The New Long Gray Line

Cadets Liesl Himmelberger and Paul Thomas: ready to serve in a looming war, yet wary of ethical minefields that may await them
photo: Jay Muhlin

Dress Gray, by Lucian K. Truscott IV

One of the jarring memories of September 11 was the glory of a day that plunged so suddenly into horror. In New York it was cool and clear, a heat-wave-ending early autumn morning with a half-moon lingering in an indigo-blue sky. The day was even prettier 50 miles north of the city at West Point, where the United States Military Academy—the nation's premier training site for leaders of the armed forces—sits atop the dramatic Hudson highlands on a peninsula overlooking a scenic bend in the wide river, the same river that is believed to have helped guide the terrorists toward their Lower Manhattan target.

"It was probably one of the most beautiful days we had," recalled George Forsythe, an army colonel and vice dean for education who has spent 22 years at the academy. That morning the deans were due to address the sophomore class about their selection of a major course of study. Sophomores are called "yearlings" at the Point because they have survived their rigorous and often traumatic breaking-in period as first-year plebes. Many cadets drop out in their first year, and they aren't asked to choose a major until their second.

On 9-11, Forsythe said, West Point's leaders had to decide first whether or not to go ahead with meetings that involved assembling 1000 of the academy's 4000 cadets in one spot at a moment when no one knew how many airborne terrorists were in the skies. The academy opted to stick to its routine. A quick risk assessment was undertaken, said Forsythe, and a decision made that cadets needed to stay focused on their assignments.

"But the selection of your major takes on a whole new meaning on a day we are attacked," added the colonel. Later, there were raw emotions in the cavernous lunchroom at Washington Hall, where normally a noisy and boisterous student body gathers for the mandatory noon meal after parading in squad formation outside. "It was certainly more somber than usual," said Forsythe. "I know I had some cadets who had family in danger who were near tears." Other cadets, nervous at being all in one place, bolted their food. "You've never seen people eat so fast," said one upperclassman.

It shouldn't be surprising that even a 200-year-old college dedicated to instruction in the art of war would be caught off guard by the terrorist attack. As much as 9-11 was a shock to the system for an entire nation that hadn't endured a foreign assault of that size on its own soil since British troops burned Washington in 1814, so too did it stun the leaders-in-training of the armed forces.

Since then, however, the Point has been readying itself for service in the international war on terrorism as well as for the one that looms in Iraq, a conflict that is intended to be fought along more classical military lines. When seniors made their selections this fall of which branch of the army to enter upon graduation, so many chose the infantry (as opposed to engineers, armor, artillery, military intelligence) that more than two dozen had to be turned down because there were not enough slots, according to West Point officials.

Unlike other recent armed American excursions—Panama, Somalia, Serbia, even Desert Storm I, as it is now routinely called—Iraq is shaping up as the real thing. "We perceive we are in for the long haul," said Forsythe.

President Bush said as much right there at West Point's Michie Stadium in June in his address to the graduates of the class of 2002. Bush invoked the Point's historic role, summoned the hallowed names of graduates Lee and Grant, Eisenhower and MacArthur, and then told the cadets their time had come as well. "History has also issued its call to your generation," said the president, who went on to describe his game plan for Iraq. "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long," Bush said. "The war on terror will not be won on the defensive; we must take the battle to the enemy."

The White House tape of the president's speech reveals only modest applause for those remarks. The cadets' rowdiest moment came when Bush announced amnesty for those being disciplined for minor rules infractions. The loud cheers for the speech's politics came later in the conservative press which hailed Bush for his bold new resolve in a foreign policy certain to cost American lives on the battlefield, and possibly off it as well.

And even though the current crop of West Point cadets are at least six months away from active duty, the prospect of the coming war is all-consuming to the young men and women in attendance.  

"I think for any soldier right now if it didn't occupy their attention that would be cause for concern, particularly for an officer," said Paul Thomas, a senior and one of those who applied successfully to serve in the infantry.

Thomas was dashing to his second class of the morning on 9-11 when a cadet whispered to him that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. He got out of the class in time to watch the collapse of the towers on TV in an orderly's room. Like everyone else, soldier and civilian alike, he was struck by the audacity and callousness of the acts. He later learned that one of the victims was a hero of his, a former infantry platoon leader in Vietnam named Rick Rescorla, who was killed while working as a security adviser to a major financial firm at the trade center. Rescorla was a hero of the battle of the Ia Drang valley, the bloody 1965 fight immortalized in the book and movie titled We Were Soldiers . . . , and the year before he had visited Thomas's military history class. Thomas said Rescorla, who sang to his battered platoon as they held off a regiment of the North Vietnamese regular army, seemed to exemplify the kind of soldier Thomas and his classmates hoped to become.

"I didn't really know him personally, but the quality of the individual that that man was, to have that snuffed out, that hit me. It brought it much closer than it had been," said Thomas.

