October 4, 1976
Denver, Colo. — At this writing, more than 50% of the West Point class of 1969 has resigned from active duty service in the Army. The class had a five year service obligation after graduation, and on June 4, 1974, many resignations which had been filed in advance took effect. Already, some two dozen 1969 graduates had resigned, or had been separated from the Army for political reasons — among them, opposition to the war in Vietnam, and opposition to the regulation which required attendance at Chapel at the Military Academy. The class also had five conscientious objectors, including the first in United States history, and one deserter in Sweden, the only West Pointer known to have deserted the Army. Clearly, 1969 was an extraordinary class. No West Point class has had a greater percentage of resignations, and no class has shown more political activism. Yet, ironically, members of the class of 1969 were in great demand for the choicest assignments in the Army — command positions in combat in Vietnam, generals’ aides, and staff positions normally held by officers of higher rank. One classmate was interviewed for (and turned down) eleven offers to be a general’s aide, historically an important step on the success ladder in the Army.
Though the classes of 1966, 1967, and 1968 all have resignation rates above 30%, the previous record for resignations was held by the class of 1945, the class that just missed duty in World War II. In the 18 years following 1945’s service obligation, 24% of the class resigned previous to the date they could have retired with accrued benefits. Over 50% resigned in two years versus 24% in 18 years? What’s going on with the class of 1969?
Indeed, the first question I am asked by classmates in my travels around the country is invariably: Who’s out, and who’s still in? It is impossible to generalize, and since I am still gathering statistical data comparing resignations with class standing upon graduation, branch status (Infantry, Armor, etc.), the only logical comparison to do at this point is between individuals, two who have resigned, interviewed here, and two who have opted to stay in the Army, upcoming in my next newsletter. This is an important area in my study of the class of 1969 — important to the class because everyone is curious as to why our resignation rate is so high, and important to the Army and ultimately to the country, because it brings into sharp focus an issue which the Pentagon would just as soon see disappearing over the nearest hill: the cost-effectiveness of the service academies when it comes down to the bottom line, producing career officers.
In recent years, the Naval Academy and Air Force Academy have experienced difficulties keeping their students in uniform for the four years they spend at the two academies. A “normal” resignation rate for an academy class — and this applies to all three major service academies — was about one-third over the four years a class spends in gray or blue. West Point resignations have fluctuated upwards slightly over the past few years, but in general, one-third is still an accurate figure for the Military Academy. Both Navy and Air Force have suffered classes with resignation rates in excess of 40%, and one year, Air Force lost more than 50% of its graduating class. These figures, and the increasingly large number of resignations of young Academy graduates have precipitated Congressional interest and a General Accounting Office (GAO) study which attempted to examine not the “why” of the resignation problem, but its cost to the taxpayer. This story was picked up by the newspapers and television news, and for a week or so, heretical tones sounded from the tongues of certain liberal Congressmen and Senators. If it was true, they asked, that the military academies appeared to be failing in their missions to produce career professional soldiers, then why not scrap them in favor of the more economical ROTC programs on college campuses across the nation? Never mind that these legislators doubtlessly voted for every piece of defense legislation which could generate a defense industry in their state or district, and never mind that collectively, the Congress has produced the largest defense budget in the history of the country ($104 billion). The time seemed right to assuage taxpayer complaints by attacking the military establishment where it lives, by going right for the jugular, its service academies.
And why not? New questions about the Military Academy and its sister institutions were on the rise, with cadets appearing before Congressional committees, testifying about a cheating ring which allegedly encompasses more than half of the class of 1977. And now there is the matter of theft at the Air Force Academy, pot-smoking at Navy…What could be next? A pregnant Plebe? A cadet transsexual? One can almost hear teeth grinding up the Hudson at night, as the Superintendent slumbers, wondering what in God’s name the morning will bring.
