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Memoir, Part 2

March 12, 2006

My boyhood dream was to be a West Pointer. Had I arrived at the Army officers’ academy straight out of high school or college, my view on war would have been perhaps lastingly imprinted by training and studying famous battles.

By a quirk of fate, however, I was sent to Vietnam within months of joining the Army at 19 after dropping out of college. Coming from a war to West Point created unsettling insights into both institutions.

West Point is all about indoctrination into American military traditions. I’d been in a war that confounded American expectations. As cadets paraded in spiffy dress uniforms designed in the 19th century, I couldn’t imagine how this fixation on shiny breastplates and perfectly executed march formations would be of any use in a jungle war fought by camouflaged hit-and-run raiders.

As the summer of 1964 unfolded, troubling glimpses into the future began to emerge, illuminated by my tour in Vietnam. Cadets were being trained to lead troops into a widening war in Southeast Asia that was strategic folly. For all their reading of military history, upperclassmen barking out drill formation orders were as clueless as Napoleon marching on Moscow just before the Russian winter would decimate his army.

The war these young men were being prepared to wage was also, I discovered, crafted in a monumental deception.

One July morning at West Point, an instructor shouted at the incoming class of 1968: “Listen up! Pay attention, you men! Because when you graduate, you will be leading platoons in combat in Vietnam!”

Yet, in the presidential campaign that summer, President Johnson lambasted his Republican opponent as a warmonger who would enflame the Cold War to the point of potentially triggering a nuclear war. “Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict. They call upon the US to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do,” Johnson said of Vietnam. “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

And so, I learned, the president of the United States was telling a fib.

That fib struck me as a gross misrepresentation when Johnson asked Congress in August for authorization to widen the war in the wake of the Tonkin Gulf incident. At a morning formation, an upperclassman jutted his jaw nearly into mine: “So what do you think of the North Vietnamese attacking our Navy! Boy, are they going to be sorry!” he crowed.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t believe it was likely, given that the Vietnamese on the other side were conducting a guerrilla war.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution sailed through the Senate, 88-2. At West Point, they held a war rally. Whooping cadets massed in a courtyard, as a football star and other luminaries boasted of American military prowess. A rally leader suddenly shouted at me to describe the length of Viet Cong bayonets.

Throwing my arms wide like a fisherman showing the size of the one that got away, I bellowed in the approved fashion: “That long—Sir!”

I felt trapped in a theater of the absurd. New cadets were limited in approved responses to “Yes, Sir! No, Sir! No excuse, Sir!” Abruptly, I was a poster boy for war. But, clearly, I was not called on at a war rally to deliver a lecture on “Know Your Enemy.” I was expected to whip up another whoop—as my bayonet demonstration did.

But I’d never heard of VC bayonets. Their arsenal was a mix of old French rifles, US carbines taken from our ARVN allies, grenades that sailed out of nowhere, satchel charges for midnight raids and, some GIs claimed, crossbow arrows shot into helicopters.

West Point, I realized, conditioned cadets to refight old battles, such as the American Civil War—which featured bayonet charges across farm fields. The forces they would encounter in Vietnam, however, fought a very different sort of war in mountainous jungle terrain that defeated the French and in previous eras foiled Chinese and Mongol invaders.

It dawned on me that I was being trained at West Point to ignore experience and blindly lead inexperienced troops into a morass of our own making.

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