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Thoughts on the West Point “pillow” fight that resulted in serious injuries

Posted by John Reed on

A number of people have brought to my attention a recent pillow fight at West Point to get my thoughts on it. Because I am almost the only West Pointer who criticizes the military and the Academy, I have become a sort of clearinghouse. I also play a similar role with regard to the real estate investment information business which has far more than its share of really bad guys.

213 years of tradition unmarked by progress

West Point was created in 1802 by President Thomas Jefferson at the behest of former general and president George Washington. Cadets and graduates have long jokingly described West Point as “213 years of tradition unmarked by progress.”

The Army in general and West Point in particular are insular, inbred, isolated, cultish organizations.

And lest anyone miss my meaning, those are all bad things that they should take whatever steps are necessary to end them.

Their own cadet language

There used to be a sort of separate language at West Point. We were encouraged to buy a booklet to give to our dates and part of it was a translation dictionary of cadet words and phrases. I would not be surprised if there still is such a cadet language—albeit probably changed.

That is how the world’s Tower of Babel happened—isolated tribes going off on their own language tangent. My freshman year roommate once entered our room and said, “There’s no EI in EF for the GRs” “Really?!” said the other roommate. After a thoughtful pause, I said, “You know six months ago all three of us would have thought that was a pretty strange thing—what you just said. This place is making us weird.” The roommate who spoke the cadetese later became the dean of West Point. [translation: There is no Extra Instruction in Engineering Fundamentals for the General Reviews; second translation: There is no optional, after-school tutoring by our officer teachers in Engineering Fundamentals—a freshman, semester-long course—for the final exams.

Those are unique-to-West-Point acronyms which the military is famous for. In the West Point language of the 1960s, the following could be a commonly-heard conversation:

A: “You dragging this weekend?”

B: “Nah. That freaking gray hog cow Horowitz slugged me for gross indifference at SI last week. I gotta sit con. I had to cancel.”

A: “Was she pro?”

B: “Two fucking nine.”

This is basically one cadet asking another if he had a date coming up for the weekend and the other saying he did, but he had to cancel it because some overly corporate upperclassman punished him such that he will have to sit in his room all weekend. And the girl in question was a knockout.

Our dates really did not need to learn the language. We generally refrained from speaking Cadet when they were around. I do remember one lapse when several of us cadets were sitting with our dates in a snack bar and one cadet asked “What do you get when you cross a hippopotamus with a rhinoceros?” We other two cadets shrugged. “Hippotomaus rhinocerous sin theta.” We other two cadets exploded with laughter. Our three dates said, “Huh!?” That’s as much of an engineer joke as a cadet one. It has to do with the word “cross” having a obscure mathematical meaning.

If it happens twice at West Point, it’s a tradition

News reports say this pillow fight at the end of Beast Barracks is an “annual tradition.” 51 years ago, my classmates and I completed our Beast Barracks. That was officially New Cadet basic Training which took place from July 1, 1964 to Labor Day Weekend.

What was our end of Beast event? The Plebe Hike, I guess. We spent the last week at a tent camp out in the mountains west of the cadet barracks and college area. That ended with us marching back to West Point carrying packs and rifles and wearing  combat boots and uniforms.

No letting loose

There was no letting loose of two months of frustration in a pillow fight or anything else. Rather, it was two months of extreme discipline followed by nine months of slightly less discipline combined with 34 hours a week of in-classroom, tough academics. If there was a video of us on the comparable day as the YouTube video of the cadet pillow fight, it probably would have shown us moving our uniforms and other stuff from our Beast Barracks Room to our academic-year room—with our necks smashed in and barking “yes sir.” There was no letting our hair down of any kind. No pillow fight. Never heard of a pillow fight until recent years. Essentially, our fun activity that day was to stand at attention in the hallway trying not to draw any individual attention to ourselves.

A member of the class of 1994 says,

“I can tell you unequivocally that there were no USMA “formalized” conclusion-of-Beast pillow fights that constituted “long-standing tradition” between the years 1990-1994.  And based on what the Class of ’91 told me, there were none from 1987 – 1990.” 

 Leading from behind

West Point is now characterizing it as an important—nay crucial—“team-building” exercise. I suspect it was the lamebrain idea of one upperclassman and the grown-ups who run West Point later ratified it.

What do I think? It’s idiotic. Every minute of West Point is a team-building exercise. And the graduates that West Point incessantly brags about—Lee, Grant, Pershing, Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley, MacArthur, Borman, Dawkins—never had a pillow fight. Indeed, the West Point cadets who engaged in this hazing-come-lately, “crucial team-building exercise” have never won a war. Those who did not do it, never lost a war until Vietnam.

The London Daily Mail article said, “There is evidence of the pillow fight existing as far back as 1897 at West Point, a prestigious training school that once taught Dwight D Eisenhower, Ulysses S Grant, and Douglas MacArthur.”