Little known, but much talked about, is a Pentagon study of the resignation problem, which is said to attempt an exploration of the difficulty the service academies and military services have had hanging onto cadets and graduates alike. I have yet to put an eyeball on this report, but it must make for a fascinating read, for the likes of me to hear so much about it. (If legally Available for distribution, I would be happy to see a copy of this report and would, of course, protect the confidentiality of my source, if desired). It is a mark of the anxiety which must cloud the corridors of the Pentagon that such a study would be undertaken in the first place, for what if — heaven forbid — the experts produced a downer? What if the liberal mumbo-jumbo is right, that the service academies have outlived their usefulness to the nation? Only eight percent of all Army officers, for example, are West Pointers, and if resignation rates of West Point graduates continue the trend begun with the class of 1966, and topped off by the class of 1969, the historical eight percent figure could drop, and what then?
What indeed? The eight percent of the Army officer corps represented by West Pointers produces 40% of the Army’s general officers, a lopsided child of a promotion system some have said is controlled by the mythical “WPPA” the West Point Protective Association. This imaginary structure is said to insure that West Pointers get first shot at all the good career slots to be had in the Army, so that West Point career profiles invariably stand out when promotion time rolls around. But with fewer and fewer West Pointers around to protect each other, the power of the legendary WPPA could break down and leave Academy graduates at the mercy of “non-grads,” the very folk who have resented the apparent power of the Academy through the ages.
All of this is of course a lengthy preamble to my own examination of the resignation phenomenon within the class of 1969. At this point, I guess I’ve talked to better than 100 classmates, and of that number, about half were still in the Army, and half were out. Certain interviews stand out, for reasons which will become obvious.
The Reluctant General
Bill Taylor (3rd Regiment) was my high school class president, senior year at Mount Vernon High School, in Alexandria, Virginia. His father and my father are West Point classmates (class of 1945). He stood near the top of our high school class, and when we graduated, seven of us went to service academies, six to West Point, one to Air Force. It was a national record, I believe. It was 1965, and we were the golden boys of our high school class. Mount Vernon, 1965, would produce combat leaders in Vietnam, and later, generals. Bill Taylor would be among them. Everyone knew it.
Everyone in our class at West Point knew it, too. Right from the get-go, he was a natural born leader, one of those quiet guys you could count on when things got sticky and ugly. We were in the same Beast Barracks company, in different platoons. One’s vision was a mite limited as a Plebe in the hot summer of 1965, and it was almost impossible to see beyond the confines of one’s own squad, much less all the way over to another platoon, yet Bill Taylor stood out.
When it comes to stuff like this, I have one of those nearly photographic memories — I say near, because certain scenes stick in my mind as if they were images on celluloid. I remember Bill Taylor in Beast that year because once we were on a 20 mile march under full field pack with weapons, and the march had been laid out so all we did was struggle up one goddam hill, only to pound our knees and ankles and hip sockets into raw pits of pain on the way down. We were on one of those hills, and somebody had dropped out in a platoon ahead of mine. When we caught up, there was a classmate in a heap on the ground, there were two upperclassmen haranguing the guy to get up and move out, and there was Bill Taylor at the kid’s side, taking his rifle, and with gentle urging, getting him on his feet and tearfully up the hill. Taylor was a quiet guy, almost a reluctant leader, it seemed to me. It took something from outside to move him, to make him exert the power he, as a leader, was capable of wielding over others. The rest of the time he studied a lot, and you didn’t see him or hear from him much. At the end of Beast Barracks, he was sectioned into company F-3, and I into D-3, so we ended up in the same battalion, same regiment. Our companies were fierce, often bitter enemies on the fields of friendly strife, intramural sports competition within the regiment. At those times when we met in intramural competition, Taylor was single-minded in his determination to win, yet his competitive fervor never caused him to lose his sense of humor, his realization that after all, it was only a game.
The powers-that-be at the Military Academy noticed Taylor, too. They had no choice. Taylor’s prowess as a leader was communicated to the officials who ran the Academy through the complicated and often unfair “aptitude system,” the rating system by which one’s classmates and cadet superiors rated every cadet in each class within each company, top to bottom, number one to number 40, say, several times each year. This inexact process, similar to the Army’s “efficiency report” system which bureaucratically controls Army promotions, was capable of identifying generals-to-be, the Bill Taylors, early in the game. By the same token, it was open to savage abuse, with cadets in a company ganging-up on one or two cadets and virtually running them out of the Academy because of low “aptitude” ratings.
