Don Quixote at West Point

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A recent incident at West Point involving my wife and our little daughter has given us much to ponder. The initial responses, and later silences, of the military authorities were both surprising and perplexing. I became even more reflective and pensive, however, after my own well-informed and honest and very candid West Point classmates further illuminated my deficient understanding and corrected my illusions by their own much more deeply discerning comments.

What might a Don Quixote himself have thought, said, and done—in light of his chivalrous naiveté and generous (though often cynically mocked) illusions and his own tradition-mindedness—had he been present there and encountered this “Tremendous Trifle” and “Prodigy” in his path? For, as we shall see, it was a sudden and surprising challenge, indeed: a somewhat staining adventure with a Very Model of a Modern M.P. Soldier. And soon there came his Defenders, his moral supporters and protective sympathizers.

How would Cervantes himself—or G.K. Chesterton in his Return of Don Quixote (1927)—have presented this scene and some of its implications? For, despite our reputed modern freedoms, it is still the case that we have as many Masters as we have Moral Vices. However, moral vices may certainly produce illusions of autonomy and freedom.

On a Wednesday morning in late October 2009, my wife and I made a brief visit to the West Point Post Exchange with our little daughter. It is a place where cadets and military families with their young children often visit. Shortly after our arrival, I turned to find my wife and suddenly faced a scene I had never before witnessed in a military store, especially not at West Point. A hobo was there, some 30 yards away, and walking sluggishly into the store more or less in my direction. He was plodding along vaguely and maundering still when he passed me nearby. I watched him all that time, stunned in thought.

This seeming vagrant and clochard had as part of his attire a gray Army shirt of official issue, in incongruous combination with big baggy pants, either cut-off trousers or elongated Bermuda shorts. What a picture!

But that was only the beginning. He had a hat on with a beak, but it was not turned completely to the rear as one often sees with fashionably shabby adolescents. Rather, the hat was turned sideways toward his left ear, bending the ear down and curving it outwardly. This touch imparted to his visage an especially goofy look. That goofiness was further amplified by a large drink he was vacantly slurping, as he further shambled on.

As he passed, he saw me gazing at him in silence, and he proceeded to stare at me. Still stunned, I remained standing where I was, but I turned to watch him. From what I then saw in his eyes, it even looked as if he were on drugs.

Since the man looked too old to be a military dependent of one of the Army families residing at or visiting West Point, I decided, after some minutes, to approach him and ask if he was himself in the military. He answered in the affirmative. I then asked, “May I know what unit you are in?” He responded, “The Military Police.”

I did not then ascertain, nor afterward reliably discover, his rank. I only knew that he was one of the guardians.

Things deteriorated rapidly. I formally identified myself and then asked his name. He became petulant and surly: “Why do you want to know my name?”

I replied, “I wish to speak with your superiors in the provost marshal’s office about your mixed and shabby dress and also about your deportment and demeanor.”

At once he became more brazen and defiant and suddenly expressed himself with a sneer and a smirk of contempt: “Hey man, you’re harassin’ me.”

“I beg your pardon,” I answered. “I ask you for your name, and you call it harassment? You must be a real stalwart. Have you no self-respect?”

Constable Clochard reached into his baggy pants and pulled out his cell phone. “Hey,” he informed his friends in the Military Police, “some guy is harassin’ me over here. I’m at the PX. Come on over.”

Assured that his comrades were en route, he became even more insolent. He gathered together in a little cluster with a few younger female employees of the store, muttering and grumbling among them. But he kept his distance until two junior sergeants of the Military Police arrived. One immediately took the approaching and welcoming constable by the arm and went with him to a more distant part of the store. The other young sergeant stayed with me. He was very polite, but his own words and, soon, his effective acts of omission were even more shocking to me than those of the querulous constable himself.

“Sir, what’s your problem?” the young sergeant asked.

As I started to tell him about the behavior and appearance of the constable, he interrupted me. “Sir, I don’t see your problem. I dress like this, too, when I’m off duty.” Although I attempted to discuss further his colleague’s disturbing fragility and acute rudeness, the young sergeant, though still polite, had had enough. There was no danger, he concluded, of any violence, and thus he and his partner wished to depart. The case was finished—on their terms.

