Tom Wolfe and Don Quixote at West Point
DR. ROBERT HICKSON
A recent incident at West Point involving my wife and our little daughter has given us much to ponder, especially after the later comments of candour by my honest and well-informed West Point classmates. Whether in this shabby and staining incident we had actually encountered an adventure, in G.K. Chesterton's sense, or only an inconvenience, or, rather, something much worse and more degraded, is what we now propose to consider. But first we have the deeper matter of principles and standards of judgment to reflect upon.
In his charming essay, “On Running After One's Hat” - first published in the year of 1908 - G.K. Chesterton presented his principle concisely in the last paragraph: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”
And yet an adventure that itself is rightly considered may also be what Chesterton elsewhere calls a “tremendous trifle.” That is to say, either something to be indifferently and easily dismissed as a mere bagatelle, if one has a certain and more superficial standard; or, it may also be seen as a seed and manifestation of something of moment and of altogether trenchant implication, if one holds to another and higher standard. Yet, that conflict of standards, though it be only tacit or implicit, may well provoke - like any perceived incommensurability - a startling psychological dislocation, and it certainly provides a sudden inconvenience.
However, Chesterton had once also tried to show us that even such “an inconvenience... is only one aspect, and that the most unimaginative and accidental aspect, of a really romantic situation.” For example, like running after one's hat - and with one's companion umbrella for use as a sword or lance in the stormy or suddenly shifting wind, to rescue or happily transfix the elusive quarry!
Almost twenty years later, after he had become a Catholic, Chesterton published a novel in which he was to give a fuller and more differentiated and varied presentation of this adventurous and regenerative ethos. That work was suggestively entitled, The Return of Don Quixote (1927).
My recent visit to West Point with my wife and little daughter will undoubtedly provide a test of Chesterton's magnanimous principle and of his forgiving, hence resilient, spirit. For we unexpectedly encountered what Tom Wolfe had already once described, in 1986, as a growing and manic lack of “internal discipline” in American society. However, he had not then given a specific warning also about the likely existence of that indiscipline within the American military culture itself, and most certainly not at West Point.
As we shall see, Tom Wolfe had given a vivid and memorable warning about what any sober observer, and not just an impetuous quixotic idealist, should increasingly expect to find in American society, especially “in the era of the fourth phase of freedom.” And this “manic fourth phase of freedom in America,” he said, would also, as a consequence, present an acute challenge, and likely bring deep grief, to the American Military, especially to the Officer Corps.
Moreover, the shock of that surrounding hedonistic culture, he implied, would be even greater and more permanently staining to a sensitive man of generous idealistic illusions and tradition - like Don Quixote - than to a cynic or a mere crank or a man of numb indifference.
For, as I would add, when an idealistic or imaginative man, in his frequent wandering on the borderland of things, moves back and forth across the threshold between illusion and reality - as the moral imagination itself often does - it becomes a great challenge for him to preserve and transmit his abiding sense of dignity and honour in certain incongruous situations, especially when one is surrounded by evidence of levity and indifference, or evidence of turpitude and flippancy and vague nonchalance. What does one do, for example, in the presence of someone - especially a soldier - who flippantly says “whatever” and further conveys an attitude of “I don't care and you don't matter”?
The Fourth Phase of Freedom
To bring out the depth and implication of the 28 October 2009 encounter, and in order to take its fuller measure, let us first go back some twenty-three years to 8 October 1986 (some three years before the Fall of the Berlin Wall), and to an address delivered by a discerning modern author who was then and is still an especially sensitive “tuning fork” of our often intrusive, circumambient culture.
On that 8 October 1986, some ten years after women first entered West Point, the modern writer, Tom Wolfe, delivered the 14th Sol Feinstone Lecture to the U.S. Military Academy. His address was entitled “The Meaning of Freedom” and his later and slightly revised copyrighted text (1987) was also to be published as the lead article in the March 1988 issue of Parameters, the prestigious U.S. Army War College Quarterly.
In that thirteen-page essay (pages 2-14), Wolfe disclosed his deep insight into the reality of modern American life, and he both charmed and surprised his audience with his vivid descriptions and effective satire. But, he also shocked them with a very far-sighted warning, and then presented them with a formidable challenge - a challenge which was explicitly given to “the officer corps of the American armed services”(2).(1)
What is most important for our purposes is Tom Wolfe's characterization of “the era of the fourth phase of freedom, which is the phase this country is in right now” (2).
