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Duty, Honor, Vietnam: Twelve Men of West Point.

Duty, Honor Vietnam: Twelve Men of West Point. Ivan Prashken Arbor House/William Morrow, $19.95. West Pointers in combat have always attracted an attention that is disproportionate to their numbers in the Army's officer corps. That is partially because they are an obvious symbol of the officer brethren. As Black Jack Pershing decreed in 1917, "The standards for the American Army will be those of West Point." Another reason for the spotlight is that West Pointers have so dominated the upper ranks of the Army. Although comprising only I percent of the officers in World War II, military academy graduates accounted for more than half of the division commanders and included such celebrated figures as Eisenhower, Bradley, MacArthur, and Patton. At the peak of the Vietnam war, 21 of the 30 top army officers in the war zone were academy graduates, including, of course, William C. Westmoreland, class of 1936

Prashker has tapped our fascination with the products of "that rockbound highland home" by profiling a dozen officers who fought the war and whose links to West Point permit an examination of how Vietnam subsequently affected the military academy. He is shrewd enough, however, to focus not on the commanders at the top, but rather on platoon leaders and company commanders. By describing the ties they maintain to their alma mater, he shows the war's profound impact on West Point and the Army at-large.

Vietnam was hard on West Point. Not only did the academy lose many of its cherished sons-about 300 West Pointers died in Southeast Asia-but when Americans grew weary of the conflict, their hostility inevitably was directed at the academy, as though it was the causus belli rather than an instrument of the war. The cocksure ebullience that prevailed at West Point in the mid-1960s, when instructors posted placards in their offices that declared, "War is my business and business is good," gradually gave way to a dour realization that there was very little to cheer about in this wan In the early 1970s, West Point had difficulty attracting qualified young men because of the national opprobrium toward the military. A sea-change in attitudes toward authority and toward West Point's venerated values-duty, honor, and country-led to the massive cheating scandal in 1976, in which 150 cadets were expelled, The academy's 47th superintendent, Major General Samuel W Koster, was forced to resign in disgrace after an investigation tied him to the My Lai massacre of 1968.

Prashker's group portrait shows, for a certain breed, there is no higher calling than commanding other men in the dark of night. Colonel Robert A. "Tex" Turner, currently the academy's director of military instruction, describes the unalloyed joy of being a battalion commander in the 1970s: "Christ, there I was, out in the foxholes, taking PT tests with them, walking 40-, 80-kilometer raids with them, doing all that-which I'd set up, I'm sorry to say. Goddam, it was beautiful." There are also telling vignettes about the pain of being an officer after the war had gone bad and the military profession had fallen from public esteem. Roy K. Flint, currently West Point's dean, recalls being confronted by antiwar demonstrators who held out coin boxes before a Christmas Eve service at the academy chapel in 1972. "Will you give for Vietnam?" the demonstrators asked. Flint brushed past them, snapping, "I already have '"

Yet by focusing on only a dozen men who remained in the service and are certifiable success stories-nine reached the rank of full colonel, one is a brigadier general, two are lieutenant colonels-Prashker skews his sample in a crucial and unfortunate fashion. One of the most profound impacts of the war was the way it both directly and indirectly drove huge numbers of academy graduates out of the Army. By selecting only West Pointers who remained in the service, Prashker ignores the vast segment of the long, gray line that stampeded out and whose stories are equally, if not more, compelling.

Duty, Honor, Vietnam, however, has more serious shortcomings. The profiles are disjointed, and are set in wan, prosaic terms. Prashker has little sense of scene-building and consequently few of the battle anecdotes convey a sense of vivid immediacy. While there are intriguing glimpses of the emotional ferment within some characters-as when one colonel's wife reveals that she considered divorce during the strained early years of marriage-these inner lives are seldom developed in a way that compels the reader's involvement.

Finally, in search of a unifying element to bind his dozen officers together, Prashker regrettably settles on himself. Where the author is genuinely a part of the story, intrusion is warranted and even welcome-Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie comes to mind. But in Duty, Honor, Vietnam, the interviewer-as-character is gratuitous. We are treated, for example, to an interminable account of the difficulties of catching a cab from the train station in Peekskill to West Point. On another occasion, Prashker complains about being kept waiting on two occasions while the colonel he hopes to interview is tied up in conference with a brigadier general: "Don't you know that that goddamn general had Turner in his office on the floor until almost 11:30! Zapped by the same one-star twice! I couldn't believe it, but that's a true story" Perhaps so, but unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the larger story Prashker set out to tell.

-Rick Atkinson
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Author:Atkinson, Rick
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1988
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