West Point Revisited

By Thomas Hauser

Earlier this month, I wrote an article entitled Hypocrisy at West Point

that called into question a policy known as the “alternative service

option.” In relevant part, that policy states, “Army cadet-athletes now

have options to pursue professional athletic opportunities thanks to

the U.S. Army’s Alternative Service Option program. If cadet-athletes

are accepted into the program, they will owe two years of active

service in the Army, during which time they will be allowed to play

their sport in the player development systems of their respective

organizations and assigned to recruiting stations.”

In other words, a West Point graduate sufficiently skilled to play

professional sports can pursue his athletic career without

interruption. As a trade-off, he must recruit other young men and women

to enter the military and face the risks inherent in combat that he has

not faced.

Since the alternative service option was inaugurated in 2005, six

cadets have sought to exercise it. The spotlight is currently on Caleb

Campbell, who captained the 2007 Army football team and has pro

potential. Recently, Campbell told the Dallas Morning News, “I

think this is a great opportunity to get all-star kids into the

academy, because they’ll know they still have a chance to play football

after they leave the academy. Some [NFL] teams wanted to know if I’d be

able to play for sure. They wanted to know if I’d have to go to Iraq if

I got called up. Do we invest all kinds of money in a player just to

let him go? Now all the teams have the understanding I can play

football. My duty right now is to play football.”

Hypocrisy at West Point engendered a remarkable response. On

the day it was posted, I received more than one hundred emails, the

overwhelming majority of them from graduates of West Point and

Annapolis. I also heard from the parents of quite a few young men and

women now serving in the military and graduates of the Air Force

Academy. Writing about the alternative service option has turned into a

rewarding experience for me, in large part because of the dialogue I’ve

had with so many graduates of the service academies and their families.

The Annapolis alumni who wrote to me were close to unanimous in

opposing the alternative service option. A majority of West Point

graduates also disliked the program.

Many of the correspondents had questions about my own background and beliefs, so here’s a thumbnail sketch.

I’m 62 years old. I attended college and law school at Columbia. In

1967 (after anti-war protests led the school administration to cancel

an invitation to the United States Army to recruit on campus), I

invited the Army to recruit at Columbia in my role as president of the

graduating class. Although I thought the war in Vietnam was wrong, I

believed (and still do) that a strong military is essential to our

national security.

I was a practicing attorney for six years. Then I turned to writing.

I consider myself a liberal on social issues, moderate with regard

to foreign policy, and an economic conservative. I don’t think that

“conservative” means letting financial institutions run wild, running

up hundreds of billions of dollars in budget deficits, and cutting

taxes for rich people in a time of war.

I believe that there is a place where the values of well-intentioned people with different mindsets coincide.

I did not serve in the military. I’ve always respected the military

and understand that, properly employed, it safeguards our democratic

way of life. The young men and women who attend the service academies

have unique motivation and talents. The defense of our country is in

their hands.

I have no reason to question Caleb Cambell’s character. He’s

following the rules as he found them. I have a problem with the rules.

It’s precisely because I understand how important the United States

Military Academy is that I’m troubled by the alternative service

option.

I favored the United States using military force in Afghanistan. The

government there condoned, aided, and sheltered the terrorists who were

responsible for 9/11.

I believe that the invasion of Iraq was a poorly-chosen war of

choice. It was launched on the fiction that Saddam Hussein was building

weapons of mass destruction and is now justified on grounds that it is

“bringing freedom” to the Iraqi people. There’s nothing brave about

middle-aged politicians who have never seen combat sending other

people’s children to die in battle. I believe that the civilian

architects of the war in Iraq are reckless with other people’s lives

and owe an apology to the men and women in our armed forces who they

have needlessly put in harm’s way.

I’m troubled by the fact that the current administration hasn’t

asked the American people as a whole (and particularly wealthy

Americans) to make greater sacrifices in a time of war. The war in Iraq

is being conducted in a manner that ensures it won’t interfere with our

fun and games. Perhaps there’s a fear that, if the American people are

called upon to sacrifice, we won’t support the war. Or worse; perhaps

we’ll vote the people who led our country into the war out of office.

If a war is just, the American people will sacrifice to support it. If it isn’t just, it shouldn’t be fought.

I also believe that the best way to support the men and women

currently serving in our armed forces in Iraq is to bring them home as

quickly and safely as possible.

Several hours after Hypocrisy at West Point was posted, the

director of communications for the West Point Association of Graduates

distributed a memorandum to a number of association members entitled

“Alternative Service Option Talking Points.” Recipients of the memo

were advised to say, “These young Soldiers are still serving their

country, just in a different way.”

