The new class of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy this year has been spared a disciplinary ritual as old as West Point itself.
Hazing of first-year cadets, or plebes, has been abolished.
But at this 188-year-old school, hazing is a tradition that has survived reform before.
Plebes of old had to do such things as memorize how many ice cubes go in the drinks of upperclassmen. Or double-time around the barracks at 120 steps a minute, squaring corners like robots. Or study New York Times articles, ready to repeat them verbatim at the whim of older cadets.
“It’s a rite of passage that we aren’t doing anymore,” says Todd Manninen, a third-year student from Unionville, Mich. “It’s a tradition that they’ve been doing forever.”
It was intended to teach discipline.
Upperclassmen had the right to come up to any first-year students wearing a crooked cap or dingy belt buckle and literally shout in their face the proper rules for conduct.
But what upset many here were the “unwritten but nonetheless tolerated practices” of the upperclassmen under what was called the fourth-class system, according to Col. H. Steven Hammond, whose commandant’s office oversees military training for the cadets.
“You would read (the rules) and say, ‘Well this sounds OK.’ But in terms of how it was practiced, there was much opportunity and great potential for abuse by the upper-class cadets,” Hammond says.
The abuses differed from the mistreatments piled on unlucky civilian college fraternity pledges. West Point hazing was supposedly instituted to improve the character of neophyte officer candidates.
In the name of leadership, plebes were mandated to learn not only military history, but pages of other trivia and gibberish that, in effect, equaled an extra academic course. But what really rankled Hammond and others was that upperclassmen were so busy trying to lead plebes, they didn’t spend enough time working on their own character.
“Too many people in the past here saw the seniors’ role as placing stress on the subordinate,” he says. “But the leaders’ role is to remove stress.”
So this semester, with little ado, the Cadet Leadership Development System was unveiled. At the heart of this new system are 15 rules defining the proper way for a military leader to act toward subordinates.
This fall’s plebes now just have to read the Times, not memorize the front page.
However, many who passed through hazing voice regret.
“You can tell by looking in their eyes that the plebes wish it was the same,” Manninen says.
“It’s not the same,” says Robin Schuck, a female senior from Davenport, Iowa. “When I was a plebe, anybody could tell you your brass buckle needed a shine. Now only someone in your chain of command can make a correction.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s easier,” says John Shugena, a plebe. “A lot of the things we have to do, the upperclassmen had to do. We still have to be familiar with world events.”
Some cadets have taken to calling the freshman class “getovers"--as in those who “get over” by doing as little work as possible.
Hammond though, emphatically rejects the idea that plebes have it any easier than their forebears or that West Point is becoming “a Harvard on the Hudson.”
“Every single class that has ever come here has been told during their freshman year that ‘you got it easier,’ ” Hammond says.
Maybe they do.
“Deviling” was such an arduous pastime early in the 19th Century that an academy superintendent advised plebes standing guard duty to use their bayonets against relentless upperclassmen tormentors.
At the turn of the century, the death of a former cadet linked to hazing provoked a national scandal.
Oscar L. Booz died of tubercular laryngitis 18 months after he dropped out of the academy. But his family blamed his death on daily dosages of Tabasco sauce his older schoolmates forced him to drink.
A congressional committee uncovered other abuses, such as forcing plebes to sit on bayonets or slide naked down splintered boards.
One young first-year cadet called to testify before Congress, Douglas MacArthur, was forced to recall his own humiliations.
MacArthur biographer William Manchester recounts in “American Caesar” that the future general in command of U.S. forces in the Far East was once laid unconscious and sent into convulsions after three separate groups of upperclassmen forced him to perform deep knee bends over broken glass.
Hazing was modified in the wake of scandal, but the almost sacred rite of passage could not be eradicated.
George Patton, class of 1909, mentioned in personal letters how upperclassmen made sure that he would always “brace,” that is eat and walk so erect as to push his chin into his gullets.
Dwight D. Eisenhower once recalled his own plebe year in 1911 as “double-time all the way.”
Perhaps remembering his own humiliation, MacArthur curtailed abuses of the fourth-class system upon his appointment in 1919 as superintendent of West Point.
But once again, while the physical brutality lessened, the ritual remained.
Hammond says previous attempts at reform failed because they attacked the symptoms of abuse, not the cause. For example, bracing was abolished (in the 1960s) only to give rise to pinging, double-timing around the barracks, squaring the corners.
But the new reform is fundamentally different, he says.
This time, cadets both past and present worked with faculty and staff for years to make reports and suggest changes.
Hammond says the Cadet Leadership Development System cuts right through to the very purpose of the academy: “To provide the nation with leaders of character who serve the common defense.”
“Leadership” and “character” are sacred terms here.
It’s the Army’s concept of leadership that initiated the change. And despite the grumblings, it’s the cadet’s respect for leadership that will make or break the new system.