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The United States Military Academy (USMA) is a leadership institute and a place of learning where America’s brave sons and daughters are trained to become military leaders.
According to the USMA information periodical, United States Military Academy Bugle Notes, the Academy not only educates its cadets in a number of academic disciplines, but also prepares them for the physical, mental, and emotional duress that they will encounter during their careers as commissioned Army officers (Drew et al. 4). A long standing training tool used by the academy to build the toughness needed in combat is the mandatory participation in boxing class (Bishop, par.
3). As the tradition of mandatory boxing training (or Plebe boxing as it is commonly referred to continues, the public and media’s opinions regarding its usefulness seems to have changed in recent years. This shift in opinion, which seems to have occurred in the last five years, is epitomized in separate articles by The New York Times journalists Greg Bishop and Dave Phillips.
In 2010, Greg Bishop published an article entitled “Cadet Boxers Develop Their Fighting Spirit.” Bishop wastes no time in referencing the importance bestowed on boxing training by the academy when he cites Colonel Greg Daniels, USMA director of physical education at the time, as saying “The Army is a physical profession. It can be a dangerous, nasty business. Boxing is the way we develop the warrior acumen. We should excel”” (qtd. in Bishop, par. 3). He continues to describe the mandatory boxing training as an environment that develops USMA cadets’ warrior ethos and fear management capabilities, attributes that will be valuable in their inevitable combat roles in ongoing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq (Bishop pars.
Bishop does not attempt to obscure the training’s purpose as a direct preparation for the harshness of combat. He also does not question its usefulness as a method of training warriors, a tactic that his counterpart, Dave Phillips, seems to have adopted in his 2015 article entitled “Concussions in a Required Class: Boxing at Military Academies” (Phillips 1).
The name of Dave Phillips has become synonymous with libel and frailty amongst USMA cadets in recent weeks. This comes as a response to his recent article in The New York Times that essentially demonizes the tradition of boxing training at military academies. Although he references the rationalization for boxing as a military training tool, he makes it abundantly clear that he does not see the course as justifiable (Phillips, par. 2-3). After a brief description of the boxing curriculum he immediately introduces the startling injury statistics associated with the boxing course: boxing is responsible for one out of every five concussions sustained by USMA cadets (Phillips, par.4). To the lay man who is unfamiliar with both the intricacies of boxing and the military profession, this may sound like a barbaric way to treat our nation’s best and brightest. Phillip’s scare tactic does not just stop at the numbers.
While Bishop applauds boxing at USMA as a sanctuary for troubled cadets, and an outlet for boxing tradition, Phillips takes a more antagonistic approach (Bishop, pars. 13-15). Phillips shamelessly references the fact that concussions sustained in boxing can severely limit a cadet’s capabilities in academics and military duties (Phillips, par. 5). His use of concerned parents’ and health care providers’ testimonials against boxing training and subsequent brain injuries only further his anti-boxing stance (Phillips, pars. 7-9). As a final attack on the boxing program, he mentions that Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets and enlisted military personnel are not required to take similar training and that the fighting in the Middle East in recent years has raised advocacy of prevention of traumatic brain injuries in the military (Phillips, par. 10). It seems as if Phillips is suggesting the military academy administration is very aware of the brain injury risk associated with boxing, but remains complacent or even negligent in its strategy to deal with it.
The stark contrast between the opinions of Greg Bishop and Dave Phillips in regards to boxing at the military academies is not just a matter of personal opinion. No matter what the public’s opinion is on combative training for cadets is, the harsh reality is that cadets have chosen to accept the risk inherent in a profession that exists for one primary role: defeat the enemies of the United States in combat. The high probability of brain injuries in combat and the military’s response to them is not a mystery: In his January 2015 article, Brooks Hays reports on how the United States military has stepped up its efforts in dealing with concussions. It cannot be denied, in light of recent research, that brain injuries are a serious threat to an individual, both acutely and long-term (Hays, par. 3). This threat is of injury is prevalent in the military operating environment and is a side-effect of the brutal and demanding characteristics of the profession at arms (Hays, par. 5). With no true end to America’s ongoing military conflicts in the foreseeable future, the role of cadets in combat after graduation is all but guaranteed. This sinister fact produces a high demand for cadets with the toughness needed to succeed in combat. According to USMA officials, this toughness is taught in boxing (Phillips, par.3) Upon reviewing the articles of both Greg Bishop and Dave Phillips it is quite obvious that the public’s opinion of the USMA boxing program has evolved over the years from a positive one to a negative one. A growing concern over the safety of cadets and the possibility of brain injuries seems to have become the basis of any peoples’ opinions of the program in recent years. This may be due to an increase in understanding of concussions and how they affect individuals and a change in attitude towards brain injuries in the military. A clear example of the shift in opinion towards concussions in the military is made by USMA’s own superintendent. Lieutenant General Robert Caslen Jr. when he states: “I’ve been knocked out, given the smelling salts and shoved back in there — that was our concussion protocol back then… I always thought it was a badge of honor when I got a concussion — now you are one of the guys. You get knocked out and keep going” (qtd. in Phillips par. 19). As more and more people have become aware of the repercussions of brain injuries, the idea of injuries (including concussions) as a symbol of toughness continues to fade and be replaced with concern for cadets’ health and a growing criticism for the facilitator of many of these injuries: boxing.
By definition, the role of the military is to protect and serve the people of the United States. Cadets are a part of the military and their duty is to become the leaders in charge of the nation’s defense (Drew et al. 4). In order to meet this demand, they must become proficient in basic combat skills. The military academies use training such as boxing to acclimate cadets to the primal fear and demands of conflict, and eventually warfare (Bishop, par. 17). If such training did not take place, military academies would produce cadets who could not effectively withstand the rigors of combat and place the nation’s defense in jeopardy. It now seems that sections of the public are becoming more concerned with the potential risk of head injuries during boxing training than with the overall goal of producing effective combat leaders. Because the military serves the public, if enough people adopt a negative opinion on combative like training like Phillips’s, there will be pressure on the military, and specifically the military academies, to eliminate it. If the military accommodates the critical opinions of its training by a few, the resulting impact on the cadets will manifest in the situations with the highest stakes, in combat. One concussion may be a necessary step in the learning process of a cadet, which could mean the difference between a lifesaving decision or a commander paralyzed with fear down range.
Like it or not, the tradition of cadet boxing will, for now, continue. Along with the mandatory course living on, so will the risk of its participants sustaining head injuries. It is obvious after examination of Dave Phillips and Greg Bishop’s articles that not everyone shares a support for the somewhat risky combat training. As long as someone’s child is getting hit in the head and as long as someone can further their career by demonizing the boxing program at USMA, the relevance and usefulness of the program will be questioned. When determining your opinion on the matter keep this thought in mind: do you want your child to be lead into battle by a tough leader who can get hit in the mouth and keep functioning, or a young man or woman who has been accommodated every time the going gets tough?
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