By the time we were seniors, Taylor and I were once again in the same Beast Barracks company, this time with Taylor assigned to be company commander, and me as one of three platoon sergeants. As Taylor explained to me recently, he wasn’t sure he wanted the job. The idea of being in charge of some 200 Plebes for the first month of their cadet training was frightening, even repulsive. The possibilities of failure on one level or another were great, and the rewards, he supposed back then, hardly seemed worth the risk. This was not the first time I had noticed Taylor’s reluctance to lead. His was a reluctance born of the self-doubt we all had at age 21, yet somehow in Taylor, it ran deeper. He seemed afraid of power, applied directly, man-to-man, the way it would be in Beast Barracks. Perhaps he was even then the wisest of us, in touch with Lord Acton’s warning that “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Never again would any of us experience the almost complete power we held over those Plebes, and yet all I can recall is my own elation at the prospect of running 40 guys for 30 days. Maybe Taylor remembered our own Plebe year, when several classmates tried to commit suicide. Maybe he knew better than I, better than all of us, that at the perfectly impressionable ages of 17, 18, 19, the Plebes were clay and we were imperfectly trained sculptors, and we held the knife of absolute control over each of their waking moments in our young hands.
So as we prepared for the first 30 days of Beast, Taylor seemed once again the reluctant leader. I wondered what it would be like working under a guy who seemed as unsure of his own position as I thought I was confident of mine. Then late one night, just before the first day of Beast, Taylor held a meeting of the company detail, all the upperclassmen who would serve under him. In quiet, sure tones, he laid out his philosophy. Ours would be a tough, yet low-keyed company. We would work the Plebes hard, but when it was time to relax, there would be no harassment. Nobody was to be a “good guy,” or a “buddy” to the Plebes, and by the same token, nobody was to serve as “Mr. Hardass.” His philosophy worked. We had a tough, good month. Once we got lost on what should have been an easy company march. Instead of considering the faux pas a disaster, as a threat to the reputation of himself and the company, it became a running joke. We thought we were hot stuff, and we got lost. So what?
Taylor and I were as close as we would ever be that month. We used to get together late at night and talk about problems we were having in the company. In fact, when I talked with him recently, he remembered me as “one of my platoon leaders.” I had to remind him that I had been a platoon sergeant, the bottom rung on the ladder for seniors. Yet even to the extent we were close that month, even today, I cannot adequately explain Taylor’s seeming reluctance to lead, with such a talent as he must have known even then he had on tap. I guess I understand it in one way: In comparison to my own experience. Leadership was for me one of the most profoundly gratifying experiences of my life, but down deep, it scared the shit out of me. Always in the back of my mind there was the suspicion that I was gifted with a trait too easily abused, something closer to the secret workings of the Devil, than to the innate goodness of God. So maybe Bill Taylor seemed reluctant as a leader for good reason. Maybe he sensed something none of us then knew. His experience as an officer in the Army points in that direction.
Later that year, Taylor was appointed battalion commander, and at the end of the year, served as regimental executive officer, two of the highest positions one could hold as a senior. He was president of SCUSA, Student Council on United States Affairs, an annual international affairs discussion forum to which some 160 colleges sent delegates. When we graduated, Taylor went Infantry, one of the guys with the highest class standing to do so. (Normally, the guys at the top of the class take Engineers, or one of the branches with the possibility of plusher assignments than the lowly Infantry, to which the bottom fifth of the class would be mandatorily sent, due to a branch quota system for West Point classes). Bill Taylor became an airborne ranger. He went to Vietnam early, and he stayed for 18 months. When word about the class leaked back to me at my desk at the Village Voice, invariably it would include mention of Taylor, who was “on the escalator.” He was going to be a general one day, no doubt about it.
