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The Long Gray Line.

Duty honor country. And coffins and grad school.

People will read this book for different reasons: soldiers for its military atmosphere, Vietnam veterans for its evocation of the war, perhaps even today's college-age readers for an idea of what America looked and felt like before they were born. It should have a special meaning for journalists. In the years since Atkinson's subjects, the cadets in the West Point class of 1966, graduated from the academy, the journalistic environment in America has changed almost as much as the military system. Atkinson's book is a reminder of one old verity that is often left out of the theorizing about the modern duties of the press. It shows that there can be tremendous power in simply telling a story-establishing characters, making the readers care about them, showing what happens next.

The writers who pioneered the standards and styles for today's nonfiction-David Halberstam, Tom Wolfe, Robert Caro, Gay Talese-have varying approaches and ambitions, but all of them understand that the first step in putting their message across is to get the reader interested in the story. Atkinson's approach is different from any of theirs, and in a way more modest. He concentrates on the story itself-"saga" is probably a better word, considering the scope of this book-without the underlying political argument that connects the anecdotes in The Best and the Brightest or The Reckoning. But Atkinson is a truly gifted storyteller, and the material he turns up is so rich that it suggests a number of messages on its own.

It's hard to illustrate the narrative power of the book through brief quotations, since its emotional impact is cumulative. As in a good novel, the characters grow more and more interesting as we watch them succeed, fail, mature, and die. In a splenetic, contrarian review for The New York Times Book Review, a former Vietnam correspondent named Tom Buckley alleged that this was a shapeless, boring heap of anecdotage. I'd be amazed if more than one reader in a thousand agrees. Three pages into the book, Atkinson gives a sample of his skill in setting scenes. His cadets have come back to West Point in 1986 for their 20th reunion. Nearly all of them have left the Army; 30 of their classmates (of the 579 who graduated) have died in Vietnam. They have gathered at the academy gravesite, and then mustered for the traditional procession of graduates across the parade field known as the Plain:

"As the Hellcats' drum and bugle corps played When Johnny Comes Marching Home' at a somber tempo, the graduates glided four abreast onto the sun-washed Plain. Led by a member of 22, the long gray line stretched for two hundred yards from oldest to youngest-'39, 56, '61, 66, '71, 76, 81. As they neared the waiting corps of cadets, the grads grew miraculously younger. Silver heads darkened, ebbing hairlines filled in, paunches flattened, stoops straightened, crow's feet pulled taut.

"Ten thousand spectators cheered."

Later, Atkinson shows us one of the characters leaning on a chain-link fence at an air base in California, shortly before departing for Vietnam:

"Less than fifty yards away, baggage handlers loaded a stack of shiny aluminum crates onto the nearest C-141. Jack could see hundreds of the boxes; one by one they glided up a black conveyer belt to disappear into the belly of the plane. Ammunition? he wondered. No, that didn't make any sense; they wouldn't ship ammo in aluminum containers. Perhaps they were missile boxes, Sparrows or Shrikes for the Phantoms at Ton Son Nhut. If so, they weren't very heavy; the baggage handlers hoisted the crates onto the belts with ease.

"Suddenly it struck him: coffins. Empty coffins. No-frills, government-issue, aluminum creels for the dead, bound for another load of mothers' sons in the mortuary at Bien Hoa."

Atkinson was lucky, if that term can be applied to what is obviously the result of many years of hard work, in choosing the group he portrays. The cadets in his class, who were juniors in high school when John Kennedy took office, entered the academy during a burst of nationalistic idealism. Douglas MacArthur had given his famous "Duty, Honor, Country" speech at West Point just before their arrival. Americans were not yet dying in Vietnam. The mood still had not completely turned by the time they graduated in 1966. But four years later, when most members of the class had finished their minimum service requirement, a full third of them resigned their commissions. (In the 1950s, about a tenth of each class resigned after four years.) By 1975, when Americans left Vietnam, only a handful of the cadets were still in the service, and the class had lost as high a proportion of its members in combat as the graduates of the late 1930s had in World War II.

Atkinson might have built an even starker historical drama if he had focused on the class not of 1966 but of 1968, which entered the academy while idealism was still high and came out into complete chaos. But it's easy to understand why Atkinson wanted to stay with this set of characters. Two members of the class of 1966 played major roles in the struggle over the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington: one helped organize the effort to build it, the other led the "black gash of shame" camp. After graduation, a number of Atkinson's cadets received Ranger training from Charles Beckwith, who in 1980 organized the doomed rescue mission to Iran. One member of the class survived combat in Vietnam, only to die 10 years after graduation in the horrific "poplar tree" episode in Korea. (When American and South Korean soldiers started pruning a tree that was obscuring their view across the De-militarized Zone, North Korean soldiers suddenly appeared and hacked the two Americans to death with axes.) Other characters in the book figured in the West Point cheating scandals, the investigation of the My Lai massacre, even the recent Wedtech racketeering case.

