of “every cadet an athlete.” But the cadets and military officers would be healthier and stronger if they followed a regimen like mine rather than playing sports.
They taught us to adopt a “carry-over” sport to stay fit for our whole lives. A carry-over sport is one you can play for most of your life. I chose volleyball and enjoyed it for a number of years, but it was too hard to find a team at my skill level (A minus to B plus) and involved too much traveling. Sports have the advantage of competition which is motivational and, if the group is compatible with you and each other, camaraderie. But sports have the disadvantage of typically requiring you to use only one or two joints in a repetitive, violent, extreme, “110%”, high-impact manner. Where handedness matters, like throwing, you vigorously exercise one side, but never the other. That’s nutso from a health and fitness standpoint. That will get you over-use injuries if not acute tears and pulls. Most likely, you’ll get both. The more sensible approach is what I do now, ride my Schwinn Airdyne exercise bicycle at home every other day and go to the health club every other day to work all the major muscle groups.
I used to think West Point made me feel guilty about not staying in shape, which would be good. Then I noticed my Columbia son, who was a football player there, is the same way. Indeed, all five members of my family visit the health club to lift weights on almost a daily basis and the other four including my wife were all doing so before I started doing that. My three sons all look buff as a result. But I am the only member of the family who could claim West Point made me do it, so apparently West Point did not make me do it. Rather, it was the same DNA that causes my sons to do it and caused me to do it before I went to West Point. And I noticed at reunions that many of my West Point classmates let themselves get out of shape.
A recent West Point graduate told me that all the cadets now become Certified Master Athletic Trainers before they graduate. Sounds good, typical military merit badge mind-set. But active-duty army personnel that I see in person are often overweight. Media accounts have told me the same thing. If West Point grads are now such hot trainers and leaders, why is the Army fatter and more out of shape than ever before? The proof of the pudding of West Point physical training in this area is not certifications, it is the health and fitness of the soldiers in the U.S. Army. By that standard, West Point and its grads get a D or an F.
West Pointers generally point to the Cadet Honor Code as the best feature of the West Point education. See my Web article on whether military integrity is a contradiction in terms. For here, suffice it to say that no one talks a better game than West Point when it comes to integrity training. When I was there, the Corps of Cadets did, indeed, abide by the extremely strict honor code. It was amazing.
But the Army officer corps has not distinguished itself in terms of honesty. One of the AbScam scandal felony convicts was a West Point graduate Congressman. In March, 2009, West Point graduate Captain Michael Nguyen was indicted for embezzling more than $690,000 while he was a civil affairs officer in Iraq. He had not touched the paychecks deposited in his account between June, 2008 and his indictment while making many showy purchases of vehicles and other expensive things. Civil affairs officers handle such sums of money to pay Iraqi security forces and for reconstruction projects. The 4/12/09 Los Angeles Times article about Nguyen also told of an Army captain who was indicted for embezzling more than $400,000 in Afghanistan. It was found in cash in his suitcase when he came home. Another Army captain pled guilty with regard to netting $450,000 by stealing $39.6 million in fuel in Army Iraq and selling it on the black market. Two more senior Army officers were convicted of stealing millions in Hilla, Iraq.
From exaggerated body counts to the “Five o’clock follies” briefings about how well the war was going in Vietnam to the My Lai Massacre cover-up, the Pat Tillman cover-up, etc. etc. West Pointers have often been right there when the Army lied.
In addition to the above article on military integrity, see also my article on the Pat Tillman killing and cover-up, which is chockablock full of West Point grads. The test of West Point’s honor training is not in how many hours they devote to it or how much Web site and catalog space are devoted to bragging about it or how many times they can carve the word “honor” on their walls and rings. The only valid test is whether the graduates behave honorably. Given all the hype, the performance there is profoundly disappointing.
I expect a study would find that West Point graduates are more honest than the population in general, but not when they are in the Army officer corps and their superior wants them to lie, cheat, or steal. There, the group norm is as uniform as their clothes for the same reason: total discipline. When it conflicts with what the brass wants, which is almost daily, honesty is not an option for Army officers.
The only groups I saw occasionally worrying about honor or exhibiting moral courage in the military were the doctors and lawyers. See my article “No medals for moral courage.” Perhaps West Point should see how those types of schools and professions achieve that and mimic them rather than continue to claim they’ve got it all figured out.
I suspect it has something to do with the medical licensing boards and the bar discipline committee. There is no powerful organization that punishes Army officers who lie. Indeed, the typical Army officer who got caught in public in a lie had already been promoted in between when he lied, and his superiors knew about it, and when the press and public found out about the lie and raised hell.
Doctors and lawyers who behave dishonorably can lose their license to practice. Who decided those professions need honor more than the national defense profession and when were they going to reveal this to us? The military’s public pronouncements still say that integrity is essential to a career as an officer. In fact, going along is what’s essential as a practical matter, not integrity. In reality, the military forbids integrity when that integrity might embarrass the boss, which is virtually always.
Maybe the three groups—military doctors, military lawyers, and military combat officers—are all being consistent: each doing what they need to do to avoid being banned from their chosen profession. That is, adhering to their professional code of ethics in the cases of the doctors and lawyers and going along to get along in the case of the other officers.
The diametrically-opposed behavior of cadets, who never lie, and West Point graduate Army officers, who apparently do whenever so directed by their superiors, is quite consistent when viewed as an obedience issue. They do what they have to do to stay in the good graces of their superiors in both situations. Honor is apparently as irrelevant to the cadets who don’t lie as it is to the same individuals who do later when they are Army officers. The cadets adhere to the Cadet Honor Code because they do not want to be thrown out of West Point in disgrace, which is what happens to you at West Point. I would like to believe it’s because they were honorable, but when you look at their behavior just a year or two later as officers, it is a bit nutty to claim that West Point’s honor training and discipline changed them long term. Apparently the “honorable” cadet behavior was about 99% obedience and fear of being thrown out on honor.
I chronicled McChrystal’s misbehavior in two articles about the cover-up of the friendly fire death in Afghanistan of Army ranger and former NFL player Pat Tillman:
You can read more brief versions at various Web sites including McChrystal’s Wikipedia bio.
Basically, McChrystal was the main liar in the Pat Tillman case. It was he who wrote the Silver Star citation saying falsely that Tillman was brave “in the line of devastating enemy fire.” In fact, Tillman was shot in the forehead by his own fellow Army Rangers when he relaxed and stood up thinking they had finally figured out that they were firing at an American.
It was also he who wrote the infamous cable to General Abizaid urging him to warn President Bush not to praise Tillman’s heroism because it might later come out that it was friendly fire.
Both of those are described in more detail at the above two articles of mine. But the greater issue is how the United States Army responded to McChrystal’s dishonesty in the Tillman case. West Point and it graduates might say one guy lying does not prove anything other than one guy lying.
Not so in this case. The point I make in this article about going to West Point and in my article “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?” is that the problem is the Army. The Army simply does not tolerate honest officers. On the contrary, they demand that officers comply with what I call O.P.U.M. That means Officially Prohibited but Unofficially Mandatory. I wrote about it in the “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?” article.
In the Tillman case, officers were expected to cover up and put a positive spin on Tillman’s death. That violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice, not to mention morality, the Cadet Honor Code, the Cadet Prayer, the Boy Scout Oath, and any other code that addresses integrity. In other words, officially, what McChrystal did in the Tillman case is prohibited. But I say that it’s really mandatory. To see if I am right, look at subsequent events.
There were five separate inquiries into the Tillman cover-up. None could get to the truth. All the officers, mostly West Point graduates, including McChrystal stonewalled. They could not recall. West Point graduate General Kensinger retired and literally hid from Federal Marshals trying to serve a Congressional subpoena on him.
One of the inquiries recommended that eight officers be disciplined, including McChrystal. Not only was he not disciplined at all, on 5/11/09, he was promoted to the highest rank in the U.S. military—four-star general—and to the current most sought-after post in the entire U.S. military: Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), that is, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan. Furthermore, that was his second promotion after he was caught lying. At the time of the Tillman cover-up, McChrystal was a two-star general.
To any who say I unfairly tar the whole U.S. Army because of the dishonesty of a few “bad apples,” I have two words: McChrystal’s promotions. “Bad apples” can’t promote themselves.
McChrystal is what the Army wants you to be. If you were considering West Point because you want to live an honest life, think again. Also note that McChrystal’s promotion was requested by another West Pointer, his new immediate superior, CentCom Commander General David Petraeus, West Point Class of 1974 and it was publicly applauded by prominent West Point Rhodes Scholar John Nagl, Class of 1988.
Actions speak louder than words. Among the words pertinent to McChrystal’s conduct and the Army’s non-reaction to it are these from the Cadet Prayer,
Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking, and suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretence ever to diminish. Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole can be won. Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy.
The much-proclaimed commitment of West Point and the Army to honest Army officers is not matched by their actions in numerous cases, including the McChrystal post-Tillman promotions. To the Army officer corps, including many, if not most, West Point graduates, the words of the Cadet Prayer are merely so much college-boy naiveté.
Jon Krakauer wrote a book about Pat Tillman called Where Men Win Glory. I have it but I have not read it yet. But here are three paragraphs I saw about him and his new book on the Internet.
Krakauer said he doesn't know what his next project will be; he's still recovering from this one, and he has a full calendar of appearances — including one at West Point.
What will he talk to the cadets about?
"The danger of putting your career before the truth," he said.
Yeah, well, good luck with that, Jon. I’ve been complaining for years about West Point grads dropping their integrity “guns,” turning tail and running when the first “sign this false document” shot is fired at them. See my article “Is Military Integrity a Contradiction in Terms?” as well as various other articles you can find at my military home page. I do not see the slightest hope that any West Point graduate Army officer will sacrifice his career for principle of any kind.
I saw Krakauer interviewed on C-Span 2 about his book. He was asked by Army Times writer-interviewer Sean Naylor something about the lying and he gave an answer along the lines of,
West Point graduates will risk their lives again and again, but never their careers.
Amen. See my article No Medals for Moral Courage.
Virtually all West Point grads and happy cadets claim the place is the greatest education on earth. Asked why they believe that, they point to all the extra stuff cadets have to do. I have described much of it above. Huge course load. Eleven months-per year of training, not nine. All sorts of military and physical training on top of the heavy academic workload. Multiple parades each week during parade-weather months. Very long work days during summer trainingsome 24 hours long. Extensive Honor Code training.
I have often said that you do not “attend” West Point. You are marinated in it. Watching my three sons go through Columbia University, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Arizona made me think, “Is that all there is? You call that a college experience?” They take a class or two a day, have Fridays off, take an occasional test or do an occasional paper. Their rooms are a mess if they want them to be. They dress like college kids. They sleep until noon. There are parties of sorts several days a week somewhere in the dorm or on or near campus. They have the summer off. (Actually, my youngest and oldest had substantial football team activities in the summer and the school year. And my wife and I made all our kids work in the summers.)
The West Point pushers point to all that and say, “That must make West Point graduates the best college graduates in America.”
I remind you of the scientific method which you should have learned in middle school. It says when you are searching for the truth, you take the following steps:
1. State the question to be answered.
Are West Point graduates better prepared than civilian college graduates for anything in adult life as a result of all the extra stuff they do at West Point?
2. Form a hypothesis.
West Point graduates are far better prepared for all sorts of adult-life challenges than are graduates of civilian colleges because of all the extra stuff they do while they are cadets.
3. Test the hypothesis.
Oops. West Point does not seem to be much interested in doing this.
We do have the occasional war and, after all, winning wars is supposed to be the main reason for West Point or at least so said General of the Armies Douglas MacArthur, West Point class of 1903. http://www.nationalcenter.org/MacArthurFarewell.html
How have we done at winning 20th and 21st century wars?
World War Iwin
World War IIwin
Haitiscrewed up when we arrived and still screwed up
Afghanistanto be determined, going on since 10/7/01
Iraqto be determined, going on since 3/20/03
In other words, not so hot since 1945.
As a West Point graduate, I would like to be able to point to a particular area of endeavor where we West Point graduates are clearly better than our civilian counterparts who partied through Harvard or wherever while we were sitting through honor lectures, bayoneting dummies, attending Saturday morning classes, getting yelled at during meals, etc.
But I am unable to find even a single area of human endeavor where statistics or other evidence prove that West Pointers perform better than civilian college graduates. Here are some I have considered:
number of people supervised by the average graduate of the institution
West Point purports to be competent at producing high quality Army officers and citizens.
I am an expert on expertise and on how to impart expertise. I have written over 100 how-to books and over 5,000 how-to articles (many of which are listed at www.johntreed.net/chronologicalfulllist.html), all published nationally. My Web site (www.johntreed.com) has over 760 URLs and is mostly how-to articles. West Point claims to have expertise at educating its students such that they are much better, more effective leaders when they get out than those who went to college elsewhere.
Here is a pertinent passage from my book Youth Baseball Coachingthe first four paragraphs of the book.
98% of youth baseball coaches are incompetent. I am not exaggerating to get your attention. I mean 98% precisely.
How do I define “incompetent?” A competent coach is one who causes his team to play better than they would if he or she were not their coach. An incompetent coach is one who either has no measurable effect on his team’s play, or, worse, has a negative effect.
To identify the competent coaches among your coaching acquaintances, fill in the blanks in the following statement:
“Year in and year out, Coach [name]’s teams are always good at [some baseball skill].”
Readers of my book who apply what it teaches are competent youth baseball coaches. If you read my book and go to several Little League games, you will probably encounter one of my readers and you will recognize him by the specific, superior ways his team plays. The same is true of my football-coaching books.
Now let’s apply that standard to West Point. Year in and year out, people say that West Point cadets are what?
very polite and well mannered and mature beyond our years
Dates and friends and relatives commented on our “Cadetiquette” when we were there. We actually studied “Cadetiquette.” I still have the text book. One Ivy League girl I dated asked, after I spent a weekend with her at her parents’s house and sent flowers to her mom, “Is West Point a finishing school?” When I graduated in 1968, I and my classmates got a number of unsolicited comments when we were 22 and 23 years old that we were more mature than our civilian college peers. After that, the civilian peers caught up.
That’s it, bro. I have never in the 42 years since I graduated from West Point heard the sentence “Year in and year out, people say that West Point cadets are ______?” filled in with any other words than “polite,” “well-mannered,” and “mature.” The fact that I never heard any other words in that sentence is really West Point’s report card. It stands out in comparison to other colleges ONLY for those three things. That’s pretty weak considering the effort, time, and money expended by the cadets, faculty, and taxpayers to create West Point graduates.