When he resigned from the Army in July, 1975, it shocked the class. There was, in fact, a letter writing campaign initiated by guys still in uniform to try to convince Taylor to stay in. But his mind was made up. In the Fall, he entered the Public Policy School at Harvard, from which he will graduate in 1977 with a Masters degree. When last I saw him in Washington, D.C., at a class party, his hair was longer than mine, an attribute which did not go unnoticed by those in attendance. What had happened to Bill Taylor? There were whispers, and occasionally the direct question. Why had one of our superstars dropped the guidon, grown long hair, and headed for the liberal academic hills of Harvard? I questioned Bill Taylor about his decision to resign after he wrote me a letter and said it was about time we got together to compare experiences over the last six or seven years. I went up to Harvard where Taylor was in residence in a closet-sized grad-student dorm, and we talked for hours. He was not only forthcoming, he positively spewed forth what amounted to his beliefs in, and disillusionment with, “the system.” To a large extent, Taylor’s experience parallels those of many other classmates I have talked with. As he put it, “I never really had a specific experience that changed me. It was more a general thing, a long process of thought and self-examination and questioning. I guess my decision to get out of the Army was the first time in my life that I had taken time to ask myself the difficult questions I should have been dealing with all along.”
Taylor’s statement that no “specific experience” had changed him appears to form a kind of line of demarcation among those who have resigned from the Army from the class of 1969. Many can point to one (or several) incidents which opened their minds or caused them to, for the first time, question their lives as officers in the Army. But just as many, like Taylor, felt a gradual gnawing at the pit of the stomach, which over a period of time led them to decide to resign. Interestingly, almost to a man, those with whom I have spoken who resigned from the Army had a reason, they had come to an ethical or moral decision which had nothing to do with their careers, or with money. Though I am sure there are those within the class who resigned simply because they figured they had better career opportunities in civil life than in uniform, I have yet to run into a hardcore example of this reason for resignation. In any case, Bill Taylor’s decision to resign is worth recounting in detail not just because it is an example of a more general trend, but because he faced a decision of more grandeur than most: If he stayed in, he was virtually assured of a magnificent career. If he resigned, the future, while not dim, held more questions than it did answers, the comfortable assurance of a decent living in a time of inflation, unemployment, and the by-now-well-known inadequacies of the college diploma.
Bill Taylor: “Years ago, when we were still at West Point, the breach of faith between officers and cadets which we’re seeing now with the cheating scandal hit me on a very deep level. It was there. I knew it. And as we all found out when we graduated, the honor code did not exist in the ‘real world’ the way it did at West Point.”
“Yet my decision to resign did not start until I came back from Vietnam. I went to Vietnam in 1970, and I believed sincerely that I was involved in something done for the right reasons, the right way, and that it would be a net gain for the world. I was an Infantry combat platoon leader, and for the first six months I was there, I spent all my time in the boonies. We would settle into a night defensive perimeter at night, and I would make the rounds, checking security, like we were taught at the Academy. The guys would be out there in their holes, and they’d ask me, ‘Lt. Taylor, why are we here?’ and I would answer them as best I could. I believed in the stuff we were taught at the Academy and at the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Benning. So I told my men what I believed, and why. The way I saw it, I had no other choice.
“Anyway, I did six months as a platoon leader, and then I was picked to be aide to General Sidney Berry, who was then Assistant Division Commander of the 101st Airborne Division. I got a whole different perspective on the war in that job. I used to bitch that it took you six months to learn everything you needed to know in combat, and they sent you to a rear area staff job, and then home, and nobody with the real combat knowledge you got from six months in the boonies was being used in the right way. So I wrote a letter to my old battalion commander and asked for the same company I had been in, and I got the command. So I spent another six months in the boonies as a company commander, and the same thing would happen. The men would ask me what are we doing here. And I told them the same thing, what we had been taught, and eventually, I concluded that what I should really do was do my job and get as few casualties as possible and get those guys back home in one piece.”
“When I came back, I did a lot of reading and thinking. I read Halberstam’s book, ‘The Best and the Brightest,’ and a lot of other stuff, and I watched the war being manipulated as a political issue, for political reasons. And I thought: Jesus, a lot of what I told those guys turned out to be wrong. I hadn’t lied to them, because I believed in what I said, but it was wrong. I felt really bad about that, because all those guys had listened to me, and I was their platoon leader or company commander, and I had all that authority, and what I had told them was wrong. The war was not being fought for the right reasons, the right way. So I had a great sense of personal disillusionment and loss, not because of what anybody had done to me, but because of what I had done to others. I was lucky. I had good commanders, and good assignments, everything I could ask for, and yet I had this feeling that I had misled all those guys.”