But before examining that “fourth phase of freedom,” we should briefly know how he roughly characterizes the first three phases:
The first phase of American freedom .... fighting for freedom from a particular government that you consider tyrannical. .... The second, third, and fourth phases, however, have created freedoms unique to the United States .... The second phase was a calculated campaign for freedom from class distinctions [of “the old British class system”] .... The third phase of freedom in the United States began just after the Civil War, and this can best be described as the freedom of everyone to better himself in America - and the implicit promise that he will (1, 2, 5).
Speaking now about “the fourth phase of freedom,” he says:
It is the most bizarre form that freedom has ever taken, and I think this should be of particular interest to the officer corps of the American armed services. I think you will find this fourth phase very frustrating. It may even bring you grief (2).
The fourth phase of American freedom, as he later specifies, is “freedom from religion” (7). Emphatically, he adds, “It is not freedom of religion; it is freedom from religion” (7).
By way of contrast, Wolfe closely paraphrases Alex de Tocqueville's own acute observation in 1835 - 150 years earlier - that
American society would have come apart had it not been for the internal discipline of the American people. This internal discipline, he said, was rooted in their profound devotion to religion. What we are now seeing is the earnest rejection of the constraints of religion in the second half of the 20th century; not just the rules of morality but even the simple rules of conduct and ethics [even as a theoretical study or form of contemplation and attentive wonder] (8).
After giving specific examples, especially “in the sexual arena” (9), such as the promiscuity of the California hippie communes and “the institution of the village brothel” (9), he gives “one final example of this strange fourth phase of freedom” (10): namely “what used to be known as amateur athletics” (10). And he adds immediately: “Remember amateur athletics?” (10)
Tom Wolfe's observations about the professionalization of once-amateur sports lead him to consider the latent connection with mercenaries and mercenary conduct. He argues, first of all, that
Taking drugs is a standard practice of those who aspire to be great athletes in America. I have been interested in this subject and would like to do a book about it. I have been talking to high school athletes. Many young high school athletes today will take drugs because they feel that's one of the steps you take to become a pro. That is why one tries to excel in sports: to become a professional. I would submit - although I cannot prove it - that 90 percent of American professional athletes today play hungover. About 65 percent of big-time college athletes play their sports hungover (10).
Such links between a professionalized “cult of athletics” and “the drug culture” lead us to his further observation that
At universities with big-time sports programs, the athletes are encouraged to live together, apart from the rest of the student body. They have their own cybernetic diets. They have line-ups of officially sanctioned drugs by their plates .... They have separate courses (11).
In contrast to an old ethos of honour where an athlete with status would not thereby want to take advantage of an admiring young lady, for example, or in any way abuse the privileges of that special status. But, says Wolfe:
Today, what happens in the big universities? Never mind “take advantage of.” The motto today is: TAKE! Think of the cases over the past five years of outstanding college athletes at major universities being brought up on charges of molesting or raping of coeds. The entire administration of the university turns against the young woman in question, with statements such as: “These boys are under a lot of pressure.” “You have to make allowances.” “They have to let off steam somehow.” “What are you trying to do, ruin him?” (11-12)
As it turns out, these last four questions resemble very closely the rhetorical questions which were also posed to me recently when I dared to question the mixed and shabby dress - and especially the crude and craven conduct - of an off-duty member of the Military Police at West Point. We shall soon consider this matter further.
Tom Wolfe goes on to consider the traditional purpose of sports; and how an effectively mercantile and mammonite ethos produces mercenaries:
The purpose of amateur athletics has always been to have a relatively harmless way of preparing young men for fighting in combat. It was well understood by military men that you may have a good mercenary warrior, but you are not going to have a great mercenary warrior. The great warrior is the warrior who fights for duty, honor, and country, to quote a famous Superintendent of West Point [General Douglas Mac Arthur]; that is, the amateur (12).
When I was privileged to be at the Military Academy as a cadet (1960-1964) - and still it is so today - General MacArthur's additional words about the purpose of athletics were conspicuously visible on the wall of the Cadet Gymnasium, and they were also to be memorized: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other fields on other days shall bear the fruits of victory.”
