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Rebuilding Iraq

The angst of war at West Point

They're in the army now -- head, heart and soul

By Wil Haygood, Globe Staff, 2/21/1991

EST POINT, N.Y. -- It's something else, this thing called life, this thing called youth. But you let blood spill into view and suddenly it gets hard to tell which direction the river's flowing. Edward Givens is a West Point cadet, a senior. He's got buddies hunched in foxholes in Saudi Arabia. He'd fight for his country in a minute. But listen to a cadet staring out across the future. "I remember this from my plebe year: We're managers of violence," he was told. "I'm not really a violent person," he figured about himself. He's got a handsome face. He's neatly bundled in dress grays. "When you get here, you are kind of in awe. But now you realize there's a war going on. You realize, 'I may die.' "

Some cadets have been hunched around television screens lately, watching grainy footage of POW films. The chaplain says he's never seen so many cadets joining prayer groups. They seem to be flowing from a lot of directions. That's where you'll find your long gray lines, slipping into chapel, between the organ music, squaring their souls, sitting on the hard pews.

The chaplain's middle-aged now. He's sitting in his office. His legs are crossed. His shins are showing. His shoes are unshined. Then again, the weather outside is a mess. Richard Camp came to the Point 18 years ago. "A time of transition," he says about '73. He's referring to Vietnam, and when it started to fall away; just about the time so many began to wonder if it all had been worth the climb. Some call it reflection. Some haven't found the right word for it yet. James Ford was chaplain during the '60s. He lives in Washington now. He calls Camp on the phone. It's the desert, seeing the soldiers in Saudi Arabia, a kind of deja vu, says Camp. "Calls every couple weeks."

You can while away 40 minutes or so with Chaplain Camp and not once will you hear him mention that the cadets are "afraid." Maybe the word is just too tiny. It's not a West Point word anyway. "Apprehension is higher in the corps since the war has started," he allows. "We're talking about it in sermons. The evilness of war." The chaplain has had to alter his sermons to fit the times. "I had a sermon two weeks ago. 'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.' Now, how can we be meek when we're dropping more bombs on Iraq and Kuwait than we did in all of World War II? I'm redefining meekness. As humility and strength and controlled power and controlled strength."

It is estimated that two-thirds of the Class of '90 at West Point are in the Saudi desert now. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered last year's commencement address. Powell's City College of New York, not West Point. But he got his stars just the same. "Let the old General Powell worry about the defense budgets, peace dividends and geopolitical trends," Powell told the class. He went on to tell them to worry about leading their soldiers. He also said, "In the Middle East, regimes have scarred Isaiah's prophecy and are beating their swords into missiles."

Back then, the average Joe, the average Sue, in the average American town, hadn't really yet heard the phrase "Scud missile." It hadn't yet come flying into the American consciousness. Back then, it was a little easier finding a seat in chapel.

To get here from White Plains, you hop on 684, heading north, then onto 287, then onto the Palisades expressway. The Bear Mountains begin to rise, above and away from the Hudson River. Signs warn of deer bursting from the hills. Leafless trees throw shadows across roads. If they've taken the road once, they've taken it a million times, young plebes who are nervous and eager and sweaty all at once about the place called West Point; old soldiers, because they are old soldiers. "Two miles up the road," says a man in Highland Falls, breathing morning air.

It's never been an easy place to find. The generals at the academy thought that was a fine bit of angst for the '60s marchers. Bring your tail over to West Point if you wish, but you'd better be traveling with a mighty fine road map, better know where you're going. You can get caught by darkness in the Bear Mountains. And if you do, it's best just to pull off the road and nap the night away. Of course the Vassar coeds didn't have trouble finding West Point. They were only about 50 miles away. Once some Vassar coeds came over. Back then Vassar was an all-girls school. Then, 1964 was just 1964 and 1965 just 1965: It would take time to look back and call it all the '60s. The Vassar coeds walked up on some cadets who were marching with rifles. They placed dandelions in the barrels of the rifles. Then a strange thing happened. Conversations began, low chatter, and then the two groups struck up conversations and went walking away together. Dave Palmer, superintendent of West Point, gets a kick out of recalling the story. But then his voice will change timbre, and he'll get to remembering that the place could be grim. "Hardly a week when there wasn't a funeral here," he says. Of course the West Point cadets on campus now weren't even born during the Vietnam War. Those who were, were babies. By then, Nixon was bringing the troops on home. LBJ was on his Texas ranch, fighting ulcers.

