Duty First: West Point and the Making of American Leaders

HarperCollins 2001


Downstairs, a squad of new cadets is lined up in a single rank facing their squad leader, a young woman who wears her hat pulled low. She leans her head back slightly to peer from beneath the brim. Her charges, who were civilians when they ate breakfast this morning, stand in a straight, evenly spaced rank. They are all dressed in white shirts, gray cadet trousers, and black shoes. (They were told to bring well-broken-in, plain-toe black leather shoes from home. The few who didn’t bother to break in the shoes already regret it.) The men have fresh, severe haircuts; the women wear their hair very short, or pulled up into tight buns.

“What are your four responses?” the squad leader demands.

All around them other groups are drilling; there are overlapping marching commands, the heavy beat of the bass drum, now accompanied by several bugles. Other squads and individuals are reciting their four responses, or answering the constant question, “Do you understand?” But this group is intensely focused on the woman in front of them. They have known of her existence for only a few intense hours. They don’t know her first name, or where she’s from, or much about what she expects of them. Most don’t know what she can do for them, or even that she has been preparing for this role for weeks, months. Most of them cannot imagine that this apparition of military exactness, with the sharp uniform and erect carriage and command voice, was in their place just two years earlier. They know none of this because no one has told them, because no one thinks it’s important they know anything other than the four responses. And everything about them is focused on answering her correctly. They respond in perfect unison, rattling the windows, oblivious to everything but the need to perform.

“Ma’am, my four responses are . . . .”