More On Wokeness At West Point
Getting good letters on this one. If you haven’t read the original “Wokeness Comes To West Point” post, by all means do. Then read these letters.
Here’s the first, slightly edited to protect confidentiality:
I graduated from West Point in [date] and currently still serve. I was dismayed, but honestly not very shocked, with the 40-page manifesto fired at the Academy by the disgruntled former cadets. There has been a gradual shift at West Point in recent years to become more progressive, to include:-In 2018, inviting Ta-Nehisi Coates to spend two days at the academy, speaking to cadets about a variety of topics, with an emphasis on race. This is the same Ta-Nehisi Coates who wrote in regards to the police and firefighters who died on 9/11 “They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature.”-In 2017, Spenser Rapone, an avowed communist, was allowed to graduate from West Point. On his way out, he ensured everyone knew his world views in the form of a Che Guevara t-shirt under his uniform and a “Communism Will Win” sign in the cap he threw upon graduation.-This year, a “coalition” of graduates fired off a letter to the Class of 2020, blasting President Trump for “politicizing” the military in response to the protests, and urging them to question any orders that don’t fit their world view.All of this is truly dangerous, as we are creating generations of entitled, embittered junior officers who will reflect those values and spread them within the Army. As I read this list of grievances outlined in the manifesto, I kept asking myself “And then what happened?” Dropping snippets from anonymous surveys with no context and no resolution does not, and will never prove systemic racism. If some of the events did occur as stated, they are not remotely as terrible as the treatment of Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point. He was “silenced”, wherein no one would talk to him outside of official business, for his entire four years at the Academy. He experienced true systemic racism, and he arrived on the other side. These nine former cadets wouldn’t make it past R-Day.From the top to the bottom, our military is rapidly losing its ability to make war in the name of progressivism. This week, GEN Milley, the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress that bases named after Confederate generals needed to have their names changed as soon as possible. I won’t attempt to unpack the history behind how Army bases received their names, but I will say it’s truly telling that GEN Milley chose to focus on that issue instead of addressing the Soldiers that recently died at Ft Hood (Vanessa Gillen & Gregory Morales, to name a few). In an interview shortly after the death of George Floyd, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Kaleth Wright, said his number 1 fear as the Air Force’s senior enlisted leader is receiving notice that one of his black airmen died at the hands of the police. I would think his biggest fears might instead revolve around losing air superiority to China or the EMP threat to our satellites.The military is trodding on dangerous ground when it ignores threats abroad in a misguided attempt to appease social justice. Command teams posting social media articles and videos decrying racism within the ranks, as happened after George Floyd, are unnecessary and frankly insulting. Treating the armed forces as if Jim Crow is still in full effect will only sow division, not heal it. And unless senior leaders stop kowtowing to the mob, we are in for some very interesting times ahead on the world stage.
Thank you for your article on “Wokeness Comes to West Point.” More broadly speaking, thank you for the perspectives you publish in The American Conservative. I frequently enjoy reading articles on your website, and I do my best to carefully think through the arguments presented. I know the authors certainly do their best to think carefully when writing them.
I have read through the open letter, “An Anti-Racist West Point”, and I have also read the updates to your article based on reader feedback. It is important that we have careful and honest discussions about where the political winds are pushing us whenever public discourse suggests deviating from the status quo. Edmund Burke would not have it any other way. I identify as a conservative, but it also feels to me like conservatism is in a bit of a civil war right now. That is part of the reason why I value The American Conservative so much. You provide thoughtful opinion pieces which help me more carefully consider the essence of conservatism and how conservatives can better serve others.
I will also add that I currently teach at West Point, and I have taught here since 2013. Prior to that, I led combat engineers in both Iraq and Afghanistan, having spent three years of my life between those two countries. Before I commissioned as an officer in the United States Army, I was first an enlisted Soldier. I mention my background only to say that I have some experience soldiering in the ranks, and I have some experience leading Soldiers. As such I have at least some idea of what it takes to do both. As I prepare to share my thoughts on “Wokeness at West Point”, please know that I do so in a personal capacity and that my thoughts reflect only what I see from my fighting position. I cannot speak for others at the academy or for the U.S. Army; I can only speak for myself.
With that preamble, let me begin with the bottom-line up front. West Point is not in danger of being overtaken by wokeness. We do have problems with racism, and we have work to do to overcome those problems. It is my opinion that our (West Point’s) problems of racism come from at least two places. First, West Point did at one time have overtly racist policies. Second, West Point is comprised of officers, non-commissioned officers, civilians, and cadets from all 435 legislative districts, and we bring with us attitudes as diverse as our beloved country itself. Some of those attitudes, unfortunately and to our own injury, are racist. The legacy of racism, baked into our institution, combined with conscious and unconscious racism among people like me and the people I serve with, erodes trust between all of us. When trust is low, morale suffers. When morale suffers, our fighting force is less effective. Queue Napoleon, “The moral is to the physical as three to one.” Racism, sexism, whatever immoral -ism you describe, is a form of fratricide because it diminishes the effectiveness of our fighting force. I observed it in the ranks when I was enlisted, and I have seen it as an officer. We have all seen how toxic leaders and toxic teammates can ruin group cohesion and trust. Racism is another toxin capable of doing the same if left unchecked. West Point is reckoning with the remnants of its officially sanctioned racist past, and it is dealing with racist attitudes that walk through its gates every day.
