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An Aggies Ode to the Greeks, a Roman Centurian and the Best of Us

This is going to be a long story, so if you don’t like long stories, don’t start reading it. It starts at about 1 AM (0100) on December 8, 1981 in the German town of Ellwangen. I was drunk, standing on a berm outside the range house of the 221st Panzer Grenadier Battalion. I was trying to get a breath of fresh air after being cooped up in the smoke filled building since 1730 hours with fifty or so officers and NCO’s from the 221st, drinking like, well soldiers at an after range day drinking fest between American and German partnership units. I was not keeping up my end of the drinking, so I slipped outside before I embarrassed myself. It was still snowing and was cold. No wind thankfully.

One of the Huns, a deviously intelligent little shit with all the genetic traits that guaranteed acceptance into the Prussian aristocracy, came out to make sure his unit was not going to be responsible for the death by freezing of an Ami who could not hold his beer. Oberleutnant Stefan Punceman was name, and as I stared at one of the lights in the parking lot to keep my vertigo in check, he offered that we were standing on the remnants of a defensive fortification dating back to the origins of Ellwangen, which would make it 2,000 years old. He offered that it is likely that some Roman Centurian, in a snow just like this, probably was checking the guard 200 centuries ago. I offered that the stupid Romans had probably just copied the tradition of standing watch in the snow from the Greeks, and that generated a discussion of if there had been no Greeks, then there would be no professional armies. That led to discussions on Plato, Socrates and the relative merits of Tina Turner’s performances in Amsterdam last week. Like I said, I was not holding up my end of the drinking very well.

So, if you don’t like this story, blame it all on Stefan and the 221st Panzer Grenadier and the Greeks. Because when I sobered up, I thought a lot about my link to the frigging Greeks who were responsible for my being on that berm, drunk and not too sure if I liked being 2,500 miles from home, in the snow on a guard post of some Roman, who was also not happy about manning the thing before Christ was born. So here goes, how the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M is linked to the Hun I was with, that dumb Roman Centurian and the damn Greeks who got it all started.

The Spartans started it with a Mess, what we now would equate to a Regimental Dining Hall, only where you spent all your time after work. After he finished his initial training, a Spartan soldier had to get accepted by a Mess to actually be part of the Spartan army. If no Mess would have him, he pretty much had to commit suicide. So, it was not enough to survive the 14 year ordeal to become a Spartan soldier, you were pretty much screwed if the older guys did not want to hang out with you afterward. The Spartans then, invented hazing and all male organizations that were based on how well you handled yourself before, during and after being hazed. Hello West Point.

West Point and Annapolis are amazing places, monuments really, to the power of the Federal Government and the mystique and superiority of the Regular Army and Naval Officers generated by these noble institutions. The Air Force Academy, in many ways, mimics the older institutions and adds the imposing grandeur of enormous space. Together, they are an architectural homage, a visible message from the United States of America to its citizens and to the world, that by spending massive capital, every year, forever, on expensive facilities, manned by numerous, well paid and highly trained academic and military staff, we can not only build the finest military officers in the world, they will be guys you want to hang out with after they graduate, or let your son or daughter marry. They are in sense factories of honor, courage and institutionalized nobility. And they all did the hazing bit, remember the Spartans?

In today’s world, where Western military establishments are small, they stand at the apex of junior officer training for militaries whose traditions, ethos, tactics, techniques and training are traced directly back to the Messes of the eleven Lacedaemon townships that formed the city state known to us as Sparta. West Point in particular, being the first of these institutions, was an attempt to create a stern, Spartan like environment to evaluate the ability of its entrant to handle the crucible of fire that is combat; and to discern their ability to carry themselves with the grace and intelligence of a gentleman. Becasue the Spartans ensured this effect by physically and mentally hazing, to an extreme degree for extended periods of time, well, West Point did too. And all institutions in the US that trained what we call cadets (because that is what West Point calls them) had to develop a system of hazing and the really strange rituals no one who has never been a cadet would ever understand. That's okay, cadets at West Point are the only students at West Point, so explaining this wierdness to anyone is not necessary. You can be wierd all you want, and no one cares.