In many ways, Thomas himself is the stuff of an armed services recruitment poster. A former Boy Scout from south Baltimore, he enlisted initially in the army and was later convinced to apply to West Point. He already wears ribbons for Good Conduct, Army Achievement, and Army Commendation, as well as a Bronze Star for being in the top 5 percent of his class militarily. He is sandy haired, with a passing resemblance to a young, Opie-era Ron Howard, but with a ramrod-straight West Point bearing and a deep, self-assured voice that makes him sound far older than his 24 years.

He figured he was headed for college to study genetics, maybe become a doctor, until the military turned his head. The thrill of promised adventure was a not insignificant part of the lure. When the academy's liaison officer made a recruiting speech at the army base where he was stationed, he listened hard. "They initially got me, saying, 'We will send you to Ranger school or teach you to drive a tank.' You don't really join the army unless you have some sort of predilection towards those sorts of activities anyway."

That's about as gung ho, however, as the cadet gets in talking about the military or the prospect of going to war. The other draw for attending the academy was the prospect that if he did well, he might be sent on to graduate school, care of the U.S. Army, something the academy does for about 2 percent of its top graduates and that is an option Thomas is still considering if he keeps his grades up.

But there is little of the "let's go get 'em" attitude displayed last month by Air Force Academy cadets at a football game who spontaneously began chanting "Ready for war." In an interview arranged with West Point officials, and with a public affairs specialist for the academy listening in, Thomas was reflective and thoughtful on the war that presumably awaits him, offering opinions not stereotypically associated with the army's officer corps.

For sure, there are all the worries that any young second lieutenant-to-be, dating back to George Armstrong Custer, another West Point graduate, should have when contemplating the likelihood of war. His hands folded neatly before him, Thomas voiced those concerns as he sat at a long table in venerable, oak-beamed Grant Hall with a life-size portrait of World War II hero General Mark Clark (class of 1917) staring down at him. Will his combat skills be up to snuff? Will he give his soldiers the training and preparation they'll need to get them not just through the battlefield but back home as well?

And then there is the flip side.

"The other aspect," Thomas said, "which is often less talked about, is the fact that in going into combat your intention is to kill another human being who is somebody's son, somebody's father, husband, brother. I don't think any soldier takes that lightly. For me that has become a personal concern. I know several Iraqis and I am sure they have family back home and how would I feel walking up to them and saying, 'Yes, your brother wound up on the wrong side of my platoon. We wiped out his unit,' or, 'He died in combat and it is attributable to the forces which I am serving in.' That's almost as much a burden for me as it would be to have to write home to parents of one of my own soldiers, saying a soldier under my protection didn't come home."  

Maybe this is the new image the army wants to disseminate these days, at least to a liberal media anxious that the nation is about to be dragged into a costly and bloody conflict. But Thomas leaves little doubt that those are his genuine concerns.

If there aren't signs of overt jingoism on campus, that doesn't mean a lot of cadets aren't thinking those thoughts, he said.

"Some people, some of the junior cadets, view it as a very personal thing," said Thomas. "They say, 'We are going to roll up in the desert,' 'We are going to go get those people,' 'We should have done it the first time.' But I think as they get closer to graduation, people have a much more balanced perspective on things. They are not only concerned about going to get Saddam, but the 25 million Iraqis he governs, the effect this is going to have on our allies, on world opinion. There is much more debate than there is rabid vilification of the enemy. Any vilification is typically reserved for the leadership."

Thomas studied Russian in high school, and when he enlisted in the army he offered himself as a linguist. The army took him up on the offer but sent him to learn Arabic, which he now speaks fluently. He wasn't thrilled with the language switch but it has probably made him think longer and harder about the cultures and people of the Middle East.

"I don't particularly care for Saddam Hussein myself," he said. "Having had the opportunity to study his past history, he is not a nice man in my personal, humble opinion. But an Iraqi soldier has done nothing wrong to me. Iraqi people have done nothing wrong. It is an accident of birth and politics that they have wound up in the situation that they're in. I think that is well understood among the cadets here. Our enemy may be Hussein, who we are going to war with, but the people are a totally different concern."

That sort of thinking helped guide his decision to enter the infantry, he said. "Once I really thought about the ethics of combat, I was pleased that I had chosen to go into the army ground forces. Because I see what I am shooting at. There is a lot of personal burden in that. I see the direct results of what I've done on the field, but I also have much more control about what I hit, about what my soldiers attack. There is less quote unquote 'collateral damage' produced when you have soldiers on the field, aiming down rifles and looking at exactly what they are shooting than when you are dropping a bomb from 2000 feet. I am more comfortable with that style of warfare. It may be a little more nerve-racking, but I think I will be able to go home and sleep better at night."

