War to Follow Graduation for Many Cadets

More than 950 men and women graduate Saturday from West Point in New York. The newly commissioned cadets will become platoon leaders, and many of them will then head off to Iraq and Afghanistan for the first time.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Today in West Point, New York, more than 950 men and women were commissioned as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army. The graduation ceremony at the U.S. military academy is the culmination of a weeklong celebration there.

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Unidentified Man: Face front.

RAZ: The newly commissioned officers will soon become platoon leaders. Many will then head off to Iraq and Afghanistan for the first time. We visited West Point this week where we sat down for a conversation with a group of graduates - Chris Gakey(ph), Scott Clark and Scott Yang. We asked them about the lessons they'll take away from the academy. Here's Chris Gakey first.

Mr. CHRIS GAKEY (West Point Graduate): Well, it was my American literature teacher, and one of the themes we studied in our American literature course is kind of maintaining your individuality amidst collectivism.

RAZ: How did you come about to learning that lesson?

Mr. GAKEY: We read and studied a handful of books. "The Bell Jar," "On the Road," "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand...

RAZ: So, Jack Kerouac, Sylvia Plath.

Mr. GAKEY: Yes, all those. Aldous Huxley, "A Brave New World," and all contributed, you know, the theme seems to be that - American literature - is the power of the individual, the importance of maintaining yourself amidst this collectivism, groupthink even, perhaps.

RAZ: But isn't a big part of what you have all gone through over the past four years, certainly in your first year, is the process of having your individuality in a sense sort of taken away from you? Scott Yang.

Mr. SCOTT YANG (West Point Graduate): You know, a lot of people come in here, you know, they're the best of the best of the best, you know, with honors and, you know, it's - back in the day in high school, you know, it's all about you. And I think the thing that that accomplishes - now, again, not so much to make sure that you, you know, always go along with what the group says but it's to really get you to understand that there's a bigger organization that, you know, I guess your own well-being sometimes may fall behind that of the bigger group.

And I think that's the ultimate - from my understanding, based on my experience here, that's what that first year is all about, not so much to say, you know, you're going to be part of this, you know, clone army and this is what you're going to think, everybody's going to think like this.

RAZ: Scott Clark.

Mr. SCOTT CLARK (West Point Graduate): One thing West Point definitely does is it doesn't teach you what to think; it's more so how to think. In one of our sophomore philosophy classes, we'd read "Just and Unjust Wars"; we'd reach some excerpts from Ayn Rand and then from Al Franken. We'd just go across the spectrum back and forth, and it's good. Because in the future should we become in a leadership position where we're making decisions and even if we exit from West Point, you know, not everybody will serve a career. Provides a good foundation, so if we enter politics or whatnot.

RAZ: You guys have been exposed to a level of education that so many people your age would not have been exposed to in the country. And certainly you are going to be taking over platoons - 50, 55 young men and women, many of whom have not had the same kind of education that you all have. Do you think you'll be able to sort of take some of these ideas that you've talked about and that you've learned here and sort of pass those along to the people who will be under your command?

Mr. CLARK: I'm Scott. Hopefully you guys don't mind if I start off. But I've already actually had an opportunity to put that into practice. And, you know, leading these young men and women, they're very smart. The soldiers that we have now, they're smart. They want us to know why and they want to be as informed as possible.

RAZ: What happened?

Mr. YANG: I was a team leader at the time. I had two plebes underneath. We kind of ran through excerpts of the Quran to find out, you know, what stuff was, like, about. And actually during a culture class that they had for the basic trainees about Middle Eastern culture, I was able to bring in, like, some of the things that, hey, you know, that might not exactly be true. Here's another point of view. Or, you know, that maybe exactly isn't what they were trying to say.

And, you know, for the most part these young men and women were very receptive. And I think it's just they need to know, like, many points of view so they can decide what's, you know, the best one.

RAZ: One of the things that the chairman of the joint chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, has recently called for is younger officers and mid-level officers, for them to question the general officers. What do you think about that idea? Do you think it's your duty to do that? Scott Yang.

Mr. YANG: I definitely think so. I was fortunate enough recently, when Secretary Gates came to visit, to sit down and speak with the gentleman and, you know, what Secretary Gates basically said is that respectful dissent is - you can't improve if you don't question, like, what it is you're doing, why is it that you're doing it.

And as a good leader it's actually, it's our responsibility to foster a kind of, like, an atmosphere where people are always critically evaluating what the actions that we're doing are and why we're doing them, can we do them better? I mean, one of the things that we're talking about at West Point is, you know, the best idea how to implement something may come from a private.

RAZ: What about you, Chris? I mean, do you feel as if there are changes that you see or innovations that ought to be considered in the Army after four years here at West Point?

Mr. GAKEY: Well, without having been in the big army, as we call it, myself, you know, there are a couple of things that I've noticed working with soldiers. It's a little bit about kind of fostering more intellectual command climate. One that, I guess, is eager to question but also is eager to understand the cultures like we've done so well here as cadets, I think. I think we learn the importance of that, and I think the Army has maybe taught us so that maybe we can bring it out into the enlisted ranks and everything like that. Just, I think it's critically important.

RAZ: That was West Point graduate Chris Gakey along with his classmates Scott Clark and Scott Yang. All three graduated from West Point today. That's where we met them earlier this week.

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