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Letter from a young man who decided not to go to West Point and my response

Posted by John T. Reed on

Dear Mr.Reed,
For my Freshman-Junior summers of high school, I spent a week each attending various military camps of my own volition. My parents, particularly my mother, were strongly against me pursuing a military career. However, I am very thankful that they permitted me to attend the camps to generate a more informed decision for myself. It helped that because of academic achievement, the three camps were all expense paid and the government foot the bill for my attendance.
I spent a week at Annapolis my freshman summer for a STEM education camp and absolutely loved it. It seemed immaculate and a perfect place to be. The "mystique" you described drew me in even further now that I had a glimpse of what it was like. I had resolved myself to make myself into a candidate strong enough for any elite institution, but I had my heart set on USNA.
I spent my next summer at a Society of American Military Engineers camp at USMC Camp Lejeune. At Camp Lejeune, we ate at the enlisted mess hall (which I was surprised at the high quality of the food) and were led around by NCOs. Mine was a recently promoted corporal who was doing all he could to immediately get out of the Marine Corp as fast as possible. This was my first real introduction to the enlisted side of the military and I was not particularly impressed. If I am being honest, it seemed like where talent went to die and the talentless went to strive. I rationalized it away as "just the enlisted" and tried to assure myself that officers were at least more intelligent and competent leaders. I was also exclusively around "POGs" (I am unsure if this is considered a derogatory term) and I had long decided to exclusively pursue combat arms in the military, with the reasoning being that if I wanted to do anything else, I would be better off doing it in the civilian world rather than the military.
I had initially planned on attending Annapolis and hoped to commission as a Marine Corp Infantry Officer, but I read 3 volume's of Gene Yu's "Yellow-Green Beret" which were a collection of memoirs about his time in the U.S. Army (including the eponymous Green Berets), West Point, and various training schools like Ranger and Sniper (which he claimed he was one of an extraordinary few officers who were allowed to take Sniper School out of an extreme technicality). I decided that if infantry was my goal, I would be much better suited at West Point than Annapolis. I then spent a week at West Point for their "Summer Leader Experience" my junior summer.
My God, I despised every minute of it. I could not bring myself to respect many of my peers as competent, intelligent individuals. The rather large majority took every piece of obvious Army propaganda lies and shoveled it into their mouths without a doubt. Many made it their sacred prerogative to prostrate themselves in awe before any cadet wearing the West Point Summer Whites. Our "squad leaders" were about to be 2nd Class, which made them only 3 years older than most of us high schoolers. Despite this, a good number of my peers insisted on saluting and referring to cadets as "Sir" in every circumstance. The Cows seemed to visibly recoil at this treatment (some even protested such treatment. Their protests fell on deaf ears) but it seems that reading social cues was not the strong suit of my fellow Cadet Candidates. Some of my peers were nationalistic to a point of obscenity. I love the United States. My family are all North African immigrants and America has given us so much. I harbor a deep appreciation and love for what it has given me and I consider myself an American first. With that being said, I am not blind to my nation's flaws and mistakes. I found myself engaged in quite the debate in which a couple of my squadmates made it their mission to educate me on why Vietnam was The Greatest Thing Ever and a Golden Page in the history of the United States. I was honestly in awe. It seemed words like "Agent Orange" and "My Lai Massacre" were outside of their vocabulary. After noticing the discussion was going nowhere, just resigned myself to observing their behavior and discussion without further participating.
I did quite a bit of that in my week at West Point, "observing." I observed the cadets snicker and laugh at the wide-eyed 17 year olds who worshipped the ground they walked on. Don't get me wrong, I cringed when I witnessed them offer such reverence to the Cadets as well, but I was left with an unbelievably foul taste in my mouth witnessing the Cadets themselves talk about people who saw them as heroes like they were garbage. I observed this obnoxious aura of self-importance in the Cadets that I just couldn't tolerate. It was like the word humility might as well have been Sanskrit to them.  The entire week we were subject to near daily lectures about how amazing West Point was and how strong Cadets were, with the constantly reinforced notion that in exchange for selling your soul for 9 years, you too could be one of these godly beings.
I never saw West Point as a super prestigious place to be. By the raw numbers the school is not difficult to be accepted to. The competition for nominations is awfully slim in anywhere but the most densely populated areas. The median test scores and GPA of a West Point admit was significantly below the bar of any top civilian institution. Getting into West Point is an achievement, sure, but in terms of sheer difficulty by my judgement it is significantly harder to get into an Ivy or MIT/Caltech/Stanford. 