If Thomas doesn't quite fit the popular image of an army officer, neither does Cadet Liesl Himmelberger, another star member of the class of 2003. An army brat, Himmelberger grew up in and around West Point's grounds, where her father was a percussionist in the military band. She has a vivid recollection of being two years old in her house on Washington Road and seeing cadets undergoing a summer training exercise racing by her window. "I said, 'Dad, I want to be a West Point cadet.' "

Women were first admitted to the academy in 1976 and today they make up 15 percent of the student body, about 500 cadets. Himmelberger was a star athlete at James O'Neill High School in next-door Highland Falls, winning triathlon competitions. She did well enough at West Point to be chosen as one of four exchange students to serve her junior year at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. She was there when the planes hit the Pentagon and New York. In class, she watched on a large-screen TV as the towers crumbled. The first reactions were simply human. "We all cried together," she said. "From that point on there was enormous security concerns and everyone was very worried about the academy being hit. Everyone was tense."

Women are still barred from direct ground combat in the American army. Himmelberger selected military intelligence as her branch, a specialty that she thinks will allow her to utilize the knowledge she has gained through her major in international relations as well as her fluency in Spanish and German. Her academic focus, she said, has been the third world—Africa, the Middle East, Latin America. "I am just trying to get a perspective on the developing world and its relationship to the U.S.," she said.  

Asked why she was doing that, she gave an answer more likely to be heard across the river at Vassar, West Point's Ivy League counterpart, than at an august military school.

"Many times in U.S. politics we overlook the values of the developing world. We don't consider them," she said, pausing to pick the word she wanted, "as active, or as equal partners with us at the table. On the playing field, we don't give them that respect, that clout. Sometimes, we look on them almost as pawns in the world scheme."

She was present for Bush's speech last summer and she listened carefully. She likes the president, she said, and while she said she doesn't agree with everything he says, she thinks he is "generally" doing the right thing. There is a prohibition on active-duty soldiers speaking out on politics, so it is hard to know if the cadets are being completely candid. But like Cadet Thomas, Himmelberger expressed herself openly about her concerns.

She said she approves of Bush's moves (made after his bellicose West Point speech) to bring the Iraq issue before the United Nations and win international support for the effort.

Separately, both cadets were asked: If you did oppose the war, would that make it harder to be a soldier?

"No," answered Himmelberger quickly. "I pledged to defend the Constitution; that's the bottom line. It doesn't matter whether I respect the party that is in power, or whether I respect any of the political leaders. My job is what it is. It is not to make political decisions. I am to be apolitical in my role. And to do my duty, without question." She then added a caveat. "Unless it is unethical, of course."

Thomas's answer was similar.

"In the planning period, I think I would probably be doing a lot more wrestling with myself. But push comes to shove, we are the servants of the elected civilian leadership. If that's the will of the American people it is not my position to question it, it is just my position to execute it as best I can and to do my best to fulfill whatever mission is assigned to me and do so with a minimal loss of life on both sides."

Like Himmelberger, however, Thomas said ethics was a guiding concern as a soldier. One of the issues that comes up in ethics discussions in class, the cadets said, is unlawful orders. The massacre of at least 500 civilians, many of them women and children, at the village of My Lai during the Vietnam War by American soldiers is a case study, said Thomas.

"There is a lot of looking at the ethical failures of the army at the time, My Lai obviously being an example of what went wrong," he said. "How can we prevent this from ever happening again? What command climate led to that event and what led to [Lieutenant William Calley] thinking that was an OK way to conduct business?

"The biggest lessons we learned in Vietnam were the ethical ones," said Thomas. For instance, one of the questions raised, he said, was this: "Is it OK to push a peasant through a minefield ahead of you because you know he knows the way through?"

Is it? he was asked.

"No, that is very, very not OK. He is a noncombatant, you are putting his life at risk, and you are forcing him to do a military task, which is not his place. Regardless of whether he knows where the mines are, regardless of what his sympathies are, he is a civilian and he is to be protected."

Colonel Forsythe said the cadets' views are reflective of the wider student body at an institution where pupils can now major in philosophy, art, or literature as well as the Point's traditional specialties of engineering and military tactics. "We are not about indoctrinating cadets anymore," said Forsythe. "We are about educating them."

Forsythe was in the West Point class of 1970, right behind writer Lucian K. Truscott IV. The grandson of another hero World War II general, Truscott graduated from West Point and then quickly got himself kicked out of the army for refusing to withdraw an anti-war article he had written for The Village Voice. He later wrote a tell-all novel about the academy called Dress Gray, which was banned at West Point. In the first chapter of that novel, Truscott wrote the words quoted at the start of this article. In the same passage, Truscott added: "They liked to think that war was their reward, the currency they were paid, cadets did."  

Forsythe still rolls his eyes a little at mention of Truscott's name. But asked if his students weren't perhaps pleased to have the challenge of a full-scale war in the offing, the colonel answered vehemently, with a conviction that probably would have been lacking in his day at the Point. "No soldier wants to go to battle," he insisted.

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