Another “talking point” read, “Just a few weeks ago, the Seattle Times

had a long glowing article on Seattle Mariners pitching prospect, 2LT

Nick Hill (USMA 2007). The article focused not on Nick’s pitching but

on the Army and on West Point. Circulation? 220,000. And how much would

it cost for us to buy that many column inches in the Seattle Times?

$63,000.”

Judging from the emails I received from USMA graduates, they weren’t

impressed by the talking points. “Just think of all the column inches

Roger Staubach could have gotten if he’d gone directly from Annapolis

to the NFL,” one West Point graduate wrote. “Of course, the column

inches he got had special meaning after he’d fulfilled his commitment

to serve.”

The “proud mom” of a young woman currently at Annapolis referenced

the famous World War II declaration by Army Chief of Staff General

George C. Marshall (“I need an officer for a secret and dangerous

mission. Send me an Army football player”) and asked, “What happened to

‘send me an Army football player’? I guess the new response is, ‘Sorry,

he’s in the NFL; but we do have Navy and Air Force football players who

will do the job, sir.”

The column spurred discussion and debate. I think that’s good. And I

was impressed by the nature of the emails I received. Whether or not

the correspondents agreed with me, they expressed themselves in a

well-thought-out manner. Rather than speak for them, I’d like to let

them speak for themselves.

The following is a representative sample of views communicated to me

by men and women who have attended West Point and Annapolis, their

families, and others who’ve served in the armed forces:

* With a son at the Academy who insists on the Marine Corps at

graduation, I am stunned that the Army will allow cadets to avoid

“real” military service in order to play football. Granted, Army has

been defeated by Navy year after year. However, any military academy is

a serious commitment to one’s country; not a potential NFL contract.

* Some academically gifted Academy graduates go directly to graduate

school for advanced degrees; some go directly to medical school; some

go to Olympic team training; some are found not physically qualified

for a commission. On rare occasion, there is an exceptional graduate

from a service academy who is good enough to try out for a major

professional sports team. These individuals can and usually do great

recruiting service for their country while pursuing their dreams.

* The service academies turn down thousands of qualified applicants

each year. Caleb Campbell took a spot at West Point that could have

been filled by another young man or woman anxious to serve in the

United States military to the fullest extent possible.

* Is the next step a lowering of standards to admit talented

athletes who would not otherwise qualify for admission to West

Point? And if so, what sort of military leaders will these young men

and women make?

* I have two sons who earned varsity letters at West Point, though

in a sport that does not offer lucrative professional contracts. Both

are now serving on active duty. Both have deployed to Iraq and are

likely to do so again. If anybody would resent the very few baseball,

football, and basketball players and other cadets who have explored the

alternative service option, you would think it would be West Point

graduates like my sons, their classmates, and their teammates. Yet I

have never heard such resentment expressed by any of them. Or

resentment toward the several West Point athletes who, as active

serving officers, are tasked to train for the Olympics. They believe

that all of these soldiers serve in their way.

* I would not have gone pro while my classmates were putting their lives on the line.

* All service is honorable. Combat service is not inherently more

valuable or honorable than recruiting duty, public affairs officer

work, staff work in the Pentagon, or overnight gate guard duty at Fort

Hood, Texas. To imply otherwise is to denigrate the service of those

who, for one reason or another, do not get deployed.

* Last year, a Navy Lieutenant who was serving at the United States

Naval Academy and was a former USNA baseball player had a brother who

was an enlisted soldier in the Army and was on his way to Iraq for the

third time. He had a question. “Why does the Army let their officers

from West Point out of their commitment to serve and my brother has to

go back there for a third time?”

* At most colleges, when a football tradition falters, rich alumni

pressure the school to upgrade the football program at any cost. At

West Point, we have a tradition that’s more important than football.

* I would challenge you to look at the bigger picture and the

broader impact West Point has on this great country of ours. Having a

strong athletic program is a big part of that impact. It serves to

unite those of us who have graduated and boosts our morale when we are

deployed.

* As a graduate of the Naval Academy, I agree with your article in

its entirety. As nice as it might seem to be able to leave school and

go to a lucrative pro football career, that is not the purpose of these

institutions. Navy is continuing to abide by the requirements all

recruits know about when they enter the school. I am proud that they

intend to continue this tradition.