If no one else can fill in that blank persuasively, West Point’s unique approach to education is nothing but a bunch of half-baked, Nineteenth Century, theories that sound logical, but don’t work, a fact which the people who run West Point are astonishingly blind or indifferent to.
Here is a quote from Adam Galinsky, a Northwestern Universiy business school professor who studies power and influence inside companies:
Once you’ve been in the water long enough you no longer perceive you’re in the water. Water is the norm. This is why newcomers are important. They can see the good and the bad of a culture for the first time.
West Point’s newcomers are called plebes. They are browbeaten and forbidden to speak to upperclassmen except for official business. They avoid any interaction with upperclassmen at all because of all the harassment they get from them. By the time they are allowed to speak to the upperclassmen, at the end of their first year at West Point, they have been in the “water” for so long that they no longer perceive the “water.”
An old cadet saying puts it very well and far too accurately,
West Point is 208 years of tradition unmarked by progress.
We also got a number of unsolicited comments that we were far more immature than our civilian college peers when it came to alcohol and the opposite sexboth of which we were largely deprived of while we were cadets. (I am a lifelong teetotaler so I cannot comment from personal experience about alcohol immaturity, but I agree with distinguished West Point graduate Pete Dawkins, Class of ’59, who observed that we were immature about women for at least several years after West Point.)
Military expert journalist Tom Ricks commented on the immaturity of West Point graduates with regard to alcohol and social interaction with both sexes in his Washington Post article calling for closing the three major service academies or in his blog on the subject. I never saw or heard that we were immature with regard to interacting with people other than opposite sex romance prospects. Although I can see where our isolation for four years might cause a little of that.
In 2006, I had a unique experience. A New Jersey woman I had dated at West Point when we were 19 got in touch with me (through the West Point Association Graduates) after 38 years of no contact with each other. We are both married but we have become telephone friends and she and her husband visited my wife and me at our California home in September of 2006 and we visited them while at the Jersey Shore enroute to my West Point 40th reunion.
One of her strongest memories of West Point 40 years later—one that I had forgotten—was that I had told her about seniors who entered the lottery to win a marriage slot at the cadet chapel at West Point. We could not get married until after graduation. But as soon as graduation was over, there was a parade of cadets and their brides through the Cadet Chapel for days afterward. Each marriage was allocated 20 minutes. To get a date and time slot, you entered a lottery months before graduation.
What she remembered was that many of the cadets who participated in the lottery, changed the name of the fiance between when they entered the lottery and the wedding! In some cases, cadets wrote “TBA” (to be announced later) in the blank for the name of the finance! In other words, they were signing up during their senior year for a wedding slot in the cadet chapel for right after graduation before they had found a woman to marry!!
Imagine how that proposal went:
Him: “Laurie, will you make me the happiest cadet in the world by marrying me?”
Her: “Oh, yes, Clint, darling, yes. Is next spring too soon?”
Him: “We’re already scheduled for 3:20 PM, June 8th.”
Or what if the cadet changed the fiance’s name but the Cadet Chaplain did not get the word?
Minister: “And do you, Diane, take Clint...”
Her: “Diane!? I’m Laurie! [to her groom] Who the hell is Diane!?’
If that does not convince you how immature many cadets were about women after four years of isolation there, nothing will.
Alcohol and the opposite sex can be far more dangerous than plain old general immaturity. Indeed, general immaturity goes away on its own within about two years of graduating from a civilian college. But if you get married to the wrong woman or wrap your drunken self around a telephone pole when you are 22, it’s a permanent mistake.
An argument could be made that West Point had a negative effect on us in those two regards and a net negative effect when you consider both the mature and immature tendencies of recent West Point graduates. (I am aware that West Point policies about alcohol and cadet access to women have changed somewhat since 1968.)
For current women at West Point, I would expect that they are not immature about men because they get plenty of male attention. But I would also expect that they have a much inflated idea of their attractiveness to the opposite sex in general from being in a 6-men-for-every-woman situation for four years. I saw this to an extent with Ladycliffe women and with Red Cross women in Vietnam. When a woman who is a 6 starts thinking she’s a 10 because she is at some isolated, mostly male military base, like West Point, she is in for a rude awakening if and when she returns to “The World” as we called it in Vietnam. And if she has allowed her biological clock to run out—as far as attractiveness, not fertility, is concerned—she may have unwittingly turned herself into an old maid by failing to strike when the marriage iron was hot.
This Web page has now been up for several years. I have discussed the issue of what we got out of West Point with many grads as a result. They all make the same mistake.
They point to some aspect of West Point which is unlike civilian colleges and say going to West Point was worth it because of that aspect. The problem is they cite stuff that they could have gotten elsewhere. The only reason to go to West Point is to get what they have that is unique and effective. When you rigorously separate what is unique and effective about West Point from those things that are also available at other colleges, you are left with very little.
Perhaps the most important thing, although few would admit it, is wearing the West Point uniform. That is unique to West Point. But there are several imitation West Points where they were almost identical uniforms, like VMI and the Citadel. So going to West Point lets you wear a uniform that is slightly different from the VMI and Citadel uniforms, but only those closely associated with the three schools would recognize it. And at West Point you have the satisfaction of knowing that you are at the real thing, not an imitation of it. But that’s all pretty superficial, shallow, and childish, don’t you think?
Can you wear a uniform at civilian colleges for four years? Sure. Go to Ohio State and join ROTC. Or go to a civilian college with a military academy lifestyle like VMI, Citadel, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, California Maritime Academy, or a number of others. You get to parade around in a military costume but you escape the five-year commitment to pound the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan.
I recently saw the 1881 Gilbert & Sullivan musical Patience. There was a song in it that captured very well the uniform motives of young men who join the military. Here are its lyrics:
When I First Put This Uniform On
When I first put this uniform on,
I said, as I looked in the glass,
"It's one to a million
That any civilian
My figure and form will surpass.
Gold lace has a charm for the fair,
And I've plenty of that, and to spare,
While a lover's professions,
When uttered in Hessians,
Are eloquent everywhere!"
A fact that I counted upon,
When I first put this uniform on!
I said, when I first put it on,
"It is plain to the veriest dunce
That every beauty
Will feel it her duty
To yield to its glamour at once.
They will see that I'm freely gold-laced
In a uniform handsome and chaste" -
But the peripatetics
Of long-haired aesthetics,
Are very much more to their taste -
Which I never counted upon
When I first put this uniform on!
William Schwenck Gilbert
The song describes the motives of the young men to wear the uniform, as well as their disappointment to find that females were capable of being enamored of young men who were the opposite of a man in uniform: 1881 hippies.
Tell me about it. I went to West Point during the Vietnam war when the military was near universally hated by our peers and our dates often confessed to us that they had lied to their college classmates about where they went for the weekend when they came to West Point.
I think it would be better if you grew up and got over your fascination with uniforms.
The other things grads have cited to me: public speaking, physical training, honor code, and so on are generally optional at civilian colleges as opposed to mandatory at West Point. But on the other hand, if you seek them out on civilian college campuses, you can get greater quantity and quality of training in public speaking (called debate, speech, communications), physicality (intercollegiate athletes, majors in phys. Ed., kinesiology, kinetics), honor (called philosophy at civilian colleges). The average West Point cadet has more of that stuff than the average civilian college graduate. But the civilian college graduates who seek out those things, get more and better versions at their civilian college—again, without the other aspects of the West Point ordeal or the five-year post-graduation commitment. You can even get more military classroom work at civilian schools that offer military history majors or history majors who let you specialize in military history than you can at West Point.
Prospective college students, especially those with the self-discipline and motivation to go to West Point, should not choose West Point solely because it will force them to do things that civilian colleges offer, in spades, as options.
A non-West Point grad who knows some grads said they evidenced and commented upon West Point’s failure to teach us how to dress in civilian clothes. He’s right. I had forgotten about that.
West Pointers are government employees for the first nine years of their adult lives. If you want to know how government employees dress, observe them at the DMV or the local court building (not the lawyers) or at your local public school. Scary, isn’t it? There was a movie and subsequent TV series about a female Marine who became an inner-city high school teacher. I saw an early episode of the TV series and was amused by the dowdy, frumpy way they dressed the teacher. Reminded me of off-duty career officers. My Harvard MBA wife, on the other hand, once got the rhetorical question during her banking career, “Do you spend ALL your money on clothes?!” (Yes, actually, and some of mine—for Ferragamo shoes, St. John outfits, etc.)
If West Pointers knew how to dress in civilian clothes, would doing so make the non-West Point Army officers think the West Pointers were putting on airs? Probably not. For all their resentment of West Pointers, the non-West Pointers look to the West Pointers for guidance on how to act. I recall one of my non-Went Point professors at West Point saying when he noticed that the West Pointer wore pajamas when they were on bivouac, he immediately started doing that. (By the way, I never saw a West Pointer wear pajamas on a bivouac, or ever even heard of such a thing other than from that professor.) Teaching West Point cadets how to dress in civilian clothes would probably cause the entire Army officer corps to upgrade their civilian wardrobes. As Martha Stewart would say, “That would be a good thing.”
I did not learn how to dress until I went to Harvard—and then only partly. I used to joke about that—saying of the non-preppies among my Harvard classmates, “We came in doubleknit. We left in cotton and wool.” We entered in 1975 and graduated in 1977. Doubleknit was big then. Now it’s mainly for athletic uniforms. I still have a pair of doubleknit white pants that I wore at my wedding in 1975 and just wore a couple of times on a Caribbean cruise in mid-December, 2007. Their appearance is unchanged. Wear like iron. Ironically, West Point cadet uniforms of my era—1964 to 1968—were also cotton and wool—mainly wool.
West Point all but forced us to buy one set of civilian clothes: a navy wool blazer, gray wool slacks, cotton dress shirt, and tie. I think almost all of us wore Bass Weejuns shoes with that. Nothing wrong with that outfit—maybe tassled loafers rather than penny loafers.
My wife and I bought each of our sons that same set of clothes from Nordstrom to send them off to college. When I get dressed up nowadays, I usually wear that same outfit, although often with some sort of khaki pants rather than the gray wool. At our 40th West Point reunion, they asked us to wear navy blazers and khaki pants for our participation in the alumni parade—which was cancelled, apparently because of humidity—Corps has. Last night, 1/10/08, I attended a 100th birthday party for Harvard Business School in Silicon Valley. Dean Jay Light was there looking natty and Harvardish in a navy blazer; gray wool slacks; a powder blue, button-down, oxford shirt; navy and maroon striped tie; and brown tassel loafers.
We wore uniforms at West Point. We were allowed to wear civilian clothes, but only between the barracks and the gate when we were leaving the post or returning to it. Furthermore, the only civilian outfit we were allowed to wear for that purpose was the navy blazer, slacks, tie outfit. So we were essentially still in uniform when we wore our “civilian” clothes. When you wear uniforms all day every day it is not surprising that you do not learn how to dress in civvies. And when you spend entire your post-college life at isolated, rural Army bases and in foreign countries, it is no surprise that you continue to not know how to dress until you attend an Ivy League university—if ever.
A recent West Point grad tells me they dressed the way they wanted in civvies as if that takes care of all this discussion. Actually, it’s beside the point. Believe it or not, we dressed the way we wanted in civvies in 1966, too. The problem was not freedom about dress when we were off duty and away from the Army. It was ignorance of how to dress in civvies from lack of practice, training, or good role models while on active duty in a uniformed service. Civilian preppies, Ivy League students, investment bankers, top management consultants, top lawyers, and so on generally know how to dress well in civilian clothes. The problem with West Point graduates is that they do not have that knowledge and make fools of themselves in civilian social and career situations, like dates and job interviews, as a result. No doubt there are some individual exceptions, but in general, this apparently is not taught at West Point, perhaps deliberately to avoid the “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” syndrome. LT 07 said one of the things that really turned her off about many of her fellow male cadets was their not knowing how to dress in civilian clothes.
For cadets and recent grads of West Point, the basic idea of how to dress is in books like John T. Molloy’s 1988 book Dress for Success. I found seven more up-to-date books on the subject: A Gentleman Gets Dressed Up by Bridges and Curtis, Details Men’s Style Manual by Daniel Peres and the editors of Details magazine, and Dress Your Best by Kelly and London. The former is sold in clothing stores in addition to book stores. The writing style of that book is a bit tedious and the whole idea of it is probably more strait laced than most guys want, but you’re better off reading it so when you deviate from its advice at least you know that you are deviating. Details Men’s Style Manual is more hip but the basic message is surprisingly similar to that of A Gentleman Gets Dressed Up. The best recent book on the subject that I have found is Esquire’s The Handbook of Style: A Man’s Guide to Looking Good. (It has a 2009 copyright. I bought it in 2008. It is standard in the publishing industry to lie about publication dates, except at my John T. Reed Publishing.)
Dress Your Best has a very different perspective. It shows 16 different women with 16 different bodies—all but three non-contenders for beauty queen—and cleverly shows how best to dress each. It does the same with eight differently-shaped men—some of whom look like they would not get admitted to West Point because of their bodies.
The idea behind Dress Your Best is an excellent one to apply to your whole life. Identify your strengths and weaknesses and fit your clothes to those. You need to do the same with your career. That’s the main point of my Succeeding book. The one difference is my book says to correct the correctable—like getting rid of fat. Dress Your Best tells you how to hide your fat.
Another way to do it right is to shop at the right stores. The salesmen there will make informed, useful suggestions.
One problem comes from trying to buy suits and sport coats cheap—and with casual wear. I am not a paragon of fashion, but what I wear since I learned how to dress at Harvard is Ralph Lauren Polo shirts and Wrangler jeans in summer. (I am a full-time writer and live in California.) In the winter, I generally wear the same Wrangler jeans, or L.L. Bean chinos and a Land’s End, Orvis, Pendleton, L.L. Bean, or other similar cotton or wool shirt with two button-flap pockets. Occasionally with a cotton turtleneck or mock turtle. I thought my navy, wool, pin-stripe suit was from Brooks Brothers, but when I put it on last night to go to the Harvard 100th Birthday Party, I noticed the label in it said “Joseph Abboud,” so I must have bought it at Nordstrom. I fit right in at the Harvard soiree wearing it.