“By the time I got to the Advanced Course (Infantry) at Benning in 1973, the thought about getting out was in my mind. I had already been through flight school, and during that time, I had a half day off each day, and a lot of time to think. Then at Benning, I took courses at Georgia State. I took foreign affairs and political science, because I thought the military had performed poorly and had been used poorly in Vietnam, and I wanted to know why. I had a really good friend at Benning, Bland Guthrie, who was class of 1967 from VMI. He was a really great guy, with a fantastic mind. We were roommates during the Advanced Course. He had had some really bad luck, bad commanders, lousy assignments, and he was really questioning his whole experience in the Army. I guess we had both been going through the same process. Finally he handed in his resignation, and the Chief of Staff held it up and talked him out of it, gave him a job on a project to study training, to make it more real, more effective, more meaningful. I left Benning for Germany.
“Over there, I got command of an Infantry platoon in an Armored Cavalry Regiment, we had six choppers and crews, and then all the Infantry guys. It was a kind of strange assignment, because in the Cav regiment, the Infantry platoon had been the pits, the bottom, they had had all kinds of drug and race problems, and nobody wanted to deal with it, so the platoon was a real challenge. Anyway, they sent us to French Commando school. It was a three week course, and no American platoon had ever successfully completed it. We became the first Americans to complete the course. So everything was really working out well for me. Later I became the S-4 (supply officer) for a squadron in the same regiment, and that was a good job, and I had a fantastic squadron commander, but by then it was evident to me that the commitment I had to the Army had changed. From the time I had gotten back from Vietnam, I didn’t feel committed to the goals of the Army in the same way I had before. Even with great assignments like that platoon in Germany, I felt uncomfortable. I knew in my heart that it was possible to keep the faith, but I knew down deep that I had lost it.
“At the same time I was deciding to get out, Steve Rhyne was going through the same thing. He’s now editor of the Law Review at George Washington University Law School. He wrote me a letter at that time discussing the huge gap, the great differences between staying in and getting out. I guess that for many of us, it was not an easy decision. Even now, I am in the inactive reserves. It’s like a tie in the back of my mind to all those people, and to that thing which was the Army. It’s the same feeling I had when I decided to stay in Vietnam those extra six months. I couldn’t leave without trying to do my best.
“When the war ended, I felt completely detached. My commitment was not to the government of South Vietnam. We were committed to each other, to the Spec-fours and the sergeants we served with. This was the feeling of most of the officers I served with, especially when we were in the woods. Out there, we didn’t have the problems that the rest of the Army was going through. There was a kind of perfection to having your own command in the boonies. I had a squad leader in my company when I took over the company for my last six months in Vietnam, and he was strung out on smack. He had been the guy who taught me to be a platoon leader when I first got over there. Then they put him in the rear, in the battalion S-4, and he got strung out, so he asked me if he could come back in the company, and I arranged it. He went through withdrawal in the field, in combat. There was a trust and a tie between individuals that didn’t go upward or outward to the country of Vietnam or the country of the United States. This was one of the unique things about the Army, the ties between men. It goes back to West Point, I guess. That was one of the strongest influences on my life from West Point, the friendships I developed there. I was really close with Bob St. Onge (a classmate of ours from high school, as well). We went to Benning together right after graduation. We were in the same squad at Ranger School, and in the Basic Course. We went to Jumpmaster School together, and were in the same battalion later at Ft. Bragg. We went to Jungle School together, flew to Vietnam together, and were in the same battalion in the 101st. I was best man at his wedding. He’s the same guy today that he was when we were at West Point. I guess I’m the same guy I was, too. But St. Onge has decided to stay in. He’ll be a tactical officer back at West Point this Fall.
“St. Onge has an enormous attachment to his family, and this attachment deepens his commitment to the Army. Getting out of the Army right now would be too big a risk for him. It’s a much easier decision for somebody like me, who is single, and without a family to support. But if I were to generalize, I would have to say that the guys who are staying in the Army are struggling to find a justification to stay in. My friend Bland Guthrie feels that the burden of proof is on the Army. The Army has to prove itself to him. He has already handed in a resignation once, and he feels that if he can’t affect the Army for the better in his new job, then he won’t be able to affect the Army anywhere.”
