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Tower of Plebes

Sweat and shortening at the U.S. Naval Academy

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery is perched high on a hill, overlooking hundreds of thousands of graves. Sealed within its seventy-nine-ton, white marble sarcophagus are unidentified remains from American wars past, reverentially guarded around the clock by an elite cadre of Army sentinels. Every hour they undertake the same solemn ritual, marching in rigid twenty-one-step bursts before rotating to face each of the cardinal directions for precise twenty-one-second intervals—all to invoke America’s highest military honor, the twenty-one-gun salute. The tomb itself is fastidiously cared for, and not to be touched. A “yelling compilation” on YouTube shows guards barking at tourists who approach the sepulcher, make noise, or break other rules. On Quora, a retired sentinel shared an incident where a colleague, seeing a maintenance worker lean casually against the tomb, body checked him to the ground.

Forty miles due east of Arlington, on the coastal grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy, stands a twenty-one-foot obelisk honoring William Lewis Herndon, a fallen Navy commander. If the meticulous maintenance of the tomb in Virginia obscures war’s ugly violence, the Annapolis memorial aims to soften and celebrate sacrifice via yearly carnal desecration.

Every spring, the statue is coated in lots of creamy white Crisco. It is then enveloped by a writhing pyramid of freshmen, otherwise known as plebes. Shoeless and often shirtless, they crush their bodies against the cool granite and each other, rushing to scale the slippery monument and place a sailor’s cap on its tip. The fastest recorded time belongs to the class of 1972, which climbed the obelisk in less than two minutes, albeit without the impediment of shortening. Since the advent of grease, the climb usually takes at least two hours.

The Navy pitches this rite of passage as one in which climbing cadets come to embody the spirit of Herndon who, in 1857, helped save the lives of 152 women and children when his boat became caught in a hurricane. After sending up a distress flag and facilitating tricky evacuations onto a rescue vessel, Herndon ultimately went down with the ship. In so doing, he was, as his monument notes, “forgetful of self”—an instinct that the military rears and desperately relies on.

The Herndon climb is today considered a dazzling spectacle of teamwork, determination, and core military grit, one meant to reinforce the military’s expectations that service members commit all of themselves to the mission. “Captain Herndon’s story is one of bravery,” Yvette Davis, the academy’s superintendent, remarked after this year’s climb. “And one that says fight to the end.”

The tradition actually began as the ritualized release of pent-up sexual energy. The obelisk is located on what was once called “Love Lane,” a yard at the academy where students met women. For decades, Love Lane was only available for upperclassmen. When, at the end of their first year, plebes finally earned the right to stroll the lane and flirt, they began swarming around the monument in celebration. By 1940, the year cited as the origin of the climb, the festivities had evolved into a long awkward shimmy up the granite phallus. In 1976, females were first admitted to the Naval Academy, and now they, too, partake in the challenge, though often in supporting roles, at the monument’s base. Records show all the plebes who’ve placed the hat on top have been male.

At once a showcase of old school manliness and a vivid display of homoerotic bonding, the climb and traditions like it help top brass foster intimacy, loyalty, and cohesion—transforming fresh-faced recruits into a tribe. Many will make battlefield sacrifices simply because they love their comrades, though soldiers will perish defending any number of other things, including both military and industrial complexes. Herndon, it’s worth noting, expired not on a sinking Navy vessel, but on a commercial one known as the “Ship of Gold.” The U.S. Navy loaned him out to the ship because it deemed the 15 tons of California gold in cargo as “important for national security.” And indeed, once the ship lost power and the gold sank, it contributed to a panic in the American banking system.

Many of the plebes who participate in the Herndon climb will also be given missions that are explicitly meant to protect or expand American commercial assets. A few, like Herndon, may even be remembered for it in ways that recast their defense of capital as acts of pure public service. One big thing lacking in Herndon’s monument—and virtually all the rest—is a reckoning with complicated lessons learned from bygone wars and their leaders. One couldn’t ask for a better symbol of American conflict than an amused crowd of starch-shirted senior officers watching from afar a wrenching, haphazard hive of patriotically intoxicated young people splayed against each other in a drawn-out, meaningless mission.

Once the plebes prevail in their mad scramble, the public clears out and staffers hose down the obelisk, washing away all the sweat and shortening. Within hours, there is no evidence of what has happened, and thus no real takeaway on how to conduct the fight any better next time, the monument reverting its passive state: an immaculate idol to American bloodshed and extractive capitalism.

—Jasper Craven