(This essay was originally published as “West Point Going Strong at 215,” in the Newport Daily News on March 16, 2017.”)
As the U.S. Military Academy at West Point celebrates its 215th anniversary, the ever-uncertain international security environment and the civic needs of our liberal democracy ensure a perpetual role for this reliable, enduring, educational institution.
Congress established the Military Academy on March 16, 1802, originally as a school to supply engineers for the country. Washington’s Continental Army had relied too heavily on foreign-trained engineers such as Thaddeus Kosciuszko of Poland and Baron von Steuben of Prussia. The school, located on a point where the Hudson River turns west, served as the country’s sole engineering school until 1830.
Since its establishment West Point has had many distinguished graduates and has supplied the country with much of its military leadership. A favorite expression at the Academy is that “much of the history we teach was made by people we taught.” During the Civil War West Pointers like Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant commanded both sides in 54 of the 60 major battles and commanded one side in the other six. The class of 1915, “the class the stars fell on,” produced 59 generals from a class of only 164. Both history and Hollywood have immortalized such graduates as Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Omar Bradley, and George Patton.
Less than ten months after their graduation, some 140 graduates of the class of 1990, serving under Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf (Class of 1956), helped to secure our victory in the Persian Gulf War (1990-91). Lt. Gen. Fred Franks (Class of 1959), as the VII Corps commander, led the decisive flanking movement against the Iraqi Army in that war. As a major in the late 1960s. Franks taught me plebe English and was my assistant baseball coach sophomore year. During the Iraq War, 2003-2011, fifty-nine graduates gave their lives.
From the ranks of West Point have come thirteen astronauts and 90 Rhodes scholars, fourth in the latter category among all schools. Mike Pompeo, Class of 1986, is the new CIA chief, and Lt. Gen H. R. McMaster, Class of 1984, is the president’s new national security advisor.
The Military Academy’s mission is to educate, train and inspire its cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and professional growth throughout a career as an officer in the U. S. Army; and a lifetime of selfless service to the nation. It does this by developing cadets in four main areas: intellectual, physical, military, and moral-ethical. The Corps of Cadets is composed of approximately 4,300 of America’s finest young people. Last year’s graduating class consisted of 16% women and 26% minority. From its first class of two cadets, the Academy now graduates approximately 950 cadets each year, providing the active Army with about 20% of its needs for lieutenants. A West Pointer must serve at least five years of active duty and three years in a Reserve Component, reasonable repayment for an education that is estimated to cost the American taxpayer $225,000. per cadet.
Cadets on Parade (US Army photo)
When threats to our security have appeared remote, critics have argued to collapse West Point and its sister academies into one or even to eliminate them: the cost too high; the payoff too low. Such dramatic steps would risk much. West Point has provided the country with leaders of character for 215 years, not only to fight its wars but also to serve the nation selflessly after they leave military service, often in self-directed and quiet ways.
It is said that West Point is the “conscience of the Army.” Its graduates in the civic community also serve as part of the conscience of the nation, fortifying it with the critical values of honor, integrity, and service which the Academy has engrained in them. Its graduates believe in the rich heritage of Athenian democracy, which promoted such a tremendous flourishing of freedom and creativity in that ancient city-state, as we enjoy in America. However, they also recognize the necessity of the Spartan warrior values of vigilance, discipline, honor, and courage to maintain them. In broad, bold letters on the side of an Academy building stand steadfastly the cautionary words of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower: “The hand of the aggressor is stayed by strength and strength alone.”
USMA Coat of Arms
West Point serves then as a source of those citizens of character who Plato argued were so essential for a republic. And its core values of DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY are imperative for a liberal democracy to continue to flourish in this uncertain and increasingly authoritarian world.
A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) is a West Point graduate, Class of 1970. He teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University and is writing a novel on Civil War Gen. Ambrose Burnside, Class of 1847.