Monday, September 7, 2015

Other Ways to Celebrate the End of Summer Encampment

The Plain in 1828
United States Military Academy plebes have marked the end of the summer encampment with a huge nighttime pillow fight. The fight is considered a "harmless way to blow off steam and build class spirit." A West Point spokesman said the annual fight is organized by first-year students as "a way to build camaraderie after the summer program that prepares them for the rigors of plebe year."

However, this year's fight was anything but "harmless" fun when some plebes took things a step too far. Instead of pillowcases filled with foam padding, some took off their "protective" helmets and placed them in their pillowcases. The hardened pillowcases resulted in split lips, broken bones, dislocated shoulders, and unconscious students. The pillow fight turned into a brawl that injured thirty cadets of which twenty-four suffered concussions.

The fight was monitored by upperclassmen who "allowed the spirit activity to occur out of the desire to enhance the spirit of the class." The upperclassmen took “mitigating measures” to prevent injury, including requiring cadets to wear helmets.

Summer camp on the Plain, 1907
West Point cadets had mixed reactions to the injuries. While some saw the injuries as part of a military rite of passage, others considered the injuries as a lack of judgment and restraint. 

What is regrettable here is that a West Point tradition may be ending because the plebes did not know when to stop. Having been involved in a few pillow fights, I can understand what happened. The "mock physical contact" can easily get out of hand and transition to more competitive, violent battles.   
I believe the saddest part of the incident was a failure on the part of students and future officers "to make good decisions and follow the rules."[1]
Cadet tent during
summer camp, 1905
My suggestion is to consider the ways that summer camp ended in 1840. The encampment ended with two rituals. The first was the grand ball where cadets and plebes had the opportunity to demonstrate the skills they learned dancing with each other. The second event was the striking of tents the following morning. The cadets gathered around the floors of their tents with clubs and brooms. Two cadets grabbed each corner of the floor. On a signal, they picked up the floor to release thousands of rats. Then, to the screams and cheers of delight, the cadets attacked the scurrying rodents and slaughtered as many of them as possible.[2]

[1] Philipps, Dave, "At West Point, Annual Pillow Fight Becomes Weaponized," The New York Times, September 4, 2015.
[2] Register of the Officers and Cadets of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York, June, 1840, 5. 

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