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West Point's job

IN Washington the talk may be of arms control, and lessening the risk of war. But at New York's West Point, the site of the United States Military Academy, the training of future US Army leaders is proceeding apace and on schedule. It has been like this since the beginning of the 19th century. World tensions may ebb and flow. But at West Point the grueling, four-year course continues to turn out the Army's young officers, some of whom will be the generals of the future.

Tradition is a cornerstone of the West Point mystique; for more than 180 years, the academy has been grooming the cream of the Army's officer corps. You sense the tradition in the gray stone barracks, in the statues of Dwight Eisenhower and other famous graduates which frown down sternly on the vast greensward where the cadets parade, and in the rows of immaculately kept faculty housing.

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It is a peaceful-seeming place, commanding a sweeping view of the Hudson River; at this time of year the frosts of fall are lacing the foliage with strands of russet and red as the leaves begin to turn.

But on neighboring ranges, the 4,000 cadets of West Point learn to maneuver tanks, fire artillery pieces, and scramble on night infantry operations. Inside their classrooms they are on a strict regimen. A West Point professor says: ``The aim is to keep them busy all the time. We work them hard.'' And so there are classes on Saturdays and lots of homework to keep students occupied until lights out at midnight.

In their classes, cadets study the same philosophers and strategists of warfare whose works have been standard for years. Some at the academy wonder if there should not be some new nuances. Says one cadet: ``They're training us for a war we'll never have to fight.'' An officer says: ``The emphasis is still very much on preparation for a big war in Europe. There's very little attention paid to Central America.''

This debate goes to the heart of a larger one going on in Washington. Some believe that the Pentagon continues accumulating sophisticated weaponry necessary to deter the Soviets, but is ill prepared for the limited-scale operations that may increasingly confront the US in a world riven by terrorism. Of course, there are some new notes at West Point. Most evident is the presence of women cadets. They now make up about 10 percent of the student body. They are barred from ultimate combat roles but take the same courses as the male students and, the cadets say, get no special consideration. In fact, some say, they may even get tougher treatment than men in the first brutal year that all ``plebes'' go through. Although hazing is officially outlawed, cadets undergo a process described by an upperclassman as ``designed to reduce them to the lowest form of human life.'' From this uniform base, the cadets are re-molded into the form the Army prescribes for them.

Current seniors say the new crop of ``plebes'' gets more civilized treatment than they did. Returning graduates all say that the whole system is softer now. It may just be the disgusted view of all graduates that today's cadets have it easier than in their day.

Whatever the toughness of the four-year course, there is intense competition to get in. There are some 15,000 applications for each beginning class of about 1,500. Of those admitted, about one-third will be washed out, or drop out. Those who stay and graduate owe the Army a minimum of five years of service.

Thus day after grueling day, the ranks of gray tunics at West Point march back and forth, training traditionally as they have for years, but perhaps facing a world with perils very different from those their predecessors have faced.

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