On the principle that “you fight as you train,” Tom Wolfe goes on to make an even sharper contrast, which may also now apply to “the all-volunteer Army,” as well as to “an Imperial Constabulary Force” of well-paid professionals:
He who fights for honor, for home and hearth, will fight to the last drop of blood and the last unbroken hyoid bone for the principles of a people. If you train young men, through athletics, to be mercenaries instead, then they will act like mercenaries. They will look for the rewards of mercenaries. Which are what? Pillage, loot, rape, and a little dope on the side (12).
Throughout his talk Wolfe deftly avoids mentioning women in the military. He does not even mention the women cadets in attendance at West Point, or the fact that they had already been there for ten years, much less some of the ill fruits of that fact.
After then considering the deeper meaning of “the Brotherhood of the Right Stuff” (13), which he first discovered “within the flying fraternity” (13) of military pilots - and especially through the courageous military test pilot, Chuck Yeager - Tom Wolfe approaches his conclusion. He first presents a vivid description of the allure of hedonism and materialism, and then ends with a challenge: a call to sacrifice:
Today, you in the military are going to have to confront, in this really quite marvelous manic fourth phase of freedom in America, the most magnetic pulls upon your motivation - as you see the money, the freedom, the luxuries that are so easily available .... I marvel at it, and I wonder at it, and I write about it. But you will have to deal with it. You are going to find yourselves required to be sentinels at the bacchanal [surrounded by “the lurid carnival of American life”]. You are going to find yourself required to stand guard at the Lucullan feast against the Huns approaching from outside. You will have to be armed monks at the orgy (14 - my emphasis added).
His words prompt several related questions: Why are we defending this? What are we defending, after all, and why? Who is the enemy, what are we trying to protect, and why? And to what extent are “the Huns” now even “approaching” from within - and permeating - our prevailing military culture in America?
But, Tom Wolfe will end his address with gracious and chivalrous words, by purposely using “religious terminology” (14), as he says, especially in order to respond more adequately to a nearly intractable situation for the military even at that time (and during the Cold War). He thus takes us back to the year 1962 and to another address:
One of the most famous addresses ever delivered in this century by an American was the address on 12 May 1962, by Douglas Mac Arthur at West Point, in which he enunciated the watchwords of duty, honor, and country. The rest of that speech is less well remembered. He said that the soldier, above all other men, is expected to practice the greatest act of religion: sacrifice. (14)
The sacrifice implies the capacity and the readiness to give up a lesser good for a greater good, and to resist the “manic” and “magnetic” allure of hedonism and of selfish, self-destructive self-indulgence; or the temptations to a shabby and sordid and squalid licentiousness and insidious spiritual sloth.
But one of the very last statements Tom Wolfe made in his talk will further prepare us - morally and intellectually - to consider the recent rude and arguably decadent incident at West Point. Wolfe's startling statement was simple and summarizing: “I think there is something Nietzschean about a country that has taken freedom to the point of getting rid of constraints of the most ordinary rules” (14).
That is to say, even the rules of courtesy and respect and deference.
The Fourth Phase Sentinels
Let us now consider the penetration, if not permeation, of this Nietzschean ethos some twenty-three years later at West Point, and its apparent penetration even into the military culture of the Military Police.
It was on a recent occasion that my family and I were to meet, so unexpectedly, one of Tom Wolfe's “sentinels at the bacchanal.” As it turned out, we met him in his off-duty costume on the post at West Point. His livery and heraldry, however, in no way suggested that he was “an armed monk” - one of the chivalric religious orders - or one of Tom Wolfe's later-anticipated “alert guards” who are ready to move against the approaching Huns from outside. In the comparably unexpected words of Chuck Yeager ( also quoted by Tom Wolfe in his talk), this suddenly encountered soldier had apparently already taken much more than merely “the first bite out of the apple” (12). The temptations and lures of physical laxity and spiritual sloth seemed, indeed, already to have overcome his resistance and his will. His dress and deportment so openly proclaimed that likelihood. We were also soon to see his unmanly, whining words and his increasingly impolite and squalid conduct.