Aside from a few ongoing glowering looks and sneers, Constable Clochard kept his distance after his comrades’ departure. Yet we had one final act of his baseness to face.

It was raining, so I came with my car to the entrance of the Post Exchange to fetch my wife and daughter. Unexpectedly, the constable reemerged and proceeded to copy down our car’s license-plate number, after which he sauntered off again.

My usually calm and poised wife was quite troubled by the constable’s implicitly threatening act. She feared some indirect form of revenge.

We decided to visit the office of the West Point provost marshal himself, to report these acts of dishonor and disrespect. We thought that the traditional ethos of honor of the West Point Military Police would informally correct the constable’s abuses. We were wrong.

We met with the executive officer and the senior sergeant in the provost marshall’s office. The sergeant did most of the talking. Both were polite, and the sergeant asked me to write and give him my e-mail address as soon as possible, so that he could tell me how he handled the incident. The senior sergeant then said to me straightaway that current Army regulations regrettably permit mixed dress “off duty,” so there was nothing he could do there. But as to the shabby constable’s conduct—his open defiance and disrespect—the sergeant would attend to that at once. He was also polite with my wife, and even appeared to understand her anxiety about the soldier’s final rudeness and implicit threat.

That evening, I wrote to the senior sergeant and gave him my current e-mail address. I did not hear from him for two weeks, though I wrote to him twice. When he finally wrote back, he was so vague about what he had discovered and had purportedly done by way of correction, that I wrote him two more messages of inquiry, one of which (on November 11, Veterans Day) was a somewhat long and detailed description of what had occurred, a sort of Incident Report and Memorandum for the Record.

In response to my first message, the senior sergeant, copying his replies to his superior officers, wrote only a brief but indignant note—addressing me as “Mr. Hickson.” He instructed me that I should trust him to have done what was proper and altogether fitting, stressing, moreover, that the constable is “an Iraq combat-veteran” who has “proudly served his country,” and that he would tell me no more than that. The case was over.

When I contacted some of my trusted classmates from West Point and told them the entire story, I was told that the problem extends beyond the West Point Military Police. When cadets themselves are “off duty,” it is often difficult to say who is a cadet and who is a vagrant or suspect gangster. Moreover, a dignified woman in the West Point Post Exchange had told me that the dress and conduct of the constable was representative. Cadets and other members of the military increasingly dress and act in such a manner. “This is not, by far, the way it used to be,” she said. “But people don’t seem to care anymore.” There is a pervading indifference, as if to say: “I don’t care, and you don’t matter.”

My classmates informed me that the ethos at the academy is now so changed that a recent superintendent invited a very young, potential financial donor to stay overnight at his prestigious military quarters, while a decorated veteran general from World War II was put up at a nearby hotel. One of my other good classmates—not at all a curmudgeon, much less a pessimist or a fatalist—said, “Robert, the Corps has, and the Army has”—cadet slang for “the standards of the Corps and the Corps of Cadets itself have gone to hell, and the Army has, too.” I had not expected to hear these words from such a senior and distinguished man.

In any case, we shall not recover the flower of chivalry, much less its fuller fruits, unless we rediscover and are nourished by its roots, including its deeper religious roots. But as James Burn­ham writes, “To be defeated after losing well does not always lose so much as not to have fought.” Don Qui­xote would agree. (And, along with his courage amid the surrounding mockery and cynicism, he further displayed “the wisdom of his naivete,” especially by his prompt and sustaining desire for “chivalrous magnanimity” and for “a new order of voluntary nobility.”) As Ches­terton once said, only a live thing can swim against the stream. Let us not be a drifter, nor a slothful tramp. As my Catholic Special Forces team sergeant once said to me: “Sir, let us flame out, not rust out!”

To see the place where I became a man show signs of dissolution does deeply affect the heart. To feel that one is an absurd and injurious anachronism is not a thing easily borne in a manly way, with integrity and true fortitude. I miss being part of a living, active tradition, especially in these late years of disrupted traditions.

As Burnham once said, man is nourished “by social experience acting through time—that is, by tradition.” That is especially true of the virtuous and deeply tested tradition of the Long Gray Line, where once there was a sincere faith in this tradition as a living and continuous force.

This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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