Today's West Point

'No Excuse, Sir' Is West Point an anachronism in America today? The ambivalent position of war-oriented West Point in our basically peace-oriented society is investigated with on-the-double insight in the third documentary in PBS's wide-raning "Exchange" series: "No Excuse, Sir," (Friday, 9 -10 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats).

Produced by the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Sonya and Mike Gilligan, this KERA/Dallas-Fort Worth presentation delves into the origins of the US Military Academy as well as the evolution of the school from the nation's top engineering institution to the co-educational military center it has become.

Says a former West Point instructor who has written a book about the academy: "The highly organized, disciplined life at West Point helps submerge personal interests and individuality into the larger purpose of defending the country. The educational emphasis is on technical skills, not deep philosophical thinking."

Over and over again, individual cadets stress the motto of the academy: "Duty , honor, country" and try, sometimes unconvincingly, to make it clear they do not feel these goals interfere with their own values. As one expert puts it, the need to submerge their own feelings makes cadets technically merely "the bullet in the gun." And in today's "gimme" society, it is fascinating to find a group of young people who seemingly reject that attitude and are prepared to give a rather than take.

"No Excuse, Sir" is a sensitive attempt to understand the system which, according to one female plebe, offers the West Pointer a choice of only four responses: "Yes, sir," "No, sir," "No excuse, sir," or "Sir, I did not understand." Several of the cadets interviewed make it clear that "No excuse, sir" is not merely a required response, but also a complete way of life at West Point -- and in life. Cadets are taught to do what is in the books and offer no excuses if things go wrong -- simply accept the consequences.

Summing it up on camera, Gen. William Westmoreland says: "For every right, there is a duty. And a fundamental weakness of our soceity is forgetting that."

"No Excuse, Sir" makes it clear that, despite some ambivalence on the part of cadets, superintendent, teachers, filmmakers -- and perhaps even viewers -- the fact is that the country is lucky there are still young men and women willing to endure the difficult challenge of a West Point education. In fact, the stirring martial music of the West Point band at the conclusion may have you on the verge of volunteering yourself.

This documentary is an honest attempt to investigate all sides of the questions raised by a militaristic education -- its impact upon the individual, the armed forces, the nation. It'll force viewers to think beyond the Tyrone Power "Long Blue Line" movie version of West Point.

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