What might Don Quixote himself have thought, said, and done - in light of his chivalrous naiveté and generous (but cynically mocked) illusions - had he been present there and encountered this sudden Prodigy (“almost a monster”), and his supporters and sympathizers? How would Cervantes - or Tom Wolfe himself - have presented this scene and its implications? For even in this “era of the fourth phase of freedom,” it is still the case that “we have as many masters as we have moral vices.” Many moral vices make such “freedom” an illusion.
It was on a Wednesday morning in late October that my wife and I made a brief visit to the West Point Post Exchange with our little daughter. It is a place where cadets and military families with their young children often visit. We wanted to purchase, if we could, some good candles, tall tapers, for our home and wider hospitality, enroute to a symposium further north, to which we had been invited. But, before departing the Military Academy I also wanted to make my usual visit to the Combating Terrorism Center in Lincoln Hall, especially to discuss with them some aspects of biological warfare, in light of new developments in plant pathology and neuroscience.
Shortly after our arrival at the Post Exchange, which is located somewhat near Stony Lonesome now, up the steep hill from the Football Stadium, I turned to find my wife and suddenly faced a scene I had never before witnessed in a military store, especially not at West Point.
A hobo was there, some thirty yards away, and walking sluggishly into the store and more or less in my direction. He was plodding along vaguely and maundering still when he passed me nearby. I watched him all that time, stunned in thought.
This seeming vagrant and clochard had as part of his attire - perhaps, as I first thought, it was a costume or masquerade for the amateur theatre - a gray Army shirt of official issue, in incongruous combination with big baggy pants, either cut-off trousers of a sort or a kind of elongated Bermuda Shorts. What a picture!
But that was only the beginning. He had a hat on. It was a hat with a beak, but it was not turned completely to the rear as one often sees it with fashionably shabby adolescents. Rather, the hat was turned sideways towards his left ear and putting some gentle pressure on that ear, which was, as a result, somewhat bent down and curved outwardly. This touch imparted to his visage an especially goofy look. That goofiness - as if he were an antic clown - was further amplified by what he was holding in his hand: a large drink which he was vacantly slurping, partly through a straw, as he further shambled on, looking about with an unmistakably bovine look.
As he passed me by, he saw me gazing at him in silence, and he proceeded to stare at me. In memorable and vivid words once taught to me by my host officers in Turkey, the hobo continued to look at me vacantly, “like a cow watching the train go by,” although, in this case, there was no arousing train whistle for him to hear and ruminate upon. Still stunned, I myself remained standing where I was, but I turned to watch him. He was shambling along, and still looking back at me, and, from what I then saw in his eyes, it even looked as if he were on drugs. His vacant look made him look hungover, or perhaps he was only but recently besotted with strong drink. I do not exaggerate.
Two women were closely walking behind him, one woman older than the other and both of them having an Hispanic look, but I could not be certain. Nor was I able to discover whether it was his wife, or only his girlfriend, and her mother. Their leader - the hobo - was a Caucasian male. The two women, however, seemed especially shy and modest, as the three of them moved along slowly together.
Since the man looked too old to be a military dependent of one of the Army families residing at West Point or visiting, I decided, after some minutes, to approach him and to ask him if he were himself in the military.
He had observed me watching him for some minutes prior to my asking him my first question, with particular courtesy. I approached with calmness and asked him simply: “Excuse me, please. Are you in the military?” He said: “Yes.” I said: “May I know what unit you are in?” He said: “The Military Police.”
I did not then ascertain, and never afterwards reliably discovered, his rank. I only knew now that he was one of the guardians, perhaps also a supervisor of the increasing civilian security personnel at West Point. But, after meeting this man, I started to wonder even more.
Since I had first read Tom Wolfe's essay on “The Meaning of Freedom” in late 1988 while I was on the Secretary of Defense's Base Closure and Re-alignment Commission, and had always afterwards remembered his vivid characterizations, I then asked myself: “Who here is the Sentinel at the Bacchanal, if this hobo character is an instance of a Military Policeman? Is this the Very Model of a Modern Military Policeman?” Moreover, the material abundance and luxury on display in the new Post Exchange could also provide, in Tom Wolfe's words, a new and enervating context for this Sentinel's conduct: not quite a “Lucullan Feast”, but it was at least a Lucullan Emporium.
But things were to become much worse and to deteriorate rapidly.