You come in on a tight road. Myth is everywhere. That's Jimmy Stewart's flat American voice narrating the West Point film down at the museum in the center of town. The film shows footage of wars, of West Point cadets turned to generals, Eisenhower and MacArthur and Patton. The proprietor of the toy- soldiers store says that a couple months back, when public TV ran its acclaimed documentary on the Civil War, war buffs were coming in, crying for anything he had on the Civil War. Now they want Mideast mementos, pictures from the desert, soldiers in desert gear. He's trying to fill the requests.

Up at the academy, the Vietnam vets are deskbound now. When the war began to rage, some wanted to bolt to the desert. Time weaves a tight web. Muscles know better. Some thought twice about bolting. "Too old and too ugly," says Col. Bob Lenz. He's dressed in khaki green. He mans the Desert Storm Information Center here at West Point. "Two days after the war started we decided we needed a place to set up some of this stuff," he says. It's a room in a basement building. There are maps on the walls of Saudi Arabia, strategic location points penciled in red, pins trailing troop movements. There are some books on a table. "Background Readings Vol 1 Strategic Situations, Iraq, Persian Gulf" and "Background Readings Vol II Iraq Order of Battle, Weapons, Tactics." Cadets get out of class and come here and just look and read.

Lenz arrived at West Point in 1963 from a place called Mankato, Minn. After graduation he got shipped right to Vietnam. Did battle up along the Cambodian border. First time he ever held a soldier in his arms, bleeding, dying, guts everywhere, well, he says he still hasn't forgot the moment, the time of day. He's 47 years old and the deputy director of the department of military instruction. A nation's mood has changed, he says. "It was more frustrating from our standpoint," he says about the Class of '67. "We were also watching people massing on the George Washington Bridge. Now you see people massing, saying, 'Support the troops.' " He's a wiry man. He's leaning back in a chair. He grew up and matured in the Army. "At a place like this, you would not stand up and say count me as an antiwar advocate. There is no voice for a student newspaper. Is it stereotypical? Sure is. Is it pro-Army? Sure is." Then he leans forward, and he's bringing something out of a worn leather wallet. It's a photo of Penny Lenz, West Point, Class of '90. She was into chemistry and chemical warfare. She's in the desert. He's been going home, looking over the mail every day. "Mail's slow I guess." His wife looked at him not long ago and said, "I sent one husband to war. Now a daughter." He says he worries about his daughter, "as a father, not as a soldier." The supposition being she's West Point trained. She'll hold her own. Lenz would like to close the book on wars. It might be easier to drain the Hudson with a teaspoon. "Truthfully, I wish I could just teach it from my Vietnam years. It doesn't work that way."

When the winter vacation ended, Lenz says, and the cadets returned to campus, they showed a greater interest in their military war classes. "They didn't want to go out in the hall for their breaks. They had questions to ask," he says. "Type of question they ask is: Will the war still be going on at the point they get there? We can't answer that. Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf can't answer that."

This is what the 1956 yearbook says about one senior. "Norman H. Schwarzkopf A-1 Maplewood, N.J. Honor Military School Camp. Schwarzie's far flung travels from New Jersey to Iran have made him a connoisseur of life. His afternoons at West Point were filled with soccer, tennis, and wrestling, an excellent competitor in each. His genial personality has won him many friends. His spirit is his greatest asset and will assure him success."

Crew cut was the fashion of the day. "Schwarzie" also had sideburns. "Schwarzie," of course, is the allied commander of the US-led military effort. He's big and burly. He says he doesn't want a war, doesn't like war, but he's over there to take care of business.