Several other classmates have expressed sentiments almost word-for-word like Bill Taylor’s. Greg Foster, as gung-ho a cadet and young officer as ever was, told me he resigned because attempts he had made to reform certain Army training practices were met by commanders with either silence or disdain. “Now I work for Rand,” Foster said. “I answer my phone, and on the other end is a major general, inviting me to lunch, where we’ll discuss the Army hiring Rand to ‘study’ some of the same things I was trying to change while I was still in the Army, a lowly captain. The ironies are incredible. All I need is civilian clothes and a job with Rand, and they’re all ears.”
Still, in Foster’s case, as in Taylor’s, it was a general disaffection with the system, more than a specific experience or set of experiences which led to their decisions to resign from the Army. The case of Charlie Thensted, however, was different.
The Reluctant Cynic
Charles F. Thensted was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on July 7, 1947, the younger of two kids, father a supervisor in the Post Office. Both his mother and father had grown up in that American never-never land of the working class. Both had helped to support their families as kids. Neither went to college. Thensted’s father died three days before his fifth birthday. For Charlie Thensted, going to West Point was primarily an “economic decision.” “My mother didn’t have any money to send me to college,” he recalls. “She was a secretary, and I was a kid from New Orleans. West Point was the movies, the Long Gray Line, and it was free. When I went off to West Point in June of 1965, it was the biggest day in my mother’s life. But I didn’t know what the hell I was getting into. All I wanted was a college education and five years active duty. I’ve ended up feeling like the butt of a joke. It’s like everybody is laughing at you for being the only guy to fall for the — ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ thing. It’s 1971, and I’m sitting in the jungle, out on the Cambodian border with a Duster and quad-50’s platoon, and I’m listening to AFN, the Armed Forces Network, and I hear Nixon on the radio saying there are no more American troops in the field, out on the front lines in combat. And I think: ‘Where am I? What is the jungle? This isn’t the front line? We’re not going to get mortared tonight?’ They pump you full of ‘Duty, Honor, Country,’ and they expect you to swallow bullshit for 20 years and retire and be a good guy, and before you’re even old enough to qualify for lower car insurance rates, they turn you into a joke.”
I got to know Charlie Thensted in Beast Barracks in 1965. We were in the same platoon. He stood directly in front of me in ranks in company formation. On the average, we had between ten and 15 formations a day. Every day, every formation, Thensted’s squad leader, a short guy with what we used to call a “runt complex”, a kind of meanness that comes from being five-feet-six, would walk down the line of his squad checking “dress-off’s.” Now for those of you unfamiliar with West Point lingo, a dress-off is a noun, describing the manner in which one’s shirt is tucked into one’s trousers. When properly dressed-off, the shirt is neatly tucked, with no wrinkles at the waisband of the trousers, and despite the fact that the shirt is one size too large and might be form-fitted for a gorilla, the dress-off, by neatly tucking and hiding excess material, gives the tent-like fatigue shirt the fit of one of those new, open-to-the-navel “disco” shirts. After a week or so, everyone got hip to the dress-off, most of us, even in bright new fatigues and khakies, looked like half-way presentable recruits. Not so Thensted. The back of his shirt always looked like someone had inflated a good sized balloon and stuck it under his shirt. Naturally, he received a good amount of unwanted attention from his squad leader, the runt.
Over a period of time, I came to suspect that Thensted looked like a slob in uniform because it was his primitive way of telling the “system” that there were limits to his belief in it. In the field, Thensted had a sharp, cynical tongue. He was good at nicknames — giving them, I mean. In any Army unit, nicknames fall more or less naturally upon those who exhibit qualities which humorously (though carefully not at the expense of the individual’s identity or integrity) cause their generation. Charlie Thensted was without question the funniest guy I knew in four years at West Point. He probably bestowed more clever nicknames than anyone in our regiment. Yet he never was nicknamed, a sign, I suspect, of the shadowy, amorphous quality of his individuality. Thensted was Thensted, period. There was no way to capsulize, no way to nickname, the combination of wit and leadership, cynicism and reluctant idealism, and lazy intellectual brilliance which was Charlie Thensted.