We move now from the Policeman's dress to his explicit conduct and tone of voice. Tom Wolfe might now refer to him as “Hobo Cop,” but we shall also more cheerfully remember Shakespeare's own comic figure, Constable Dogberry, in Much Ado About Nothing. For, this antic and shuffling, unmistakably incompetent Constable was to utter such memorable malapropisms as “comparisons are odorous” and “we have just comprehended two aspicious persons.”
With Constable Dogberry in mind as a comic foil, we may more politely now refer to this bovine Hobo by his French title, as Constable Clochard.
After I had first discovered that this worthy man was an off-duty member of the Military Police Force, I formally identified myself and then went on to ask him another question: “My name is Robert Hickson. I am a retired Army Special Forces Officer. I also graduated from West Point some years ago. It was during the time of the expanding Vietnam War. May I know your name?”
He then became petulant and surly: “Why do you want to know my name?”
I replied: “I wish to speak with your superiors in the Provost Marshal's office about your mixed and shabby dress and also about your deportment and demeanour.”
At once he became more brazen and defiant and suddenly expressed himself with a sneer and a smirk of contempt. And then he said: “Hey man, you're harassin' me.”
I said: “I beg your pardon. I ask you for your name and you call it harassment? You must be a real stalwart. Have you no self-respect?”
Constable Clochard then reached into his baggy pants and pulled out his cell phone. He called his friends in the Military Police directly and said: “Hey some guy is harassin' me over here. I'm at the PX. Come on over.”
After he was assured that his comrades were enroute, he became more insolent and displayed even more turpitude. He gathered together in a little cluster with a few younger female employees from the store - all of them were young women and all but one of them seemed to be of Mexican-Hispanic or of some closely related multicultural heritage. The Constable muttered and grumbled amongst them. But it was not a cheerful grumbling. He glowered at me intermittently from a distance of some thirty yards and recurrently made loutish gestures of mockery, to include his characteristic smirk.
But he kept his distance, and the two ladies with whom he entered the store remained polite and even shy, although they stood with their man on the margins of the other more expressive and coarser group of young women. The Constable still had his hat askew and continued to slurp his large drink with a straw.
Before long, two junior sergeants of the Military Police quietly arrived. They were both men and Caucasian. One immediately took the approaching and welcoming Constable by the arm and went with him to a more distant place in the store. The other young sergeant - a clean-cut “Buck Sergeant E-5” - stayed with me. He was very polite, but his own words and, soon, his effective acts of omission were even more shocking to me than those of the querulous Constable himself, whose character had all of the unmistakable signs of a lout.
The young sergeant said: “Sir, what's your problem?”
I mentioned first the facts of the Constable's own stunningly mixed dress, his generally antic costume and his deportment, but especially his sluggish bearing, his plodding and aimless walk through the store, while he still slurped his large drink and still shabbily covered himself under his twisted hat, displaying his bent ear, as well, and so boorishly.
But, before I could complete my brief description, especially about his colleague's eyes and acoustic demeanor, the young sergeant stopped me and made his own surprising comments. “Sir, I don't see your problem. I dress like this, too, when I'm off duty.”
“You mean that you, too, come into the Post Exchange with a mixed military uniform and hobo dress?” I responded.
The young sergeant affirmed that this was so.
I then commented: “Well, I now know your standards, as well, Sergeant.”
The sergeant then deftly deflected and effectively disallowed my further comments about the Constable's even more squalid conduct, as distinct from his slovenly dress. I was merely allowed to note that this whining and unstable colleague appeared to be so unstable that he could not even receive a polite question from me without then immediately calling it a form of “harassment,” which promptly then required his call for outside help from the police. “What have we come to, Sergeant?”, I said.
Although I attempted to discuss further his colleague's disturbing fragility and acute rudeness, to include his apparent lack of self-respect and honour, the young sergeant, though still polite, had had enough. He considered that he had sufficiently restored the peace. There was no danger, he concluded, of any violence and thus he and his partner wished to depart. The case was finished - on their terms.
Aside from their shabby colleague's few ongoing glowering looks and smirks - and a few mumbled sneers from a distance - Constable Clochard kept his distance after his comrades' official departure. My wife and I had no more exchange of words with Constable Clochard. But he did resume his disgruntled conversation with the little group of sympathetic female employees and he seemed to feel somewhat vindicated. However, we unexpectedly had to face one last act of his baseness.
