West Point cadets thrive apart from civilian peers

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Spending a couple of days at West Point, especially coming from Washington, is uplifting.

The majesty of the setting high above the Hudson River — where George Washington set up his headquarters in 1779 — inspires. Compelling, too, is the character of the cadets at the U.S. Military Academy.

Whether they are asking vigorous questions in social science class or displaying the precision of the Long Gray line on parade, the cadets inhabit a world imbued with the auras of Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and John Pershing. Their presence also pervades the playing fields, in the cheering for the women's volleyball team — the chief cheerleaders were Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, and Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, superintendent of the Academy — or when the football squad plays in historic Michie Stadium.

Duty, honor and country are woven into the fabric of the 211-year-old institution. These days, academic rigor and exacting discipline are leavened with a little more fun than in earlier times. (A great read on the culture is "Absolutely American" by David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone writer who spent four years following a class; he describes West Point as "the happiest complaining place on Earth.")

These young men and women are future leaders, just like their peers at elite universities. Yet the academy's graduates step into a world that is largely isolated from civilian society. It's the price America pays for a professional army of unrivaled quality.

This was captured in a new book, "Breach of Trust" by Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army officer and West Point graduate. It opens on Independence Day at Boston's Fenway Park baseball stadium, where the family of a young woman serving in Afghanistan is being honored; suddenly, the daughter appears on the giant screen from 6,000 miles away. The crowd roars in what Bacevich calls "a masterpiece of contrived spontaneity." Then the game is played, and the young woman and the faraway war are forgotten.

With an all-volunteer army, Bacevich argues, "the symbolic solidarity at a ballpark" serves as a "convenient mechanism for avoiding obligation and perhaps easing guilty consciences."

Although that certainly beats the hostility that greeted veterans returning from Vietnam a generation ago, it still reflects a "cordial indifference" to the military, Bacevich writes.

He isn't alone in this view. Stanley McChrystal, the general who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan, has worried about an army that is "unrepresentative of the population." He added, "If a nation goes to war, every town, every city needs to be at risk."

Two generations ago, Gen. George C. Marshall, the most heralded U.S. military leader since George Washington, said that in contrast to the Japanese and the Germans, Americans regarded a standing army as antithetical "to the conception of government by the people."

That observation remains valid, say leading politicians, particularly those with military experience.

"The small percentage of our population in uniform, and with other parts of our society not involved, is a profound issue," says Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., an alumnus of West Point who served in the 82nd Airborne Division.

"In a democratic society, if you don't feel some obligation of defending the country, you're creating a problem," says Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who serves as a lawyer in the Air Force Reserves.

Today's Army has problems; one is sexual harassment, as pointed out by lawmakers such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

The services often are too slow to bring about social change. Once ordered, they respond. Not much more than four decades ago, blacks and Hispanics made up a little more than 1 percent of the corps of cadets; today, they account for 18 percent. The Army is adjusting to allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the ranks.

There's reason to be optimistic about the acceptance of women in combat and curbs on sexual harassment. West Point didn't admit women until 1976, and the student body still is only 17 percent female, up a little from a few years ago. This year, the first captain — the highest position in the cadet chain of command, once held by Pershing and MacArthur — is a woman, Lindsey Danilack.

But progress on diversity doesn't address the disconnect between the military and civilian society. One consequence of this distance is that there are fewer questions and less scrutiny about going to war.

"If the past is prologue," argues Bacevich, "we can look forward to more needless wars."

A corollary is that civilians are less familiar with the values exemplified at West Point. As a guest lecturer, I was accompanied by "handlers." One was Maj. Renee Ramsey, a 2003 graduate from Buffalo, N.Y., and the first member of her family to go to college. She got a master's degree at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and now teaches international relations at her alma mater. She spent 14 months in Afghanistan, commanding a small force near the Khyber Pass on the Pakistan border. We civilians marveled at her story. It's one we barely think about other than during those fleeting moments at ballgames.

There is no easy solution. Reinstating the draft is a political nonstarter. National service, with more shared sacrifice, is a tough slog in these tight fiscal times.

The West Point cadets, only a short distance from high school, are keenly aware of this divide. It contributes to the uncertainty that awaits them in their military careers.

Indeed, in scores of conversations, only one certainty emerged: On Dec. 14, for the first time since 2001 on the football field, Army will beat Navy.

_ Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.