The Changing of the Guard

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On a cold Saturday evening in early February, West Point — a place of ritual and traditions — hosted its annual Yearling Winter Weekend, a banquet and formal dance for second-year students. Cadets donned plain, grey dress uniforms and white gloves. Civilian dates, who came in from around the country, wore either evening dresses or suits and ties. The dinner was a lengthy affair, marked by a number of toasts and prayers. The evening had palpable religious overtones. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, wearing a tuxedo, delivered the keynote address. The growing political conservatism of America’s military elite was on full display.

This year, however, was different.

This year, with no more fanfare than the occasional murmur among cadets, a gay couple attended the banquet for the first time. Just a few years ago, this incident would have resulted in expulsions and explosive controversy. Only months earlier, Scalia, the keynote speaker, had asked, “If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder?”

From its policy toward homosexuality, to the role of women in the military, to the general place of force in U.S. foreign policy, the American military is rapidly moving into uncharted territory. The world’s foremost military power is experiencing its greatest period of flux and change since the retreat from Vietnam and the end of the draft in early 1970s.

Nowhere are these changes felt in quite the way as they are at the nation’s three premiere military academies — located in West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs — where the future leaders of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, respectively, are spending their bright college years.


‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

On Dec. 22, 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 (DADT). After 17 years, the policy — under which some 13,000 service members were discharged for “homosexual conduct” — finally ended. During the transition period, all of the academies prepared for the change by conducting numerous studies for possible impacts. The potential for backlash was obvious.

“The academy was quite professional in looking at possible repercussions,” Eugenia Kiesling ’78, in her 18th year as a history professor at West Point, told The Politic. “When it happened, it was a bit of a fizzle.”

The attitude among students at the academies, while mixed, was mostly welcoming and open.

“I can say there is a sort of ‘so what?’ attitude now when it comes to whether or not someone is gay,” commented a member of the class of 2017 at the Naval Academy, who served in the Navy before coming to Annapolis. Due to the academies’ press policies, he and the other cadets and midshipmen interviewed for this piece spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to allow them to express themselves freely and without fear of repercussion.

“The overall reaction at West Point has been nothing but positive,” said a second-year cadet at West Point majoring in mechanical engineering. “It’s a nonissue.”

Beyond tacit acceptance, there has been active movement at West Point on behalf of the LGBTQ community. Students recently founded a new club called “Spectrum,” similar to the gay-straight alliances found at most colleges throughout the country.

In Colorado Springs, life at the Air Force Academy “didn’t skip a beat” when the law was repealed, recounted a second-year systems engineering major. “I don’t know anyone personally that is gay here, but if I did, I wouldn’t think anything of it. I think people are generally accepting about those kinds of things.”

Screen Shot 2013-04-24 at 2.01.19 PMThe reaction among the students at the academies makes it easy to forget the controversy raised when the repeal made its way through the legislative process. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, spoke for many of his fellow Republicans in late December 2010, when he said: “It is a disgrace that this latest item from the liberal legislative wish-list is being jammed through at the expense of military readiness.”

“Today’s a very sad day,” bemoaned Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on the day of the definitive vote in the Senate. “The commandant of the United States Marine Corps says when your life hangs on the line, you don’t want anything distracting.”

But for the most part, the young men and women at the academies feel no such distraction. They spend every day preparing for that day when their lives — and the lives of the soldiers they will lead — could hang in the balance, whether in the deserts of the Middle East, the jungles of Latin America, or the mountains of the Korean peninsula.

“Before ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed, there were definitely cadets who everyone knew were gay, but it really wasn’t a huge deal for most people,” said a third-year cadet at West Point. “The general opinion of most officers and NCOs [noncommissioned officers] I have spoken with, as well as my own opinion, is that as long as a soldier is able to get the job done, his or her personal lifestyle should not be evaluated in a professional setting.”

Women in Combat

Women have made similar strides in obtaining equal treatment in the military. In late January 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta moved forward to lift the ban on women in combat roles. While the repeal of DADT brought hardly a flicker from the academies, this January decision lit a match.

“The attitude of many of us,” stated a third-year male cadet at West Point, “is that the move was purely political and that its consequences were not really considered. During our military training here, I have seen some extraordinary women who I have nothing but the utmost respect for, but physically and psychologically, men are stronger than women in extremely stressful situations — aka combat.” The cadet did acknowledge that exceptions exist, but insisted these are “few and far between, and not enough to justify the problems that arise from having integrated combat units.”

Another junior at West Point spoke of basic logistics: “When the Navy had women getting pregnant onboard ships during deployments, many had to be sent home for proper medical care. That simply won’t be feasible for combat roles.”

A second-year midshipman at Annapolis, with prior service experience, felt differently: “The majority seems to view this as the natural next step in an ever-changing military.” Indeed, the higher military brass do not appear to share the feelings of many of the cadets. According to many reports, the Joint Chiefs pushed the decision in the first place.

Kiesling, the West Point professor, believes that the military should permit women to serve in combat roles and knows a number of officers who share this view. Nonetheless, she saw the decision as creating “a lot of anger” at the academy. She explained, “Many men join the armed forces to show their masculinity. It’s important to these men that war remain a male preserve. It would no longer be as meaningful if women could do it.”

