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33 CHAPTER 2 “The most democratic school in the United States” The long gray line of us stretches Through the years of a century told, And the last one feels to the marrow The grip of your far-­ off hold.1 Augustines, the Plain at West Point, 1 August 1911 Situated on a commanding plateau on the west bank of the Hudson River, West Point was a key objective of both sides during the Revolutionary War. Washington rated it the most important strategic position in America, selecting Lt. Col. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish military engineer and hero of Saratoga , to design the fortifications in 1778. The next year Washington made his headquarters there, and engineers constructed fortification, extending an iron chain across the Hudson to command all river traffic. West Point was never taken, despite the treason of its commander, Gen. Benedict Arnold, and remains the oldest continuously occupied military post in America.2 Even during the Revolution, Washington, Adams, Knox, and Hamilton realized that their recent reliance on foreign experts in technical fields, like engineering and artillery, was dangerous, and they urged the creation of an academy devoted to the “practical and theoretical training of cadets for military service.” President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation establishing the US Military Academy in 1802 at West Point. Soon afterward, the institution was lucky to have a leader that, to borrow a nautical metaphor, set it on a course it still follows. Col. Sylvanus Thayer, superintendent from 18l7 to 1833, upgraded academic standards, made military discipline and training a leadership function, and firmly established the principle that the honorable conduct of an officer was the highest value of a soldier.3 34 Part I Becoming a Commander Consistent with the needs of a young nation, the curriculum was based on civil engineering and the sciences, and for the country’s first century academy graduates did the surveying on land and sea, built the railways, bridges, harbors , and roads. Graduates gained experience and recognition for their skill and professionalism during the Mexican and Indian Wars, and they dominated the officer corps of both sides during the Civil War, especially those officers who had been commissioned into the Corps of Engineers, then the most prestigious of the branches and the signal of early promise. Gradually, the development of other professional and staff schools in the various branches of the service led to a broadening of the curriculum, aligning it closer to traditional American colleges. There are few universities where history and the role of its graduates in shaping it play such a large part in the soul of the institution.4 Looking back, more than forty years after arriving, Bradley returned to the concept gnawing at the founders—­ the development of a professional military caste that would represent a threat to the Republic, the way it had in Europe. “If I were to pay a single tribute to my Alma Mater, I would say West Point is the most democratic school in the United States. It is democratic in almost every good sense which we Americans associate with the word. The entire system is based on social equality where no one man has any advantage over any other contemporary. And most important, our military academy is democratic in its selection of candidates. My own case is living proof of this.”5 Of course, he meant within the context of his day, when the allowable candidates were white, Protestant, and a very few Catholics, fewer Jews, and no women. After checking in with a soldier at a small table in the entrance to the Administration Building, Bradley entered the academy and approached a fellow dressed in gray blouse and white trousers walking toward him deliberately. Thinking he was a representative of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), or some other service group there to welcome him, Bradley was shocked when the cadet greeted him with a brusque bark, “‘what is your name mister? Stand up straight. Turn up your collar. Roll down those pants cuffs.’ And in other ways woke me up in a hurry.” From that moment, all movement was double time, suitcases, bundles, uniforms, in tow, up to the final three-­ hundred-­yard run to the barracks. All the trips that day, to the cadet store, barbershop , quartermaster, were accompanied by upperclassmen yelling orders and verbal abuse in a dizzying variety of highly specialized insults.6 It was soon apparent that the fourteen late arrivals, branded “Augustines” for the month of their arrival...


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