The new cadet stands in full battle dress, his face smeared with black-green camouflage grease, sweltering in the August sun. Just two months earlier, David Craft, 19, of Rockford, Ohio, was a high school stud. Now, in cadet slang, he is a beanhead. "It's kind of degrading," he allows. "We were the top of our class. Now we're dirt, scum. They're always on you. Whatever you do is wrong." Craft's best friend from high school, who accompanied him to West Point, has already dropped out. "He couldn't take the loss of freedom," explains Craft. "No McDonald's." Does Craft wish he were back home at Ohio State, drinking beer? The whites of his eyes grow large. "No, sir!" he exclaims. "This is serious business!"
Serious business, indeed. West Point, said General George S. Patton Jr., class of '09, is "a holy place." The academy, said General Maxwell Taylor, '22, is "not for everyone, only for those with a true vocation." That calling is to lead in battle. "Your mission," General Douglas Mac-Arthur, '03, told the cadets in 1962, "remains fixed, determined, inviolable: it is to win our wars."
Yet in the years since Viet Nam, critics in and out of uniform have repeatedly charged that too many officers have become cautious bureaucrats, adept at Pentagon politics perhaps, but interested more in advancing their careers than in preparing for the brutal exigencies of combat. In an era of unconventional warfare and low-level guerrilla struggles, military reformers sometimes fear that a rigid military-academy mind-set is geared to yesterday's wars of attrition. They question whether West Point is turning out the kind of officers that the nation needs.
The 183-year-old academy, which is enjoying a resurgence of popular support and of internal morale, has few doubts about its modern role. During the Viet Nam War, West Point was so unpopular that it was unable to fill its class of '72 with qualified applicants. Last year, at a time of renewed patriotism, it received 12,644 applications for some 1,400 places. Although only 12% of newly commissioned U.S. Army lieutenants are West Pointers, 37% of the Army's generals once wore cadet gray. The academy sets the tone for the officer corps; it regards itself as a repository of martial virtue and soldierly professionalism. By its own claim, West Point's success at imbuing its graduates with these qualities will determine America's success in future wars.
A West Point education is a curious mixture of drudgery and inspiration. Cadets are deprived of freedom and at the same time given responsibility, encouraged to be creative and at the same time punished for failing to go by the book. It seems a mass of contradictions, until one realizes that the aim of West Point, unstated perhaps, is to produce leaders who are bold yet also reflexively carry out orders. "The mission of West Point," states General Bruce Palmer Jr., '36, "is to put iron in your soul."