Cradle of Valor:
The Intimate Letters of
A Plebe at West Point
Between the Two World Wars
Dale O. Smith
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
Dale Smith went to West Point in 1930 and graduated in 1934. The first section of Cradle of Valor, "The Ordeal of Beast Barracks," describes his time there as a plebe, during the first weeks of training:

    He tiptoed to yell in my ear. "Mister Dumbjohn, this is no summer vacation. And it's no college. This is the United States Military Academy, commonly known as Hell-on-the-Hudson. And you're a plebe. Get it? The lowest scum of the universe. Wipe that smile off your puss! You're worse than a plebe if that's possible. You're a beast. For the next seven weeks you're a beast in Beast Barracks. Get it?"

There's a pleasant innocence to all this; even more, a pleasant innocence in Smith's warmly reporting it to us a half-century later. There is, of course, the natural sentimentality about youth that afflicts even the most cynical of us --- not the least a retired assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, and a co-author (with Curtis LeMay) of America is in Danger. It takes, as well, a certain innocent bravery, not to say a devil-may-care attitude, to reproduce, wholecloth, the hundred or so letters that a young man wrote to his family in Nevada during the four years of his military college life.

    I'm soon to be 20 years old. Gee, I feel like I'm at last a man. The number of years is always the mark of manhood whether a fellow thinks he is grown up or not. I've just finished a long Victorian novel by Thomas Hardy called Desperate Remedies. He certainly deserves to be a famous author. He can keep the reader interested with the simplest occurrences. (The "simplest occurrences" referred to in the Hardy novel have to do with illegitimate children, bigamy, spousal murder, and suicide.)

It is always fascinating for the outsider to read of the preparation of innocent young men to participate in routinized institutionalized violence, which is --- after all --- the essence of military training. The system requires, first, the dehumanization of the self; then, by natural extension, the dehumanization of everyone else. This is the key to survival in a world where lives must be disposed of as cheaply and quickly as possible.

Like all systems, this one is actively supported by the group language. A plebe is a "beast," and a second-classman is a "cow." All plebes are "dumbjohns" who are made "to crawl." One making poor grades is a "goat," and the cadet officer of the day is referred to as a "woof-woof."

In fascinating counterpoint to this are the West Point words which have overt (or not-so-overt) sexual overtones. A roommate is called a "wife." To study is to "bone," a "file boner" is an overly conscientious cadet. A cadet officer is called "a make," and "to skin" is to be reported for delinquency. It flows from this that there is implicit sexuality throughout the whole of the military academy training system. The first day of hazing, in the hands of a "yearling" (dressed as fussily as any prom queen), includes the imprecation that "cadets did not wear pants...girls wear pants." Then:

    Now roll your hips forward and get that girlish sway out of your back. Try it! Make a nasty motion!

The famous requirements of absolute, passionate cleanliness --- including demerits for tiny amounts of dust found in one's room, clothes, or rifle --- is the American housewife desideratum taken into a realm that is more than psychotic. (Ritual handwashing and illogical cleanliness are some of the most common schizophrenic traits.) Intimate inspection of one's clothes, bedclothes, and underclothes is routine: an attempt to keep the plebes from indulging in obvious Onanism. Masturbation is made illegal not because it is harmful, but because of fear. One is not to love in these environments --- not even love oneself.

Such Sherlockian curiosities concerning passion carry implications of a fascination with "perversion" --- a fascination which is, of course, a perversion in itself.

§     §     §

"The slang term of "wife" for "roommate" might suggest an element of homosexuality, but, Smith says disingenuously, perish the thought: "In my four years at West Point I never heard of an instance of homosexuality in the Corps. This is not to suggest that sex was not a major topic of discussion, but it was all heterosexual and the opposite sex was fair game."

One of Smith's best friends was "Major" George B. Dany, who "had a roguish buoyant sparkle in his eye and hazed plebes by having them sing to him while he dressed." "Major" Dany and Smith roomed together their last two years at West Point. Smith says, very casually, in a letter home, that "my wife, John Lawlor, is a Harvard man."

