This was the headline for a story I wrote about the battle over changes that were taking place at Texas A&M, in the heyday of the Gates presidency (“Corps Values,” May 2004). Current A&M students have no historical memory of this period. So that readers may understand the entire background of the controversy involving General Van Alstyne, I am going to publish the section of that article involving the Corps of Cadets. It begins with a letter to The Battalion. It follows below.
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With the departure of the Class of 2004 on May 15, the Corps will see the end of an era in training doctrine and leadership philosophy, as well as four years of experiences that shaped the ideology of an entire class. With this in mind, many have said that Corps morale is at an all-time low due to changes that have taken place during the last year and a half. For the most part, a feeling of alienation has been expressed by members of the junior and senior classes, who I believe simply become uncomfortable when asked to do things that they do not find familiar. A clash of culture that can be felt over the entire University between the old and the new is, for the most part, a matter of growing pains to better align A&M with American society today. For the Corps, time will heal our wounds that have caused the consternation of a generation who merely grew up under the teachings of the old regime.—OPINION ARTICLE IN THE BATTALION, MARCH 2004
WILL MCADAMS, THE AUTHOR OF THIS letter and the cadet commander of the Corps, remembers all too well what it was like to be a freshman in the most important organization at Texas A&M. “If you messed up, you had to do physical training,” he said. “We called it ‘Corps games.’ It lasted from eight to four. The academic day was totally violated. I had friends who didn’t go to class for two weeks at a time. You were willing to go through it because you wanted to be a part of something larger than yourself. You sacrificed grades for peer admiration. It was a dismal semester. You could see the attrition when grades came out. I saw my unit start as a class of thirty; now we’re a class of ten. It’s the result of bad grades and the inability to stick it out. My best friend from my hometown was gone in two weeks. Others were run off by peer ostracism. If you survived, you felt like a superman.”
In McAdams’ sophomore year, it was his class that meted out the physical punishment. The upperclassmen led the sophomores into a dorm room and showed them the opening scene of the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, a tirade of abuse of new recruits by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, their drill instructor. (“From now on, you’ll speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy sewers will be ‘sir!’”) “That’s how we were shown to be leaders,” McAdams says. “I could quote to you the entire opening scene.”
The character that was the model for the Corps’ leaders was shot and killed later in the film by one of his recruits. The significance of this apparently escaped the students in the Corps for years, but not McAdams or the retired Army officer who serves as commandant of the cadets, Lieutenant General John Van Alstyne. Both understood that if the Corps did not change its blind adherence to the old ways, if it continued to destroy its own members’ chances for academic success, it would not survive at Texas A&M. Inconceivable, you say? The numbers say otherwise: The full strength of the Corps, if every bed in the Corps dormitories were occupied, is 2,600. Seven years ago, the membership was around 2,200. The figure cited today by university officials is around 2,000. The real number, Van Alstyne told me, is 1,706. The Corps is a dying institution. Loud and prominent, but dying nonetheless.
“It’s not in the constitution or the laws of the state of Texas that there has to be a Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M,” Van Alstyne told me. “The things that don’t contribute will fall away in the twenty-first century. If I didn’t believe the Corps could change, I wouldn’t be here.”
Van Alstyne’s plan to reinvigorate the Corps is, first, to recruit (“You can purchase a list—I love capitalism, you can buy anything you want in America—that the service academies have been buying for ten years. It has the name of every youngster in the state of Texas who is on a college preparatory track and who has evidenced some interest in the military in a survey. It has seven thousand names”), and second, to “support our members in achieving their aspirations.” That means emphasizing academics and leadership—not the leadership style of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, but that of the modern Army, to set high standards and to help people meet them. “Positive leadership,” Van Alstyne calls it. “The role of a leader is to establish a vision, establish organizational values, and establish and sustain an environment of achievement,” he said. “How do we come to that?” He reached for something on a shelf. “This generation is visual,” he said, producing a video cassette of Twelve O’Clock High, a World War II film starring Gregory Peck as a general who struggles to change his leadership style as his fliers become battle-tested. “You turn on the video”—he snapped his fingers—”and you’ve got ‘em.”
As it turns out, you’ve got some of them. The resistance in the Corps to positive leadership—to ending the practice of verbal harassment of first-year cadets and putting academics ahead of Corps games—has been overwhelming. “We had buy-in at the higher levels,” McAdams told me, “but not at the lower levels. There are twenty-eight unit commanders and just a small Corps staff. It was a daunting task.
“In the old days,” he said, “you got something intangible from being in the Corps. We want to offer something tangible—a chance at academic success.” McAdams was hoping for a dramatic improvement in the Corps’ GPA last semester, but the actual result was a disappointing increase of only 5 percent of a grade point. “It’s going to be a long process,” he said. “The entire Corps has to cycle through the university. Our numbers keep going down. We have to implement this or be eliminated.”
That is what the current controversy is all about: Should the Corps go back to the days when underclass cadets were made to do Corps games from 8 to 4 on class days FOR TWO WEEKS AT A TIME, or should the Corps try to help them pass their courses and stay in school? Would parents rather that their kids be hazed in the name of teaching character, or graduate? I don’t think it mattered so much in Rick Perry’s time, because A&M was not academically rigorous in the way it is today. It does matter today.
General Van Alstyne has lost his battle to reform the Corps. But he was doing the right thing. The real loser is Texas A&M. The Corps has not appreciably grown since I wrote this article. Its numbers were 1,706 in 2004. Today, according to the Corps office, it is 1,740, give or take a few members. Is the number stagnant because Corps members felt the organization was going soft? Or is it stagnant because its members cannot stay in school?