Best Defense

There’s a good reason to keep boxing mandatory at West Point: Combat

Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on October 12, 2015.

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Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on October 12, 2015.

By James McDonough and John Lucas
Best Defense boxing correspondents

A recent article in the New York Times assailed what it called the tradition, dating back a hundred plus years, of mandatory boxing classes for male Plebes at West Point, as needlessly leading to upwards of 20 percent of the concussions experienced among the Corps of Cadets in recent years. A subsequent letter to that newspaper by a West Point graduate and former Secretary of the Army stated that such mandatory boxing should be discontinued because of the risks entailed “for the sake of tradition.”

We would argue that the boxing experience at West Point is not just a tradition. It is part of the core curriculum that prepares future combat leaders for the most fundamental purpose for which West Point exists — in the words of General MacArthur, to produce leaders who will win our nation’s wars. Classes in physics, electrical engineering, mathematics, and the social sciences (among others), the demanding daily regimentation of the cadet experience in military units and structures, the other physical challenges of obstacle courses, forced marches, intramural and varsity competitions,  mandatory physical education classes (some unpleasant for many — such as “survival swimming,” wrestling and, yes, boxing) are all designed to place cadets under pressure while building skills and character to cope with whatever might lie in their future.

To some, boxing can appear brutal. West Point takes every precaution to make it safe, but it is not without risk (as with much of the physical and tactical training the cadets undergo). Unlike most sports, however, it places the individual in an immediate confrontational situation where the opponent’s clear intention is to place the participant under direct physical and psychological pressures that could induce pain, draw blood, or bring him down. It is an experience where the cadet learns to stand his ground in the face of aggression, to carry on when tired and hurt, and to keep his head when trauma threatens to overwhelm. The purpose of the boxing class, therefore, is not to produce accomplished boxers, but to teach each cadet involved to overcome adversity, fear, and pain, as well as to teach a little about himself under conditions many of them have not experienced before — a personal attack meant to do physical harm.

Such lessons have a direct carry-over. As graduates, many likely will see aggression again — only then from enemies of our nation who mean to kill them. As combat leaders they will be subjected to intense pressure in mortal combat — pressure unlike anything they have ever experienced. They will be tasked not only with winning to-the-death fights against our nation’s foes, but with being guardians of our most precious resources — the lives of our young soldiers.

Our own West Point Class of 1969 saw over 500 of our graduates enter into combat. Before their initial service obligation was completed, they had earned almost one hundred Purple Hearts for wounds received in action. Eighteen of them were killed; a nineteenth died of his wounds years later. The classes just preceding us suffered even higher casualty rates. And so it goes back through the century of graduates who saw combat in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the modern wars in the Middle East and against terrorism. Nothing can prepare a cadet totally for the shock of combat, but the experience in the ring teaches the cadet to perform when hurt, under pressure, and afraid, while driving home the importance of keeping your wits about you in the face of all that.

Some argue that the nature of warfare has changed, that direct physical courage and ability is no longer a core requirement — that the close-in fight is a relic of the past. This is misguided and betrays a lack of knowledge about the realities of war.  Ask the recent veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Talk to those who fought house to house in Fallujah and Ramadi; to those Special Forces who have operated behind lines to make prisoner snatches. Indeed, ask any combat veteran. Our classmate, Barry McGee (a fine boxer at the Academy) fought with his bare hands at Firebase Mary Ann in Vietnam, killing one assailant before being shot dead by yet another. Former Senator Jim Webb, himself a successful Naval Academy boxer, has reflected on the contributions of his own boxing history to his subsequent extensive combat experiences as a Marine. Senator John McCain, who withstood years of physical and psychological torture as a prisoner of war, once commented that he saw the ordeal as a seven-year-long boxing match. Our own experiences have taught us that combat leadership yet entails the ability to endure pain, overcome fear, withstand hardship, inspire soldiers, and remain ready to close with and destroy the enemy in the most threatening of environments.

Does boxing meet all of these requirements by itself? No, but more than any other single experience universally shared by all male cadets — as the Superintendent of the Military Academy has pointed out — it helps prepare the future officer for the shock of combat. So before arguing that undue risk comes from making it a mandatory experience, consider the risk of not having that experience. Some traditions exist for a reason. This is one to keep.

Col. James McDonough, U.S. Army (Ret.) and John Lucas are members of the West Point Class of 1969 who served in combat in Vietnam as infantry platoon leaders.  Mr. McDonough is the author of three books, Platoon LeaderThe Defense of Hill 781and The Limits of Glory. Mr. Lucas is a practicing attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

Photo credit: United State Military Academy (West Point)

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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