As we read these protestations of innocence, we must be reminded of the comment of the famous psychotherapist Salvadore Minuchin when asked about a family where father and daughter seemed to be too close. He said, "I would have a suspicion of incest somewhere down the line, but they don't screw because it would be redundant." The capper is a photograph of the hundredth Night Show, where, of the eighteen members of the all male cast, six are dolled up in costumes that would put the famous crossdresser Charles Pierce to shame.

§     §     §

Smith's military career included flying combat missions during WW II with the U.S. Eighth Air Force. Under his command, German cities were bombed regularly and indiscriminately, including, on February 13, 1945 --- two months before surrender --- the city of Dresden. One hundred thousand men, women, and children perished in the resultant firestorm. A total of 42,000 sorties were flown against the Axis. It is estimated that over a million civilians were killed or seriously wounded in these raids of the last days of the war.

It was Freud who first described the marriage between sensuality and organized violence --- eg, the military way. "Libido" refers not only to the sexual drive, but to all aggressive acts. In his dual instinct theory, Freud stated that libido and aggression come under broader biological principles Eros (love) and Thanatos (death and self-destruction). More recent psychological theorists suggest that war --- including a nation's insatiable hunger for military power and the passion for armaments --- arises from a deep-seated fear of death, a fear that is, naturally, basic to the human condition. This death fear creates the paradoxical situation where institutionalized murder (war, capital punishment, "right to bear arms," mob violence, legitimized military statism) grows out of something known as "radical pain." According to this theory, there are three types of pain:

  1. Physical pain (old age, sickness, and dying);

  2. Emotional pain (being away from a loved one, being forced to be with people one hates); and

  3. Radical pain (knowledge --- or fear of knowledge --- of the intransigence of life, and one's own inevitable move towards chaos and entropy).

In other words, the lunacy of a Hitler or a Pol Pot (or even America's own militarists) grows out of an unacknowledged and unrecognized terror of the inevitable, the most inevitable fact of life. Namely, death.

Smith's presentation of his youthful military training is coupled with a winsome innocence and an overbearing sentimentality. Not only are there scarce-concealed descriptions of deep feelings towards friends and tormentors alike, there are, too, nostalgic memories of comrades who later died in battle. Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory explicitly details the deep feelings between young men that emerge in these times of stress --- especially in situations where senseless and brutal deaths are seen as inevitable. He says,

    After considering the matter for centuries, the ancients concluded that one of the lovers of Venus is Mars. And Eros, some held, is their offspring. Since antiquity everyone who has experienced both war and love has known that there is a curious intercourse between them. The language of military attack --- assault, impact, thrust, penetration --- has always overlapped with that of sexual importunity. Seventeenth-century wit, so conscious of its classical inheritance, would be sadly enfeebled if deprived of its staple figure of "dying" on one's "enemy."

This confirms what writers such as Homer, Thucydides, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and A. E. Housman were content to merely hint at: that is, out of the deep camaraderie of training and battle can grow a tender love, a result, not surprisingly, of enforced isolation from women, the ritual coming of age as Man, and the paradoxical reaction against inhumanity that such circumstances force one to develop.

The virile militarism of Smith and his generation was, in truth, conjoined, in part, to a deep emotional need --- an anxious passion that begins in the strict training of places like West Point, and comes to its full fruition in the battlefield. And this particularly powerful inversion has always been richly rewarded by governments. America pays handsomely for such inversion: veterans' benefits consume almost a quarter of the combined general and military budgets.

The sad paradox is that a man of the same generation as Smith, graduating from Haverford, Swarthmore, Earlham, or Oberlin --- a pacifist who fought against war, battled for peace, petitioned his fellow citizens to observe nonviolence, expressed aversion to killing by refusing to serve in the military --- such a young man would have been (in fact, was) imprisoned, starved, and beaten. He lost financial, social, and political rights for his intransigence.

In contrast, a military grobian such as Smith who subscribes to every article of war and the preplanned ruination of human life through institutionalized mayhem has been and will continue to be honored by presidents, given medals, guaranteed a rich government pension, be handsomely endowed by our taxes to the day of his death.

To say it is a weird operating system is an understatement.

To have the whole business described in terms of weteyed sentimentality as it is in Cradle of Valor is a vulgar perversion of the first order.

--- Ralph R. Doister

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