Celebrating its 200th birthday this year, West Point is the most venerable of the service academies. It pre-dates the Naval Academy at Annapolis by more than four decades; the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs is necessarily a johnny-come-lately with the advent of military aviation.
So it is fitting that President Bush chose the Military Academy at West Point to outline his vision for the war against terrorism last weekend.
Playing a pivotal role in the war of independence, West Point long has seemed a tranquil place even though its mission is to educate warrior officers of the future. Perched above the Hudson River it is prim and green, its parade ground immaculate, its tree-shaded walkways undesecrated, as one might expect on a proper military installation, by any trash or errant scrap of paper.
Lately there has been more tension in the air. Gate security is tighter. Visitors are screened and can no longer stroll where they will. Soldiers check under cars for hidden bombs. The authorities are taking no chances that Osama bin Laden's misguided foot soldiers can work their madness among several thousand officer-candidate cadets who will be the future leaders of the US Army.
If ever a graduating West Point class was launched into a changing world it certainly is this year's. On the eve of President Bush's visit, I called a staff officer at West Point to ask how Sept. 11 might have changed the culture or curriculum. "Day-to-day training hasn't changed," said Lt.-Col. Jim Whaley. "Our job is to graduate these cadets physically fit and intellectually agile, able to adapt. But obviously they have a heightened sense of awareness that they're going into an ambiguous world. A hundred years ago, in 1902, we graduated a class versed in cavalry tactics. By World War I, they were fighting in a world of machine guns, poison gas, aerial attack, and submarines. Who can tell what the class of 2002 will face?"
President Bush offered the cadets a glimpse of this world when he told them they are graduating in a time of war, in a fight against terrorism that has only just begun, which will take "many turns we cannot predict." The new threats, he warned, come from small bands of evil and deluded men with a few thousand dollars in their hands, as well as from petty tyrants bent on manufacturing and exporting weapons of mass destruction.
The only strategy for defeating these new enemies, said President Bush, is to strike them first. "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long."
So these cadets, who follow in the footsteps of such military giants as Grant and Eisenhower and MacArthur, enter an era where the cold war is a fading memory and Russia is our friend and NATO ally. As the recent campaign in Afghanistan has shown, it is an era in which small Special Forces units, and guided smart bombs, and pilotless planes are used as much as traditional combat divisions. The US Army officer of tomorrow is more likely to find himself reconnoitering a mountain cave, or concealing his troops for a desert ambush, or street fighting in some Middle Eastern city, than he is to be fighting a set-piece battle with tanks on a European plain.
Mr. Bush exhorted the graduating West Point cadets whose motto is "duty, honor, country" to bring moral clarity as well as professional skills to their new missions. It is a reasonable injunction to the thousands of other graduates currently engaged in commencement celebrations who will be pursuing nonmilitary careers.
It is tragically ironic that the same front page of The New York Times recording President Bush's West Point speech also carried a report of surging accounting and corporate wrongdoing in America, as well as healthcare fraud, bankruptcy, identity theft, corporate espionage, and intellectual property piracy.
Gil Dorland, who left West Point more than 40 years ago, wrote a book about honor in business. In the current issue of the West Point graduates' magazine he is moved to write about the Enron collapse. He deplores the drift of some Americans, in both their personal and professional lives, "off the honorable path into a netherworld driven by greed." And he concludes: "As hokey as it may sound, honor, ethics, and veracity are the glue that has held this nation together."
A West Pointer's point of view meaningful for us all as we face this ambiguous world.
John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.