Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Duty First: A Book Review

I am presently reading Absolutely American by David Lipsky. I intend to write a book review about it once I am done. I am no longer with the Corps Magazine so more likely the review will remain as an entry in this blog. Anyway, I decided to publish a book review of another book about Westpoint that I have read about two years ago... here it is:
“Book Review: Duty First: West Point and the Making of American Leaders by Ed Ruggero”

Like a precious diamond, a leader has to undergo a hard process for them to become valuable. This is very well explained in Ed Ruggero’s book Duty First: West Point and the Making of American Leaders.

The book follows the lives of different personalities inside America’s Premier School of Leadership, the United States Military Academy. The author, being a former cadet, gives a remarkable picture on how life is inside the halls of this institution. The book, which spans a year, jumps from one person to another, from the lowest plebe, the squad leaders, the graduating cadets up to the Superintendent himself. Published in time for West Point’s 200th anniversary, it is meant to inform the public on the how the leaders from West Point are trained and developed into fine young men and women.

As in the life of every cadet, everything begins with the first day, In the case of the book, it begins on 29 June 1998 the day the Class of 2002 reports for duty, R-Day as they call it, the day they formally become cadets (new cadets for now). Bob Friesema, Jacque Messel and Pete Haglin are the three personalities focused in this part of the book. They begin as young teenagers having the distinction of being accepted as cadets. Some are hesitant to make the final decision while others are very eager to come. At this stage, almost everything is uncertain, the parents wonder if their child will make it and fit in, the new cadets fear the unknown while the administration, the officers and the upperclass cadets, who will train these new cadets are not sure if they have prepared enough for this day. The anticipation then shifts to the rigorous training of “Beast” were the new cadets learn the most basic and essential part of their training – obedience. Everything does not seem to make sense for everything seems to happen so fast and everything they do is a mistake. They learn to follow an order to the last letter. The lives of the three new cadets are now undergoing a drastic change from being normal kids in their old high schools; suddenly they begin their West Point experience.

Another perspective is also shown – that of the upperclass cadets and the officers. Grady Jett, Shannon Stein, Greg Stitt and Alisha Bryan are secondclass cadets (third year), who are now trying to define themselves as leaders to their new cadets. Like the new cadets, they also wonder whether or not they are doing a good job as leaders. They try to fuse the concepts they learn, their own experiences and the wisdom handed down to them by their superiors; juggle all of these concepts and try their best to be the best leaders they can. At this stage, Kevin Bradley, a firstclass cadet (fourth year) also learns to command a company under the guidance of his Tactical Officer, Major Rob Olson. Again, another style of leadership is illustrated and another method of teaching is employed. The company commander learns to decide on his own while the Tac (Tactical Officer) employs a method to teach Bradley how is it to be in charge of a Company.
As Beast ends, the characters again face another challenge crucial to their training as leaders – academics. The new cadets adjust to the system of academics in their new school and the way they handle themselves amidst the other requirements they have to meet. Here, the new cadets, now called as plebes, try to understand the system that will change them from taking orders to giving out orders in the coming years. The grueling academics is coupled with other competencies that they must master; athletics, table duties, plebe knowledge and even current events. More important also is that they begin to understand the facets of leadership they observe. They begin to make their own preferences regarding different leadership styles applied to them. Little by little, they begin to form their own concept of themselves as leaders.

There is also a very good illustration on another essential part of their training – athletics. The cadets, who are mostly talented athletes, are now faced with expectations, not just from their instructors but expectations of the soldiers they will lead once they graduate. So many issues are addressed from that of women being considered physically inferior to the pressure of maintaining a slim body. Believe it or not, like any other colleges in the US, West Point is not spared from eating disorder cases within the Corps of Cadets.

The most crucial also is in the area of character building foremost of which is the Cadet Honor Code. The description is very vivid on the implementation of the Honor System, to how it is taught to the cadets and to the various opinions regarding the code. In the recent years, drastic changes have been done in the implementation of the code. The new Superintendent has deviated from the previous doctrine of absolute dismissal once found guilty; instead, other punitive measures are applied to the cadet, the goal of which is rehabilitation. The rationale is that since West Point is a learning institution anyone must be given the chance to fail for failing is an important part of learning.

Finally, the year ends. The soon to be yearlings are now preparing themselves for the new responsibility they will shoulder, the secondclassmen are ready to take on greater responsibilities as firstclassmen and the new lieutenants wonder if they really are prepared for the real thing at the same time nostalgic over leaving their home for the last four years. The book is very enlightening. It was as if I can see myself inside the pages. The making of a leader is not an easy process as very much shown in the book. I have come to realize the various aspects of leadership and like the cadets in the book, wonder whether or not the process I am going through will prepare me for the real thing. At certain points, I was taken aback by the experiences of the main personalities, realizing that their own angst mirror the kind of feeling I have regarding my training. The reality of what is waiting for me out there is very much superimposed. Reading the book allowed me to make an assessment of myself realizing the magnitude of the responsibility I am being prepared for. This book is also very apt to other students of leadership. The concepts illustrated are very much basic and can be applied even in areas other than the military. I definitely recommend it to everybody

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