I recently got a double-breasted Navy blazer and another wool sport coat and wool pants at Ralph Lauren, a couple of custom-made white shirts (no monogram) at Brooks brothers, and a pair of slacks at Loro Piana.
Some of these things are expensive, but it’s not just expense that defines dressing well. Wrangler jeans are $14 at Wal-Mart. (When fashion giant Yves St. Laurent died at the beginning of June, 2008, his obituary noted that his only fashion regret was not inventing blue jeans.) L.L. Bean chinos and Land’s End turtlenecks are also inexpensive. Macy’s pocket squares are only $10. Rather, the idea is classic stuff that fits well and is attractive, practical, and comfortable.
My sport coats are from Nordstrom, Ralph Lauren. My dress-up shoes are Brooks Brothers penny loafers and Allen Edmonds tassel loafers. For inclement or cooler weather, I have a cliché Burberry trench coat, a USCG G-1 leather bomber jacket (I used it for the cover phonto for my first novel), a shearling bomber jacket, a Ralph Lauren polo leather windbreaker, an L.L. Bean Weather Channel/Fox News (without those logos) winter coat, and a Wrangler jeans jacket. Here’s a big photo so you can see the leather well.
The 7/21/08 Time magazine had an interview with Tim Gunn who has a TV show and book called Guide to Style. His comments on the subject were informed, intelligent and, I’m relieved to say, somewhat similar to what I said above. His book is more female oriented than male, but then we now have female West Point cadets and graduates, don’t we. (Although I think you need at least three stars to be allowed to exhibit any style, e.g., the Ike jacket of World War II and George Patton’s ivory-handled pistols and shearling bomber jacket. Exhibiting more style than your military superiors would likely end your career.)
Three other recent books that I liked are Style and the Man by Alan Flusser, Gentleman’s Guide to Grooming and Style by Bernhard Roetzel and Nordstrom Guide to Style by Tom Julian. Here are a couple of pertinent lines from Nordstrom executive Pete Nordstrom,
What I’ve learned is that it’s the subtle things that make a real difference in your appearance, and it’s the confidence that you gain from knowledge that allows you to pull it off. A well-dressed man who carries himself with confidence stands out and gets noticed no matter where he is.
Style is a word that young people find attractive. It is also a word that appears in the titles and content of books on how to dress.
Young people rarely have a high opinion of old people. But one of the compensations of age is that you have the experience and self-knowledge to have a style if you make the effort. Young people, like cadets and recent West Point graduates, probably claim to have a style, but it’s not very credible. The main message of my book Succeeding, and of this article, is that you need to figure out who you are.
Young people are only beginning to learn their strengths and they are way too reluctant to admit their weaknesses. You cannot choose a style until you recognize your weaknesses. Only when you do, can you wisely select your career and your style in clothing and other habitual activities (like writing in my case). But the sooner you get to work on all that, the better.
I usually attend Founders Day, the annual celebration of the founding of West Point on 3/16/1802 by Thomas Jefferson at the suggestion of George Washington. It is typically a black-tie-optional affair.
I recently bought my first tux. Owning a tux has never been cost effective for me because I do not go to enough tux affairs. But I bought a tux for two reasons:
• My wife in increasingly involved with the sort of charities that hold black-tie affairs
• Tux rental in my area has become almost a monopoly of Men’s Warehouse. That’s the place where owner George Zimmer says in ads, “You’re gonna like the way you look. I guarantee it.”
Hey George, I rented one of your tuxes for my son’s wedding. I did not like the way I looked. Your tuxes seem to be something like “Two sizes fit all.” They are very big and very big on using elastic to compensate for the fact that they are very big. I am not very big. I’m 5' 11" 170 pounds and proud of it and not interested in covering my svelte figure with a muu muu that has satin lapels. When I invoked your guarantee to complain about the tux shoes that were so big I could put my whole thumb between my heel and the back of the shoe, your manager argued with me over and over that it was my fault because I had said, after I tried on on the shoes weeks before, that I needed that size. I did not point out that I have never made such a mistake in my life (made others) and that I would have no motive for doing so at my son’s wedding. I just kept pointing out your guarantee and saying, “Get me shoes that cause me to ‘like the way I look’.” Your manger (San Ramon store) kept saying it was my fault, my fault, my fault. Finally, one of his subordinates perpetrated a Caine Mutiny and took over for your “Captain Queeg” and removed the shoes from the bill. I wore my normal shoes to the wedding. I was not thrilled with the way I looked, but it beat the hell out of looking the way George Zimmer wanted me to look. If you’re going to be consistent, George, get elastic shoes to go with your elastic tuxes.
So I bought my own tux—Brooks Brothers—to avoid having to ever appear in public again wearing one of George Zimmer’s “tuxes.” A number of stores told me tuxes almost never go on sale. They do at Brooks Brothers the day after Christmas. I was in San Diego to attend the Holiday Bowl because my youngest son works for the AZ team, so I bought it in La Jolla to lock in the sale price and had them ship it to San Francisco which is the Brooks store near where I live. San Francisco tailored it to fit me.
The main tux faux pas I see at Founders Day and other black-tie affairs is the wearing of a winged-collar formal shirt and bow tie.
The rule is, you only wear a winged-collar formal shirt with a white tie at a white-tie affair. Who says so? How about page 123 of the Details Men’s Style Manual which says,
A throwback to the 19th century, the wing collar is best suited for white tie and tails. Stick with a turn-down collar [when wearing more normal types of formal wear].
I have never been to a white-tie affair in my life. Most men probably have not. If you ever go to one, you can rent a winged-collar shirt. Get an elastic one from George Zimmer or buy one or, if George has not taken over all formal wear rental in your area, rent it from a store where you really will like the way you look.
I hasten to add this is an extremely wide-spread mistake. My three sons’ high school graduation photos are all winged-collars with black bow ties (provided by the photographer). Indeed, when I Googled “winged-collar formal shirt” to get a picture to link to, there were zillions of photos of winged-collar shirts combined with black ties. Comically, many were captioned “white tie”!!!
The manager of the San Francisco Brooks Brothers store is George Longoria. When I ordered a custom formal shirt there, I had to pick a collar. One of the ones they showed me was winged. “That’s for white tie only,” I said. “I have never been to a white-tie event.” George nodded approvingly, impressed that I knew that. A couple of months later, I saw him again in the store and asked, “How come I see so many black ties with winged collars? I thought that was incorrect.” “It is,” he confirmed. “But a lot of people aren’t knowledgeable.” He was required to read a book on such things when he first started working at Brooks Brothers. (It must be acknowledged that Brooks Brothers own website has photos of men wearing black ties with winged collars. I surmise that’s a manifestation of the admonition among salespeople of all types to “Never educate the customer.” In other words, if your customer wants X, you sell him X.)
When I point out that you are not supposed to wear a winged-collar with a black tie, many respond haughtily, “I break the rules.”
For one thing, that’s a bit of a joke coming out of the mouth of a West Point graduate who spent four years abiding by the Cadet Regulations “Blue Book” which is two inches thick and full of photos showing which way your toothbrush points in your locker and such—and another five to 35 years as an Army officer who dresses every duty day in accordance with extremely strict rules.
Secondly, even for West Pointers who claim to be nouveau rule breakers since they got out of the Army, there are certain rules for breaking the rules—really.
1. Before you can break the rules, you must know the rules. The vast majority of guys who wear black ties with winged-collar shirts are unaware they are breaking the rules. Indeed, they think they are abiding by them. There may be some cool to breaking the rules after you have learned the rules. But breaking the rules because you never learned the rules is not cool. It just shows your ignorance. West Point and its graduates fancy themselves officers and gentlemen and the equivalent of Ivy Leaguers and a sort of elite royalty at home both on the battlefield and at the formal ball. Bullshit! If West Point grads want to live up to that description, they need to learn the rules of formal dress.
2. Before you can break a rule, you must know the reason for the rule. I am not sure but I surmise the reason for the rule is you are not supposed to show the part of the bow-tie that goes around the back of your neck in public. The correct shirt for a black tie affair is a formal shirt with a normal (called “turned down”) collar. The normal collar covers up the back of the bow tie—like this picture of Sean Connery as James Bond or this one of George Clooney. More importantly, it covers up the the little metal catch that is adjusted according to the size of your neck. When you wear a white bow tie with a winged-collar shirt, the part of the tie that goes around the back of your neck is concealed by blending in with the same color background of the shirt.
3. Your reason for breaking the rule must outweigh the reason for the rule based on some logic. So if the reason for the “no black bow tie with a winged collar shirt” rule is to conceal the black back of the tie and its metal catch, what is your overriding reason to put that part of your tie on display?
I think I have shown that you did not break the rule in accordance with the rules of breaking the rules. You broke the rule because you’re just a slightly ignorant gentleman wannabe rather than the polished gentlemen you would like to believe you are. Wise up.
With regard to the bow tie, you should tie it yourself every time you wear it. That is, it should not be pre-tied.
First, it is easy to tie it. It’s similar to tying your shoe lace. Brooks Brothers has a slide show of how to do it at their website. There are also videos and such of how to do it at other websites like http://www.beautiesltd.com/category/how-to-tie-a-bow-tie-instructions.
Second, pre-tied ties are against the rules. Why? They can be detected from about 20 yards away. The purpose of a pre-tied tie is training wheels for men who do not know how to tie a bow tie and refuse to learn. But how do you send your pre-tied tie to the cleaners? You don’t. So you are eventually wearing a dirty bow tie. Gross.
Equally important, by wearing a black tie, you imply that you are a gentleman familiar with such things. By wearing a pre-tied bow tie, you reveal that you are, in fact, an imposter or poseur uncomfortably wearing an unaccustomed costume.
The bow tie is supposed to look imperfect. Mission accomplished at my first wearing of my formal bow tie. Pre-tied bow ties look way too perfect and tight.
Breaking rules is cool, right? But the epitome of cool was Frank Sinatra at the end of one of his concerts with his bow tie untied hanging around his neck. Not his clip-on dangling from one side of his collar. I could not find such a photo of Sinatra, but here’s one of Harvard dropout Matt Damon: http://mattsmoviereviews.net/Images/damonmattbowtie.jpg.
If you cannot learn to tie a bow tie, which is ridiculous, get it tied at Brooks Brothers or some similar store, then unhook the sizing clasp and use the sizing clasp, probably with your wife’s help, to put it on next time you wear it. When I was a cadet, I knew how to tie the black tie we wore every day to class after September because I had gone to Catholic school for five years. But many of my West Point classmates never learned how to tie a tie, not even after they went to West Point and in spite of the fact that Army officers also often wear ties. Those classmates had one of us who knew how to tie it do so, then they just tightened and loosened it every day as cadets. No kidding. Today’s cadets wear an open collar class shirt so I wonder if any of them know how to tie a tie. (The Corps has, or, as Obama would say it, “The Corpse has.”)
Note, the West Point Association of Graduates gift shop sells a combination matching cummerbund, pre-tied bow tie, and regular tie, all in the same black-gold-gray striped pattern—for $39.95. This is comical for several reasons. One is the price. Each of those items should cost around $60, not all three for $39.95. Another is the pre-tied bow tie. Then there is this quote from page 143 of the Nordstrom Guide to Men’s Style:
Never wear a matching bow tie, cummerbund, and pocket square—this screams “rental!”
So much for many male West Pointer’s pretensions at being sophisticated gentlemen. The AOG gift shop should offer a tie-it-yourself bow tie in a West Point pattern design at least as a trial product. Perhaps too few would buy the tie-it-yourself version—which would tell us much about how much West Point cadets and grads know about how to dress in civilian clothes.
(Note: One of my best friends from West Point is a professional magician. He always wears matching cummerbunds and bow ties—typically reflecting the logo of the client he is performing for. He does strolling magic at dinner tables at many formal affairs. He says he has gotten at least two high profile gigs by auditioning in matching cummerbund and bow-tie with client logo. Is he breaking the rules? No. He’s a professional magician who is hired to entertain for the evening. The waiters, busboys, orchestra leaders, and professional entertainers are supposed to dress differently from the audience. It would be confusing if he dressed like a normal attendee and went around interrupting diners to do magic tricks. The general rule for normal attendees at a formal affair is you should not try to stand out or draw attention to yourself. Formal affairs are about the only time civilians should be “in uniform.” The worst violation of this rule is the high school prom which nowadays typically looks like a pimp convention.)
I tried to get my alterations lady to make an un-pre-tied West Point bow tie from a regular black-gold-gray striped tie I bought at West Point. She said she needed a second such tie to get enough material. I did not want it that bad.
Quality cummerbunds have a button hole on the back side. Why? So that men with fat stomachs can button the cummerbund to their trousers or shirt so the cummerbund does not ride up exposing shirt between the cummerbund and the trousers.
You are supposed to wear suspenders, not a belt, with a tux. I wore my cadet suspenders in 2010—still in perfect shape after 46 years.
Military Times Edge magazine for February 2010 has an article called “Well Suited: What to wear when you leave the uniform behind.” It’s sort of Dress for Success in civilian clothes when you leave the Army. I thought they were comically bad in parts. My wife says that’s the difference between a sergeant and a Harvard MBA. Probably true, but I think men with Ivy League degrees who work in top big city professional firms (law, investment banking, consulting, not medical) probably are the men who are the best dressed in the classical manner. A former sergeant who dresses like them will look his best.
People who only know Harvard MBA’s through the media probably have some stereotyped extreme notion of how they dress—like the Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) character in the movie Wall Street with his power ties, brightly colored shirts with white collars, and suspenders. Real Wall Street guys don’t even dress like that anymore. Here is a photo of John Thain, the recently fired head of Merrill Lynch. He is a real Harvard MBA and he is well dressed in a classical manner. The former MP sergeant can dress the same roughly speaking. What you see in guys like Thain is a well-made, well-fitted, quality-fabric, classical American men’s suit, a pure white shirt, and a nice tie that adds some color. That’s all.
Here’s another guy Harvard professional degree (Law School) who works in a big city: Barack Obama. Like Thain, he is wearing a bright white shirt, dark suit, and a nice tie that has some color. He is also showing his white shirt sleeve at the cuff of his suit jacket. 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch of white shirt cuff should show below the sleeve of your suit jacket or sport jacket. Also, about 1/2 inch of your shirt collar should show above the jacket collar, as Obama does. How do you make sure of that? Buy the suit or sport coat where they know what they are doing in terms of the length of the sleeves (touch the thumb knuckle closest to your wrist), then take that jacket with you when you buy the shirt. Try the shirt on and make sure 1/4 to 1/2 inch of it shows below the jacket sleeve and 1/2 inch above the collar. Ironically, I initially managed not to understand the civilian white sleeve and collar showing after four years of snapping heavy starched, white not cream, fake, french cuffs and collars into my dress gray and full dress gray jackets at West Point.
I do not mean to imply I approve of the way Obama dresses. He is too skinny. A big part of dresing well, as described in the above-mentioned book Dress Your Best, is using the various optical illusions available in clothing to camouflage your weak points and bring out your good points. Black makes the body part it covers look slim. When my son Dan was a high school running back, he started wearing black leotards in games. I told him to knock that off because it make his legs look like pipe stems and would hurt his chances of getting recruited for college football. (He was recruited by Columbia, Dartmouth, and Yale and a bunch of high academic Division III teams and played tailback four years at Columbia.)
Obama almost always wears black suits. Go figure. He ought to be wearing white-and-horizontal-colored-striped rugby shirts, A double-breasted suit would also make him look less skinny. Charlie Rose, who has no skinny problem, always wears them. Obama could also wears some suits in lighter colors and Glen Check or window-pane patterns to make the horizontal dimension look better. He has a pin head and big ears and should grow his hair a bit longer to diminish that effect. He did when he was younger. Here’s a photo. He now appears to be adhering to some fashionable black-guy hairstyle. To break fashion rules, you need to know the rules and why they exist then you break the rules you break because you have a purpose that trumps the purpose of the fashion rule. Obama’s big ears and pin head are the reasons he needs to ignore whatever rule he is following on hair length.
Both Thain and Obama look real good. You may not be able to articulate why as I just did, but you know it when you see it, and so will the people on whom you wish to make a good impression even though they probably cannot articulate why either.
The point is neither Thain nor Obama is dressed the way Military Times told the former sergeant to dress.
(There is a YouTube of me making a speech wearing a double-breasted navy blazer. I have the properly-fitting white shirt. The double-breasted blazer is slightly in your face in a preppy sort of way, as is the pocket square which matches only one of the colors in the tie, not all of them. I am no paragon of fashion, but I offer it to show a less famous guy than Thain and Obama also adhering to good advice on how to dress.)
Almost all books on how to dress say that if you have a smaller budget, you buy the same high-quality, classic stuff, only less of it.
Military Times recommends $250 suits, which is understandable when you read further that they went shopping for them at Joseph A. Bank.
A several-hundred-year old bit of English language literature said a good men’s suit is always worth about the same as an ounce of gold. The January, 2010 price of an ounce of gold was about $1,100—although that is above the historical average gold price. I would think $750 is about as low as you would want to go on a suit today. My wife, who somewhere along the line became an expert on men’s suits, says $450. You buy it at a high-end department store like Nordstrom’s or Brooks Brothers or Ralph Lauren, not Bank.
Military Times also recommends two colored shirts and a cream one for your entire dress-up wardrobe. I would say three white, not cream, ones: one with french cuffs (need cuff links) for formal affairs like weddings, one button-down for work hours, and one not button-down but with barrel cuffs (buttons instead of cuff links). You do not ever need a colored shirt although they are better than white as a general rule when you are not wearing a sport jacket. To those who say white is boring, I used to be among you. Then I read up on it to remove myself from the ranks of those who do not know what they are talking about. White is sharp. Colored looks informal.
Although they recommend cream not white, in the centerfold photo, the sergeant is wearing a white shirt and has the proper amount of white showing above the collar and below the sleeve. His shaved head military haircut detracts compared to Thain and Obama. That’s a big part of your appearance. And his tie is too busy pattern-wise compared to Thain and Obama. The sergeant also needs to lose a few pounds.
I’m OK with their pants recommendation, but not if you are going to a hip night spot. Levis 501s would be more appropriate for that. Same with their recommendation on ties although I find the ones I like cost much more than the $35 they recommend. Ditto their belt recommendation.
Their shoes recommendation is OK, but they insist on laces. I have no such shoes. Mine are penny or tassel loafers.
They say to have your socks match your shoes or pants, which is correct, but then say to buy four pairs of navy or black socks. They only match navy or black pants. I match my pants and socks when possible because I think it looks a litle better than matching the shoes.
Finally, they say to buy a $295, black, single-breasted trench coat. Generally, the phrases trench coat and single breasted are contradictions. Trench coats are double breasted. A black, single-breasted rain coat is what I would expect Detective Andy Sipowicz to wear on NYPD Blue. Although as this photo shows, even he wears double-breasted. I wear and recommend a khaki, double-breasted Burberry. There are also some similar camel hair overcoats although they are not rainproof. Harkening back to the sergeant’s military police bckground, I draw your attention to Law and Order Detective Joe Fontana (actor Dennis Farina), a character known for taking extreme pride in being well-dressed in spite of his income level. Note in the photo of Fonana his white shirt with collar and sleeve showing out side the suit jacket. He has a pocket square that matches his tie. That’s incorrect, as the wardrobe person well knew, and so would Fontana, but Fontana would not care because he’s a little in your face and blue collar inside his well-chosen suit. If you want to see a guy who wears correct pocket squares, check out Bret Baier on Fox News Special Report.) In cold-weather scenes, Detective Fontana wears the camel hair top coat.
Do NOT wear a rain coat that is shorter than your sport coat or suit coat when you are dressed up.
I would characterize my clothing style as nouveau preppy or maybe classic with a bigger splash of color (in the form of a tie, pocket square, or cashmere sweater) than classic classic. That is a vast improvement over nouveau West Point graduate. West Point could easily fix that with a class that lasted an hour or two. But then who at West Point would know what to teach? They have been wearing uniforms for 20 or 30 years. Actually, like me, many of the West Point faculty have advanced degrees from Ivy League universities or Stanford where they do know how to dress.
Actually, here’s a better idea. Get some non-grad expert on the subject (dressing well in civilian clothes on a lieutenant’s budget) to come up from New York City to West Point to teach the class. Furthermore, he should teach it twice each year: once to the new officers stationed at West Point and another time to the plebes.
Does knowing how to dress in civilian clothes matter? Yes, if you work at a civilian company where the others there know how to dress. You make yourself an object of ridicule if you dress the way we did for years after graduation from West Point. You make a very bad first impression. I would be surprised if West Point’s failure to teach its grads how to dress in civilian clothes is not a contributing factor in the relatively undistinguished civilian career performance of West Point graduates.
Same thing applies to opposite-sex encounters.
In June, 2008, I was in my local Nordstrom department store killing time waiting for Lenscrafters to make my new sunglasses in one hour. A Nordstrom suit salesman saw the West Point crest of my otherwise unmarked polo shirt and introduced himself. He had graduated from West Point about thirty years ago. During our conversation I mentioned this portion of this article about West Pointers not knowing how to dress in civilian clothes. He said when he got out of the Army, a civilian executive recruiting firm that specialized in placing former military officers rented a hotel and put him and 44 other newly discharged officers there, in part, for some training. For days, the recruiting firm taught them how to behave in civilian job interviews and how to dress properly in civilian clothes.
I was bemused by the fact that those recruiters saw the young West Pointers and other former military officers as Pygmalions. Put that in the notion that if you graduate from West Point you have it made in civilian life. There have been two famous theatrical productions with that theme. One was Pygmalion, also known as My Fair Lady. The other was the movie Pretty Woman. In both cases, a low-class woman was taken under the wing of a high-class gentleman who “cleaned her up.” The British version involved everything, especially diction. The American version, Pretty Woman, mainly involved teaching the woman how to dress, behave at a fancy meal, wear her hair, and use make-up.
I also note the fact that the executive search firm thought the West Pointers had to learn how to interview with civilian companies. I expect the mistakes the former officers were making before the training were emphasizing things that are bragged about in the military like medals, combat experience, special ops training, their leadership abilities, how many dollars of equipment they had to sign for, and so forth. Civilian employees would want to know such things as can the former officer make the transition from government to for-profit employment, does he know anything other than strictly military skills like special ops, can he get people to do things when he cannot just issue orders, did he ever manage a group of people so as to improve a management situation. Military people tend to be most proud of their John Rambo/John Wayne Hollywood war hero types of activities. Civilian employers tend to be interested in what the former officer is going to do for them as far as making a profit or helping the executive advance his own career.
West Point Rhodes Scholar Craig Mullaney had to attend a cocktail party for that scholarship in civilian clothes. He says in his book The Unforgiving Minute that he had “nothing to wear.”
I called up the best-dressed mentor I knew: Charles Hooker.…a West Point graduate…a successful Wall Street banker…
Like I said.
In June of 2004, I was one of a handful of football coaches who taught a special small class of minority football coordinators at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. The other coach instructors included Bill Walsh (former Stanford and 49ers), Brian Billick (then Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl winner), and Bob Stoops (national championship winner at Oklahoma). The idea of the several-day clinic was that there were too few minority major college head coaches. The students in our clinic were the top minority football coaches who were not yet quite head coaches—the most likely candidates who would get interviewed for the future head coaching job openings.
College coaches typically are former players who did little more than maintain their academic eligibility while college students and who have essentially spent their whole lives in a locker room. Walsh, Billick, Stoops, and I were there to give them the extra edge in special coaching knowledge. I spoke on my book Football Clock Management, a “neglected area of football” according to “Dr. Z’s” (CNN/Sports Illustrated) mention of my book in his column.
What was interesting and related to the incompleteness of West Point’s and the Army’s preparation of its graduates for civilian employment was that after the day-time coaching clinics, the minority coaches received additional instruction on how to dress in civilian clothes, how to conduct themselves in interviews, and they were taken to a fancy restaurant where they were taught which fork to use and how to conduct themselves at an upscale restaurant in terms of manners and etiquette. I kid you not.
Prospective and current cadets ought to be surprised and informed by the fact that experts in civilian executive recruiting thought that West Point graduates with five years experience as Army officers needed some of the same sort of special instruction as a “cockney flower girl” (lowest class, uneducated street vendor in turn of the century London—the main character in My Fair Lady), a prostitute (Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman), and a bunch of Coach-like gym rats (1990’s TV series starring T. Craig Nelson and Jerry Van Dyke).
The West Point Nordstrom salesman said he and his fellow junior officers did not get taught which fork to use by the executive recruiters. I suspect that’s one area of civilian life where West Point covered the subject adequately—at least in the 1960s and 70s and before. The Nordstrom guy said his class was taught which fork to use by the Cadet Hostess office. We were “taught” by the seniors and juniors when we were going through our first two months as New Cadets in July and August before our first academic year. I put “taught” in quotation marks because their “teaching” method was to yell at us for doing it wrong. Whatever works. I learned to work from the outside in regarding forks and to put my spoon on the saucer not in the soup bowl.
The fundamental idea of dressing well is to purchase the correct basics wisely. You have to spend some money. Spend it on a few good multipurpose basics not many different garments if you are tight on money. You need to make sure the clothes fit well, which, in this day of a national obesity epidemic, means having shirts and jackets taken in at the waist—unless, of course, you need to be taken in at the waist. You also need to keep the clothes clean (professional cleaning is best for cotton, brush off and hang in the shower for wool), shoes shined, and in good repair. Your hangers should be proper—no wire, curved shoulders for jackets, cuff clamps for trousers. In spite of all their obsessiveness about our rooms and clothes, West Point failed to make us use cuff clamp hangers for trousers.
You need a list of the basics and the rules of how to dress, like what colors and patterns mix well. You need to buy the indicated garments and care for them well. As I said, this is maybe a two-hour course. I do not know why West Point did not teach it when I was a cadet or for some time thereafter. They did a very nice job on a personal-finance course in the spring of our senior year, albeit way out of whack on one of my current areas of expertise: real estate investment. And I do not know whether they are still not teaching it. If so, they ought to clean up their act and thereby help their grads do the same.
During our senior year at West Point, they had a show in the old gym, which is, amazingly, still there I learned at my 40th reunion. It was called the clothing show or the uniform show or some such. You were supposed to buy your army class-A dress uniform and your Army Blue full-dress uniforms there from fancy, Manhattan, expensive companies like now-defunct Jacob Reed’s Sons (no relation).
I was extremely frugal back then and dreaded the expense, especially since I knew I was getting out of the Army in five years (four as it turned out). Then one of our West Point graduate professors told my section that we were nuts to buy uniforms at that show. “Buy your greens from the quartermaster,” he said. “They are perfectly adequate. Only cadets and multi-star generals buy uniforms from those Manhattan tailors.” The quartermaster is a store at all Army bases where you buy Army uniform items like black leather gloves. The stuff they sell is adequate and cheap. I needed no further motivation and promptly followed his advice. My faded memory is that I paid about 20% of what my classmates who bought from the big stores paid.
At the time, asking seniors which fancy Manhattan clothing company they were buying their uniforms from was a common conversation topic. When I said “Quartermaster,” everyone looked at me as though I had lost my mind—as if I said I found my uniform in the garbage.
Speaking of finding a uniform in the garbage, the professor also said to get our blues from the post thrift shop. The quartermaster sells no blues. I was even less interested in buying blues because you wear them far less than greens and I was getting out in five years, etc. I only wore my blues to one or two “command performance” parties before I stopped attending such parties. I mainly wore them to save tux rental at civilian weddings and to be part of the saber arch at classmate weddings.
I set about to buy my blues from the thrift shop and happened to mention it to Chaplain Ford. He said his new assistant chaplain was getting out of the Army where he was an infantry officer and suggested I buy from him. The guy had been a stud, intercollegiate soccer player at some civilian college, so I expected his blues would not fit me. I bought them from him at some small fraction of the cost of new ones from Jacob Reed’s Sons. They seemed to fit OK, but I still took them to the West Point tailors to get them altered. “You don’t need them altered. They look like they were tailor made for you,” said the imported tailors at West Point. “No shit,” I thought. “That’s lucky.” I did have to get the light blue infantry stripe removed from the trousers and replaced with signal corps orange.
As far as I know, I was the only one in my class to buy dress green and full-dress blue officer uniforms from the quartermaster and thrift shop/assistant chaplain. At the time, my horrified classmates predicted I would look like a bum as a result. I looked mahvelous.
