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Don’t Let The Bastards Getcha Down

 

Chapter Three (03)

Plebe Year - Still A Beanhead

 

Though the story of the massacre broke five months earlier,
most cadets felt Koster should not have been punished since
he allegedly had nothing to do with the mass killing.
Probably they were unaware at the time that Koster was
mainly responsible for the subsequent cover-up. Of course
cadets in the mess hall that day were also oblivious to
the hundreds of My Lai massacres going on in Vietnam with
numerous West Point grads ordering and leading the slaughter
both on the ground and from the Pentagon, then successfully
covering them up until decades later.
Though General Koster was credited with doing away with
bracing at the Academy, its failure to be enforced came too
late for Robert Leeman after cadets like Fisher and his
roommate illegally used it to cause my friend’s suicide. As
hard as my friend tried, he was unable to prevent the
bastards from getting him down six feet under in Maine. So I
felt it apropos that in my battle for self-preservation at
West Point, I would never “let the bastards get me down,”
though they kept trying. The one star general’s criminal
charges of cover-up were eventually dropped and only
Lieutenant Calley was convicted of the crime of murder
despite orders for multiple massacres of innocent civilians
coming from the top Pentagon brass responsible for Operation
Speedy Express. And again it was the top Pentagon brass that
covered up hundreds of their war crimes with My Lai the one
and only exception. And where did all these lying generals
deceiving our nation learn to become leaders? At West Point
of course, where as cadets they were bound by the cherished
cadet honor code that prohibited them from lying, cheating
or stealing, or tolerating those who do. I guess once a
cadet becomes an officer, it suddenly is okay to lie to the
American public after murdering thousands and thousands of
innocent civilian families. And with Iraq, Afghanistan and
the global use of drones being deployed around the world
now, it is still okay for America’s top leaders to engage in
wholesale slaughter of innocent people all over this earth.
The West Point honor code is but a sick joke played on
mankind the world over when honor can never apply to all the
West Pointers through the years who have been guilty of
being both liars and mass murderers in their war crimes.
During my first year especially, it seemed like every
other week or so another announcement was made over the mess
hall PA system that more recent West Point graduates had
lost their lives in Vietnam. It became a constant grim
reminder how the war hit close to home for us. Prior to
eating lunch on May 4th, it was announced that Captain
William Booth, Class of ’66, was killed in action just two
days earlier, and Captain Robert Zonne, Class of ’65, had
died on April 20th. A moment of silence came over us as we
mourned two more brothers-in-arms, from the two West Point
classes that suffered the most casualties in Vietnam at
twenty-nine each. And though it brought pause for sadness,
the very same moments those announcements were being made in
the mess hall, four more Americans lay dying in the war here
at home as victims of the Kent State Massacre.


Iconic photo of the Kent State Massacre

College
students across the nation had long been protesting the
draft, the immoral war in Southeast Asia, and President
Nixon’s latest April 30th announcement of America’s
expansion of the war into Cambodia. While American soldiers
were committing war crimes half the world away, the Ohio
National Guard soldiers were murdering in cold blood young
protesters two states away from West Point, bringing the
bloodbath for the first time even closer to home. My views
toward America’s military and West Point were radically
changing. For the first time I was also confronting the lie
I’d been taught that we were always the goods guys. Over
time I increasingly struggled with inner conflicts, of
misplaced trust and loyalties, and moral beliefs and
convictions that diametrically opposed the ugly truth I was
observing every day and week unfolding at West Point.
Spring brings another parade season that most cadets
loathe.


