Duty, Honour, Country.
I’ve always fancied myself as a soldier.
This obsession with soldiering goes back to my grandfather’s stories of derring-do around the family fireplace and evenings spent sitting on his knee watching films like ‘The Longest Day’ or ‘They Died With Their Boots On’ or my all time favourite ‘A Bridge Too Far’.
Of course, in my version of a military career, I saw myself as the dashing young officer leading his men on to victory, while ignoring the wounds I’d received (nothing drastic, you understand, maybe a cut to the arm or a graze to the head, something heroic but not life-threatening) while capturing the enemy position. Then, back to headquarters in time for tea and medals.
Well, that was my idea of soldiering anyway. The fact that I was never any good at sports, that I am not very happy outdoors in bad weather, that I don’t like being cold or wet and that while I’ve never been shot at, I’m 100 percent certain I wouldn’t like it, were all put to one side and I did, for a fleeting moment, consider applying for an officer cadetship with the Irish Defense Forces.
One look at the physical requirements called a halt to my military career; never mind the necessary academic standards. So, that was the end of that.
During the fleeting moment when I saw myself as a military cadet, I remember reading about the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in England and the US Military Academy at West Point. I have always been fascinated by the tradition and service of these institutions and when I set about planning my trip to the US I was determined not only to visit West Point but to make the academy an important part of the research for my novel.
And so, I saddled up George W. and we headed off to upstate New York, to the town of Highland Falls and the US Military Academy at West Point.
When I arrived at ‘The Point’, I headed first for the visitor centre where I joined the scores of Chinese tourists who were waiting for a tour of the academy. You have to show your passport to get a tour ticket; after all, the base is a working military installation.
My interest in the academy, as part of my research, is focused on the day-to-day life of the cadets during the 1850s. And I was delighted to see that many of the rules that govern a cadet’s life at the academy have not changed since those days before the Civil War.
But before we get into that,first, let me tell you a little something about what it takes to become a cadet at this renowned college because, apart from the military aspect to life here, West Point is a college that awards its alumni with Bachelor of Science degrees at the end of their four years.
Firstly, you have to be nominated to attend West Point by either the President of the United States, a Senator or a member of Congress. That’s the easy part.
You have to have excellent academic results, be above physically fit and, this is the really important quality, have what the army deems to be the ‘right stuff’.
This ‘right stuff’ is undefinable to my mind. It seems to me that it’s a mixture of all of the above with a lot of qualities only the army seems to know. Anyway, if you consider yourself ready, qualified, and able, you can apply.
Last year, 16,500 men and women applied to the academy. They all had the nominations and the academic results because they wouldn’t be allowed to apply without them.
However, did they have the ‘right stuff’? Well, it seems that only 1,600 of these hopefuls did and were accepted to begin their training. I got to see some of these ‘Plebes’ as they are called as they faced their second week at the academy.
All fresh-faced and, to my eyes, impossibly young, these men and women had arrived at the beginning of July, said goodbye to their family and friends, got their heads shaved (only the men) and began what would be for many of them a life-long commitment to their country and the armed forces.
The ‘Plebes’, I was informed by a member of staff, are only allowed to answer an instructor’s or teacher’s question by using one of the four following responses, no other response is allowed.
So, this is how it goes. The instructor asks a question. The cadet must respond using one of these:
Number 1: Yes, Sir!
Number 2: No, Sir!
Number 3: Sir, I do not understand, Sir!
Number 4: No excuse, Sir!
That’s it, nothing else is acceptable.
There are over 4,000 cadets training at West Point at the moment. They all eat together in the mess hall; all 4,000 at the same time. Each meal is served, as they say here, ‘family style’ and all 4,000 are in and out of the mess hall within 25 minutes. That’s breakfast, lunch and dinner, 25 minutes.
Apart from military training, each cadet studies a vast array of subjects including: politics, engineering, chemistry, computer science, economics, geography, history and a lot more as well.
Also, each cadet must take part in at least one team sport while at the academy.
Apart from the updated subjects on offer at West Point these days, a cadet arriving at the academy in the 1850s would still recognize the traditions and procedures, the rules and what is expected of them.
West Point is a very challenging school both physically and mentally, just like it was in the 1850s, but unlike the cadets of today, the antebellum West Point was struggling with the darkening clouds of a civil war on the horizon as the officers and the cadets were forced to make the choice between the Union and the individual States they called home.
While most of the Generals on both sides during the Civil War were West Point graduates, indeed some of them were in the same class as the officers they now faced across the various battlefields, today at West Point, the memories of these troubled times are somewhat skipped over.
Names such as Lee, Grant, Pershing, Patton, Eisenhower, MacArthur and Schwarzkopf are all remembered and revered. Indeed, even George Armstrong Custer has a monument in the graveyard reserved for all those who graduated from the college, while names like Longstreet, Hill, Jackson, Johnson, Beauregard or even Davis are not to be seen.
And perhaps that’s right and proper; after all, to the victor goes the spoils.
As I watched the new cadets march off towards the main buildings on the far side of the parade ground, it suddenly dawned on me why I wanted to be a soldier. Was it the discipline, the camaraderie, the guns?
No, it was the uniform … I would look damn good in one of those uniforms.