Later, when the subject came up after we were officers, my classmates universally agreed that I had been the smart one and they had switched to buying quartermaster greens when their Jacob Reed’ Sons versions wore out. Without a magnifying glass or extreme scrutiny, you cannot tell the difference between the quartermaster and expensive greens.
I do not know if they are still pushing the clothing show and those expensive Manhattan clothing stores on the cadets. If they are, DO NOT fall for it. Buy from the quartermaster and thrift shop. The West Point thrift shop may not have a big enough selection for the whole senior class. So try the thrift shops on the Firstie Trip or on CTLT or whatever. Maybe create a pipeline from current seniors to graduates of five years ago who are now getting out of the Army. Now that would be a clothing show that serves the interests of the cadets rather than bullshitting them into a huge unnecessary expense.
Why do the powers that be subject cadets to this fraud? My sense is that they want the cadets to all be gung ho career officers, and that they figure “real” career officers buy expensive, tailor made uniforms. They may also feel that the more you spend on your uniforms, the greater the probability that you will stay in for a career to get your money’s worth out of them.
You say you don’t believe me? Ask the career officers stationed at West Point to show you the label in the greens they are currently wearing.
If they are still pressuring you cadets to buy expensive greens and blues, and you avoided that because of this article, you owe me dinner. What’d I save you? $1,500? $2,000?
What I just talked about—West Point cadets not learning how to dress in civilian clothes at West Point or afterward while in the Army is part of a much broader effect. We were backward and immature upon graduation from West Point with regard to women and alcohol because our access to each was abnormally restricted during our four years there.
You should ask yourself, “Are Army officers, regardless of where they got their commissions, abnormally restricted or isolated during their officer careers?” The answer is “Yes, very much so.” Does that have a similar effect? No question.
I was reminded of it recently while reading the book I Love a Man In Uniform, by Lilly Burana. Burana is a former stripper who married an ROTC career Army officer. But he was stationed at West Point when she met him, went to Iraq for a year or so right after they got married, then returned with her to West Point after Iraq.
As a result of reading the book, I generally like Lilly and her book, but I kept marveling at their perspective on the world which reminded me of mine when I was an 18-year-old plebe at West Point. Fascination with the novelty of the odd ways and language of the military. Preoccupation with their strange, narrow little military world. Burana calls West Point “Military Mayberry.” I never lived there as an officer, but it sounds like what my classmates who did said. Resignation to their fate of periodic painful separation and miscellaneous, general, bureaucratic harassment by the Pentagon and the people immediately around them. Her husband sounds like an 18-year old to me in most places where he is discussed in the book. In fact, he’s a major which makes him about 30 or more.
Adult army officers are behind their civilian peers with regard to many things. That applies to people in their twenties, thirties, forties, or fifties. Indeed, the longer they are in the Army, the more out of it they are. In what ways?
• intellectual stimulation
• results orientation of civilians who are employed by private, for-profit companies
• sense of urgency of private, for-profit companies
• ability to lead where there is no military rank or chain of command
• ability to manage their own medical care without Army doing so for them
• ability to manage normal risks like inflation, stock market, job loss, etc.
• ability to make decisions—virtually all decisions are made by the Pentagon in the military—hardly any by other officers
• almost total ignorance of entrepreneurial self-employment
• 21st century successful civilian college graduate affluence
To state it narratively, career military people are, in many ways, childlike in their naiveté, ignorance, and ineptitude in realms that are normal everyday activities to their civilian peers. I’m talking about such things as job interviews, self-employment, picking pre-college schools for children, home remodeling, clothing, city life, investments, chatting with friends about opinions and politics, career variety, career stability, sinking deep roots into a community, planting a tree and watching it grow, head hunters, buying insurance, unions, utilities, and so on. Career military people are parochial, narrow, inexperienced, insular, misinformed about life beyond the post gate,
Although career military life is small town in many respects, there are also many others where military nomadism prevents you from enjoying various virtues of small town life like:
• going to school and socializing with the same people your whole life.
• buying a home
• having lifelong a family doctor, dentist, insurance agent, lawyer, and other local business relationships
• planting a tree and watching it grow
• home remodeling
• sinking deep roots into a community
Military families get the disadvantages of the “small” part, but not the knowing everyone well advantages that normally accrue to those who live in small towns. When it comes to the small town aspect of the military, they get the worst of both worlds.
They have a small-town perspective on life. Some country-western songs claim small-towns are better than the big city. Makes my point. The correct perspective is to try small town, major metro area, and big city and see which you prefer after you have mastered each. Having small children tends to affect the choice greatly as well. I have lived in small towns, suburbs, and big cities. Like most who have experienced all three, I prefer the suburbs of a major metro area.
Small towns are all the bad adjectives I just listed above, plus moving into one from outside, as opposed to being born there, is like crashing a family reunion. If you stay, they’ll still be calling you “the new guy” 50 years later. Most people who love their small town were probably born there.
Big cities have too many hypodermic needles on the sidewalk, too much violent crime, too high costs of living—although if I were single, I might prefer to live in one. The problem with career military people is they generally have only been able to experience the small town at length (albeit multiple different small towns which is a whole other thing from living in one your whole life) and they generally have no option to remain in the military and also live in major metro areas.
It is not only the geographic location where you are stationed. It is also the narrow “small town” organizational nature of the Army itself, and its subsets like your branch and unit. The way they talk reveals it. They often refer to normal civilian life as “out there,” “the real world,” “the world,” “beyond the gate,” and “the cold, cruel world.”
Being in the military not only stunts your career growth and maturation as a manager or leader or executive, it dramatically stunts your growth as a normal, mature adult who experiences, and can cope with, everyday modern American civilian life.
In 1979, 80, and 81, I did two-day seminars on real estate investment in cities around the U.S. About halfway through, I started having recurring nightmares that the manuals for the seminar had not arrived at the site and the students were mad at me as a result. That actually happened at the last one I gave. Fortunately, it was local to my home and my wife was able to send them over after only an hour or so. But by then, I had decided that I should stop doing anything that gave me recurring nightmares. When I stopped the seminars, the nightmares about them also stopped.
We have all heard of combat veterans who have recurring nightmares about combat. Although I am technically a veteran of a tour in a combat area, I was never in a firefight. I have not had recurring nightmares about Vietnam.
I did have one nightmare about Vietnam. It was triggered by a combination of my being in a number of vulnerable situations in Vietnam and reading the super, true story in the book Platoon Leader by James R. McDonough. The book is the most realistic account of Vietnam I ever read. It contains an account of a harrowing nighttime attack by the North Vietnamese Army on McDonough’s camp. On a number of nights at Bunard, an artillery firebase at Loc Ninh near the Cambodian border, and on top of Nui Ba Den Mountain, (view of Nui Ba Den from the side) as night fell, I looked out into the surrounding jungle beyond the near meaningless roll of concertina wire or Rome plow-built earthen berm and wondered how we could possibly stop an enemy ground attack if one came that night.
The night I read that part of Platoon Leader, I had a nightmare in which I was at McDonough’s camp the night it was attacked. The book was made into a 1988 movie also called Platoon Leader. I highly recommend it. Do not confuse it with the more well-known 1986 movie Platoon by Oliver Stone. Platoon Leader is more real. Platoon is more Hollywood. McDonough is a West Point graduate.
The reason I am talking about all this is that there are only two experiences in my life that have given me decades of recurring nightmares: my mean drunk father’s binges and being a cadet at West Point. Not Vietnam. Not Army Ranger School. Not Army paratrooper school or parachuting out of a C-141 (jet) in the 82nd Airborne Division.
What are the nightmares about?
a. Returning from leave to West Point on Sunday evening and finding that my company has been moved to a different location that no one knows. Since you have to sign into the orderly room by 1800 or you are in big trouble, I am frantic about trying to find the new location but cannot—like the dream scene in the 1950 movie Father of the Bride starring Spencer Tracy.
b. Inability to find the room for a WGR. WGRs (Written General Review) were final exams at West Point. They were often not held in the same room as your class on the subject in question.
c. Discovering a month or more into the semester that I was supposed to have been taking a particular course but did not know it. At a civilian college, this would be no big deal I assume. At West Point, it would probably get you expelled.
d. Being ordered back to be a West Point cadet, as my current adult self, along with all of my classmates (this actually happened to the World War I classes there).
e. Applying to and getting appointed to West Point as my adult self with my current disqualifying age somehow being invisible to others there.
Note that none of these nightmares relates to plebe year. They all apply equally to all four years. I was talking to one of my former quarterbacks last night (10/25/07). He said he had talked by phone to another of my former quarterbacks who is a year older and now a plebe at the U.S. Naval Academy (a.k.a., Annapolis or Navy). The plebe said it sucks, but he heard it gets better when you’re an upperclassman. I laughed and said, “In an everything-is-relative sense, he’s right. But it still won’t be UCLA.” Then I told him that I still have nightmares about West Point and they all relate to being an upperclassman.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have read that graduates of civilian colleges also have nightmares about not being able to find a exam room or turn a paper in on time. I suspect my nightmares about West Point have lasted longer and been more virulent than those of civilian college grads. Why? Because of the great sendoff one got back in 1964 when one went off to West Point, which makes it a bigger disgrace to not graduate, combined with the Old Testament, Draconian punishment for minor mistakes that West Point routinely hands out. I also expect that teenagers, which I was for two years there, are more susceptible to recurring nightmares about extreme experiences than older people.
Are long-term recurring nightmares significant? Feels like it to me. For one thing, the only other experience that gave them to me was my mean drunk father cursing at my mother when I was in elementary school.
Should I consult a psychiatrist or psychologist? I doubt it. I have an article at this Web site questioning whether there is any such thing as military expertise. Asking whether there really is any such thing as psychological dream-interpreting expertise would be an even better question. I doubt there is. And I do not wake up in a cold sweat screaming, “Where’s the C-2 orderly room!?”
Should the inducement of long-term recurring nightmares by West Point give you pause about going or staying there? I think so. Again, I suggest that you talk to other graduates than just me.
To me, it suggests avoidable, unnecessary, adverse, psychological trauma. And as I said elsewhere in this article, in the ensuing 40 years, I have seen no evidence of any compensating benefit from such “character-building” punishment.
In mid-November, 2007, I was in Las Vegas, baby. [Las Vegas City Ordinance 82.36(b) says you may never use the word “Vegas” without following it immediately with the word “baby.”] I was there as a reporter covering the National Association of Realtors® convention for my newsletter Real Estate Investor’s Monthly. I slept well in the hotel which means dreams and sometimes nightmares. What did I have a nightmare about in Vegas, baby? Not the gauntlet of four-foot-tall Latinos sticking business cards in your face as you walk on the east side of The Strip. Not the scarily inconsistent behavior of pedestrians and rental car drivers from all over the world. Not my wife’s inability to walk past a Wheel of Fortune-type slot machine without playing it. No, I had another type “e” nightmare about being a 61-year-old, upper class cadet at West Point who is unable to comply with one of the many regulations because of intractable inability to find some required thing or place.
So, in case you were wondering if I was exaggerating about still having nightmares about West Point 39 years after graduation, let me be very specific: the most recent one was on 9/7/11 43 years after graduation.
I would be curious as to whether any other West Pointers have experienced these or similar dreams over a long period after graduation. I am also curious as to whether any other grads have the guts to admit it if they did. One of my friends said probably no one would admit to West Point nightmares even if they had them. We’ll see.
In the summer of 2008, I worked on our class’s 40th reunion memory book because of my 32 years experience in publishing. As I suspected, several contributors to the book from my class wrote about recurring nightmares of cadet days. When I was at the 40th reunion in early September, 2008, one classmate mentioned that he still had nightmares about the place in spite of no prompting from me or anyone else in the conversation on that subject. In particular, he was having the same nightmare as I do about being there at our current age but that age being invisible to everyone at West Point.
Here is an account of two recurring nightmares about West Point from another more recent (’90s) grad:
I have two recurring West Point nightmares; the last one was maybe a year and a half ago. Both are eerily similar to yours:
1. I am a Firstie, and it is close to graduation. I am on pass, in a car, away from West Point. Something goes wrong that is preventing me from getting back to post on time. I am going to get into trouble and will not be able to graduate. (This nightmare started when I was a Firstie. For my last two or three months at West Point, I almost never left post for any reason.)
2. I am at my current age when someone discovers that I failed to meet a graduation requirement. I never really graduated from West Point after all! I need to go back for another semester or another year to meet all the requirements. Then, I will be able to graduate. I am in the barracks or somewhere at West Point with a feeling of disgust, just trying to suck it up and let the time pass.
As far as I can tell, there is no hard evidence whatsoever that West Point graduates are better off for having gone through all the extra stuff they go through at West Point.
I reviewed a book written by a West Pointer. It was called The West Point Way of Leadership. You can read my review at http://www.johntreed.com/Donnithorne.html. On the book’s jacket were the words,
West Point has turned out more leaders than the Harvard Business School.
As a graduate of both institutions, I thought, “Oh really!?” I called author Larry Donnithorne (West Point Class of 1966) and asked how he came up with that conclusion. He referred me to the publisher, but said he felt sure it was just based on the fact that every West Point graduate was in a leadership position immediately after graduation.
That’s really lame.
I got out my Register of Graduates for West Point and the counterpart volume from Harvard Business School and compared the Classes of 1955 and ’56 from both schools.
Here is what I found:
I checked the alumni directory bios of ten randomly-chosen graduates of each school from the classes of ’55 and ’56. The Harvard group included the presidents of the Norton Company, the Bank of New York, and several less well-known companies as well as high-ranking executives in other well-known companies.
The least impressive Harvard grad had the title lieutenant colonel after his name. He was deputy director of some state agency in a small state. That individual is not a West Point grad, but I suspect he is a graduate of the Naval or Air Force Academy.
The ten West Point grads included two presidents of their own obscure companies, an attorney, a couple of “managers,” a CIA employee, a vice president of a company, a scientist, and a couple of retired military guys whose career peak seemed to be teaching English at West Point and being the executive officer of a “group.”
None of the West Pointers were generals. Four, like author Donnithorne, made colonel, which is about par for a West Pointer. Two retired as lieutenant colonels. The others got out before retirement as lieutenant, captain, or major.