Few novelists or screenwriters writing about war can resist the temptation to foreshadow. As soon as you hear some poor soldier saying how eager he is to see Mom back in Kansas or how great it will be to leave the war zone, you know he's about to get it. Atkinson resists the temptation. His ability to avoid a sense of foreboding is quite an achievement in itself, since he has seen some of the characters age into their forties and knows others-the ones who died in their twenties-only through their friends' accounts. His even-handedness makes the deaths much more shocking when they occur-as they must have been for classmates and families. You really can't predict which of the young wives are about to be turned into widows and which of the high-spirited young men are about to be mowed down. I can't think of another book that gives a clearer emotional sense of what Vietnam cost. More to the Point

The toll seems especially heavy because of the nature of two of the deaths. Less than a year after graduation, a lieutenant who had been chairman of the West Point Glee Club was leading a patrol through the Mekong Delta. He got stuck in the mud and asked another soldier to pull on the stock of his M- 16 to haul him out. The other soldier accidentally grabbed the trigger and shot him to death. He was only the second member of the class of 1966 to die. A few months later, the cadet whom Atkinson describes as the most colorful and fun-loving in the class was trapped with his platoon in a doomed position on the notorious Hill 875. He managed to survive, until U.S. Air Force planes streaked overhead and dropped napalm on him. "Vietnam produced three kinds of casualties," Atkinson says, "the dead, the wounded, and the wounded who, by all medical odds, should have been dead." The most wrenching case in the book is that of a handsome young man who fell into the third category. His wife, when she first encounters him in the hospital, has no idea that the blind, seared, hairless creature beneath a blanket, "hardly more than a pile of bones," is the man she married. Their courage afterwards makes them the book's real heroes.

In a very few cases, the stories Atkinson recounts are suspiciously neat and perfect. This problem is almost inevitable, considering that there are literally thousands of anecdotes in the book, and that three of the book's main figures are (1) a man who received serious head injuries in a car crash, suffering permanent memory loss, (2) another man who, according to Atkinson, tends to see life's events in dramatically highlighted tones of good and evil, and (3) the uproarious character who died on Hill 875, who was the subject of legends while a cadet and who didn't survive to be interviewed about what really happened. One episode in particular, part of a series of "they spat on my uniform when I came home" cases, is almost certainly not true:

In the early 1970s, a number of class members who had left the Army early entered law school. Inevitably, they ran into antiwar arguments and moralizing from other students. At the University of Michigan, a woman named Claudia, married to a member of West Point 66, "was having lunch with a friend who said, 'I think anybody who went to Vietnam was stupid.' Here we go again, Claudia thought. My husband's class had one of the highest death rates in Vietnam of any of the classes from West Point,' she offered. The other woman then cited a study which reported that among the 1,200 students in the Harvard class of 1968, only two dozen went to Vietnam and none were killed.

... Well,' Claudia agreed, 'the war has caused terrible divisions, I guess.'

"The other woman smirked, Yeah, it tells you who's smarter."'

This is a potent, bitter scene, but I bet it did not happen this way. To the best of my knowledge, the only such "survey" of Harvard students in Vietnam is one I conducted informally by going through alumni directories. The figures actually concerned the class of 1970, not 1968-and, much more important, the first published mention of them was in these pages late in 1975, several years after the showdown at Michigan is supposed to have taken place.

This is just one long-shot incident I happen to know about first hand. In general it is remarkable how much material Atkinson has amassed and presented-and how clear-eyed he seems about his characters. He has worked with these people for years. He must love and care about them, but he doesn't seem to have idealized any of them, which makes them all the more convincing and important to us. Unlike Halberstam or Caro, Atkinson organizes his stories toward an emotional purpose-this is how my characters lived-rather than around an obvious intellectual theme. But his stories raise two important questions.

One concerns the connection between the American military and the public it is supposed to defend. Atkinson is, of course, concentrating on a special part of the military: its professional leadership class, which has not usually been as representative of the public as the enlisted ranks and ROTC-type junior officers were between World War 11 and Vietnam. During World War II, the infusion of new blood throughout the officer corps was a crucial source of connectedness between the public and the military, and indeed, created pressure to correct lapses and screwups the military careerists might have tried to conceal. But in peacetime, the career officer corps has never been a real cross-section of America. Even most of the cadets Atkinson describes, who chose the military at a time when "West Point Story" and "Men of Annapolis" were popular mainstream TV series, fall into three familiar categories: sons of military officers, small-town athletes, and southerners.

But the most crucial difference between the years before Vietnam and the years after, based on Atkinson's evidence, is not that the professional officer corps was more representative then, but that it was more respected. When the Army-Air Force football game was held in Chicago in 1962, thousands of young women applied for the honor of accompanying cadets to a dance-and the main complaint was that the date-selection committee was biased in favor of college girls. Through many details Atkinson reveals his cadets' assumption that even if their career took them away from the American mainstream, it would earn them America's respect, as a career in the Foreign Service or the ministry would in those days.

Readers of this magazine are familiar with the idea that America's enlisted ranks and junior officers should be drawn from all levels of American society, to give the middle and upper classes a personal stake in how well the military is run and where it is used. Ideally we should have the same goal for the officer corps. Ninety-five per cent of those who come in through ROTC, for instance, will stay in the military for the minimum term only. But among the remaining five per cent, there will be a few who never planned for a military career but, once inside, discover they like it. Leavening the military with their presence is one of the reasons to preserve or expand ROTC. (Another reason, as the sociologist Charles Moskos has frequently emphasized, is that ROTC establishes the link between performing public service and receiving benefits from the public. Moskos advocates a much broader policy of offering scholarships to students who will spend several years in the mili- tary, with the police, on nursing-home staffs, or in some other form of public service.) The career military should also open up more "lateral entry" channels, as the foreign service has begun to do, to make room for people who may have spent their twenties or thirties in business, academics, or some other career but then want to switch to the military. The rapid absorption of such people during World War 11 showed that both the military and the society benefited from the cross-fertilization. But short of this ideal of representation, Atkinson's stories show the importance of making the professional officer corps worthy of respect again. War by the numbers

Atkinson's other question probes why the professional military lost America's respect. There is no doubt, after reading the book, that the military was one of the big victims of the Vietnam war. No other group of classmates in

the country can have suffered as high a casualty rate, physical and spiritual, as the West Pointers did. But Atkinson also shows (rather than says) that the roots of many of the military's failures reached deep into the West Point tradition. Almost everything that proved to be wrong with the military's ethics in Vietnam had some connection with the values instilled at West Point. The obsession with numerical ratings and class standing is almost impossible for outsiders to believe. (Even years after graduation, members of the class were seated at football games in order of their class standing as cadets. One of the few members of 66 who stayed in the Army and became a distinguished career military leader had been near the bottom of the class, in constant danger of flunking out. In the Academy's records he is permanently listed as #529-66-the 529th-ranking member of the class. Most of those near the top of the class-rank list left the Army as soon as they could.) It's not hard to see the connection between this emphasis on numerical ratings and the body-count obsession in Vietnam-and the broader connection to the careerist emphasis of the post-Vietnam military, in which officers tried to max" their performance ratings by making no waves and pleasing the boss.

The intense hazing of new cadets, which theoretically increases their fortitude as individuals and their solidarity as a class, seems mainly to have made each year's victims eager to take revenge on the following year's class. The honor code taught at West Point clearly had an ennobling effect on some; but most of the stories Atkinson tells are of cadets trying to meet the letter rather than the spirit of the military's rules. One of the most striking illustrations, which Atkin- son passes over without comment (but which Buckley pounced on in his angry review) concerns what the cadets did immediately after graduation. They'd devoted themselves to military service, they'd heard about risk and sacrifice, their country was involved in a war-whose casualties were mounting but which was not yet as completely divisive as it would be in 1968-yet on graduation fewer than one-fifth of them volunteered to go to Vietnam. The majority applied for graduate school, specialized training, and so on. In the end, of course, most of the class members served in Vietnam and many of them suffered and died there. Still, their initial decision seems an incongruous application of "Duty, Honor, Country." (Of course, from the perspective of almost any other American university in 1966, the surprise is that as many as one-fifth were willing to volunteer.)

To answer the questions Atkinson's book raises, someone should start chronicling today's West Point cadets, seeing how they respond to circumstances entirely different from those of a generation ago: Now there are women in the corps; the Pentagon is more worried about getting into "another Vietnam" than most civilians are; there's a volunteer army whose morale often reflects its knowledge that it has been hired to do jobs its "betters" refuse to do; and the world-strategic situation virtually guarantees the U.S.'s steady retreat from its overseas bases. Someone should eventually tell that story as masterfully as Atkinson has told his.
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Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1989
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