Ceremonial events have meaning. That is why they are largely ceremonial. They connect us with our past and provide, at least to an extent, the promise of a future. (If there were not a predictive value for future experience, then participation in a ceremonial act would be largely insignificant, an exercise in nostalgia at best).
Ceremonies also require sacrifice, and sacrifice is (at least it should be) viewed as a forward-looking act.
I, like both of my girls, are hunters. We harvest meat from the field. We take protein from the environment and incorporate that protein into our bodies. In a sense we become the animals we take. Yet, success is not guaranteed. That is the point of “hunting”. So when we are successful, we “sacrifice” some of the protein we have accumulated and give it to other hunters. (I also typically make a sacrificial offering to Artemis herself… keeping my ancient pagan roots intact). This “sacrifice” has self-serving value. We “bank” protein into the bodies of fellow hunters with the understanding that when they are successful in the hunt, and we are not, they will “bank” their protein in us. Some might see this as a form of socialism and, I suspect, that at some level it is, but it is not done by force, or by the imposition of a third party. It is done because we know the future is uncertain, but that there is certainty of a future. If there was no concept of a future, then the “banking” would be irrelevant.
I suspect that many of our societal problems are based on this lack of self-awareness of future existence… but I digress.
The act of giving meat has ceremonial value attached to it. Ceremonies are important.
At West Point the Corps of Cadets is divided into four classes. In civilian schools they would be called freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. At West Point the cadets are called respectively Plebes, Yearlings (Yuks for short), Cows, and Firsties.
In civilian schools most of those who want class rings typically get them upon graduation. West Point is a bit different. There is a reason for this. Plebes at West Point are the functional equivalent of Privates in the regular Army. Yuks are Corporals, and Cows are Sergeants. Firsties are different. As a Firstie, the cadets are considered “Cadet Officers”; in a sense, they really are. Most Firsties take on Officer leadership roles within the Corps of Cadets: some are Platoon Leaders (doing essentially the work of a 2LT in the regular Army), some take on more responsibilities as Company Commanders, and some even become regimental leaders. (This year’s 1st Captain… the absolute top Commanding Officer of the entire Corps of Cadets is Lauren Drysdale, who hails from Newport Beach… which is kinda cool.)
Since the Firsties are now Cadet Officers, they wear their class rings. These rings are presented in a ceremony and the wearing of the ring is ceremonial in and of itself. On one side of the ring is the crest of West Point; on the opposite side is the crest of the class. While they are cadets at West Point they wear the ring with the crest side pointing to the left… closest to their hearts. Upon graduating (and commissioning as Second Lieutenants), they turn the rings around and wear the West Point crest closest to their hearts.
The rings themselves are ceremonial. Each year the families of Old Grads (That is what former officers, who attended West Point, are called immediately upon graduation) return rings to West Point when the Old Grad has passed. These rings are then melted down and the gold is incorporated into the current year’s rings as they are minted. Molecules from Patton, MacArthur, Bradley, and Schwarzkopf are intermingled with each current cadet. There is a direct linkage from one to the other throughout history. This is part of what is referred to as “The Long Grey Line”. A recognition that all of the cadets, stretching back to the founding of the United States Military Academy by Thomas Jefferson, form a chain of continuity in protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States.
Like I said, though, ceremonies have an aspect of sacrifice embedded in them. The returning of the rings represents a sacrifice, the time spent in the August heat receiving those rings represents a sacrifice. Parents traveling from (literally) all over the world to be in attendance at West Point to witness their young cadets receiving those rings represent a sacrifice. And “sacrifice” is only relevant if there is a future.
Each of those cadets wears a ring that is a link in that “Long Grey Line”. But they are not the end cap. Others will come after them. Someday… hopefully many, many years in the future, rings of the class of 2023 will be returned to West Point by respectful family members mourning the loss of their grand warrior who has laid down arms to join his or her comrades beyond the hill. Those rings, too, will be melted down and a new generation will wear them as they prepare to enter the noble profession of arms.
One of the takeaways from standing on Trophy Point, overlooking the Hudson River along with Sandy and watching the Firsties receive their rings, is seeing how far they have come. The class of 2023 is a smaller version of itself than it was on R-Day three years ago when they were “New Cadets” saying goodbye to their parents to begin their 47-month experience. Some left the Academy on day one. Others fell out of ranks during their Plebe and Yuk years for one reason or another.
Those who remained are passionate, committed, and hardened. They have matured, both physically (it is amazing what three years can do to someone in their late teens) as well as mentally. They stand taller. They have a swagger. That swagger is not something that has been given to them. It is something they have earned. They have flourished academically, and they have flourished physically. The military exercises at West Point are extensive and physically demanding. Many of those programs have failure built into the equation. Every one of the Cadets got to West Point because of exceptional academics and physical prowess. That has been tested, and tested again, until they have failed. Learning how to deal with failure, and stand back up again, is one of the key teaching objectives at the military academy.
Our country is in the midst of a cultural upheaval. Our Constitutional principles, and our commitment to the Constitution itself, is being threatened by factionalism. True enough, this has spilled into the military academies as well (though not to the extent that is generally reported… still at a lesser level, it is there). Yet, regardless of the trials and tribulations that threaten the Republic, there still remains a constant… The Long Grey Line continues, uninterrupted, to grow link by link.
It is all too fitting that a ceremony, a sacrifice, an offering, is part of the process.