The list of the 50 most prominent living Harvard Business School graduates is probably all household names. Here are some of my guesses as to who would be on that list:
Michael Bechloss, historian and author
President George W. Bush
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney
Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City
Dan Bricklin, creator of Visicalc, the first computer spread sheet
Frank Carlucci, former Secretary of Defense
Elain Chao, Secretary of Labor
Stephen Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Walter Haas, former head of Levi Strauss
Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE
Robert Waggoner, CEO of GM
Robert Kraft, owner of New England Patriots
A.G. Laffley, CEO of Procter & Gamble
I could go on, but you get the idea. There actually is a list of “notable alumni” of Harvard Business School Graduates at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_Business_School.
Now here is my attempt at the list of the 10 most prominent living West Point graduates:
Wesley Clark, Rhodes Scholar, former head of NATO and presidential candidate, not invited to 2008 Democrat convention after criticizing McCain’s lack of military leadership experience
Pete Dawkins, Heisman Trophy winner, Rhodes Scholar, former senate candidate, famous almost entirely for his senior year of college
General David Petraeus, head of U.S. forces in Centcom
General John Abizaid, retired former head of Centcom
Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 moon-landing astronaut
Stanley A. McChrystal, Afghanistan top U.S. and NATO commander (Al Haig was in this spot on this list until he died on 2/19/10)
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke basketball coach
Barry McCaffrey, former head of NATO
Eric Shinseki, former Army Chief of Staff, current VA head
There is also a Wikipedia article on West Point and it also has a list of “notable” alumni—a very short list. Furthermore, the truly notable people on that list are notably dead and have been for a long time. The living West Point “notables” are less “notable” in general than the HBS notables, and certainly fewer in number. I never heard of the three who are U.S. Congressmen.
I was amused to find that West Point itself has a list of notable alumni at http://www.usma.edu/NotableGrads.asp. It does NOT include Wes Clark or Eric Shinseki (former Chief of staff of the Army and current head of the VA), Petraeus, Abizaid, or McChrystal! Or me—in spite of my being one of the most prolific authors from West Point and a biographee in Who’s Who in the World. They also do not list the guy most West Pointers would think was the most prolific author: Red Reeder. Indeed, a search of the word “author” on the notable grads page gets no hits, not even among those who were more notable for reasons other than their books.
I will not be holding my breath until I make that list.
Note that the Harvard Business graduates are prominent in all sorts of activities, predictably including business where they compete with all the businesspeople in the world. Some are prominent in the military like former Commander in Chief George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Carlucci. Half of the most prominent West Pointers in my list achieved their prominence within the military where they compete only with other military officers. With the exception of Senator Reed, VA head Shinseki, and Coach Krzyzewski, all the prominent West Pointers on my list are “former” this or that with regard to their notoriety.
The 1/28/08 Forbes magazine had a blurb titled ‘Soldier of Misfortune” which says Wes Clark resigned after one year as chairman of Summit Global Logistics. During his year there, its stock fell 60% and its losses rose 10,000%. I do not know the base on which that 10,000% was computed. The company also defaulted on a bond. I am not sure that Clark’s Summit adventure proves anything one way or the other. I would have to study it in more depth. But it should tend not to support the notion that a West Point education prepares you for great success in both the military and civilian careers.
Clark and I sat at the same table in the mess hall for several months when he was a junior and I was a freshman at West Point. I was extremely impressed with him, but that was just as a college freshman looking at a college junior. I suspect he would have done much better in civilian life had he attended a civilian college and started his civilian career in his twenties. He was a Rhodes Scholar, personable, and handsome. Instead, he stayed in the military until he was 56. I would cite him as an example of a young man with tremendous potential whose potential was not realized because of too many years in the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that is the U.S. military. (On page 43 of the 3/10/08 Newsweek, a young Cornell grad who made the mistake of taking a federal government job on graduation said, “The whole year was a Kafkaesque nightmare in which my job was to find out what my job was.”)
This may surprise you, but many West Point grads never served in the Army. Two of my classmates did that. One was in my company and had been my roommate once. Both were tennis players. Both had some disqualifying medical condition upon graduation.
I expect there are about 100 or 200 such living grads. I met a salesman at a Union Square department store in San Francisco in December, 2008 and he reminded me of such graduates. He knew one. They constitute a small, but interesting, database for separating the West Point education from the combination of the West Point education and five years on active duty afterwards.
I expect research would find that the West Pointers who never served in the Army did better as a group than their peers who graduated from civilian colleges at the same time. By peers, I mean students who had similar high school achievements and test scores before college. In other words, I suspect the West Point education prepared them a little better for civilian life in one’s early twenties than did civilian colleges. I am excluding knowing how to dress in civilian clothes, knowing how to act around females, and knowing how to drink alcohol maturely in this.
As I say elsewhere in this article, the main problem is not West Point. Rather, it is the need to be an Army officer for five years immediately after graduation. During that important period in the life of a college graduate, West Point graduates do not learn the real world skills they will need in civilian life. What’s worse, they learn the bad habits, mind set, lack of civilian business sense of urgency, and useful-only-in-military-bureaucracies skills of an Army officer. Then they do significantly worse in life than they would have if they had attended a slightly less challenging civilian college because five years of being a military bureaucrat between ages 22 and 27 trumps four years of studying calculus and making sure your toothbrush points the correct direction in your locker between ages 17 and 21 when it comes to real world success.
West Point should be teaching the truth about how to win wars and how to have a successful career in the military. They do in part. But they also deliberately leave out needed information or deliberately teach false information about both subjects.
One problem is the truth about how to win wars and how to succeed in an Army officer career conflicts with official policy and official statements. The U.S. military is run by a bunch of lying, incompetent-at-running-the-military politicians, namely, the President and the Congress. Furthermore, which party is in charge changes from election to election, and the parties tend to have opposite approaches for political positioning and base-pandering purposes. Generally, the political parties care not what is the best military strategy; they just want to get and keep personal political power. They view the military and wars as pawns in their political games.
For example, when I was at West Point, General Westmoreland (West Point Class of 1936 and a graduate of some executive program at Harvard Business School) was the U.S. commander in Vietnam. He said the way to win that war was a strategy he called “search and destroy.” The truth was otherwise. Did West Point teach us the truth or the current policy of the current top guy? I’ll let you answer that?
Will they ever teach the truth when it conflicts with current policy? Never.
The same thing applies to how to manage your career. The truth is you have to go along to get along. Specifically, you have to go along in ways that require you to compromise your integrity and your dignity. See my articles on O.V.U.M. and O.P.U.M.
O.V.U.M. requires you to compromise your dignity, to kiss ass. Is there a mandatory ass-kissing class at West Point? Nope. Apparently there are “professional” tricks to it like being somewhat subtle about how you do it.
O.P.U.M. requires you to be immoral, unethical, and illegal. Do they have classes on how to do that and not get caught at West Point? No. On the contrary, they teach the opposite. Do they know that they are teaching would be suicidal if followed? They do now after reading my article on military integrity. Before that, they suspected it was suicidal, but did not know for sure because they never dared to try to be ethical, moral, and legal in the Army. Our professors at West Point, who were young West Point graduate military officers—which was 98% of them back when I was a cadet—told us off the record, “Pssst. You can’t take the honor code into the Army with you.”
There is also all the Machiavellian careerist stuff you need to do to have a good career, like allying yourself with the right higher ranking guardian angel/sponsor/mentor, getting the tickets punched that will help you most, etc.. For example, knowing how to speak Arabic turned out to be a hot ticket in the Army in the 21st century. Who knew? You also need to handicap the presidential elections to anticipate which party will be your commander in chief so you can be what that future president wants you to be.
West Point does not teach the Machiavellian best practices and they never will because they are embarrassed that is really the way things work in the Army. Furthermore, official policy is that merit matters and it is illegal for West Point to teach the truth when it conflicts with official policy.
(There is also the fact that while West Point’s knowledge of Machiavellian careerism is pretty good—they did not get to West Point as officers just by being great guys and girls—it is incomplete. Just as you can get into career-ending trouble by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can also enjoy career-boosting good luck by being in the right place at the right time. Predicting where that will be and maneuvering yourself to be there at the key time is an extremely inexact science to say the least. In other words, a post-West Point Army career is mostly a crap shoot combined with much ass kissing, false document signing, and the like. And West Point refuses to teach you how to negotiate that gauntlet, or even acknowledge its existence, even though they know, in part, how to “play the game” most effectively.)
Speaking of Harvard Business School, I attended my 30th reunion there over the weekend of 9/28-30/07. At the reunion, I was struck by:
• The physical fitness of almost all the grads and their wives. Contrary to widespread belief at West Point, USMA grads do not have a monopoly on physical fitness. (At the subsequent HBS 100th birthday party, another Harvard grad from the Class of ’71 said, “That’s self selection. Fat guys and/or guys with fat wives don’t come to the reunions.” Interesting theory but disproven at my West Point 40th reunion.)
• The similarity between the grads and their wives and what they looked like 30 years ago. At my West Point 10th, I was astonished the other way. Guys would walk up to me calling me by name and I did not recognize them.
• Despite its image, HBS grads, or at least my class, had no trophy wives that I noticed. My classmates and I commented on it during the reunion. There had been some divorces, but no evidence that anyone took the event as an opportunity to impersonate a young stud.
• As I expected, none of my classmates that I was aware of worked for non-profit or government entities. All were self-employed or worked for profit-making companies. In other words, they have all been in results-oriented careers. West Point classes, typically, have a very high percentage of members who never worked in a results-oriented organization. The common West Point career path seems to be some sort of double-dipping military-then-civilian-government-job path. In those jobs, looking the part and talking a good game is all that matters. See my Web article on process-oriented versus results-oriented people.
Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding, Jr. made the line “Show me the money” famous in the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire. It was a more pointed version of the old saying, “Talk is cheap.” West Point can talk a great game about how great their training is. But they cannot point to much in the way of results to prove the efficacy, military or otherwise, of all the extra stuff cadet must endure.
Have we won some wars in our history? Yes. Was the training at West Point responsible for that. If you commit a logic fallacy I learned about at West Point, you might erroneously conclude that.
That logic fallacy was called “Post hoc ergo propter hoc.” That’s Latin for “After which therefore because of which.” West Point puts its cadets through hell. West Point graduates held prominent positions in our World Wars. Therefore putting cadets through hell causes the U.S. to win wars.
In fact, there were a heck of a lot of non-West Pointerslike 99.9% (about 8,000 West Pointers among 8,000,000 non-West Pointers) of the Armyin those World Wars. And it is generally accepted that we won because of our superior industrial production capacity and technology (e.g., atomic bomb), not any brilliant generalship. Indeed, whatever brilliant generalship we might have had around the birth of the nation atrophied as a result of our industrial might. The impression I got—from West Point classrooms on warfare actually—was that we have won our wars since and including the Civil War because of General Electric and General Motors, not General Pershing or General Eisenhower.
If you think it was brilliant generalship please tell me the great tactical or strategic move that General Eisenhower made to win the war in Europe. My impression is that he just did the obvious things—defeat the Germans in North Africa, land amphibiously in France, move east. He also invaded Italy, which in retrospect seems dumb. British Prime Minister Churchill insisted on it, calling Italy the “soft underbelly of Europe.” In fact, because of the very mountainous terrain, it was extremely difficult fighting and of little strategic value. Shame on Eisenhower for getting talked into that.
West Pointers are supposed to be great leaders. But they hold a disproportionately small number of leadership positions in our society, even within the U.S. Army!
If the results are not visible, West Point needs to change how it educates cadets until they truly achieve the extraordinary results the extraordinary expense and effort of training them implies.
Do any schools produce results? Yes. Medical school graduates are better than non-graduates at curing illnesses and injuries. Law school graduates are more knowledgeable about law than non-graduates. Engineering school graduates are better at designing things than those who did not attend those schools. The top MBA programs produce more than their share of successful business and other leaders.
Fundamentally, in order to create an institution of higher education that is effective, you must first create a body of expertise to be imparted at that institution. In fact, as I explained at length in my article about whether there really is any such thing as military expertise, the subject West Point claims to teach so well—leadership and military operations—are arguably non-existent disciplines. There is no consensus in either subject the way there is in legitimate professions like medicine or engineering.
Doctors and engineers often testify as experts in trials. To do that, you have to be certified as an expert by the court. Have you ever heard of a career military man being qualified to testify as an expert on winning wars in a U.S. court? Me neither. Like I said, it is a non-existent field of expertise.
In February of 2010, I added an article about U.S. military snipers to this Web site. I am very impressed with them. I tink they have a legitimate body of knowledge and expertise and skills and the impart that knowledge and skils without the otherwise almost universal yelling, harassment, and punishment pushups that every other military schools seems compelled to include in its curriculum. The rest of the military should aspire to the standards of the sniper programs.
Are there any undergraduate colleges whose graduates are disproportionately successful after graduation? Absolutely. MIT, CalTech, Stanford, and the Ivies. Although how much value those colleges add to their extremely high quality incoming freshmen is a good question. I suspect it’s less that those schools would have you believe.
MIT and Cal Tech are another matter. Their scientist and engineer undergrads really know how to do some stuff as a result of graduating from those colleges. But even those schools probably do not add much value to their undergrads when they study softer subjects like social studies.
The whole concept of an undergraduate institution that produces extraordinary graduates from value-added rather than selective admissions is questionable. The fabulous book Moneyball notes that the Oakland Athletics Major League Baseball team, which has been singularly successful at efficiently cranking out more than its share of baseball victories year after year, refuses to draft high school players. They only draft college baseball players.
Roughly speaking, the same is true of the schools that do add value: medical, law, business, and engineering schools. If West Point wants to actually walk the walk instead of just talking the talk, an objective analysis might reveal that it needs to become a graduate school. I suspect that would eliminate the 25% to 63% career attrition rate that West Point has long been embarrassed by. It would also tighten the focus and aptitude for military careers of the incoming students. However, it would still leave the huge problem of what to actually teach them. War winning and leadership are still arguably non-existent academic disciplines. In other words, until the professors at West Point demonstrate they know how to win wars and demonstrate undeniable leadership, they don’t know what to teach.
Not long ago, the Army’s recruiting slogan was, “Be all you can be.” It’s good advice although I thought the Army, of all organizations, had a heck of a lot of nerve using it. It would be more appropriate for a civilian college’s recruiting slogan. The Army is too narrow and sclerotic to make such a claim.
When I entered West Point, I was astonished at the high quality of many, if not most, of my fellow cadetsboth my classmates and the upperclassmen. They were really sharp guys, excellent leaders. The West Point recruiting material that said high percentages of them were high school class presidents, athletic team captains, most likely to succeed, etc. And there they were as my roommates, squad mates, squad and platoon leaders, and so forth. I couldn’t wait to see what they would become as their careers progressed.