Since it was then raining heavily outside, I went to get our car in the parking lot, so that I could fetch my wife and little daughter at the more sheltered entrance of the Post Exchange. As I was getting them into the car there, the hobo Constable unexpectedly re-emerged from the store. He was on the other side of the entrance and was holding a little notebook in his hand and a cigarette was now newly dangling from his lips. He looked at us and proceeded to copy down our car's license plate number, after which he sauntered off again in his baggy pants, but this time it was toward the nearby Commissary and he was walking alone. Before he turned to shamble off, however, he gave us another contemptuous smirk. Such was his manhood and sense of honour.
My usually calm and poised wife was then herself quite troubled by the Hobo-Constable's final gestures and even implicitly threatening act: especially the copying our personal license plate. She thought that this act itself constituted a further dishonour - a continuing manifestation of his earlier and protracted disrespect. It might even lead, she thought, to other acts of baseness, to include even, through his own informal police networks, to some indirect form of revenge. But, as we were soon to find out, no one was to be really concerned about this matter. Not even about its effects upon my wife.
However, because of the hobo's final gestures and acts, we decided to drive in the rain and visit the Office of the West Point Provost Marshal himself, in order to report these acts of dishonour and disrespect. But it was not at all our intention to file any formal complaint. For, we thought that the traditional ethos of honour of the West Point Military Police would informally, and more subtly, correct the hobo's abuses, both his abuse of the dress code and especially the shameless conduct of this man who was likely himself also a junior non-commissioned officer. But we were wrong again.
We met with the Executive Officer and the senior sergeant in the Provost Marshall's office, neither of whom was Caucasian. Both were men and Afro-Americans. The sergeant did most of the talking. Both of them were polite and the sergeant gave me his professional card and asked me explicitly to write and give him my e-mail address as soon as possible, so that he could tell me how he handled the incident. I also showed them my Military Identification Card and gave them a card from my last duty station with the Defense Department, which was as a Professor at the Joint Special Operations University in Florida. The senior sergeant then said to me straightaway that the current Army Regulations now regrettably permitted mixed dress “off duty,” and so there was nothing he could do there. But, as to the other alleged matter of the shabby Constable's conduct - his open defiance and disrespect - he would attend to that at once. He was also polite with my wife, and even appeared to understand with compassion, as it seemed, her own anxiety about the soldier's final rudeness and veiled implicit threat, when he copied down our license plate number. She had already asked the sergeant in the office: “Was not this act itself a sly and unmanly form of harassment?”
That same evening, while we were still at West Point, I did what the senior sergeant had requested of me. I gave him my current e-mail address. But, I never heard from him for two weeks, though I had written to him twice. When he finally wrote me back he was so vague about what he had discovered and had purportedly done by way of correction, that I wrote him two more messages of inquiry, one of which (on 11 November, Veterans' Day) was a somewhat long and detailed description of what had occurred - a sort of Incident Report and Memorandum for the Record.
To my first message, this senior sergeant, now sending copies to his own superior officers, wrote me back only a brief and still vague, but now quite indignant note - addressing me as “Mr. Hickson.” Despite his therapeutic language, he instructed me that I should trust him to have done what was proper and altogether fitting; and that he would, because of his trusted and much-respected authority, tell me no more than that. The case was over. I never heard from any officer at West Point about this matter - neither active-duty officers nor the former officers whom I had also contacted and who were now working, as well, in some official capacity at West Point.
No Fruits Without Roots
When I then contacted some of my trusted classmates and told them the entire story, I was essentially told by them that the problem was much larger than the West Point Military Police. They said that when the Cadets themselves are now “off duty,” it is difficult to say who is a cadet and who is a gangster or a vagrant bum (clochard). Moreover, a dignified and graciously dressed woman in the West Point Post Exchange had earlier told me that the dress and conduct of that member of the Military Police was more and more representative. Cadets and other members of the military, and their families, increasingly dress and act that way themselves, she sadly observed. She also said to me: “This is not, by far, the way it used to be. But people don't seem to care any more.”
