By Thomas Hauser
Earlier this month, I wrote an article entitled Hypocrisy at West Point
that called into question a policy known as the “alternative service option.” In relevant part, that policy states, “Army cadet-athletes now have options to pursue professional athletic opportunities thanks to the U.S. Army’s Alternative Service Option program. If cadet-athletes are accepted into the program, they will owe two years of active service in the Army, during which time they will be allowed to play their sport in the player development systems of their respective organizations and assigned to recruiting stations.”
In other words, a West Point graduate sufficiently skilled to play professional sports can pursue his athletic career without interruption. As a trade-off, he must recruit other young men and women to enter the military and face the risks inherent in combat that he has not faced.
Since the alternative service option was inaugurated in 2005, six cadets have sought to exercise it. The spotlight is currently on Caleb Campbell, who captained the 2007 Army football team and has pro potential. Recently, Campbell told the Dallas Morning News, “I think this is a great opportunity to get all-star kids into the academy, because they’ll know they still have a chance to play football after they leave the academy. Some [NFL] teams wanted to know if I’d be able to play for sure. They wanted to know if I’d have to go to Iraq if I got called up. Do we invest all kinds of money in a player just to let him go? Now all the teams have the understanding I can play football. My duty right now is to play football."Hypocrisy at West Point
engendered a remarkable response. On the day it was posted, I received more than one hundred emails, the overwhelming majority of them from graduates of West Point and Annapolis. I also heard from the parents of quite a few young men and women now serving in the military and graduates of the Air Force Academy. Writing about the alternative service option has turned into a rewarding experience for me, in large part because of the dialogue I’ve had with so many graduates of the service academies and their families.
The Annapolis alumni who wrote to me were close to unanimous in opposing the alternative service option. A majority of West Point graduates also disliked the program.
Many of the correspondents had questions about my own background and beliefs, so here’s a thumbnail sketch.
I’m 62 years old. I attended college and law school at Columbia. In 1967 (after anti-war protests led the school administration to cancel an invitation to the United States Army to recruit on campus), I invited the Army to recruit at Columbia in my role as president of the graduating class. Although I thought the war in Vietnam was wrong, I believed (and still do) that a strong military is essential to our national security.
I was a practicing attorney for six years. Then I turned to writing.
I consider myself a liberal on social issues, moderate with regard to foreign policy, and an economic conservative. I don’t think that “conservative” means letting financial institutions run wild, running up hundreds of billions of dollars in budget deficits, and cutting taxes for rich people in a time of war.
I believe that there is a place where the values of well-intentioned people with different mindsets coincide.
I did not serve in the military. I’ve always respected the military and understand that, properly employed, it safeguards our democratic way of life. The young men and women who attend the service academies have unique motivation and talents. The defense of our country is in their hands.
I have no reason to question Caleb Cambell’s character. He’s following the rules as he found them. I have a problem with the rules. It’s precisely because I understand how important the United States Military Academy is that I’m troubled by the alternative service option.
I favored the United States using military force in Afghanistan. The government there condoned, aided, and sheltered the terrorists who were responsible for 9/11.
I believe that the invasion of Iraq was a poorly-chosen war of choice. It was launched on the fiction that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction and is now justified on grounds that it is "bringing freedom" to the Iraqi people. There’s nothing brave about middle-aged politicians who have never seen combat sending other people’s children to die in battle. I believe that the civilian architects of the war in Iraq are reckless with other people’s lives and owe an apology to the men and women in our armed forces who they have needlessly put in harm’s way.
I’m troubled by the fact that the current administration hasn’t asked the American people as a whole (and particularly wealthy Americans) to make greater sacrifices in a time of war. The war in Iraq is being conducted in a manner that ensures it won’t interfere with our fun and games. Perhaps there’s a fear that, if the American people are called upon to sacrifice, we won’t support the war. Or worse; perhaps we’ll vote the people who led our country into the war out of office.
If a war is just, the American people will sacrifice to support it. If it isn’t just, it shouldn’t be fought.
I also believe that the best way to support the men and women currently serving in our armed forces in Iraq is to bring them home as quickly and safely as possible.
Several hours after Hypocrisy at West Point
was posted, the director of communications for the West Point Association of Graduates distributed a memorandum to a number of association members entitled “Alternative Service Option Talking Points.” Recipients of the memo were advised to say, “These young Soldiers are still serving their country, just in a different way.”
Another “talking point” read, “Just a few weeks ago, the Seattle Times had a long glowing article on Seattle Mariners pitching prospect, 2LT Nick Hill (USMA 2007). The article focused not on Nick’s pitching but on the Army and on West Point. Circulation? 220,000. And how much would it cost for us to buy that many column inches in the Seattle Times? $63,000.”
Judging from the emails I received from USMA graduates, they weren’t impressed by the talking points. “Just think of all the column inches Roger Staubach could have gotten if he’d gone directly from Annapolis to the NFL,” one West Point graduate wrote. “Of course, the column inches he got had special meaning after he’d fulfilled his commitment to serve.”
The “proud mom” of a young woman currently at Annapolis referenced the famous World War II declaration by Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall (“I need an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. Send me an Army football player”) and asked, “What happened to ‘send me an Army football player’? I guess the new response is, ‘Sorry, he’s in the NFL; but we do have Navy and Air Force football players who will do the job, sir."
The column spurred discussion and debate. I think that’s good. And I was impressed by the nature of the emails I received. Whether or not the correspondents agreed with me, they expressed themselves in a well-thought-out manner. Rather than speak for them, I’d like to let them speak for themselves.
The following is a representative sample of views communicated to me by men and women who have attended West Point and Annapolis, their families, and others who’ve served in the armed forces:
* With a son at the Academy who insists on the Marine Corps at graduation, I am stunned that the Army will allow cadets to avoid "real" military service in order to play football. Granted, Army has been defeated by Navy year after year. However, any military academy is a serious commitment to one’s country; not a potential NFL contract.
* Some academically gifted Academy graduates go directly to graduate school for advanced degrees; some go directly to medical school; some go to Olympic team training; some are found not physically qualified for a commission. On rare occasion, there is an exceptional graduate from a service academy who is good enough to try out for a major professional sports team. These individuals can and usually do great recruiting service for their country while pursuing their dreams.
* The service academies turn down thousands of qualified applicants each year. Caleb Campbell took a spot at West Point that could have been filled by another young man or woman anxious to serve in the United States military to the fullest extent possible.
* Is the next step a lowering of standards to admit talented athletes who would not otherwise qualify for admission to West Point? And if so, what sort of military leaders will these young men and women make?
* I have two sons who earned varsity letters at West Point, though in a sport that does not offer lucrative professional contracts. Both are now serving on active duty. Both have deployed to Iraq and are likely to do so again. If anybody would resent the very few baseball, football, and basketball players and other cadets who have explored the alternative service option, you would think it would be West Point graduates like my sons, their classmates, and their teammates. Yet I have never heard such resentment expressed by any of them. Or resentment toward the several West Point athletes who, as active serving officers, are tasked to train for the Olympics. They believe that all of these soldiers serve in their way.