I was almost invariably disappointed. My company commander my first two weeks at West Point amazed us. We would have followed him into Hell. I would give his name here if he were not a private person. From time to time, I looked him up in the Register of Graduates. He got a silver star and purple heart in Vietnam and retired disabled from the Army. His civilian career was as a relatively high, bank middle manager.
A guy two years ahead of me in my regular school year company was extremely ethical and honest almost to a fault. I tried to be like him. I was extremely interested to see how he reacted to the routine false document signings and all that in the Army. To my astonishment and great disappointment, he stayed in the Army for a 20-year military career and retired as a lieutenant colonel (which I concluded meant he had decided to go along to get along, but he didn’t get along enough to make full colonel or general).
A classmate who impressed me greatly went to Harvard Law School and became a partner in his firm. That’s pretty good, but I expected he would be governor or Senator or CEO of a big company or some such.
Even some of the top guys who were at West Point when I was a cadetguys who are listed on the ten most prominent West Point graduates list elsewhere in this articlestill disappointed: guys like Dawkins, Schwarzkopf, Wes Clark. Dawkins and Clark were Rhodes Scholars who tried politics unsuccessfully. Clark recently seemed to be hanging around Hillary and Obama trying to get named vice-president—until he self-destructed politically by criticizing McCain’s lack of executive experience in the military. Schwarzkopf proved it’s often better to be lucky (getting to lead a war against a military idiot: Saddam Hussein) than smart. The only guys who were at West Point when I was who exceeded my expectations were Al Haig and Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed. I thought Haig was a not-very-bright martinet (actually, he was a tac, all of whom fit that description) and I did not know Reed well because he was a plebe when I was a senior. (I knew Reed in the sense that I was his platoon sergeant for his first month at West Point, but we did not hang out and shoot the bull.)
The bios in the West Point Association of Graduates Register of Graduates are written entirely by each individual graduate. As far as I know, there is no fact checking or correcting by anyone other than the graduate himself. Accordingly, the success picture that emerges from perusing the Register, disappointing though it is to West Point’s most enthusiastic boosters, probably exaggerates the success of West Point graduates. The graduates, or many of them, probably “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative,” if I may borrow a song lyric.
Also, it is reasonable to expect that many of the graduates who have submitted no information at all are probably disproportionately unsuccessful and refused to submit on the theory that it is better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you’re unsuccessful than to open it and remove all doubt.
You can test this theory by researching prominent graduates in the Register then on line. For example, Albert J. Dunlap, known as “Chainsaw Al,” is a graduate of the class of 1960. He made the cover of the West Point alumni magazine Assembly. His Register bio lists his various career positions. But his wikipedia bio adds items like this:
By firing thousands of employees at once and closing plants and factories, he has drastically altered the economic status of such corporations as Scott Paper and Crown Zellerbach; however, when he attempted to use his methods to increase the share price of the Sunbeam-Oster Corporation, this backfired dramatically, as Sunbeam's stock rose from $12 a share to $53, and then within four months plummeted to $11 1/4.
Industry insiders revealed that Sunbeam's revenues had been padded because Dunlap had given large discounts to retailers who bought far more merchandise than they could handle; the excess merchandise was shipped to warehouses to be delivered later, but the sales revenue was booked immediately. With the stores hopelessly overstocked, unsold inventory piled up in Sunbeam's warehouses. Investors grew edgy, then panicky, and Dunlap himself was fired. He agreed to pay $15 million to settle a shareholder lawsuit .
He had a statue on his desk of two sharks eating each other.
The Register is therefore like the football player heights and weights in a game program—exaggerated to make them look bigger than they are. But you know that rare is the football player who is bigger than the program says. And most exaggerations are held within a moderate range especially in a book like the Register which is generally only seen by fellow graduates who would spot most exaggerations. So the Register is still useful for getting a fairly detailed picture of what you can expect in later life if you graduate from West Point. Just keep in mind that it is an “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative” version.
My Register bio is arguably an understatement. After my military assignments and final rank it says,
MBA HarvardU 77; Real Est 72-75; Crocker Bk 77; Publisher 78
and my address and email address. My own Web site versions are at: http://www.johntreed.com/pages/about-us
I have multiple different versions of my background because is I have written six different genres of books plus blogs on the military and headline news subjects. Each bio emphasizes the facts pertinent to the genre in question.
I have no data on it, but my impressionistic conclusion is that the best cadets I knew at West Point were handicapped by having graduated from there to the point that they accomplished far less in their lives than one would have expected. That is, I expect civilian college graduates of the same era with the same high school honorsmost valuable player, class president, most likely to succeed, etc.did better than the West Pointers with those high school accomplishments. My evidence, such as it is, is merely anecdotal. But the logic and empirical evidence supporting that theory are compelling.
When you graduate from West Point, you go into a bureaucracy. This is not a good place to learn how to succeed at anything in life other than avoiding angering your superiors. It is a very bad start for a promising young person. As they said in the novel Dune, “Beginnings are delicate times.”
Adult careers are arguably an example of chaos theory at work. Chaos theory combines mathematics, physics, and philosophy. It studies systems that are “highly sensitive to initial conditions.” Your adult life is highly sensitive to initial conditions. When you choose West Point as your college, you create an extreme “initial condition:” five years of indentured servitude in the Army durinng a time in which we are fighting two foreign wars.
The chaos-theory metaphor I like best is a ball rolling off the top of the peak of a mountain size cone. The ball can roll down any of the 360 degrees of directions. The slightest change in the starting point can make enormous difference in the ending point. The same is true of your life including career, possible early violent death, marriage, and kids. West Point and the five years in the Army and combat are far more than a slight change in the starting point. If you roll down the wrong side of the cone-shaped mountain, you will end up a very long way from where you should be and you will have a long, hard, dangerous walk to get back to where you should have gone.
Continuing this analogy, civilian colleges are essentially much shorter mountains—mere hills atually. You can change majors. You can change colleges. And most important of all, there is no five-year commitment to risk your life and waste a lot of time acquiring skills that are irrelevant to civilian life and habits that are detrimental to success in civilian life.
It is extremely likely that you WILL make a mistake regarding the “initial condition” of where you start your career “ball” on top of the “mountain.” That’s a mistake that almost all of us make. So what’s the implication? Avoid tall “mountain” initial conditions like a service academy. You are too young, naive, lacking in self-knowledge, lacking in knowledge of the Army, and lacking in knowledge of what you are risking and what you are missing to make such a long-term commitment. Choose a civilian college where you have far greater flexibility during your college years and in the first five years thereafter. Perhaps surprisingly, going to a civilian college does not prevent a successful career as a military officer but going to a service academy does handicap you significantly for having a “be all you can be” civilian career.
The implication of the lack of choices and flexibility at service academies is that you know, as a late teenager, exactly what you want to be doing for the next 30 years of your life. Not only is that not true, it is laughable to those of us who have lived those thirty years and seen hundreds of millions of others live them.
I use a similar analogy in my Succeeding book.
Choosing the wrong goal is like getting on the wrong international flight. You will end up not only in the wrong place but in a very wrong place far from where you really wanted to go. That mistake will cost you dearly in time and money and other aspects of life. Only in the case of a service academy, it’s more like getting on the wrong interplanetary flight because of the lengthy period of indentured servitude in a situation that is not only suboptimal, but also dangerous and harmful in terms of combat risk, acquiring bad habits, and atrophication of talents and good habits you brought to the service academy when you entered.
In bureaucracies, talent and performance are absorbed without notice like a world champion punch into a huge pillow. Sycophancy and long tenure are rewarded. Real life skills, like how to get things done efficiently, are not learned.
The 3/10/08 Newsweek article about the trouble the federal government is having hiring people for civilian jobs noted, “There’s also an aura of incompetence around government work.”
It’s plain old-fashioned, everyone-has-experienced-it incompetence. That’s why civilian businesses are reluctant to hire former government employees.
Here is a pertinent passage from Michael Lewis’s 2010 best-selling book The Big Short. It’s about employees at the Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s bond rating agencies.
“You know how when you walk into a post office and your realize there is such a difference between a government employee and other people,” said Vinny. “The ratings aency people were all like government employees. They’re underpaid,” said Eisman. “The smartest ones leave for Wall Street firms…” They appeared to know enough to justify their jobs, and nothing more. They seemed timid, fearful, and risk averse.
If you go to West Point, you will have a hard time not being turned into a Moody’s-type employee by the Army. West Point generally makes you more than you were in high school. Then the Army turns you into less than you were in high school. On a net basis, you will be way behind your civilian college peers when you get out of the Army after five years—even farther behind if you stay in the Army for more than the minimum commitment.
Notwithstanding the party line and public image of the place, the vast majority of living West Point graduates are civilians. They are greatly handicapped because their entry into civilian business or academia or whatever is delayed by five to 14 years. Consequently, when they arrive in civilian careers, they are five to 14 years behind their peers—maybe more when you consider that they have to unlearn the bureaucratic habits of Army officers.
A number of people have commented to me that I must have made some strong friendships going through West Point. I’ll tell you about one, then I’ll muse about whether West Point was responsible and whether a similar or better friendship could have been started at a civilian college.
Call him Rich. On my first day of Beast Barracks 7/1/64, he was in my sister squad. Beast barracks in the New Cadet Basic Training in July and August before your freshman academic year. A sister squad is the two squads commanded by two juniors who are both squad leaders and roommates at the time. You did not have much time to talk to each other in Beast back then. But we had seen each other a half dozen times a day as went went through our first days and months at West Point. We ended up in the same academic-year company, C-2 in September. We got to talk then on many occasions but never hung out together as we went through the ordeal of Plebe Year together. The same was true of our next two years. In July, 1967, we were roommates for the first time. It was First Beast again only this time we were seniors running a platoon of New Cadets of the Class of 1971. We got along really well and became friends.
We picked Signal Corps together and both picked stateside, rather than Germany or Korea, assignments. That was how one volunteered for Vietnam then. Because we were both Signal, we would be going to Ranger School at the same time. We resolved to be Ranger Buddies. (All Ranger students are required to pair up with a buddy. It is standard military procedure for dangerous situations.)
We got along so well together that the Ranger cadre split us up. That is, they ordered us to get other ranger buddies. I never heard of them doing that to anyone else. Their idea seemed to be that we were such good friends and good ranger buddies to each other that ranger school was too easy for us. They commented at the time something like, “You two are having too much fun” or some such. We had almost no fun, but we both have a sense of humor so we were able to roll with the incessant “punches” the ranger cadre throws at you. We were later astonished to learn that we both had been recommended to be brought back as instructors there.
We then went to the same forts at the same time all through our year of Army schooling after Ranger and we were always roommates. Characteristic story: Our next fort after Ranger was Gordon in Augusta, Georgia for Signal Officers Basic. Our greatest fear was that we would have to live in the Bachelor Officers Quarters (BOQ), typically a tiny rooming house with no kitchen and paper thin walls where you share a bathroom with the officer next door. Females were not allowed in the building. We would have been embarrassed to death if they were.
So we needed to get a “certificate of non-availability.” That is a piece of paper that says the usually-full on-base housing suitable for our rank and family size was full. You take it to the pay office and they give you a housing allowance to help pay for your off-base quarters. So we first went to the Housing Office—and sat in our car in the parking lot. We waited for an officer to arrive go in, and come out. Then we sashayed over and “How’s it goin?” and “You here for signal officer’s basic?” “So what’s the story on the housing situation?”
“Oh, I lucked out, man. I got a BOQ slot. But they said they only have two left. You guys better hurry in there.”
“Thanks,” we said, and went back to the car to wait.
Another officer goes in. When he comes out we ask, “You checking out?”
“No. In. I got the next-to last BOQ.”
“Congratulations.” Back to the car.
One of our classmates arrives. We know he’s checking in. We let him. As he comes out the door, we’re waiting.
“Hey, Jack, Rich!”
“Yo, Bob. What’s the deal with the housing here?”
“Sorry, but I just got the last BOQ slot.”
“Congrats. Hey, Catch you later OK.” Zoom. We got certificates of non-availability—before a couple of other officers checked out of the BOQ—and enjoyed our two months as trailer trash. Only time I ever lived in the BOQ was during my internship at Fort Campbell in July 1966 when I was a cadet. Once was more than enough.
Subsequently, when we were on double dates, one of the girls would often observe that the two of us got along together amazingly well.
When the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out, he said, “You’ve got to see this.” “You already did. Who am I supposed to go with?” “I’ll go. It’s really great. It’s us.”
Ever since, he and I have been reciting the famous lines from it to each other. When we were inventing our dating system and I offered an idea: “You just keep thinking, Jack. That’s what you’re good at.” When he complained about a disappointing road trip destination: “This might be the garden spot of the whole country. People may travel hundreds of miles just to get to this spot where we're standing now. This might be the Atlantic City, New Jersey of all Bolivia, for all you know.” When DVDs were invented, he gave me one of that movie.
In Vietnam, he and I and a non-West Pointer were sitting on three adjacent bar stools in an officers club. Rich and I were about to go on leave to Hong Kong together. Rich said, “I could not get any money for this trip. Can you loan me some?” “How much do you need?” “$750” (in 1970 dollars, $4,200 in 2010 dollars) I took out my check book and gave him a check for that amount. “Jesus!,” said the non-West Pointer. “Those West Point ties are damn tight.” “Yep.”
I got home from Vietnam while Rich was still there. I needed to buy a car. I wrote a letter to him asking for my $750 back. As I went out the door to mail it, I found a letter in my mom’s mailbox from Rich. It contained a check for $750.”
In part, the dating system we invented used newspaper photos to find good-looking women. But we noted to each other once that the quality was sometimes so bad that you could not tell if the woman was black or just tanned. We agreed that if getting a date with a black woman accidentally happened, the best way to handle it was to ignore the racial difference and continue with the date. In the 21st century, that may sound racist. You had to be there. 1971. There had just been race riots in a number of cities by “Negroes” (as the New York Times called them then) a few years before. Black Power and Black is Beautiful had just exploded into the national consciousness. Interracial couples were extremely rare. You might see one every other year. We wondered if our accidentally seeking a date with a black woman might result in our having the crap beat out of us by her Black Panther boyfriend and a half dozen of his buddies. So we did not try to meet black women on purpose.