Despite this, I had never seen such language from an Ivy admissions office that constantly congratulated and recongratulated its students on being "better" than the majority of the population like West Point did. My dad went to community college. My mom only finished high school. I could never even imagine actively looking down on others based off of the institution they attend. It seems like at West Point it was encouraged by the school themselves. 
I often found myself wanting to just yell at a cadet that really, they're not that special. They're barely above average and they have no business walking around as if they were God's gift to the Academy after being admitted with a 27 ACT and straight B's. This doesn't include the near 25% of the class who were recruited athletes and frequently had even below average scores. In all honesty, I think recruited athletes are perfectly deserving of their spots. I played football myself and whereas others focused on their academics and professional careers, they focused on perfecting themselves at their given sports. I even found that the recruited athletes were some of the most humble and level headed people I met at the academy, I am only pointing out the bar for academic achievement is low. Even a Stanford recruited football player probably got mostly B's and a decent ACT score. I was informed that the lowest ACT that one had heard a recruit be accepted with was a 19. My own squad leader, a football player, had a 21. 
After just a few days of "observing" I had resolved against the school. Our squad leaders had an interview with each of us which they would then report back to the Army and would bear (a very tiny amount of) weight on our application. In my interview my squad leader opened up by referring to me as unmotivated, unenthused, and generally a poor fit for the Army lifestyle. I didn't disagree with him. He was entirely correct. I told him this and began to air some of my grievances with West Point. What was supposed to be a 10 minute discussion ended up lasting over 2 hours as my complaints got more detailed and he agreed with me in their entirety. He shared his own stories about the failings of the Army and how close he was to quitting himself. He had the option to play football elsewhere but his father had told him that if West Point agreed to take him, he couldn't say no. I gained a very deep respect for my squad leader in that conversation. He never cared much for academics but was a deeply intelligent man. I finally felt as if I was not crazy for being the only one who did not mindlessly accept the Army's misgivings and felt vindicated in my criticism. He concluded by telling me that if I came here, knowing what it was truly like, I would without a doubt succeed, but implored me to truly consider if that was what I wanted. I, on the other hand, encouraged him to finish his time with the Army and West Point as his best route of success because while I love and still talk to the guy, a 21 ACT, barely passing GPA, and a football career riddled with injury will leave him without many options if he left then and that he was strong enough to get through it and take the benefits. I have a lot to thank him for. He finally gave me a true, honest perspective on his experience that wasn't littered with "Duty, Honor, Country" and "the pride of being a West Pointer." 
I resolved against West Point, but the moment I left at the end of the week I had already started to feel a longing for it. I still had this idealistic perception that life would be better when I was "in the field, leading men" or whatever. I still wanted to be an Army hero. When fall came around, I applied to [top elite college] early and was admitted. At that point, I knew I could never justify West Point. A true dream school had fallen into my hands and I accepted my offer immediately. For the rest of the year though, I kept feeling this regret in my stomach. Maybe I was supposed to go to West Point. Maybe I would've handled it like my squad leader said. Maybe I would've grown to love it there. I just couldn't shake the sensation that there was a very deep, structural poison in the US Military, specifically the officers. I also felt like maybe I could help fix it. I so desperately wanted to believe in the US Military that I really believed I could join and try to make it better from the inside. When R-Day came around about 2 weeks ago, the regret grew much stronger as I saw my camp friends arrive and make the Academies their last post on social media for the next few months. I stumbled across your website for the first time then, which is incredible considering that I spent dozens of hours searching the web for any information related to West Point and never found it. I've currently read through about a third of it, the monstrously long article that it is, and plan on finishing the rest. Thank you. It reminded me of my prior suspicions and further vindicated them while drilling it in that attending West Point is an awfully disastrous thing to do based off of just "mystique" as I was. It made a very strong argument as to why attending West Point is straight up inferior to the top civilian colleges, at least for academics, extracurricular, social, and career purposes. Any regret that I may have had has died, and I now feel like I dodged a 9 year long bullet.
I am so thankful to have the opportunity to attend [top elite college] in the fall (although the Coronavirus seems very likely to cancel that). Thank you so much for writing this article. I was starting to feel so bad that I debated just going to [top elite college] for a year them reapplying to West Point. I deeply appreciate your advice and it has had a profound impact on my life. I've made quite a few derogatory statements to the US Military in this email, so if for whatever reason (I don't expect there to be, being that recent high school graduates rarely have their opinions used as evidence, but am just covering my bases) you ever decide to quote me, I would appreciate if you could redact my name. 
Thank you so, so much.

My response:
My article, which grew to book length over time, basically says you probably should not go there, but that you owe it to yourself to thoroughly investigate West Point and the Army before you go there.
Your effort to do that far exceeds anything I imagined when I wrote the article. My civilian career has been non-fiction how-to book writer. In order to do that, you must make a research effort comparable to what you did.
I love your phrase “it seemed like where talent went to die and the talentless went to strive.”
But it is a bit off. When I was at Harvard Business School, I took a labor relations course. HBS also taught various executive programs including one for labor leaders. In the course I took, every actual labor leader had an MBA student on either side of him and every MBA student had a labor leader on either side of him. We did group work where all groups had both types of student in them.
One day, a labor leader asked the group if we MBAs wanted to know how to prevent their company from being unionized.
“Fire the slackers,” he said. “When we start to unionize the company, the first guys we talk to are the slackers. They benefit most from a union.”
The military does not have a union, but it is still like one. Extremely difficult to fire anyone. Extremely cynical people. The best people leave. Those who think the Army sinecure is better than they could do on the outside, remain, almost by definition.
In the officer corps, you have three groups: Those like me who say this is awful. I need to leave ASAP and got out. Three quarters of my West Point class got out early. West Pointers are notorious within the Army for their low retention rate. Probably all but me would never say it but West Point cadets of my era were overqualified for the job of Army officer
A second group who initially hoped to make general, but saw the handwriting on the wall when they were in about ten years and decided that although they were not “competitive” (likely to make general) but that the bennies were good so they would remain until they vested. Sad people who hated the Army but who were prisoners of their own lack of confidence.
The third group were those who thought they were competitive and who were skilled at ass kissing and playing the game. Some of them made full colonel, some got a star or two or three.
But ultimately, ALL the members of my class either quit early or were forced out eventually by the “up or out” policy. Either you make chief of staff of the Army or you are forced out. No one in my class made four stars let alone COS.
You got the decision exactly right. I urge you to finish reading my article. A surprising result of it is that many who wanted to go to West Point and did not get in or who did get in but flunked out or quit, felt bad about it every day of their subsequent lives UNTIL THEY READ MY ARTICLE. It cured them of all that regret.
Best wishes,
Jack Reed

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  • I would tell the young man who has an appointment to go to the Ivy. Basically, graduating from an Ivy puts you in a position to have many and many opportunities around the US and maybe the world. At the same point after graduating from USAFA, you are locked into five years active duty over which you have very little control over what you do or where you go in the US or the world. After the five years, you must stay in the Air Force reserves for another three years during which you may get deployed. Only then are you in a position that is a facsimile of where the Ivy grad was on his graduation day eight years before.
    Young people generally need flexibility because they are in transition learning who they are, want they are good at, what career they want, falling in love and starting a family and a career. Flexibility is the main thing young men need and that is the opposite of what graduating from a service academy imposes. Service academy cadets in their last two years of college and for the next eight years after graduation are literally indentured servants, a status that has been outlawed in the US, except for the military, for centuries.

    John T Reed on
  • My son has been appointed to USAFA but has also been admitted to an Ivy. We need guidance. He is brilliant, motivated, and interdisciplinary with an engineering focus. We fear the SA life will stifle his advancement, and the limited income is just difficult to swallow. He has been admitted to arguably the finest engineering school in America. Please do not post my name.

    Parent on

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