May 28, 1976
I have a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation to study my class at West Point, the class of 1969. In a way, this grant is the ultimate nostalgia trip carried to its logical conclusion. I’ll bet you’d like to travel around the country, locating your college classmates, and finding out what they’ve done with their lives. Well, I’ve been at this just over a month now, and already I’m having problems. I have a reputation in the journalism business for moving fast and loose, and this time, my act isn’t working. But my problems say as much about the class as they say about me, so let me map the study out for you as it’s developed so far, and give you an indication of the way this thing is going to shape up.
I have spoken with about a dozen classmates. I had planned on talking to more the first month, but as it turns out, an enormous number of guys in the “Eastern corridor” are in graduate school, and they’ve all had exams, and none of them have really been free for the past month. But I convinced a few to talk anyway, and to the extent that I’ve spoken to classmates, things are going well. They’re a little tough to break through to at first. This stems, more often than not, from the fact that while at West Point I was far from an orthodox cadet, and I lasted only a year in the Army before resigning under circumstances which many would consider other than honorable. Nevertheless, once a certain barrier is passed, once they realize this project in for real, they open up. Sometimes it’s hard to stop the flow.
My initial problem is two-fold: On the one hand, I’ve total data overload from those with whom I’ve spoken. On the other, I do not feel that I have enough material to begin to develop this study in the manner I originally intended, which is thematically. As I have spoken with classmates, what I hoped would happen has happened. Certain themes have emerged and they come from the particular experiences and obsessions of each person with whom I have spoken. It’s hard to control. I Cannot predict which classmate will ooze forth with what obsession, which theme will emerge from one interview to another. The experience is both frustrating and exciting.
I want to avoid making this study a series of personality profiles, although I see certain personalities playing a large role within larger contexts. With the information I have now, I could deliver a nice, readable, and interesting profile of the experiences of a couple of guys, bouncing them off the information I’ve gotten from other interviews. But I feel this approach is essentially lame. While it is true that most Americans do not know anything about the people whom they send to West Point with their tax dollars every year, it is even more true that Americans know even less about what these men represent to the country, aside from ideals which are born before the glowing tube of the late movie playing “West Point Story,” or “The Long Gray Line.” It is perhaps one of the great ironies of modern American life that the first time most people become acquainted with the United States Military Academy, a venerable institution to be sure, is when the Academy is up against the wall as it is now. The headline on the front page of the New York Times today reads, “West Point Acknowledges Cheating is Widespread.” The Academy has become a nightly news item on the television news. Yet it seems as if something has to go wrong in order for attention to be focused on this enormously important institution, this steady, powerful force in American life. One is reminded that no one really took notice of Richard Nixon’s character until a second rate burglary was performed on the Democratic National Headquarters.
Ah, I can see I’ve begun to ramble here, and this is something you will doubtlessly encounter again as this study progresses, so you may as well get used to it. But I must make myself understood on this point: Development of the individual newsletters I do for the Foundation depends almost wholly on the number of interviews I can do. There are nearly 800 members of the class of 1969. I plan on interviewing at least 100 of them during the course of the year, in addition to doing statistical research. At this point I do not feel comfortable going forward with even my strongest idea right now, based as it would be on interviews with only a dozen classmates. This is a reluctance based on six years in the newspaper game, and 23 years in the world of the Army (I am an Army brat). Every time I think I know a hell of a lot, I interview another classmate and discover just how profound are my illusions. So, as you read my newsletters you will get to know me as well perhaps better — than you know my class. This is, I suspect, for better than for worse. Everything I write I filter through my own pock-marked psyche. You have a right to read me as well as my words.
Now that we’ve boiled this thing down to its soup-stock essence, it’s time to let you know How Things Are Shaping Up:
The most interesting theme that has emerged so far has to do with the war in Vietnam, naturally. It is extraordinary how close to the surface guilt about the war is in these guys, given the notion that most Americans would rather forget the war and the country’s involvement in it, much less one’s own. When one considers that Jimmy Carter is running around garnering votes by virtually absolving people of guilt for the war, it is all the more amazing that these West Point graduates are not only willing to admit to it, but to attempt to cope with the guilt, too. Over 50 per cent of the class of 1969 has now left active duty, and so far as I can tell at this point, the war has played a major role in many individuals’ decisions to cash in their Army careers for an ill-defined something else. In particular, the experiences of my classmates in the war as leaders, as officers responsible for the lives of others, has played a great role in decisions which have changed their lives. A kind of unfocused guilt about the war has made quite a few of them feel that they owe something to the country, that they are in debt somehow. It’s hard to tell at this point, but my raw, gut feeling is that this is a rather strong force among many classmates. It is almost as if many of them are discovering a 1960’s that they never experienced, that they are passing through what many have passed through before them, but of course it’s much deeper than that. I perceive in them an idealism which has been achieved the hard way, as opposed to an idealism which might spring from pre-conceived notions, or propaganda, or instruction, or youth running amok in the sea of adolescence. Their idealism is as powerful as the idealism of any movement I have encountered. And the truly amazing thing is that most of them feel more or less alone, without an anchor in previous experience or friendships. Decisions which they have reached, and pains which they have experienced, were suffered in silence. I’m trying to say here that growth and change are tough, not a surprising notion, but one which applies in a unique way here. It’s quite something to hear West Pointers talking like social activists, Udall supporters, for example, as opposed to supporters of Carter, who is seen as unwilling to deal with the historical weight of the war. I am generalizing here, a fault I intend to correct as this study progresses, but what the hell.
My point is the same anyway: One major theme which is emerging is that there is a powerful moral feeling in these guys which springs paradoxically from their war experiences rubbing, grating against a kind of innocence which goes back to West Point. When we were cadets, we were taught — no, preached to — that an officer is responsible for everything his unit does or fails to do. This is, ironically, a rule which was not adhered to in Vietnam (witness the uneven prosecution of the My Lai massacre), and a notion which has become doctrine in the so-called “personal growth” movement, phrased as one is responsible for everything he or she does or fails to do. There is an irony here. Whereas the West Pointers have learned that this is simply not true — in the real world, in a bureaucracy, one can got away with almost anything — graduates of “the movement” are slouching toward an innocence that never was. Anyway, suffice to say there’s really a statement to be made here, and I want my classmates to make it, not me. I need more of them to put it in their own words, so I can truthfully say, okay, America, this is what the West Point class of 1969 is about, and this is who they are. You can be amazed, horrified, delighted, or bored, but here they are, in person, for your examination. Other themes are emerging, of course, but next month, because of the timeliness of the subject, we will examine the West Point honor code. Until then, rest assured that I am perplexed, at the mercy of forces which I have only begun to understand. But I’m on the job.©1976 Lucian K. Truscott IV
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a freelance writer and author, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner. His fellowship subject is West Point Men: Attitudes and Experiences of the Class of 1969. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Truscott as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of the Foundation.