A Salute to West Point
The school tries to build a military led by officers of character.
By WILLIAM MCGURN-Wall Street Journal Getty Images
The long gray line.
Even in the age of emails, blogs and tweets, the formal letter can still command attention. Especially when it bears the signature of the Superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point—and congratulates the recipient on his appointment.
Along with hundreds of other anxious high-school seniors, my nephew opened such a letter over the Christmas holidays. For his family, it brought back many memories. Just about all of us live within an hour's drive of West Point. For most of our lives, the academy has been a beautiful backdrop: for football games, wedding receptions, the occasional drive up for lunch at the Thayer Hotel, and so on.
Now the beauty mixes with apprehension. For me it was brought home in 2006, when I attended the commencement as part of the president's entourage. Theirs was the first class to enter West Point after the attacks of Sept. 11. As I watched these happy graduates, I thought: In a few years, some of those celebrating today will not be with us. Thus far, alas, war has claimed two young men who received the gold bars of a second lieutenant that day: Lt. Nick A. Dewhirst, killed in Afghanistan; Lt. Timothy W. Cunningham, killed in Iraq.
Can my nephew comprehend the sacrifice he commits himself to? The critics say we romanticize war and hide the realities from those who will do the dying. I'm not so sure. At West Point this past autumn for a football game, I went to the refrigerator of a helicopter pilot-turned-instructor in search of a Diet Coke. On the door I found a yellow ribbon with the name of the officer's West Point roommate, an infantry captain named Doug DiCenzo who was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad when his son was just 16 months ol
On a campus where the cemetery includes the dead from two centuries of American wars, sobering reminders are everywhere: the young wife and children left behind, the good friends who do not make the trip home, the empty space at the reunion. The true glory of West Point is that all know the fear and cost of war but refuse to surrender to them.
Whether character can be taught is an age-old question; usually we refer to its being built. West Point does not pretend its cadets are immune from the normal temptations of our culture. After all, they come from the same towns and high schools other universities draw from. The difference is that at West Point, words such as duty, honor and country are spoken without irony—and a scandal is a scandal because behavior is still measured against standards.
A paper on the academy's Web site explains the honor code this way: "An officer who is not trustworthy cannot be tolerated; in some professions the cost of dishonesty is measured in dollars—in the Army, the cost is measured in human lives. The ability of West Point to educate, train and inspire outstanding leaders of character for our Army is predicated upon the functional necessity of honesty."
In other words, the promise is not that West Point will produce the next generation of Grants, MacArthurs, Eisenhowers or Petraeuses—though it will. The promise is more consequential. To the moms and dads of all those in uniform, West Point says: When America puts your sons and daughters in harm's way, they will be led by men and woman of character and ability.
In the days since my nephew's acceptance, the reaction has been interesting. Some are impressed. Others . . . well, let's just say the assumption often seems to be that a student chooses a service academy because he or she was not accepted anywhere better, or is going simply because it's free.
In my nephew's case, neither is true. His father and his father's father both served in the Navy; his other grandfather was a Marine. So his loved ones are a little saddened when we come across people apparently unable to process the idea that an intelligent young American with the world at his feet could be led by a sense of duty to West Point in a time of war.
When I look at my nephew, I can still see the baby I once lugged to the car in his carrier. A few springs from now, if he rises to this challenge as we know he will, I will sit in that stadium high above the Hudson as Timothy Dore, USMA Class of '14, takes his place in that long gray line. Around me that day will be thousands of other uncles, aunts, moms, dads, brothers, sisters and grandparents who are now, with great pride, passing around a letter from the West Point superintendent like the one my nephew received.
This academy is not for everyone. But the choice made by these young men and women makes this uncle want to salute.
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