Typical parade scene that tourists come for


But it also meant we were one big step closer to the
end of the academic year. And for a plebe, that meant
everything in the world. And no parade was bigger and more
long awaited to both freshmen and seniors than graduation
parade in early June. It obviously marks the culmination of
four long years of Academy life for First Classmen, but for
us smacks it meant right after graduation parade we were to
undergo our recognition ceremony, where all upperclassmen
shake plebes’ hands and we are finally recognized as fellow
human beings, no longer having to adhere to the demeaning
Fourth Class system that rendered us mechanical robots for a
year.
That June day was unseasonably hot. Typically dressed
in formal heavy wool grays straight out of the War of 1812,
complete with wearing parade plumes and rifles in hand, on
those hot sweltering afternoons cadets sometimes would be
dropping like flies. You would hear “thud” as another one
bites the dust, hitting the ground. They always told us to
take one knee if we had to in order to be more discreet.
After all, parades were a regular tourist attraction at the
Point. And nobody wanted the public to have a perception of
cadets not being man enough to weather a little heat. So we
stood there motionless for long sweaty spells, barely
hanging on, dreading the discomfort and just waiting for the
next command to start moving our bodies again.
Occasionally to pass the time, upperclassmen would ask
plebes to tell a joke. One of our favorite hardass Firsties,
the one we earlier spoofed as a Nazi, gave me an order while
standing there motionless, “Hey Lawrence, Lawrence of
Hagopian, let’s hear a joke.” Though I was never much for
jokes, purposely not remembering them, I had prepared for
just such an occasion and happened to have one in reserve.
So I resorted to being court jester again one last time to
entertain the troops.
“One night all the hotel guests were awakened by a loud
pounding noise coming from one of the rooms. So when the
house detective was summoned to the noisy room, he found an
old man yelling and banging his fists on the wall. So the
security guy said, ‘What the hell you doing? You’re
disturbing the whole hotel!’ So the old man answered, ‘Fuck
the hotel! It’s the first hard-on I’ve had in years, and now
my hands are asleep!’” 
My joke had G-1 cadets laughing just as an alarm
clock went off underneath the parade helmet of someone in
the company next to us. More laughter broke out just as the
Cadet Brigade Commander gave the order for all the members
of the senior class to march forward. The rest of the cadets
traditionally pass before review of the graduating class.
Some plebes yelled “good riddance” and other choice insults
as the senior cadets marched away from company formations.
As we finally were commanded to begin our march in
review, while the Army band played the familiar West Point
march, a cool sophomore next to me uttered, “Sheik, hearing
this song now, don’tcha just want to cream in your pants?”
Just then another sophomore pointed out the hot girls from
Vassar who had come to rain on our parade by protesting the
Vietnam War. They were yelling out “baby killers go home!”
As we passed several feet away from them one actually lunged
forward and tried spitting on us. I was reminded just how
much my civilian peers on the outside who were the hippie
generation touting peace and love were so militant in their
hatred of us shorthairs in uniform. With the parade over,
the First Classmen lined up outside the sally port in front
of our Washington Hall barracks and we walked down the line
exchanging handshakes with the seniors, each class
congratulating the other for reaching their big milestone.
A couple days later one of my closest friends and true
leaders of my class dropped a bombshell just prior to us
going on our first summer leave as sophomores-to-be. Jon P.
broke the news to me this way, “Sheik, I want you to listen
to this song and tell me what you think.” He then played a
Harry Chapin song called “Changes,” asking me to pay
particular attention to the verse that went like this:
There I was in your Air Force,
Uncle Sam you owned my brain.
I tried to see myself as a sex-mad savior
sailing on a silver plane.
I started out to do my duty,
ended up just doing time.
What is it about you my mother of a country
that makes so many change our minds?
You had me on your honor roll,
for your dream I would die.
Now I would not even cross the street
to help you live a lie.



Harry Chapin's "Changes" song
click photo for more
...

I was utterly blown away. And I immediately knew not only
how singer-songwriter Harry Chapin felt when he wrote this
song, but I knew what my buddy Jon was thinking as well. He
told me the “Taxi” man was once a freshman at the Air Force
Academy and that after one year there, he had seen enough.
Jon explained, “Sheik, this guy got my exact feelings down
to the max... I’ve done a lot of soulsearching, and I don’t
think in good conscience that I can continue here anymore.”
“But Jon, out of our entire class, you’re the one guy
among us who’s the natural born leader,” was my response.
“Thanks Sheik, but this place is so fucked up, it
doesn’t make good leaders. I feel it’s stunting my growth.”
“I know what you mean brother. The fascist system here
promotes fascists blindly following orders, just doing
whatever they’re told,” I replied feeling the resonance.
“I knew there was a reason I came to you first. You
really do understand what I’m going through,” Jon stated.
Jon had drawn the conclusion that West Point fails in
its mission to develop effective and positive leadership.
Superior officers misjudge those most zealously enforcing
the rules as those possessing the highest military
proficiency. Then they falsely measure leadership based
solely on compliance and enforcement. The game has
everything to do with making yourself look good by making
your peers look bad, simply by turning them in for rule
violations. In contrast, in many communities and social
circles across America today, ratting out others is
tantamount to being the lowest scum on earth, a social
pariah. These morally bankrupt rules so pervasive in the
military are virtually the same in the political, corporate,
legal and academia worlds as well. So called leaders at the
highest echelons of power in this nation pretty much all
operate blindly under these same cutthroat rules of
competition and sociopathic amoral code of conduct.
Those cadets most rewarded in this system are those who
play the politics game best, ingratiating and demonstrating
to their superiors their zealotry for compliance and petty
enforcement of rules and policies from above. They are
chiefly brainwashed into mindless robots who buy completely
into the system in doing whatever they are told, taught
neither to be creative nor flexible, much less show any real
initiative. 
The Army Field Manual offers this basic definition of a
positive leader: “Army leaders must set high standards, lead
by example, do what is legally and morally right, and
influence other people to do the same. They must establish
and maintain a climate that ensures people are treated with
dignity and respect and create an environment in which
people are challenged and motivated to be all they can be.”
Having lived through the West Point system of leadership 
for fours years, I can testify that it clearly fails in its
mission to teach and train cadets into becoming positive
leaders. At all the service academies and the military
services alike, positive leadership is highly discouraged.
The system customarily overlooks recognition of positive
leaders, regularly passing over the truly inspired, caring
and gifted leader when it comes to promotion to higher rank.
No question there was and are still a handful of individual
cadets and officers out there who are/were the rare
exception that comes close to being all that they should and
can be. But again, they are few and far between because the
system from the outset discourages and inhibits its
development.
“Leading by example and showing subordinates dignity
and respect,” words taken straight out of the Army Manual
definition, this type of leadership was/is rarely observed
because the system fails to support, reinforce or nurture
positive leadership. Transformational leadership whereby
subordinates possess the strong belief that their leader
actually cares about them subsequently become inspired to
work extra hard and find within themselves the strength to
overcome obstacles and perform at a high level they never
thought possible. The service academies and the military
system both desperately need this kind of inspired dynamic
leadership. Ultimately the best way to learn to be a good
leader is to directly observe a positive role model in
action. I saw very few of these positive role models for
leaders at West Point or the Army because they hardly exist.
Change is urgently needed. What is critically
imperative is a system that from the outset can identify
ineffective, toxic leaders and hold them accountable by
showing them how to change, offering specific suggestions,
corrective steps and guidance in promoting improvement and
positive change. Some will eventually get it and some won’t.
Mandating a clear and concise correction plan is required,
and if the positive corrective concrete steps fail to be
implemented within a clearly specified time frame, those
still struggling regardless of rank need to be gotten rid
of, bounced out on their toxic asses once and for all, and
look into another profession. Accountability is the key, and
the present military system is grossly lacking this bottom
line reality, particularly among the higher ranks. Bad
officers are allowed to punch their ticket rising to their
highest level of incompetence, a la the Peter Principle.
For many years now the number one explanation given by
junior officers leaving military service in droves upon
completion of their commitment has been the exact same
reason - toxic leadership. At all the service academies as
well as all the military services, the best and brightest
soon enough become disappointed and disenchanted when they
find that all the hype fails miserably to match their daily
living reality. Gradually they find the toxicity and
hypocrisy of their so called superiors increasingly
intolerable and, thoroughly disillusioned, ultimately they
choose to leave a career in service to their nation. After
weighing their options, they make the difficult choice to
abandon their initial calling and leave the military in
order to make more money in the corporate world where
greater opportunity for promotion and advancement is
promised. 
Toxic leadership has become such a severe problem in
our military that even the top general of the land,
Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Dempsey has
acknowledged that changes in evaluating officers for
promotion are sorely needed.


