Two weeks ago, I had the honor of attending the 65th Annual Student Conference on U.S. Affairs (SCUSA) at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In addition to allowing students and cadets to explore various topics regarding the theme of “Navigating Demographic Flows: Populations, Power, and Policy,” the primary purpose of this conference was to foster a better mutual understanding between cadets and civilian students, also known as a “Civ-Mil Relations.” The idea behind these exchanges is that in the future participants may find themselves working in government or business together, and this program would afford all participants at the conference a better understanding of military and civilian lifestyles. Indeed, healthy civilian-military relations are essential for a well-functioning civilian-led democracy, which is why these types of programs exist and receive government funding. For four days, I was granted a fascinating peek into West Point life, including living in the barracks with cadets, studying in the library, and dining in the mess hall. I became very close to my cadet hosts and other students attending the conference. I was deeply affected by the cadet lifestyle and the unique shared experience offered by the Academy. West Point, while certainly not a place for everyone, offers our generation many lessons about the importance of shared experience in the development of a strong national identity.
West Point is composed of a diverse set of cadets from all walks of life. They differ in socioeconomic status, gender, race, creed, age, professional/academic backgrounds, and many other factors. While some cadets had already served in the military as enlisted members, most cadets came to the Academy straight out of high school. I recall a conversation with one cadet where he noted the variety of backgrounds and personal beliefs found amongst Cadets at West Point, but that amidst this diversity there was a common denominator uniting all: a desire to serve. I did not realize how strong this common bond was until I witnessed day-to-day operations of the Academy and personal stories of many cadets.
Unlike students at a normal university, cadets at West Point are subject to a daily, rigorous training schedule that makes college final exam season look like a cake walk. Cadets must participate in an average of 6 classes per term – including mandatory athletics, be subject to daily inspections, and march to and eat meals together. And these are just a few components of regular term schedule. As each cadet enters West Point, he or she must survive “Beast,” a summer-long basic training program employing mental and physical stress tests to effectively weed out those candidates who are not fully dedicated to the Academy’s mission. Throughout their time at West Point, cadets who do not perform adequately or break the rules must endure severe reprimands. A common punishment is called “Hours,” which entails walking back and forth in the public square while holding a rifle or sabre for hours at a time (only “Firstie” cadets or seniors are allowed to enjoy the lightness of a sabre while completing their hours). I spoke with a cadet who had to make up 120 hours because of, in my view, a slight deviation from the rules! However, other cadets assured me that there exists a purpose to these seemingly mind-numbing tasks. At West Point, there is little oversight by commissioned officers or other professional staff. The hierarchical nature of West Point teaches cadets to first follow and then lead, with senior cadets or “Firsties” responsible for management tasks such as conducting inspections and running summer “Beast” training for new cadets. Freshmen cadets, or “Plebes,” complete the less glorious tasks, such as taking out the barracks’ trash or escorting civilians, like me, around Academy grounds.
Understandably, some cadets expressed their desire to experience a traditional college lifestyle. When I mentioned I was from USC in Los Angeles, a lot of the cadets humorously grumbled about the weather and college parties, and it became clear to me that some wanted a break from the strenuous life of a cadet at a military academy. However, I was equally, if not more, envious of the West Point experience. The unmatched traditions, dedication to a sense of duty and common purpose (including at least five years of mandatory service upon graduation), the stringent Cadet Honor Code, and perhaps most significantly, the incredibly strong bonds between cadets struck a deep chord with me. This unity and cohesion is something that I feel is missing from political culture and American society in general, especially among my peers.
At a time when U.S. demographics are rapidly shifting, the wealth gap continues to widen, and Congress and our political culture are seeing historic divisions, the importance of fostering a national identity has become ever the more critical to sustaining a strong societal fabric. It is important to understand what I mean by “national identity.” I firmly believe that America’s strength is drawn from the diversity of its citizenry, but this diversity must be woven together by a common thread if our strengths are to be channeled in the most productive manner possible. National identity is developed through actions such as teaching a national history and common language, developing national institutions and symbols like monuments in the Capitol region, and, most importantly, allowing for some type of a shared national experience.
In 2013, there does not seem to exist a shared national experience for my generation. The educational system in our country is very fractured, with some students attending charter schools, public schools, private schools, community college, universities, or no school at all. Unlike our parents and grandparents, there is no World War that must be fought and no common threat like the Soviet Union’s “Evil Empire” that must be defeated. Indeed, it seems as if major bipolar conflicts and common enemies have brought Americans together in the past. Abstract issues such as climate change and the Global War on Terror have not mustered nearly as much national unity when compared to previous historical events. While the information age and social media may prove to be more conducive to greater unity, these technological tools have proven to be both uniting and divisive on a global scale. Therefore, in the absence of a shared national experience, I believe it would be prudent for U.S. policymakers to entertain discussions exploring ways to develop a stronger national identity. Programs such as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, or mandatory military service could be used as inspiration for possible public service options. In addition, a thorough and long-needed re-haul of the public education system would also do wonders for shaping a meaningful national experience for youth. Regardless of the policy proposal, U.S. policymakers should always keep the issue of national identity and the utility of shared experiences in mind when developing civic policy, especially for legislation that impacts American youth.
There may be some who question the significance of national unity as the world becomes a small place through the auspices of globalization. However, as long as the nation-state remains the dominant unit of analysis on our planet, America’s national identity is critical to retaining a competitive edge in the international system. The West Point experience, while certainly singular in the sense of its rigor and military culture, reveals the benefits to be had from shared national experiences. This institution accepts youth from all backgrounds and transforms each class of cadets into a united group of individuals willing to serve for a cause greater than themselves. I have no doubt that some of the individuals I met at the conference are going to be leading this country in both the military and civilian realms in the near future, which comes as a comforting thought. The cadets’ shared experiences, sense of brotherhood, and devotion to service distinguishes them from other youth in an American society largely defined by apathy. My generation desperately needs a shared national experience to foster unity, patriotism, and a sense of civic duty. This unity will strengthen our national fabric while unlocking the full potential of the nation.