When, at 6:15 pm--known in local parlance as 1815--coveted ticket in hand, I boarded a bus with various members of the West Point community for the short ride to Eisenhower Hall to listen to President Obama, I thought about how very early we would be. But “Ike,” the second largest U.S. theater east of the Mississippi (only Radio City is bigger), was already full: cadets, over four thousand strong, had been there for hours. Body heat and a distinctive hum rose from the undulating dress-gray sea. (I confess that my immediate thought was to calculate whether my flu shot had had sufficient time to kick in.)
The cadets, eminently practical, had brought something to do: Many were hunched over graph paper, calculators, textbooks, or novels. A few were dozing tranquilly. Hurry up, the saying goes, and wait ... and wait. I searched unsuccessfully for cadets in my poetry class. They were, I hoped, using the time to study two Civil War poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s “From Trollope’s Journal” and Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” in preparation for our next meeting.
Cadets are gathered together not infrequently in one of various auditoriums to listen to statesmen, generals, pundits, or performers. But presidents are a special case. “Two presidents in two years!” I overheard one cadet say to another with a kind of wonder as he recollected that then-President Bush had visited only last December.Over the years, the rhetoric directed at the Corps of Cadets has ranged from the lofty to the earthy. At the 1962 commencement, President Kennedy addressed Cold War anxieties: “I know that many of you may feel ... that in ... the nuclear age, when war may last in its final form a day or two or three days before much of the world is burned up, that your service to your country will be only standing and waiting. … Many serve, all applaud, and the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there is a long, slow struggle, with no immediate visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed.” Would the cadets in my poetry class have recognized the allusion to Milton?
President Truman’s remarks at a Mess Hall luncheon ten years earlier had a decidedly different tone: “I try my level best to make people feel that they do not have to be afraid of the President, because he is only interested in the welfare of the whole country. He has nothing else to do but to see that the country runs as it should, and to see that we keep our friends in the world, so we won’t have a third world war, and so you won’t have to go and be cannon fodder. I hope you will remember that.” How could they forget?
Yet oratory, presidential or otherwise, occupies a peculiar place in military culture, where action is king. Cadets are accustomed to being exhorted, and they become adept at responding with an automatic enthusiasm. But they are even better, when given the chance (as I think they were last night), at thinking seriously about responsibility.
Speakers often feel the need to remind cadets of their status as volunteers, as patriots, as young people who understand the concept of sacrifice. They sometimes try to flatter cadets with jingoism, bromides, and generalities rather than challenging them with questions, difficulties, and specifics. I sometimes wonder whether, in a society in which a true consciousness of the military has receded for so many, cadets make visitors uneasy in some fundamental way. Is that why so many of these events begin with jokes, as if the speaker had mistaken West Point for the nearby Catskills? And end in pandering perorations?
There were no jokes last night. The event was prefaced by a colonel’s celebration of the American tradition of a non-partisan military. The president, in keeping with the gravity of the occasion, delegated to the Superintendent the granting of amnesty to cadets being punished for minor infractions—an authority customarily exercised by heads of state on visits to West Point. It seemed to me that the cadets’ response to the announcement of amnesty, made moments before the president’s arrival, was more subdued than usual. They were ready to listen.
Service academies theoretically provide safe audiences for the Commander-in-Chief. But to look into the eyes of the people you are sending to war, when what you hope to do is forge a world in which young people, as Truman put it in the language of a veteran artilleryman of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, “won’t have to go and be cannon fodder,” is, I think, an act of honesty. President Obama’s challenge was twofold of course: to articulate a policy and to attend to an audience that would be directly, materially affected by that policy in ways they can see only too well and in ways they cannot even imagine.
The seniors I teach have just chosen the branches of the Army in which they will serve—aviation, infantry, military police, etc. All semester I have watched them devote to this choice, as well as to a consideration of the profession of arms and to the ambiguous situations into which it might deliver them, a substantial amount of thought. How could a Commander-in-Chief’s emphasis on deliberation and restraint, on the “nimble and precise ... use of military power,” and on a set of national values encompassing the value of disagreement, not strike a chord with an audience so circumstanced?
When my classes next meet, the cadets will no doubt share their thoughts on the speech, and I will share with them another speech, written, like last night’s, after a decade of national crisis and transformation, a speech that, like President Obama’s, linked domestic prosperity and foreign engagement, civilian and military enterprises. In his 1939 West Point commencement address, FDR refrained from excessive congratulation and challenged his audience to regard their commissioning as a beginning rather than a culmination: “You will find, as I have, that ... service never ends—in the sense that it engages the best of your ability and the best of your imagination in the endless adventure of keeping the United States safe, strong and at peace.” The demand for such imagination on the part of military leaders has only increased since 1939.
Roosevelt regarded another attribute as essential to an officer’s successful negotiation of complex responsibilities, namely a “sympathetic knowledge of how other men’s minds work and of the processes by which non-military life operates. There is no greater quality of discipline than the ability to recognize different techniques and different processes, and by persuasion and reason to bring these divergent forces into fruitful cooperation.”
It is to the growth of that “sympathetic knowledge” in cadets that I look forward each day when I head to class. When we meet shortly to look at Robert Lowell’s meditation on the Union dead, the cadets will seek to understand the workings of the poet’s mind and perhaps the workings of that of his subject, Robert Gould Shaw, the 25-year-old colonel of the Massachusetts 54th, a regiment of African-American soldiers, over 70 of whom died along with Shaw in the assault on Ft. Wagner, South Carolina, in the summer of 1863. In the image of Shaw in St. Gaudens’s memorial on the Boston Common, Lowell perceived a “wrenlike vigilance, / a greyhound’s gentle tautness.” William James, speaking at the dedication of the monument on Memorial Day in 1897, discovered in Shaw a “lonely kind of courage,” a courage beyond even that required to “storm a battery.” I’m going to ask the cadets what they think that means.
Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. The opinions she expresses here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
More on Obama's Afghanistan Speech:
"Obama's Inconsistencies," by Richard Just
"More On Obama's Inconsistencies," by John B. Judis
"How Obama's Surge Is Like Bush's," by Steven Metz
"Obama Sticks To His Guns," by Michael Crowley
"Obama's Other Front: The Hill," by Lydia DePillis and Jesse Zwick
"The Day After: A Hollow Withdrawal Pledge Comes Into Focus," by Michael Crowley
"Sorry, But I Hear Echoes of Vietnam," by John B. Judis
For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.