Cadet Dempsey as a junior


General Dempsey before Congress

Too many incompetent, paper
pushing, power hungry despots have been punching their
ticket up the ladder so that there is currently a serious
bloat of top heavy toxicity at the highest ranks of the
officer corps. Subsequently, the officer to enlisted men
ratio has never been higher at one to five. Virtually all
the better leaders grow fed up with the broken system and
eventually resign, leaving the bloated glut of bad officers.
Recent findings indicate that upwards of one in every
five Army officers is believed to be a toxic leader. Barbara
Kellerman, author of “Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It
Happens, Why It Matters,” classifies toxic leadership with
seven common traits: incompetent, rigid, angry/volatile
(emotional instability), callous, corrupt, insular and evil.
A toxic leader may possess a range of these attributes from
one or two to all seven. The MO of toxic officers and non-
commission officers (NCO’s) is to hide behind rank, yelling,
bullying, humiliating, and threatening subordinates into
submission and compliance. At West Point hazing and bullying
are the very foundation of how leadership is taught.
The general rule based on the system historically
trained and practiced both at the academies and within the
services is that those who simply do what they are told
while cautiously, vigilantly covering their own asses are
the ones getting promoted up the hierarchical ladder to
success. Leadership based exclusively on obedience,
conformity, inhumane bullying and petty rule enforcement
(mistaken for discipline) is the only leadership taught,
practiced and rewarded. Too many toxic leaders continue to
thrive in an insulated system that ensures their protection
and unaccountability. The traditional “good old boys club”
is driven by self-serving arrogance, blind ambition and
power hungry motivation, rewarded by superiors for their
ruthless, cutthroat tactics that invariably include lots of
ass kissing ingratiation in the ever-present politics game.
As proof that some things never seem to change or get
any better, a Department of Army study conducted over forty
years ago described a typical poor leader way back during
the Vietnam War era this way: “an ambitious, transitory
commander - marginally skilled in the complexity of his
duties - engulfed in producing statistical results, fearful
of personal failure, too busy to talk with or listen to his
subordinates, and determined to submit acceptably optimistic
reports which reflect faultless completion of a variety of
tasks at the expense of the sweat and frustrations of his
subordinates.” Sadly, this critical account could just as
easily apply to today’s prototypical military officer.
My friend Jon’s decision illustrated this case in
point. He symbolized the very best that West Point had to
offer, yet he, like the late great Harry Chapin, saw the
writing on the wall and opted to resign from the Academy
after just one year. They had both seen enough to no longer
in good conscience want to continue to be part of something
that had initially looked so good that turned out so rotten.
Though I could completely identify and relate to their
thinking, I was just happy to resume my life as a human
being again, and about to enjoy a whole month away from West
Point. Though I felt sad about losing such close friends as
Robert Leeman and now Jon Pennell during my first year at
the Point, I was far too excited just looking ahead and
embracing my future as an upperclassmen. Somewhere also in
the back of my mind, I think I also entertained the notion
or illusion that I could become an agent of positive change 
within the broken system by still operating from inside. 
   

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