The Spartan reference to West Point is not accidental or coincidental. Our Founding Fathers were fascinated with the Spartan culture and by its system of government, citing over and over again the virtues of the Spartan system in framing the Constitution for the fledgling state they were proposing. Sparta had three branches of government, and so should we, Sparta had a weak executive, so should we, and so it went. West Point began with the concept of a very stern, Spartan, austere and harsh place, and succeeded in producing men who were capable of extraordinary feats of courage in exceptionally physically demanding campaigns. Winston Churchill, when a recent graduate of Sandhurst, visited West Point and declared its system of discipline barbaric and excessive. The US has always viewed student on student hazing as essential for developing officers from a corps of students it would seem.

What does this have to do with us? In a minute, this is the part before the rest of the story.

But, there is a catch, THE flaw in the system. Like Sparta, these institutions were designed to service the needs of a small professional force, the elite of the elite. The very grandeur of the architecture of the institutions, and for the first two, their location, limits the number of officers that can be produced at one time. West Point has a very small training area, not suited at all for anything but basic small unit military training, and drills on parade. It has very specialized indoor training areas to teach the skills of swimming, fencing and boxing, it has excellent academic departments, mostly designed around the need to produce engineers, the military skill set most prized by a nation rapidly expanding across the harsh terrain of the American West.

In short, they are not places a nation can generate the leadership needed for massive citizen armies, and their expensive overhead makes the cost of each officer generated almost prohibitive. In a crisis, they are not where you go to quickly produce leaders. That problem was well known to a man who had been Secretary of the Navy, and who by 1938 was certain we were moving to war with Germany and or Japan, nations who knew much better than we, how to produce massive armies, and quickly. That socialist with the really not very attractive wife was Franklin Roosevelt.

Now the rest of the story, and how it came to be that a small student organization in an underfunded, backwater, maligned and odd institution on the plains of Texas made a contribution to history, perhaps the greatest contribution by any student organization in US history, all because some Roman Centurian was screwed over by the legacy of the Spartan Mess. I cannot think of one, maybe you can. Enter the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas and its Corps of Cadets, which no one would equate with the power and majesty of West Point, NY and its Cadet Corps.

In 1938, President Roosevelt asked George C. Marshall, how serious the threat would be if the US Military had to face Germany and Japan. A report was commissioned from the US Army’s Command and General Staff College, and was completed within 60 days by a permanent instructor at the College, Wilson was his name. Wilson’s report was terrifying, and framed the actions of the President for all of 1938 – 44. It changed America. It made Texas A&M.

Wilson arrived in DC by train early in the morning in the spring of 1938, and was taken immediately to the White House, there was no pre brief, Wilson was taken in to see the President, and he and Marshall got the bad news at the same time. Wilson’s predictions were incredibly accurate, and with one exception he correctly identified the size and composition of every force that was to participate in World War II. Germany would be able, Wilson told the President, of generating 121 infantry divisions within six months of hostilities, Japan 71, and so on. Wilson’s report is the genesis by the way, for Roosevelt’s incredible statement in 1941 that the US would have to produce 50,000 combat aircraft every year we were in the war.

Wilson’s answer to the question of "what do we need to beat this possibility," was 11.7 million men, led by 1.2 MILLION officers. West Point could generate 900 a year tops, the Army and Navy had less than 100,000 reserve and regular officers on their books. That left a shortfall of about 1.9 MILLION officers. The answer to the problem was direct commissions, Officers Candidate Schools and the Reserve Officers Training Corps, but almost all institutions that had ROTC had no training facilities, and trained instructors were hard to come by, and when war started, they were going to be pressed into the fight. How do you train officers when you don’t have training officers and NCO’s? The answer in the case of Aggieland was that the students would train each other. Not many schools had student organizations that were into that sort of thing, and while A&M was not alone in having this capability, the students from this sparcely populated place we call A&M would produce thousands more officers than any other institution. Under the guidance of the Commandant of Cadets, A&M’s officer production would be astounding, and student led, and done in the Texas equivalent of a Spartan mess, one of which was the current Corps living areas, the Quad.

Back East, no one had heard of AMC, no one was paying attention to it, no one. The small school had no money, a small student body and no dorm space. It was irrelevant in the big scheme of things. That is until Roosevelt, who was fishing off Galveston in 1938, was boarding a train to ride back to DC. He was met at the train station by Lyndon Johnson, who rode with the President for most of his way out of Texas. Johnson suggested they stop in College Station to see A&M. Roosevelt asked A&M’s president what he would need to crank out a lot of officers, and the reply was simple, dorm space and dining halls (in military parlance of the day, Mess Halls). That’s it? Yes sir, we have artillery (the West Range area is where the Medical School is now), we have horses, we have infantry training areas, and the Corps can handle most of the rest. Roosevelt, after being shown how the Corps system worked at A&M, ordered payment for what became Sbisa and Duncan, expanded dorm space on two sides of the campus, and the Corps exploded. And it began with the dining halls, or Messes.

