Privatizing West Point

Caution: writing and soon even saying “West Point,” “United States Military Academy,” “USMA,” or “U.S. Army” in a context a military lawyer doesn’t like could land you in trouble for infringing trademark protection.

Yes, trademark–that funny little circle with a “T” in it that corporations sometimes put behind their name, logo, descriptive picture, animation, or words that are uniquely and readily associated with their business or one of their products. And because of this uniqueness, companies use trademarks to prevent others from stealing or imitating these familiar symbols to deceive the public and damage the image and reputation of the business.

(Think in terms of your own name and how important it is to safeguard your reputation among friends, neighbors, business associates, creditors, lenders, and vendors–everyone with whom you come in contact.)

That the Department of Army (DA) had registered these words and acronyms under trademark only came to light when a small group of academy graduates who opposed the war in Iraq decided to create a web site explaining why they objected and to invite other military academy graduates, spouses of graduates, or children of graduates to join them in a strictly virtual (that is, on-line) association. The association is really a loose network of individuals; it has no dues, collects and spends no money, has no meetings. Its title, website, and email address accurately reflect who they are and what it is they have in common: military academy graduates or immediate family members of graduates against the war.

A fair question is why they oppose the war?

Over the last six weeks, eight retired generals have publicly criticized the planning for the Iraq debacle. The foundation of these objections always come back to professional practicalities–violating the principles of war, lack of imagination and foresight as to the more likely scenarios that could develop, under-resourcing the occupation force.

The founders of the group using the name of the location of the military academy along with their status (by replacing the nine “X’s” with the letters of the location and adding status gives “Xxxx Xxxxx Grads Against the War”) have a more basic critique than the generals. They believe the administration’s shifting justifications to the American public for going to war to be purposefully deceitful and completely at odds which the moral code represented by the academy’s motto–“Duty, Honor, Country.”

The letter from the academy’s Staff Judge Advocate’s office implies that DA obtained the trademark to “protect the valuable trademarks that enhance the image and standing” of the institution both domestically and internationally. Undoubtedly, given that it licenses the manufacture and marketing of objects sporting images and logos associated with the academy and the army, DA is entitled to try to distinguish authentic quality items from cheap imitations carrying the army’s “trademarks.”

But the rationale evaporates when the arena shifts to ideas and the expression of ideas, which in our system is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The image and standing of the academy rise and fall on its inherent ability (or lack thereof) to produce professional officers imbued with high moral standards (especially complete honesty) and the courage to apply those standards objectively but with considered compassion. This is exactly what the Xxxx Xxxxx Grads Against the War are calling for–and it is demonstrably opposite the administration’s record of misleading statements in the run-up to March 2003.

Moreover, unlike civilian educational institutions, the military academy is a taxpayer funded public institution that is part of the Executive branch. The academy has a responsibility to safeguard the facilities paid for by taxes and initiate reasonable measures to protect service members, cadets, and visitors while simultaneously being accessible to the general public. In short, it exists to serve the people, not the other way around.

The most damaging and damning criticism of democratic government in general and the United States in particular stems from transparent attempts to distort, stretch, and hide the workings of government behind bureaucratic barriers and obvious obfuscation. Being unable to suppress the message, the academy is attempting to discredit the messenger.

And in so acting, those responsible for the ill-conceived letter from the Staff Judge Advocate’s office have managed to make the DA and the academy appear petty–hardly a portrayal that bolsters “the image and stature” of West Point.

Daniel Smith, a retired colonel and Vietnam veteran, is a West Point graduate and a grad against the war. He can be reached at: