I can’t remember where I heard it, but someone compared West Point, the US Army’s military academy, to a little piece of Sparta in the midst of Babylon. In other words, they were saying that West Point is a land of old timeless values- humility, respect, discipline, courage, honor, loyalty, duty, service, integrity – in a American culture with the values of Babylon, the ancient city of excess and indulgence: think the 7 deadly sins- gluttony, greed, lust, wrath, sloth, envy, & pride.
This comment about Sparta in Babylon struck a nerve with me since some of the most influential people in my life have been military officers. I have a high amount of respect for anyone who serves or who graduates from one of the academies. I also realize early Greek military states like Sparta laid the foundation for the non-tribal, democratic, peaceful, and civilized life we enjoy today.
Without Sparta, without bloodshed and order, without the armed guardians of peace, there could be no art, beauty, science, or progress.
Last night, I happened to catch a documentary (click here to watch) about the lives of West Point officers who served in Vietnam on PBS which reminded me of the Sparta / Babylon comparison. These men went through hell, here at West Point and in Vietnam, and then again when they came back in many cases.
What really struck me in this documentary was how much influence West Point- Sparta- had on the officers lives’ outcome. Some divorced, some made a lot of money, some stayed in the Army a long time, and some battled depression after Vietnam. One particular officer who came back with only one leg and who was written off by society at the time, found empowerment through a snow skiing program for the disabled.
One thing they all had in common was the profound amount of love they each had for the institution of West Point. Nothing valuable comes easy.
These are the values of West Point. They may inspire you as well:
Duty- doing what you’ve committed to do, for yourself or others
Honor- proving yourself worthy of respect and admiration by your peers
Country- serving your country and others in some way
One troubling aspect of Western modernity is our insistence on non-judgemental thinking. And while tolerance and compassion are core values of the American way of life, and always should be, non-judgement can be taken too far. To not judge is to not think. Values are a good thing.
Values force us to grapple with- What is good in life?
Values provide motivation and give you a standard to live for. I'm making a judgement: the values of West Point are better than the values of Hollywood, Wall Street, Washington DC, or Reality TV.
I would encourage you to make judgements too, about the way you eat, the way you live, how hard you try, how you spend your time, and what you hold dear, and then temper your judgement with kindness and compassion for yourself and others. We'll all fall short at times, but without values, there can be no meaning.
So here’s to the old timeless values of Sparta. May they never go out of style.