Things have come to the fore in Ed Ruggero's writing class, called Literature in Leadership. "You can talk blithely about making sacrifices for your country when there's no war going on," he says. "You're in Saudi Arabia," he began one recent day's instructions to his cadets. "Write a letter to your family, a persuasive letter, telling them that you knew what you were doing when you joined the Army."

Gray brick is everywhere. So are cadets. There are 4,400 of them here at West Point. They carry huge chemistry books. They salute officers coming around corners, through the fog, through the rain, switching their big books to the other hand and drawing the free hand up to the forehead to salute. They rise in the mornings. Someone has already raised the flag that will let the cadets know what uniform to wear.

Some cadets look like seniors, confident and steady. Some look wet behind the ears. Everyone knows how to aim a rifle and knock a target down. And that includes those wet behind the ears. All that happens in the summer of plebe year, military training, rifles and gas masks. That's when, says Chaplain Camp, some of them will come to him, sitting outside his office, hands on laps, wanting to talk. " 'I'm not sure I can do this,' " he says they tell him.

By the fifth week they should know what West Point is all about, says Terry Dempsey, chaplain's assistant. "They should no longer be naive if they came in naive." Soldiers in the desert, West Point grads, sometimes call Dempsey up on the phone. Over in the desert, courage can become a puny, indecisive thing. A missile flying across the sky doesn't stop for courage. Over there, "you don't feel quite as immortal as you do back here," says Dempsey.

You have until the beginning of your junior year to decide whether to remain the full four years at West Point. That's the last moment you can get out without incurring the five-year military commitment West Point graduates must meet.

Camp says some are calling "to give farewells, saying, you know, just in case I don't come back . . ."

"Serious reflections," says Dempsey.

"Moves you to tears," adds Camp.

Cadets have been writing letters. "To Any Soldier." They tell them to hang in and they write about differences between America in 1966 and America in 1990, flag burning and flag waving. Everyone's chipping in. "I just sent 800 of my comic books," says Eric Abondadi, wolfing down a lunch. They've got 35 minutes to eat. You come to West Point and you learn how to move. "When something like this happens," says the junior from Ardmore, Okla., "it confirms to me this is no game. Proves to me there will always be soldiers. I'm not going into a dead-end profession."

David Walker, a senior and a Californian, joined the Army out of high school. He wanted to fly jets. It didn't quite work out that way, and after three years in the Army he got an appointment to West Point. "It's what we've been trained for," he says about war. "You go do your job, do your best." He wants to go to the 82d. The 82d is kicking up dust this very minute. They'll be the first, on the ground, to come face to face with Hussein's army. "It's a highly respected unit," he says of the 82d.

In the desert, the verbal equivalent of a slap on the back is "Good to go." Here at West Point there are various versions. One is "Go circus."

"Go circus," Walker's regiment yells at the end of lunch. Then they're off, out into the cold air, between the gray brick buildings.

These days the seniors are getting their marching orders. Graduation is May 30. They'll know this week, matter of fact, where Uncle Sam will send them. "We used to talk about it a lot before it happened," Chris Hart, 21, from Westwood, says about the war. Hart used to box. He's got trophies and press clippings. He went down to New York City a while back and pummeled some kid in the ring. But now he imagines infantry. "I'd rather stay with the troops." He's tried to put it all into perspective, to rewind history's tape. He recalls the country's mood swings with the Vietnam War. "We'd go over there, beat up on 'em, and get out of there. It didn't work out that way."

Eric DeJong knows he's got one foot in the chapel: He'll marry his sweetheart after graduation. But he might have another foot in the sand. "When I decided to come here," says the 22-year-old DeJong, from Whitinsville, "I was hoping there would be no war to go to. But I knew the possibilities." Some days the career in the Army, 20 years is a career, sounds all right to him; other days the mandatory five-year hitch sounds about right. "They're looking to downsize the Army," he says. "They're looking to lose a certain number of people." He might lose his fire for the 20 years that would mark a career. Then again, it might spread in him, head to toe. He doesn't yet know. "Most people I think would agree it's a good cause. We think it's a moral thing to do, help Kuwaitis get their country back," DeJong figures. "I don't think it's wrong we're there, but if it turns out to be a mess, it's going to be mostly Americans dying."