That’s a lie. We would have heard about it if it were true. I‘m not saying there was never an impromptu squad or platoon-size pillow fight, but there sure as hell was no whole-class tradition of it.

It is fundamentally the nature of West Point that we were taught about everything that ever happened there including hijinks from that era. For example, we were told that it is believed that then cadet Douglas Macarthur masterminded putting the reveille cannon on top of the East Barracks, which is where I lived in Beast Barracks. East Barracks—now named after some general—is still there and visible in the photos of the recent pillow fight.

Taking the hint, some of my classmates used a construction company acetlyene torch left at West Point overnight to cut off the reveille cannon and throw it into the Hudson. One of the episodes of the West Point TV series was about cadets cutting off the Camp Buckner reveille cannon and throwing it into Lake Popolopen.

When I say we were taught about everything that happened before that’s what I mean. Think about it. There are always four classes there at a time. The guys who were there in the early 1900s told the younger cadets what happened and they told the younger cadets after them and so on. My first squad leader in the class of 1966 had his first squad leader from the class of 1964 who had his first squad leader in the class of 1962 and so on. And, again, the place is insular and inbred and these tales are cherished and told in countless bull sessions. There is NO chance that the Mail report of this being a long tradition is true. I suspect current cadets and officers have invented this as a sort of new West Point urban legend—partly to justify this idiocy.

It’s nothing but sophomoric hi-jinks. Claiming after the fact that it is a legitimate, important part of officer training is total bullshit.

Safety

My uncle being assistant manager of the Hotel Thayer at West Point was what triggered my interest in going there. He once asked some cadets in the hotel to help him move a heavy sofa. An officer saw it and came running over and ordered them to stop. He was afraid a cadet would suffer a permanent injury. We had hard training, sometimes with an illusion of danger—like the slide for life from a platform 80 feet above Lake Popolopen—but never actually dangerous. I recall few, if any, injuries to cadets during out raining.

But the Army after graduation and since I got out of the army has gotten more and more into the mindset that injuries and even fatal injuries to some in training are good because they show what macho “warriors” they are. The use of that word “warrior” probably has contributed to this insane notion that training injuries and even deaths are desirable for bragging-rights purposes. See my article on U.S. Army ranger training which my class and I endured two months after we graduated from West Point.

Lord of the Flies campus

I did not think about it much when I was there, but we really had no officers in the cadet area. Cadets are college students. We did not wander around campus reading Kahlil Gibran. Our days were extremely structured. We had reveille and breakfast in the mornings. There were no officers around the vast majority of days. Just students. There was an officer of the day, but just one. You would glimpse him from time time. He slugged (medium punishment) me once for “sitting in a parked car after dark with a young lady”  on a Saturday night. But one OD for 4,400 cadets spread over 2,200 rooms and about a half mile of barracks, mess hall, library and athletic facilities was essentially no adult supervision.

We sometimes saw officers watching us march into lunch. The officer of the day was often the only officer in the mess hall at our meals. After about 4PM you almost never saw an officer in the cadet areas other than the ghostly OD. No adult supervision. Absolutely nobody but 4,400 male college boys. (about 600 of them females now)

I did not think about it as a cadet because it worked remarkably well. But there were some breakdowns. About four or five classes before us had a food fight in the mess hall, severely damaging a famous mural on the southeast wall. That class later as graduates gave to West Point the money to reimburse them for the damage.

Another class famously broke ranks during the graduation parade. They caught hell that day and for the rest of their careers if they stayed in.

When I was there, there was a tradition of throwing toilet paper rolls in the quad on Friday nights after the mess hall pep rally. We plebes had to clean it up. It was unnecessary.

We also engaged in harmless, but prohibited, activities like making popcorn and watching the then hot Batman TV series. (We were not allowed to have TVs or popcorn poppers.)

But in my capacity as clearinghouse, I have heard a number of reports indicating that the almost-no-adult supervision of the barracks area at West Point no longer works. Now, when the cat’s away, the cadets will play—sometimes dangerously, inappropriately, cruelly, unethically.

Here is the first sentence of the Wikipedia write-up on the Lord of the Flies:

“Lord of the Flies is a 1954 dystopian novel by Nobel Prize-winning English author William Golding about a group of British boys stuck on an uninhabited island who try to govern themselves with disastrous results.”

A less serious version of that appears to have developed at West Point in recent years. It is akin to the hazing mindset which I and many others have condemned. See my article http://www.johntreed.com/football-team-hazing.html.

Imitating Russian thugs

Five or ten years ago, I saw a documentary of Russian paratrooper training. At the end, they pounded the airborne wings badge, which has two sharp points designed to go through your formal business suit type uniform jacket, into your bare chest.

“How idiotic,” I thought. Then I later learned that the U.S. military saw the same documentary and thought that was a really cool idea. Now, West Point graduates and others who go to jump school, have their jump wings badge pounded into their bare chests by a jump school instructor at their bloody graduation ceremony. They should probably get a tetanus booster as a result, but I doubt they do.

Here are the subheadlines  from the London Daily Mail article about this, with my comments in [brackets]:

  • Pillow fight is an annual West Point tradition aimed at bonding students [I never heard of it so it is apparently a relatively recent “tradition” and “recent tradition” is a contradiction in terms at West Point.]
  • Some cadets told of how injuries are both expected and praised [The prosecution rests. This is smoking-gun evidence of a reckless, childish mindset one normally expects to see only at drunken, civilian college fraternity parties.]
  • But things appear to have got out of hand this year as 30 were wounded [predictable result of one-upsmanship competition between recent classes trying to top the prior ones]
  • One reportedly broke their leg, while another was put in an ambulance [The president in my forthcoming novel The Unelected President, would fire the chain of command for this—namely, the Superintendent (head of West Point), the Commandant (in charge of discipline and military training) of Cadets, and the second detail King of the Beasts (senior cadet in charge of New Cadet training for the second half of it)]
  • Recruits allegedly put helmets into their pillow cases to cause damage [They should be slugged—medium-grade punishment—for extremely poor judgment]
  • West Point spokesman stood by tradition, but said injuries were regrettable [They were also predictable. Fire all who should have stopped this when this “tradition” started.]
  • WARNING GRAPHIC CONTENT [Print that on all of West Point’s recruiting material and on their acceptance letter.]

  • I am extremely angry than America has not won a war since 1945. I am embarrassed that my class’s war—Vietnam—was America’s first loss. But I was there and know why we lost. No one was interested in winning. The careerists were interested in getting their combat ticket punched and getting a good efficiency report and a bronze star or better, and the non-lifers were interested in doing their one-year tour and getting the hell out of there. No one was trying to win and no one was held accountable for not winning. As you would expect, we lost.

    One might answer a question from a visitor from Mars about why West Pointers no longer win wars by pointing out that one of the big-deal parts of their training now is a bloody “pillow” fight. What West Point is about now is not winning wars but winning Rhodes Scholarships, competing in annual magazine polls for best college, and sending graduates to grad school, and oh, yes, diversity. Winning wars is beneath West Pointers now. They have higher, intellectual-pursuit priorities.

    Here is a link to another article about the pillow fight. This one seems to confirm my suspicions that the cadets are seeking to inflict and suffer injuries to prove their manhood??? https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2015/09/04/pillow-fight-west-point-turns-bloody-bone-breaking/Ex2bMythgQT5Pdow2nZWoN/story.html

    Outside the gates of West Point, assault is a felony; inside, it’s a cover-up

    In September 2015, a grand jury indicted five frat boys for hazing a freshman of Baruch College at a rural retreat presumably north of their Manhattan campus. The freshman died in the hazing. They were indicted for third-degree murder.

    West Point, which is 50 miles north of NYC on the Hudson River could be considered a rural retreat in the same area. Will anyone at West Point be indicted for assault in the above pillow fight. I doubt it. In the military as in corrupt police departments, you often hear of wrongdoing, you assume the wrongdoers will be severely punished, then years later you learn that the wrong doers in question slipped out the back allowed to quietly retire maybe with a letter of reprimand in their file. 

    Why the leniency?

    Because misbehavior in the military embarrasses the brass and reflects on them. If the brass severely punishes the low-level people, it will make people question why the brass did not prevent it, and it is likely to piss off the punishee enough to make him hire a lawyer and hold a press conference where he dumps all the dirt he knows about the brass. Because the military officer corps is corrupt, that is always a large amount of dirt—too large to risk.

    It’s worse now but even when I was at West Point there were scandals that the brass would not have wonted public. Here’s one I have mentioned before. 

    All cadets at West Point had mandatory chapel when I was there. You have to pick Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. Obviously, that was unconstitutional. I heard they instituted that after the new Protestant cadet Chapel was built to much fanfare, and when the media came to the grand opening, hardly any cadets attended chapel, so they made it mandatory in a fit of pique.

    If you complained about it or tried to litigate it., the brass would immediately give you a zillion demerits and thereby flunk you out. And when you sued, they would say he was thrown out on discipline unrelated to chapel, not for refusing to go to chapel, therefore he has no standing. That happened before I got there and while I was there. Apparently, after I left, some cadet successfully litigated it and ended mandatory chapel.

    That was bullshit, dishonest, perjury, hypocrisy, denial of due process. etc. But they got away with it. 

    Things like that are why the cadets who commit assaults resulting in serious injury in the recent pillow fight will probably get a slap on the wrist if anything.

    And the Army goes rolling along.


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