* I love college football. I particularly love Navy football. I

admire and appreciate those young men and how hard they work to live

their dream. Sure, they have more than average ability but their

achievements are gained mostly through exceptionally hard work and

sacrifice. These are the men I want fighting with and for me. When

their teams are successful, they encourage younger high achievers of

all skills and talents to attend the Academies. High achievers do not

want to be associated with losers. The goal is to produce great

leaders, and I think winning NCAA Division I football supports that

goal.

* When Caleb Campbell is “on duty” in the National Football League,

will he be paid what other NFL players are paid or Army wages?

* These kids that go to the Academies need to realize and

acknowledge that they go to an Academy to become an officer in the

military; not to perhaps get a chance to play pro ball.

* I am in total agreement with you. However, there is a point that

needs to be mentioned. The West Point cadet at the end of two years at

West Point has no service obligation. He/she can decide at that point

to leave with no pay-back or service commitment, athlete or not. The

issue as I see it, is; cadet decides to stay and signs commitment

papers for the last two years. He made the choice and the Government

paid for his education. I believe the signing obligates the cadet to

the five years of active duty. He had a choice to leave before he

signed and did not. If you go to one of the service academies and,

after two years, are athletically talented enough to move on, leave. Do

not suck up the taxpayers money for the last two years with no

intention of serving on active duty while you get a degree from one of

the top colleges in the United States completely funded.

* The current saying that “The military is at war; America is at the mall,” goes to the heart of the issue.

* The decision to offer the alternative service option was made at

very senior levels in the Army. Unlike you and I, these general

officers are responsible for the accomplishment of the Academy’s

mission. Every day, they balance competing priorities and resource

constraints to meet the needs of the Army for a new class of West Point

graduate lieutenants each May. Inspiring the best and brightest young

Americans to seek an appointment to the Academy is part of that

mission. If it takes a successful football program to do that, then so

be it.

* The alternative service option isn’t about recruiting for the Army. It’s about recruiting for the Army football team.

* There are some of us who don’t think it’s appropriate for a

graduate of West Point to spend his active duty years playing baseball

or football. What’s the point of a West Point education if it isn’t put

to use the way it was intended?

* Thanks for reminding me of Pat Tillman. Thumbs down to an institution I respect.

* I am a graduate of the US Naval Academy and served my five year

obligated service in the US Marine Corps. I was also a varsity football

player for the academy. Do you have any idea of the impact that a

winning academy sports team (particularly football) has on the morale

of the rank and file service man/woman?  Do you understand the impact

that winning sports teams have on attracting the very best candidates

to the academies?  There is a great deal of good that can come from

resurrecting the West Point football program.

* I commend you for stating the issue so clearly. Many of us are

concerned about the way in which the current leadership of our military

seems to have lost sight of the intangible moral honorable side of the

education the academies provide. Apparently, undermining the very

reason for the existence of the service academies is a small price to

pay to obtain a winning football team.

* It would be interesting if all of the service academies published

data comparing the in-school performance, graduation rate, and

post-graduation military assignments of their elite athletes. It’s not

just the USMA that should be questioned. Take a closer look at the Air

Force Academy.

* David Robinson was 6-7 when he entered Annapolis and 7-1 when he

left. He simply was too large to be stationed on navy ships or to be a

Marine. He had an opportunity to leave school at the end of the first

semester of his junior year, but elected to stay and complete his

degree under an arrangement in which he served two years [on active

duty] followed by an extended six-year reserve obligation. Nobody, with

the possible exception of Roger Staubach [who served four years on

active duty] could have been a better ambassador for our school than he

has been.

* I did thirty years in the Army and now live in the Annapolis area

and am very disappointed with the Army position. Just so they can beat

Navy in a football game. Seems we have lost more than just a game.

* After Pearl Harbor, the commissioner of baseball wrote to Franklin

Roosevelt and asked whether baseball should continue to be played

during the war. Roosevelt wrote back that it should, but warned that

many of baseball’s best players would be drafted. The Army says that

Caleb Campbell can serve as a poster boy for military recruiting. Ted

Williams served as a different kind of poster boy.

* And they still cannot beat Navy.

A lot of thought went into the views expressed above. I want to add one last thought of my own to them.

My previous article contained a reference to the United States Military Academy motto: “Duty, Honor, Country.”

General Douglas MacArthur, in his Farewell Speech to the Corps of

Cadets at West Point, referred to “those three hallowed words” as “an

expression of the ethics of the American soldier” and “a great moral

code.”

The reference I made to the motto was disrespectful and inappropriate. I apologize for it.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com.

Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.