One day, we each went out for our weekly meeting with that week’s new woman whom we had met through our System. As was our habit, when I returned to our rented house, I asked him how his date was. Then, just seeing the expression on his face I knew, “She was black wasn’t she?”
She was. They had a good time, but because her stewardess flight departure time had moved up and the nice restaurant to which he invited her was too far, they ended up at Ed’s Diner, the sign for which helpfully added, “Truckers welcome”—the last place you would ever see an interracial couple back then. He also had a race relations text on the back seat of his car. It was a big deal in the Army back then and he was taking a mandatory course on it at Fort Monmouth. Not suspecting his date was black, he had not thought to remove it. She spotted it. He had to assure her it was not preparation for the date. She was very nice about it. We always figured if they made a TV show about our dating system, that would be one of the episodes. I mention it here just to note that because of our long friendship, I could tell the whole story just from a split second’s worth of his facial expression.
The first time I met the woman he married, I asked her, “How did you two meet.” She described the meeting. I said, “I don’t know how you met, but it wasn’t that way. Rich?”
He acknowledged that she was incorrect and explained how he really did it. Basically, she attributed the meeting to chance. I knew there was rarely any chance with Rich meeting a beautiful girl. I mean this is a guy who, back when stewardesses were like movie starlets and required to be single, and flights were rarely full, he would watch all passengers board. If one was a beautiful young woman, he would let her board first, then after all passengers boarded, he would board, go to her row, check his ticket against the seat several times, and sit in the seat next to her. His seat, of course, was actually in another part of the plane.
If no attractive single woman got on, he would go to Plan B. When he bought the ticket, something we did when we arrived at the airport back then, he would ask for a seat near the stewardesses work area, knowing the agent would probably tell the stewardesses. He would sit there and deliberately not say anything to the stewardesses who were expecting him to hit on them—until late in the flight.
In fact, he had seen his future wife coming up the walk to his office building, peeked to see which office she went to, made up an excuse to go there, did so, chatted her up briefly long enough to learn where she worked. A judicious week or so later, he made up some excuse to go to her office and building, and with the prior meeting making them “old friends,” chatted her up again and get her name and number. That’s my Rich.
He was my best man at my wedding to a woman I met through the dating system he and I jointly invented.
We talk every week or two on the phone and visit from time to time. He called me one day when we were in our fifties. He asked some innocuous question. I instantly knew he had some serious health problem from his voice. Had he ever done that before? No. But I knew him so well I could interpolate it. I ignored his question. “What’s wrong?” He admitted he was going to have open heart surgery for a triple bypass. A dizzy spell prompted a treadmill stress test which revealed the problem.
No heart problems since.
Today he called and just identified himself as usual. I said, “She got the scholarship! That’s great!”
I knew his daughter had gotten admitted to every college she applied to, but got no financial aid at her first choice which is the gold medal of college admissions in her field. I knew they were going to appeal the financial-aid decision. Without the aid, she would not be able to go there. Rich likes to lead you along and reveal his surprise at the end of the conversation. He can’t get away with that with me, though. I could tell just by his voice the way he said his usual, “It’s Rich.”
Remember, in both cases where I could tell the truth about his call just from the first few syllables of his voice, I was on the phone 3,000 miles away. No visual body language clues and the sound of his voice clipped down to a narrower range of frequencies than face-to-face (so more calls can be jammed into phone lines. I learned that in Signal school.)
Is that a West Point-only friendship? Well, I don’t have any that are like that with any non-West Pointers. On the other hand, I doubt West Pointers are the only ones who have such friendships.
Here is my theory. Someone once said that, “A friend is someone who knows all about you but still likes you.” (I offered one of the toasts at Rich’s wedding rehearsal party. That line was part of my toast.) The key phrase is “knows all about you.” Some people who know all about you will not like you. So be it. But in order to have friends—real friends—they must know all about you. When you think about it, few people in your life fall into that category, especially if you live at home or off-campus when you go to college and/or never serve in the military. When you live in the dorm, or barracks as they were called at West Point, you have roommates, also known as people who know all about you. Military bases are another opportunity for that, as are combat zones like Vietnam.
So West Point’s and the Army’s contribution to this particular friendship was to put Rich and I together for years in all sorts of situations under all sorts of stress: West Point, ranger school, Vietnam, living at various Army bases, trying to meet women, dating, vacationing. Muchas opportunities to know all about someone.
I would say that any living close together in a variety of situations, including stressful ones, gives you an opportunity to get to know all about each other and thereby a chance to form strong friendships. A strong friendship may or may not form in a given pairing. West Point and wars give you many opportunities to live in close quarters with others of the same gender. West Point does not have a monopoly on providing such opportunities. On the other hand, commuting or living off-campus through college or living alone or with your parents after college do not provide such opportunities.
It is common for West Pointers to say on graduation day, “I would not go through it again for a million dollars, but I wouldn’t take a million dollars for it either.” One of the things the second half of that sentence refers to is the extraordinary friendships many, but not all, West Pointers form.
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to mention another West Point “friend,” roommate. He heard I was very good at real estate investing. I told him the rumors were overblown and gave him a detailed accurate description. Nevertheless, he begged me to let him invest with me. Reluctantly, I agreed. I have never done any other group ownerships. We quadrupled our money in the ensuing acquisition. I do not take all the credit, although my roommate gets none. The timing just happened to be good. I oppose deliberate attempts at market timing on the grounds that it is impossible.
I wanted to move on and end the group ownership. He again begged to stay in. I reluctantly agreed but lowered his minority percentage. He said he was short of funds and asked me to cover his share of any negative cash flow. I agreed and did. That new investment was in Fort Worth, TX from 1983 to 1988. Once again, timing was key and that timing was awful. Virtually all apartment complexes in that region dropped in value by about 2/3. We had to give the property back to the guy who sold it to us. When I asked my former roommate after we got rid of the property to sign a promissory note to pay for his share of the losses, he said he did not have the money. He also said I had guaranteed him against loss.
Like hell! I asked him to arbitrate. He agreed. I lost. The arbitrator was a West Point graduate Realtor®. The case facts were simply that we owned the complex as tenants in common. In that arrangement, the percentage of each’s ownership is stated in the deed. Furthermore, pertinent well-settled law says the owners share pro rata in profits and losses according to their percentage ownership. But the arbitrator was not a lawyer. He seized on an unrelated, obscure legal principle that says ambiguities in contracts are construed against the party that drafted the contract. We had no contract. I sent him a letter after closing on the purchase that said we would split the profits or any refinancing proceeds pro rata. I did not mention losses of which there was no prospect at the time.
As a result of the decision, tens of thousands of 1988 dollars that I had paid on behalf of my former roommate for his share of the expenses and mortgage payments became entirely my loss and my wife’s. We had agreed that the loser would pay the costs of arbitration which were in the hundreds of dollars. The day I got the letter announcing the arbitrator’s decision, I instantly sent my former roommate the money reimbursing him for his half of the arbitration fee he and I had each paid up front. My way of demonstrating how West Point graduates are supposed to conduct themselves is such matters.
He tried to patch up our friendship a couple of times since. If one of my classmates told me I owed him tens of thousands of dollars when I did not, that would be the instant end of my association with him. Yet that is exactly what I did with this “friend” and he still wants to be buddies???
As with my best man/ranger buddy friend, this guy and I were in the same company all four years of West Point. We went through hell together, double dated, played on the same sports teams, etc. You’d think you would know the guy after all that.
I later had another arbitration not involving that guy, although for an almost identical amount. This time, having learned my lesson with the West Point roommate, I insisted that the arbitrator be a lawyer. He was and I won, collecting $24,308.65. The details of that case are in my book How to Write, Publish, and Sell Your Own How-To Book.
Someone once said that you never really know a person until you split an inheritance with them. I would add, or lose some money in a business deal together.
Are West Point graduates are trustworthy than non-West Pointers in general? Probably.
Can you trust each and every West Pointer solely based on the fact that they are West Pointers? No.
Do you make better stronger friendships at West Point than you would at other colleges or than in the military other than West Point? I would say, “Yes, a little bit, but not as much as you would expect considering the intensity and extent of the joint experience.”
Peer pressure is extremely powerful when it comes to decisions to choose or leave a college. I was reminded of this recently when I read the book Ahead of the Curve. It is about going through the two-year MBA program at Harvard Business School. My wife and I are Harvard MBAs and I found the book interesting but a bit odd. The author was the only guy in the HBS class of 2005 not to get a job offer. I doubt the book will change his luck. I mention it here because it reminded me of how powerful peer pressure can be. In Ahead of the Curve, he was talking about the peer pressure during he second half of the second and final year at HBS to get a job that your classmates would approve of. I remember that peer pressure well—even though I am normally extremely unaffected by such things. And I was 30 years old at the time, an age when one would expect peer pressure has far less effect than it does on teenagers.
Three types of peer pressure are pertinent here:
• from high school classmates to choose an impressive college in the last semester of your senior year
• from college classmates to remain at your current college throughout your time there and from everyone to not quit a difficult course of action like West Point
• from West Point classmates to select the “right” choices as graduation approaches with regard to branch choice, first assignment, graduate school, extending your period of indentured servitude, a phrase I use for its exact meaning not hyperbole
Screw peer pressure! Select your goal, or if you do not yet have enough self-knowledge, make choices that allow maximum flexibility so you are not in the wrong place when you finally figure out what you should be doing.
Most people below the age of 30 are not sure what they should be doing with their life, including those who claim they are “sure” they do know what they want and are best suited for. Hell, most people that age are “sure” about whom they are marrying and about half end up divorcing. That lack of self-knowledge is par for the course. Just don’t do something stupid like committing to nine years at West Point and the Army or, worse, extending that commitment when you are in the belly of the beast and surrounded by pressure from peers and officers in return for graduate school or better branch or assignment choice.
You first priority is to acquire self-knowledge and knowledge of the complete catalog of opportunities offered to you by planet earth. Second priority is to match your choice of a career to the world-wide opportunity that fits you best. The chances that Army officer is the best match are close to zero if only because Army officer is not a career so much as it’s a surprise package of 20 or more years of temp jobs. I heard retired General Eric Shinseki speak on 6/22/09. He was West Point ’65 and retired as Chief of Staff of the Army. He said he and his family moved 31 times during 38 years in the Army. It’s hard to imagine how that could fit anyone well: perhaps a person with multiple-personality disorder. Flexibility in career decisions is paramount to people under age 30 and the service academies are at the opposite end of the spectrum from flexibility. They want to tie you up until at least age 27 and they will try a number of tricks to try to get you to commit even longer than that. Don’t do it. It will almost certainly diminish your success and satisfaction in life.
The hot question of senior year in high school among college prep students is, “Where are you going to college?” The answer you want to give is the one that most impresses your peers, e.g., Harvard. If you are a recruited athlete, the college that has the most prestige in your sport, like a football player would want to say USC or Florida. In the case of a West Point recruited athlete, they want to be able to say they will be on a “Division I” team. Army, arguably, is a division I college athletically. In football, Army is now what they call an NCAA Division I Bowl Subdivision team, the highest level of competition in NCAA football.
In the case of West Point, peer pressure can get you killed, literally. Just going to West Point can get you killed because it puts you on a conveyor belt to hell as our esteemed graduated William Tecumseh Sherman, West Point Class of 1840, called it when he said, “War is hell.” At present, the wars are in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I graduated, it was Vietnam. It may be Pakistan or Iran or North Korea next. Whatever, West Point graduates almost all go into the war “business” upon graduation and that business kills people.
Many will say well it’s a noble thing to defend your country and serve freedom and liberty and all that. True. But the U.S. has not been invaded militarily since the War of 1812 (by the British). (Pedants may say the Japanese occupied Dutch Harbor, Alaska during World War II. OK. But occupying Dutch Harbor is its own punishment. We should not have even bothered to run them out of there. The weather would have eventually.) And no such invasion seems imminent
Some will say we were invaded on 9/11. Not really. Stopping those guys was a matter for the State Department and airport and airline security, not the military.
Nor do I agree that everyone who dies while wearing a U.S. military uniform did so because he was defending freedom. I am a Vietnam vet. People die in wars because of their own stupidity. They die because of the stupidity or carelessness of their fellow American military personnel, e.g., Pat Tillman. They die because of the fortunes of war, i.e., wrong place at wrong moment. They die because they were ordered on a suicide mission or undertook such a mission on their own initiative when the situation warranted. They die because the president or someone else in the chain of command above them made a big mistake about invading a country or ordering a particular dumb mission, e.g., Operation Market Garden in World War II (A Bridge Too Far) or Gallipoli in World War I. See my article on the morality of obeying stupid orders. Prior to World War II, most soldiers died of diseases related to field sanitation, not wounds. Some still die of diseases related to living in substandard conditions or quarters in war zones. Most of the Americans killed in the recent Iraq war may have died because some Iraqi young man wanted some extra money to buy a DVD player or some other gadget, not because the IED setter wanted to end freedom in America.
Probably, America did not need to participate in most of our wars, including Vietnam and World War I. Certainly the Spanish-American War, Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt’s big ticket punch, was idiocy. Truth be told, most U.S. military personnel who died in the line of duty probably died because of someone’s stupidity, not because their death was necessary to defend the U.S. or to protect our liberty. Our propensity to label everyone who ever served in the military as a hero, especially those who got hurt, is a prime example of the sort of stupidity that gets people killed unnecessarily.
The proper attitude about war is the one I taught my sons: If and when the U.S. gets into a declared war, and there is a general draft that is fair, that is, draftees are chosen by lottery, serve if you are called. Never volunteer for the military or any more dangerous assignment within the military if you are drafted. If the American people are not interested enough in the war to declare it formally and be drafted for it, then it must not be important enough for you to risk dying for.
I am especially opposed to dying because you thought the best way to impress you peers when you were a high school senior was to say “West Point” or “Army” when asked what your college was. Probably, unless you are sure of how you want to spend your life, you should go to the best college you can get into. I would recommend the engineering equivalent of a liberal arts education. That is, a general engineering education that teaches you how to think and research things. Liberal arts educations are supposed to be good for flexibility. Elite flexibility, maybe. I think an engineering or math or science education with some exposure to liberal arts stuff is probably better, and I graduated from college more than 40 years ago so I have much experience on which to base my recommendation. Two of my sons studied engineering; the other, business economics.
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