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West Point axed 'duty, honor, country' from its mission statement. Conservatives fumed

Cadets salute during the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy in 2021. A change to West Point's mission statement has sparked outrage among some conservatives online.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez
Cadets salute during the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy in 2021. A change to West Point's mission statement has sparked outrage among some conservatives online.

For more than a century, three words have stood as the iconic motto of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point: "duty, honor, country."

That hasn't changed.

Here's what has: For a shorter time — about 26 years — "duty, honor, country" had also appeared in the academy's mission statement.

Then, this week, West Point's superintendent announced that the academy would modify its mission statement to drop the three-word phrase in favor of "the Army Values," a reference to a broader set of seven attributes that serve as the Army's ethos.

In a letter to graduates announcing the change, Lt. Gen. Steve Gilland wrote that the change to the mission statement would better bind West Point to the Army at large. "Duty, Honor, Country is foundational to the United States Military Academy's culture and will always remain our motto," he said.

Still, the change to the mission statement set off a firestorm on conservative social media, where pundits and some Republican members of Congress suggested that the change was a capitulation to "wokeness."

"Wokeness has completely infiltrated our military," wrote Rep. Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona. "Good Lord. Wake up America," wrote Rep. Clay Higgins, a Republican from Louisiana. "Let's hope these timeless words ... don't get translated into new Army values of Diversity, Equity, Inclusivity," wrote Ret. Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the one-time Trump administration national security adviser. (The new mission statement does not make any reference to diversity or equity or inclusion.)

On Thursday, as the hubbub grew, onlookers were left scratching their heads.

"This is a complete non-issue," said Ret. Brig. Gen. Ty Seidule, a visiting professor at Hamilton College and professor emeritus of history at West Point who was not involved with the changes to the statement. "I can't imagine why anybody would be upset about it."

Jason Dempsey, a graduate of the academy and author of the book Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations, characterized the update as a mere "synonym change."

"It's a reflection of how silly our politics are and what a lightning rod the military is in those silly politics," said Dempsey, who served as an infantry officer in deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. Speaking to NPR, Dempsey described the military as one of the last remaining public institutions with a good reputation; because of that, he said, "if people can claim a piece of it in these culture wars, then it's seen as an advantage or a benefit."

In response to an inquiry by NPR, a West Point spokesperson reemphasized that the academy's motto remains "duty, honor, country" and noted that the school's mission statement has changed nine times over the past century.

"Duty Honor Country is West Point's motto and the foundation of our culture as it has been since 1898," said Col. Terence Kelley, West Point's director of public affairs.

How West Point's mission statement changed alongside the Army itself

The academy's mission statement first took its modern shape in 1940, on the eve of U.S. involvement in World War II. West Point's leaders said then that the academy would "instruct and train the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate will have the qualities and attributes essential to his progressive and continued development throughout a lifetime career as an officer of the Regular Army."

Over the decades, as the Army shifted from compulsory service to its modern volunteer force, small words and phrases were added and deleted from the mission statement that reflected the changes.

Where originally, the academy would merely "instruct and train" its cadets, by the 1970s, it would come to also "motivate," then "inspire," them. In 1987, the "career" of service became a "lifetime" of service.

In 1998, in the wake of scandals involving racism and sexual assault that had bruised the Army's reputation, West Point's leaders declared that its graduates would be "commissioned leaders of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country."

It was that section that was substituted this week for "the Army Values," seven attributes that, in addition to "duty" and "honor," also include "loyalty," "respect," "selfless service," "integrity" and "personal courage." (The words create a sort of acronym, LDRSHIP.)

"[In my opinion], inserting 'Army Values' expands the mission," said Ret. Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who served as commanding general for the U.S. Army Europe from 2011 to 2012, writing on the social media site X. "All Americans would do well to live up to these."

The motto remains unchanged since 1898

As for the iconic motto, according to the West Point website, "duty, honor, country" was first adopted in 1898 as part of the academy's seal, which features an eagle perched atop a scroll bearing the motto, the school's name and the year of its founding (1802).

In 1962, two world wars later, the three words became legendary when Gen. Douglas MacArthur lionized them in a speech at the academy two years before his death.

"Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying point to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn," MacArthur said.

Seidule, the West Point emeritus professor, told NPR that he had no fear that the shift in mission statement might signal a loss of connection to the historic motto.

"You can't throw a shot put on West Point without hitting something that says 'duty, honor, country.' It is everywhere," he said. "So I'm not worried about that."

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.