The Corps became responsible for generating 14,000 plus officers during the time period (20,000 overall for the war, dwarfing Annapolis and West Point production combined), with limited plus ups in military staff. Almost all training was student led, and while no one would argue the finished product was as polished as a West Point or Annapolis grad, the product was good enough, it was inexpensive, and it was delivered in massive quantities. Today, there are more US Air Force Bases named after Aggie Corps members than any other non federal institution, 1 out of every 2,500 members who served in WWII was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, where the entire military average was 1 out of every 350,000, and so on.

There were many more schools that contributed officers in large numbers (LSU, Purdue, Virginia Tech, etc.), but A&M was the only school that produced enough officers to staff virtually an entire infantry division (the 90th Infantry), field Naval officers (Ensign George Gay at the Battle of Midway) and the numbers of pilots necessary to get lots of air fields and bases named after grads. Virginian schools were the only institutions able to begin to keep up with the Corps, and even they eventually were left behind. Purdue and LSU had cadet corps, but they could not generate the numbers of an angry Texas and that little student organization.

The bulk of training on military life and leadership was done in the Corps living areas, an area totally dominated by students, almost not impacted at all by direct intervention from professional soldiers. All that is left of this structure now is the Quad. Most training done on the Quad was, and still is, conducted inside the hallways and room spaces of the individual Corps dorms. An incredible part of the Corps experience was the hazing that took place in the Dining Halls (the Messes). Ask any Corps member from the 1960’s and 70’s what his worst experience of the day would be as a freshman (or the best if you was a junior and senior), and that experience would be breakfast and or diner in the Mess Hall..

The Quad then, is one of the last remnants in the US, and the most successful, of a system of student on student training facilities for a massive citizen military that traces its origins back to the hazing and eventual acceptance, of military members into a Mess in an elevated valley in Greece populated by the oddest people ever to come together as a society, the Spartans. There are only six of these places left in the US, and none are on an integrated campus of military and non military students, except that odd little place that we used to refer to as Sing Sing on the Brazos, the Quad. The Corps at A&M stands alone in this respect, and has unique issues because of it. It is the only one where its very existence can be criticized, for example, by other students at the school, who are not members. It is the only one where its wierd fraternaty has to explain itself and why it does what it does every day, to people who call themselves the same thing at the end of the day, Aggies.

After all that, a suggestion for deriving educational value from all this drivel. Sometime, when its cooler, the football season has passed into memory, you are a little bored, can’t sleep, or you are just in a wandering mood, wander on over to the entrance to the Quad. This works best when you need to wear a couple of layers to keep from shivering and there is a clear sky. Get to the arches just before taps. Close your eyes as taps is played, and listen carefully for the sounds of an ancient, living, breathing factory shutting down for the night, resting up for the morning wakeup calls, that will start a process many thousands of years old all over again, a process that has its roots in the era of the Hoplite soldier of Greece, whose formations and traditions the Romans copied, and our Forefathers thought important enough that they incorporated into our professional militaries beginnings.

Some of you may not like the Corps, think like many that it’s about kids playing at toy soldiering, and I understand that. But I defy you to not feel some moment of pride (or at least a little wonderment) in what an odd, anachronistic student organization from the oldest publicly funded instution in Texas was able to achieve when the world trembled before two massive, technologically superior warrior cultures gone amok, and that that student organization still exists on your campus, however relevant you might think it is today. There is a link there to the beginnings of our civilization and to a drunk Aggie standing on an earthen berm on the outskirts of a 2,000 year old Teutonic village, trying not to heave his guts out in honor of the sacrifice a Roman Centurian made on a wall built at the edge of his empire.

The Aggie "Mess" was an amazing place for me, and I morn the loss last month of the best of us, and a member of our Mess, Wilbert J. Sennette, Class of 1977, who never served a day in the US Military, but who we would willingly have followed anywhere. Hullaballoo Canek Canek Wilbert, and May God Bless.


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