It’s a little after seven o’clock. The sun in upstate New York has long since set over the western hills, and a steady rain is slowly turning to snow as the temperature plummets towards freezing. The towns that are nestled around this spot are quiet – their residents have returned home to huddle around fires. No one’s going outside in this weather.
Yet here on an open field the size of a large Walmart, the mood is different. Four thousand young men and women dressed in army camo are standing around a football field. In the stands, a group of students are singing – or more accurately, chanting – Christmas carols, their enthusiasm more than compensating for their shaky efforts at holding a tune. A line is forming at a hot chocolate truck near the bleachers. The football field is lined with groups of students who are packed in so close to the field that whenever a player runs towards the sidelines there is a ripple effect in the crowd as people attempt to move out of the way. The game is an annual tradition here – a flag football grudge match between the upperclassmen and the underclassmen.
I’m at West Point – the home of the United States Military Academy. The camo-clad young adults in front of me make up the corps of cadets, the future officers of the US Army. On sunny days, the site of their football game is one of the most beautiful spots in the country. To the west, tree-covered hills envelop the school, offering a cozy background for the stone-gray barracks, library, and chapel. To the east, the land slopes down to the Hudson River at a spot where the river curves its way past a series of high bluffs. George Washington realized the strategic importance of this particular plot of land early in the Revolutionary War, establishing a fort here and stringing an iron chain across the river, which successfully prevented British ships from transporting troops along the waterway.
Despite the fact that many of the cadets are only six months away from possible deployment, war now feels a long ways off. The camo is not in response to some foreign invader, it’s preparation for a more immediate foe: the Navy. “The cadets wear their combat gear all week because they’re ‘going to war’ against Navy,” a tour guide told me. With finals only a week away, this celebration is a respite from the library – a rare opportunity to let loose before returning to the strictness of military life.
On Saturday, the Army and Navy football teams will meet for the 115th time. For Army, the game is a chance at revenge after falling to their rival each of the previous twelve meetings. The recent history and the fact that the Black Knights are a double-digit underdog in the game have only intensified anticipation for the game. Rumors are floating around that the Army Superintendent – the school’s equivalent to a college president – will cancel finals if Army wins. “We’ve never seen an Army win against Navy, but we’ve heard stories about how drastically life changes if we win. You get more free time, there’s more access to parking, officers are less strict on some of the rules,” one cadet told me.
Signs of the rivalry are everywhere. On the roof of the field house, the shingles spell out “Sink Navy.” An archway over one of the central paths on campus is named the “Beat Navy Tunnel.” “Beat Navy” is plastered on posters and flags, weights and milk cartons. “It’s not just football,” a West Point alum explained to me. “We want to beat Navy in everything – soccer, boxing, basketball. I don’t know if we have a chess team, but if we do, we’d want to beat Navy in that too.”