Last week I had the honor of participating in the 66th annual Student Conference on United States Affairs (SCUSA), organized and held at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It was the first time I’d participated, as well as the first time I’d been to West Point.
I was supposed to be guiding the students, but to be honest I think I learned more than they did — particularly about
new and improved ways to open up peanut butter jars the West Point cadets. It’s no wonder that politicians like to visit the place — after two days there, I really started feeling better about the future of the United States. It’s not that the cadets were smarter than the other students at the conference — they weren’t. And it’s not that the cadets were necessarily more mature than the other students — in fact, one of the pleasant surprises was seeing how many of the cadets were utter goofballs. Military training has not robbed these individuals of their individuality.
No, two qualities impress about the West Point cadets. First, the one value they all share is a genuine commitment to national service. Not all of them plan to be career Army, but they were all very determined to do their part while they were in the service.
The second thing that impressed about the cadets was their diversity, and their recognition and appreciation of that diversity. The men and women at West Point came from all parts of the country, all kinds of different socioeconomic backgrounds, and beyond their commitment to service, a pretty broad spectrum of values. Multiple cadets told me that this was their biggest surprise when they arrived at West Point — not how similar their classmates were, but how different — and how much they subsequently learned as a result.
So there are plenty of good reasons to love the U.S. Military Academy, and to come away from the experience believing that these exceptional men and women in uniform can do just about anything they are asked to do. And post-midterms, the neoconservatives who will be ascendant in the next session of Congress will be advocating a greater reliance on military statecraft to counter the myriad threats in the world. For example:
As the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain is likely to pound [putting U.S. boots on the ground in Syria] like a verbal staple gun in hearings, along with a separate demand that the administration provide Ukraine with weapons and other lethal equipment to blunt Russian aggression.
Neoconservatives already have a predilection to view the use of force as the principal method to preserving global order. And again, witnessing the performance of cadets at West Point, and talking to the members of the U.S. armed forces, can cause one to believe that they really can take on all comers in world politics.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is a Naval Academy graduate, so he’s quite familiar with the traditions of the military academies. I do wonder, however, if McCain has visited Thomas Jefferson Hall, West Point’s relatively new student library. That’s where I spent most of my time at SCUSA. It’s often forgotten that as president, it was Thomas Jefferson who established the U.S. Military Academy. I was struck by a quotation of Jefferson’s that is mounted on the stairwell: “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power, the greater it will be.”
The quote was so striking that I searched for the entire June 12, 1815, letter from Jefferson to Thomas Leiper. Here it is:
I wish that all nations may recover and retain their independence; that those which are overgrown may not advance beyond safe measures of power, that a salutary balance may be ever maintained among nations, and that our peace, commerce, and friendship, may be sought and cultivated by all. It is our business to manufacture for ourselves whatever we can, to keep our markets open for what we can spare or want; and the less we have to do with the amities or enmities of Europe, the better. Not in our day, but at no distant one, we may shake a rod over the heads of all, which may make the stoutest of them tremble. But I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power, the greater it will be.
After a year in which it seemed that anything that could go wrong has gone wrong in the world, I understand the neoconservative impulse to “do something” on the global stage to counteract the perceived chaos. And I understand how that urge gets magnified the more time one spends with the U.S. military. All I ask is that they realize that there is more than one way to think about the use of force in world politics — and it’s precisely because of the nobler qualities of the men and women in uniform that we should be chary in deploying them for less-than-vital aims.