Women first arrived at West Point in the summer of 1976 and first graduated in 1980. Some West Pointers doubted the move, made complaints. But women came and graduated and the mountains didn't move. "This is not a college. We knew it would happen someday," Jami Stanley from Missouri is saying about the Saudi conflict. She's a 20-year-old junior. She's wearing a varsity sweater. "Nobody wants to go to war. I've got no qualms." Her major is environmental engineering. "Women should definitely fight. I don't think women should be in the infantry. Girls talk about what we're going to be doing over there. Everyone's afraid. Everyone's afraid of war. If not, they shouldn't be in the Army. Once you lose your fear, you get stupid."

There might not be a student voice on campus, but there is a kind of underground voice. Cadets will turn on their computers and send messages back and forth. They can vent emotions. "There's discussions going on now, whether nuclear warfare in the Iraqi trenches is moral," says Kim Ashton, a senior from Williston, N.D. "There's opinion on both sides. Some cadets are saying it's not moral, because you got generations coming after." Kim's bright, one of the academy's stars. She's rowed on the crew team for two years. "I've had a lot of mixed emotions about it," she says of war. "It's scary. We haven't faced anything like this before. It's also exciting. If I'm deployed, I'll be ready. I'm anxious." Some thought the next conflict might be Korea, maybe Latin America. "We're picking our branches now, seeing who'll go to the front lines first. The professors are calling us cannon fodder. There's a kind of macabre humor to it."

Back then, no one could tell that the bony soldier from Arkansas who arrived at West Point in 1899 was going to be something. He graduated at the head of his class. He was young and he already moved like an experienced soldier. He excelled in the Russo-Japanese War, became head commandant at West Point in 1930, the youngest commandant ever at the time. When he was named commandant, Douglas MacArthur shook up West Point. He wanted more humanities courses to go along with the engineering. Sharp swords were fine. Engineering was fine. He just thought poetry and literature might open other eyes, too. He became a World War II hero. President Truman thought he was arrogant and defiant and demoted him for not following orders. He became a presidential contender in 1952, but the nod went to another general, another West Pointer, Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1962 MacArthur returned to West Point. It was summertime. Leaves would have been on the trees. He was the old soldier then. "The long gray line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country." In his last years in life, he had to hear the echoes of the anti-Vietnam War protesters. He died in 1964. The Vietnam protesters hadn't yet formed their own army.

"In '66 there was no cynicism," recalls James Hayes, sitting in a well- lit office. "As I recall, negative connotations started after the Tet offensive. In '66 when we graduated our eyes were wide open about getting involved. I think you have that same attitude in '91. Our country is more committed to this war than any war we've been to in my lifetime. If they called me up and asked me to go, I'd be gone. My wife knows that." When Hayes, who's done two stints in Vietnam, who was Class of '66, was a student, Schwarzkopf was his mechanics instructor. He wasn't yet anyone's Stormin' Norman. Hayes is in charge of about 1,100 cadets here at West Point. Last summer the 101st battalion came up from Fort Campbell, Ky. Hayes used to command some troops there. Every summer soldiers come up to help cadets in training exercises. The 101st didn't stay long. "They got deployed," says Hayes, to Saudi Arabia.

Right when the deployments began, the West Point administration began thinking what kind of effect it all might have on West Point. "What war does is it causes everyone in America to reflect on why we have an Army. We have an Army only to fight our country's battles," says Dave Palmer, superintendent of West Point. "Something like this has a positive benefit. It helps us to remember why. We're here to go to war. What's happened since Vietnam is we've been very stable. No draft. Panama and Grenada were very quick. This has caused us to reflect on the nature of the Army." He says this year's recruiting class has been "equal to or better than in years past."

He likes the public mood and understands why, so far, the war is supported. "There are no bodies coming back -- yet."

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