In this context, one poignantly remembers the words of the Roman historian, Livy. In his Introduction to his multi-volume history, he spoke of a point they had come to in Roman culture “where we can tolerate neither our vices nor their remedies” (“nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus”). Perhaps that was also the era of Rome's “fourth phase of freedom.”
One of my senior classmates, moreover, found it troubling that not even one officer was in contact with me about the disposition of the case - not even as a courtesy, much less as a duty and as a form of honour. I was further told that the West Point Superintendent, a Lieutenant General, whom I had thought that I should also contact, would himself not likely get involved in the matter. For, as I was told, he delegated such things to the Post Commander, who is only a full Colonel.
I was also informed by my classmates that the ethos at the Academy is now so changed that a recent Superintendent (to remain unnamed) preferred to have a young potential donor stay overnight at his prestigious Military Quarters rather than to give his hospitality to a decorated veteran General from World War II. The General was then given a room at a nearby hotel.
One of my other good classmates - not at all a Curmudgeon, much less a Pessimist or a Fatalist - said: “Robert, the Corps has, and the Army has” - which is Cadet Slang for “the Standards of the Corps and the Corps of Cadets itself have gone to hell, and, and what is more, the Army, too.” I had not expected to hear these words from such a senior and distinguished man.
I was even more stunned when a Special Forces senior officer - now retired - recently read for the first time the 1988 Tom Wolfe article itself, and so unexpectedly said: “And we defended this?” That is, “and we defended - and helped spread abroad - the Culture of the Fourth Freedom”? Moreover, he said these piercing words even before he was to read my own detailed and descriptive Letter to the Provost Marshall's Office about the recent incident at West Point itself - after which he said even more.
In any case, we shall not recover the flower of chivalry, much less the fuller fruits, unless we re-discover (and are nourished by) its roots, to include its religious roots. No fruits without the roots. But, as James Burnham has said: “To be defeated after losing well does not always lose so much as not to have fought.” G.K. Chesterton also once said: “Only a live dog can swim against the stream.” Let us not be “a dead dog in God's stream.” Let us not be a drifter. Nor a tramp.
~ Coda ~
The current editor of a distinguished magazine once said to me something I have never forgotten, in part because this man has seldom said such sensitive and heartfelt words to me. It was some five years after we had been in graduate school together and we were not yet of the same religious Faith. But, he said to me, calling me by my affectionate first name: “It must be very difficult for you to witness the decomposition of three things that have been so intimately formative in your life: your home village on the ocean-island seacoast; the Catholic Church; and West Point.” He later visited my home when I was teaching at a professedly Catholic College and, once more, said something so unexpected: “Your life here is so rich, almost too rich.” It was shortly after these words from the heart that I was to know other intimate and consequential decompositions.
To see the place where I became a man show signs of dissolution does deeply affect the heart. To feel that one is an absurd and injurious anachronism is not a thing easily borne in a manly way, thus with integrity and true fortitude. One misses being part of a living, active tradition, especially in these late years of disrupted traditions. One sees the danger of the levelling spirit, what Tom Wolfe called the ethos of “Everyman an Aristocrat,” by which he meant Everyman a Decadent Aristocrat and prone to manifold sensual pleasures, even “to indulge in the whims of caliphs” (10).
Man is nourished “by social experience acting through time - that is, by tradition” (James Burnham), especially when it is the virtuous and deeply tested tradition of the Long Gray Line, where once there was a sincere faith in this tradition as a living and continuous force. As with Don Quixote, “there was the wisdom of his naiveté,” in a desire for “chivalrous magnanimity” and for “a new order of voluntary nobility” (G.K. Chesterton). So, too, with us when we were cadets and trying to be found worthy to be members of the Long Gray Line. Today, where is yet to be found and fostered “this restraint and approving tradition”?
The current West Point Superintendent is helping to establish a Military Academy in Afghanistan, and he has recently been reliably informed about some serious manifestations of corruption there, and has promptly conveyed to the Afghan leadership his grave displeasure and the sanctions to be applied, if the situation is not soon corrected. May he also be comparably indignant about, and corrective of, signs of serious corruption at West Point, especially the spreading ethos of “the fourth phase of freedom.” My West Point classmate, General Barry McCaffrey, is now making public statements that favour military sodomy. West Point will soon have to face this matter, too.
(1) References to this March 1988 Parameters article will be placed, for convenience, in parentheses.