November 5, 2017

“At West Point, All Cadets Learn to Take a Punch”

That’s the title of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. It first appeared in the WSJ on October 28th. I saw it online today on MSN. I read the article. It was short and to the point. Boxing has been a mandatory class at West Point for close to one hundred years, so that is not news. It is news that now women cadets are required to box. I guess that qualifies as progress in a way.

The article was of particular interest to me because, as a graduate of USMA (Class of 1980), I have rather intense memories of boxing. I was in the boxing ring forty years ago, and that experience still takes me deep. I have to admit that the essay in the WSJ does not entirely match up with my memories. It could be that my memories are faulty. It could be that things have changed over the years. It could be that the author of the article didn’t have all the facts.

I have to take issue with the title of the article. It misses the whole point of the boxing program. The author states that “all cadets learn to take a punch”. That’s true, but that is not why plebes are required to box.  It would be better said that “all cadets learn to give a punch”.

I remember the very first day of plebe boxing. The instructor, who was an Army major, sat us all down, and he proceeded to explain to us what we would learn in the class. He stated that boxing would be the most important class we took while at West Point. At the time, I thought that comment was absurd. Now, many years later, I agree with the man. Boxing was crucial in a way.

Let me say up front that I sucked at boxing. I was terrible. I nearly failed the course. I am not sure why. I was good at wrestling, but boxing was a different animal. The author of the article says that “Students are matched by size, skill and experience.” That’s not how I remember it. In my class we were matched up by weight, just like in wrestling. I am a short, stocky guy. I went into the ring with young men who were tall and lean, and who had a reach far in excess of my own. That meant when I jabbed, I hit thin air. When my opponents jabbed, they moved my nose closer to my left ear.

I found it difficult to be adequately aggressive when I kept getting nose bleeds. The instructors kept urging me, “Get inside him! Get inside him!” The only way to get inside the reach of somebody who has longer arms is to get hit. I honestly wasn’t very interested in that option. Actually, I didn’t want to be in the ring at all. Some guys like to fight. I never did. I still don’t.

This brings me to the point of my essay. Plebes are required to box so that learn they how to hit somebody else without the slightest hesitation or regret. The instructors would put roommates together in the ring. Why? So that two young men, who have no personal animosity, and perhaps even like each other, will learn to beat the shit out of one another. The whole idea is to get comfortable with violence, with the act of hurting another human being.

This should come as a shock to no one. Cadets are soldiers, and soldiers hurt people. That’s their job description. I took another mandatory class, Military Science. In that course, the job of a military officer was defined as being “an expert in the management of violence”. When I graduated from West Point, I was supposed to be an expert in using violence, an agent of destruction and chaos. Even now, that sounds pretty twisted.

Young people show up at West Point for a variety of reasons. For me it was to get a good education, and to make my father proud of me. Others show up because of patriotism. Some want to prove themselves in a challenging environment. Some just like the military. Some arrive not being familiar with violence. Every graduate leaves that school being comfortable with it. Every one of them.

That’s why boxing is important. If West Point didn’t force people to box, it would have some other type of training to bring out the killer instinct. Somehow, the cadets would learn how to fight and how to inflict pain. It’s a necessary part of the process.


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