Life among a student body that is about 85 percent male can certainly be difficult for female cadets. One first-year cadet said that while she had never felt discriminated against by either faculty or Army personnel, the same could not be said for her classmates.

“Some of my male classmates make it painfully obvious that they do not respect the role of a female in combat or even in the combat training we do here,” she noted. “It can be very frustrating to work with a peer who does not respect or trust you because of your gender.”

The regimented uniformity of life at the academies can help temper this distrust and disrespect. “We all wear the same clothes all the time, follow the same rules, we’re all on the same schedule and have to think about similar futures. Where other schools might divide,” she explained, “the Academy comes together.”

Uniformity may not be enough for some cadets who remain uncomfortable with the decision to expand the female role in combat. Echoing many at West Point, one second-year cadet voiced a basic concern: “It’s not worth putting American lives at risk to have complete equality — at the end of the day, there’s a biological difference.” He was not, however, completely opposed to the idea. “If there’s a woman who can lift a 200-pound soldier who has been shot in the hip and can’t walk,” he said, “then sure, she can join the infantry.”

The Sequester

The military’s changes go beyond social policy and into the realm of budgetary matters. In March 2013, after a great deal of political theater, congressional leaders failed to reach a deal on the automatic spending cuts that the government had put in place months before. The result was sequestration — including $85 billion in automatic spending cuts over the next seven months. About $43 billion of the cuts apply to defense programs in the short term. The cuts are slated to total $500 billion over the next 10 years. Like all other Department of Defense agencies, the academies face an 8 percent across-the-board spending cut.

As April fades into May, many college students around the United States prepare for summers abroad. This is no longer an option for cadets at military academies, where funding for summer trips has been scrapped. In the past, cadets were routinely sent on outreach trips to foreign academies in places like Europe or India. Due to the sequester, these trips are being severely scaled back. Meanwhile, the American academies continue furloughing civilian professors, and their libraries and computer labs often lack supplies as basic as printer paper.

“We are definitely feeling it hard at the academy,” wrote a third-year cadet in an email. “There are many quality-of-living issues that are brushed aside or flat-out ignored because of the lack of funding or misappropriated funding. For example, Congress has mandated that the size of the Corps of Cadets be reduced, yet construction on a new, multimillion-dollar barracks building is slated to begin next year.”

“It’s hard not to be pissed at legislators for allowing this to happen to the military,” said the second-year engineering major. “It’s like they don’t even care.” This same cadet, however, noted that it seemed as though some in the academies’ leadership were trying to make the cuts appear worse than they actually were. In this way, when budget hearings in Congress begin, the leaders can point to all sorts of draconian effects in a call for more funding.

Many pundits believe the cadet has a point. With the cuts to summer programs and the furloughing of civilian employees — not to mention the deferment of certain types of maintenance and research — some academy programs have remained oddly untouched. As Joe Nocera recently pointed out in The New York Times, athletic teams have faced no cuts, and neither have the prep schools where many recruited athletes spend a year improving their grades.

“Of course not,” wrote Nocera. “After all, Navy is joining the Big East in 2015.”

Civilian-Military Relations

Civilian control of the military has always been one of the brightest features of American democracy. It is a principle almost universally revered by politicians and military leaders alike. As social and strategic policies change, reshaping America’s armed forces, it is understood that the political branches of government and not the military itself should spearhead these changes.

But a chasm is widening between the civilian populace and the military. The absence of a draft, as well as the lack of new taxes to fund current wars, contributes to the feeling that the U.S. is not at war, the Army is at war.

Increasing concern among the civilians leading the military worsens this gap. Robert Gates, the highly regarded secretary of defense who served under Presidents Bush and Obama, made a point of addressing the incongruity as his tenure at the Pentagon wound down. In a speech at Duke University in 2010, Gates acknowledged that “for most Americans, the wars remain an abstraction — a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally.” He continued, “In the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.” Indeed, less than 1 percent of the American population served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Well over 10 percent served in World War II, a conflict that lasted less than half as long.

“If you don’t want to defend the rights and freedoms of this country, you don’t have to,” pointed out the second-year mechanical engineering major at West Point. “You can be totally disconnected from this country’s foreign policy. You don’t have to care about the soldier who was wounded defending this country if you don’t want to.” And yet, the cadet went on, “I don’t think cadets have a warrant to be bitter.”

Peter Feaver and Richard Kohn, professors who have dedicated their careers to studying the civil-military gap, came to the following conclusion in 2001: “Military officers express great pessimism about the moral health of civilian society and strongly believe that the military could help society become more moral, and that civilian society would be better off if it adopted more of the military’s values and behaviors.”

According to Kiesling, there exists “a very negative attitude about civilians as morally inferior.” She elaborated, “Cadets are inclined to believe that civilians have an easier life, that civilians are fat, they’re lazy, they’re out of shape. That when they go to university they don’t have to go to class.” This disconnect, claimed Kiesling, “is troubling. It might be dangerous.”

There is hope that the return of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) to elite universities like Harvard and Yale, in the wake of DADT’s repeal, will help to restore some of the mutual respect between civilian and military leaders. In spite of all the talk of national security issues today, the increasingly relevant civil-military gap continues to be neglected.

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