Having said that, I stand behind all the men and women at this institution. Like all people, we are imperfect. Yet we strive to think critically and ask how we can improve at all we are called to do. Our instruction to cadets is both abstract and practical. We emphasize character development, and we also teach cadets how to close with and destroy the enemy in close combat. Many cadets will go on to lead Soldiers in combat after they graduate. 13 of my West Point classmates paid the ultimate price while doing the same. I have been wounded in combat myself. Another classmate was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for valor. Rest assured, West Point’s focus on leading with character does not come at the expense of creating tough leaders. When it is their time to serve, our cadets will have no trouble dominating any firefight in which they find themselves. Our Army has no trouble winning battles; we have problems winning wars. Why we can do the former and not the latter is a separate discussion, but I mention it because there is some misconception that by caring about justice and equality, our officers are somehow less capable of killing other human beings. The ability to do both is not mutually exclusive, and I assure you that our Army is incredibly lethal.
I have to say that my reaction to “An Anti-Racist West Point” was not as strong as yours or the reader who shared with you the open letter. While I am a conservative, I do not feel that a left-wing mob is descending on West Point. I do not feel forced to bow to the woke cult. What I read in the open letter was indeed strongly worded. It does not go so far as to call for a reorientation of West Point’s mission in my opinion, but it is a call to do a lot of things differently. To attempt to do most of the things suggested would be a tremendous undertaking in a place that values tradition as much as we do. To even attempt to add or subtract a mandatory math class from the curriculum is as challenging as cold fusion, so you could imagine the energy involved in doing some of the things proposed in the open letter. Having said that, we owe it to our country to create an environment where the very best of its sons and daughters can come study to be war fighters and uniformed servants to the nation without the distraction and pollution of racism. The open letter is one attempt at helping West Point’s leaders consider how we might do that. There will be other efforts as well, and we will move forward, slowly and ploddingly like we always do.
To address your points, I do not think China’s military is knotted up over ableism. I do not think the authors of the open letter are either. They are simply asking us to think more carefully about how our actions may be inequitable, either intentionally or unintentionally. What’s the harm in thinking? What’s the harm in stepping outside of oneself and thinking about what life might look like through the eyes of another? As a leader of Soldiers from all walks of life, I actually find that to be a useful skill. It helps you understand and connect with your Soldiers, most of whom are going to be a lot different than you.
I am still working out my thoughts on racist v. anti-racist. It feels too much like “You are for terror or against terror and if you don’t join us in this war, then you are for terror.” To me it feels too simplistic. Perhaps there are other ways to fight racism than a frontal assault. Perhaps we can find an assailable flank and attack there. I also recognize that the I might be wrong. Perhaps I have been too passive against racism. As I reflect on my time leading Soldiers, I think I have done a good job of dealing with racism in my platoon and company, but perhaps I could have done something more effective. I do know that unintentional racism did negatively impact morale in the organizations I led. Perhaps if I were anti-racist, I could have dealt with that more effectively. Again, what is the harm in thinking about that? I suspect I am not going to be won over by critical race theory, but if West Point automatically skews white and conservative, what is the harm in providing more academic balance in the classroom by including perspectives that are more liberal and written by minorities? Why not prepare our graduates to help identify and sort through racism be exposing them to a broader range of perspectives in an academic setting? They are going to encounter racism in the Army; shouldn’t they have as many tools as possible with which to deal with it? Please don’t worry, no one from “the Woke” is would be teaching a class that covers these topics anyway.
2LT Shaeffer’s comments about not understanding microaggressions may seem like fluff on the surface, but it is rooted in a desire to engender trust and foster a climate of respect. At the end of the day, that is what this is all about – helping one another learn how to be professional and respectful, thereby building trust. I am sure it would not surprise you to hear that fighting effectively in close combat requires extraordinary amounts of trust. Microaggressions, or any other form of racism, erode that. One incident doesn’t. Neither does a second incident. When we are talking about preparing Soldiers to fight in combat, however, why would one want to permit any actions that could chip away at trust? Our history as an integrated Army is instructive in this regard. Look no further than U.S. forces in the Vietnam War to see how America’s problems with racism impacted morale and the ability of Soldiers to trust one another and fight effectively in combat.
It is not my place to comment on whether the policy proposals made by these young officers are prudent. I have full faith and confidence in Lieutenant General Williams to take the steps necessary to keep West Point moving in the right direction with respect to stamping out racism while simultaneously ensuring cadets are prepared to be Second Lieutenants in the U.S. Army (also not mutually exclusive). I certainly do not understand all the positions the authors take, and there are many instances where I see things differently. Some of the narratives offered (shiny shoes) are not compelling to me. I feel no harm in thinking more carefully about what they wrote, however, and about how I as a leader can create a fairer and more equitable environment. Rest assured; I will still be a hard ass. I will still create stress for my cadets through the rigor of my instruction in the classroom, through my enforcement of disciplinary standards, and through the training I provide in the field. I will still make my cadets do pushups when they fail to pay attention in class, and I will do pushups with them while continuing to lecture. All the same, why should it pain me as an officer to think about how I could be a better human being and a more effective at building trust with those who are not like me? It doesn’t matter that I am a Major, and the officers are Lieutenants. If someone is showing me ways in which I may be coming up short as a leader, it is my responsibility to carefully consider how I might improve. I should be thankful that they care enough to do so.
At a minimum, ”An Anti-Racist West Point,” is a starting point for a discussion on how we can make West Point a place that creates graduates who are increasingly more capable of building and maintaining trust amongst the Soldiers they lead. We already do a great job preparing them to build lethal formations through difficult training, and we train them to lead those formations of America’s sons and daughters in close combat. What is the harm in taking things to the next level by working to eliminate racism, thereby creating an even more professional and respectful environment, one where trust and faith in leaders is even higher and where Soldiers will go to even greater lengths to fight for their country?