At the risk of sounding like one of the Four Yorkshiremen, I have to admit to chagrin at the weenyfication of the Herndon Monument climb during Commissioning Week at the Naval Academy. The climb’s origins are lost in the mists of time, but in recent memory it was the rite of passage from Plebe to human (i.e., non-Plebe). The graduating firsties would glue a Plebe cover (a Crackerjack sailor’s hat–“dixie cup”–with a distinct blue ring around the rim) to the top of the monument. They’d then cover the monument with hundreds of pounds of lard, and hose down the ground at the base until it was saturated. After the graduation ceremony, the Plebes attempted to climb the monument: as soon as the hat was retrieved, Plebes no more. It could take hours.
Until this year, however. The Superintendent deemed the climb too dangerous, and ordered that no lard be used. So the climb was finished in minutes.
Was it dangerous the old fashioned way? Yeah, I guess. The strategy was to have the bigger guys form a base, the medium sized guys the next layer, and for the smaller guys (and women, when I was there) to clamber up the bodies to try to grab the cover. I was a relatively light guy when I did it–I weighed in the mid-140s as a Plebe–so I was one of the clamberers. I tried several times, but each time fell. When I fell, I wound up sprawled in the mud being trampled by the crowd at the base. I struggled to my feet, and was then surrounded in a suffocating crush of bodies.
But miracle of miracles! I lived! And so has every mother loving Plebe who has ever done it. It is one of those shared experiences that creates a bond among the 1000 odd Midshipmen in each class, and between classes. It is a rite of passage, and like all rites, to be meaningful there has to be at least some discomfort involved.
Now, as a result of Vice Admiral Jeffrey L. Fowler’s decision, the class of 2013 will be known as the first of the classes that were just too precious and delicate to run the vanishingly slight risk of somebody being seriously hurt or even dying.
Last time I checked, the military job description involves the possibility of running risks to personal life and limb.
I had–and have–no objection to the elimination of the gratuitous violence and hazing that was rife at the Academies prior to the early-1970s, when Congress outlawed it. But the Herndon climb was a once-a-year event, done in public with only Plebes participating, meaning that it could not be a place where sadists could dominate and humiliate their defenseless charges, as sometimes happened with hazing.
The training-wheels-and-bike-helmet version of the Herndon climb isn’t a big thing, but it is a symbolic one. It symbolizes the insanely overreactive risk aversion characteristic of a lot of today’s military. A risk aversion born, in part, of the zero tolerance, one strike and you’re out policies that are currently in place. IMO, this is not conducive to an optimized military. “L’audace, toujours l’audace”* is the credo of a successful military. And what Admiral Fowler decreed hardly screams audacity.
* This phrase was uttered by French Revolutionary leader Georges Danton, NOT Frederick the Great, as claimed in the movie Patton.