Thensted was the guy who:
Co-authored the Camp Buckner company skit with me and Charlie Gwynne in summer encampment before our sophomore year. He personally wrote at least three jibes into our script which took neat, hilarious shots at the Superintendent and Commandant of Cadets.
Allegedly led the resignations spree which peppered our company in 1966, mentioned in Alicia Patterson Foundation report LKT IV-2. In truth, he led no such revolt, but was perhaps the most vocal and surely the most witty of the group in our company who found many faults with West Point, and took notice of few good points. They opted, to the tune of a quarter of the sophomores in the company, to resign. Thensted didn’t.
Took a hugely illegal and bold walk in civilian clothes off-post every Saturday to get a haircut in a civilian barbershop, so he could get his hair trimmed the way he wanted it, not the way the West Point barbers were ordered to cut it.
Took most of his elective academic classes in English, in itself a rebellious act, since the English Department at West Point was at the time perceived by many officers to be a hotbed of liberalism. We shared many of those classes. Every time I checked out a book by or about Dylan Thomas, Thensted’s name was on the card ahead of mine.
The only guy to write me a letter every month senior year when I authored a rock and roll column for the West Point magazine, The Pointer. In these letters, Thensted would take issue with my criticisms or appreciations of such groups as the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers Band, David Bowie, (none of whom were at the time well-known acts) and performers of even lesser status. To me, it was evidence not just that he was at least one guaranteed reader, but most of all, that he cared.
My roommate in a loft on Broome Street in New York City for the month after we graduated from West Point. When Thensted heard I was taking a loft in what has now become fashionably known as “SOHO”, he couldn’t resist the urge to get completely away from conventional society as we most assuredly would be on Broome Street, and so we spent a month becoming the closest of friends, having inspected each other from a comfortable distance over the past four years.
Charlie Thensted is today editor of the Law Review at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He is number one in his class. He spoke with me with some hesitation recently — hesitation which stemmed from a schedule as demanding as anything we put up with at West Point, and which stemmed, I suspect, from knowing that he is about to enter the legal profession in New Orleans, cradled in the eager arms of the local legal establishment. Anything he said to me he knew I would publish in this newsletter, and so when we began to talk in earnest, he trod carefully over old ground until finally one day the dam burst, and Thensted was as I knew he would be, an irrepressible schizoid cynic/romantic, a marvelous storyteller, an acrid tongue on matters public and personal, but most of all, a man who has never been able to suppress his own honesty.
You must understand this: Though I write in this report of two men I know well (Thensted better than Taylor, by far), the task is a difficult one. So much that these two guys have told me appears now in my mind, in a different city in a different time, as having been entrusted to me. Neither agrees with me completely about West Point, about the war in Vietnam, about my observations about our experience over the last 11 years. And yet both opened themselves to my pen and my perceptions. Both gave of themselves more than I would have under similar circumstances. (I was once asked by E. J. Kahn, of the New Yorker, to be the subject of profile, in conjunction with my father, and turned the man down flat. Not a reflection on Mr. Kahn, an excellent writer of considerable reputation, but rather a comment on my own protective cover).
One of the astounding things about the West Pointers with whom I have spoken has been their willingness, yea, even eagerness to talk. Some might call it confessional, and there are ideologues, I know, who would say they could have predicted it: Anyone involved in an immoral Army, in an immoral war, in an immoral time, would behave the way the classmates about whom I have written have behaved. To these folks, I say this: Save your breath. The extent to which the behavior, the opinions and experiences of the West Point class of 1969 are predictable is a function of what I call the Great Bell Curve. The curve can be skewed in one direction or another, it can be flattened or peaked, but it bells nevertheless. There is a minor end on one side (the CO’s, our deserter, the political dissidents); there is the great middle, and there is a minor end on the other side, the unquestioning my-country-right-or-wrongers who occupy space on any political or sociological spectrum. My greatest difficulty has been categorizing these men from the middle, the great number of 1969 West Point graduates who count, if only because of their numerical strength.
Ah, digressing again. I left Thensted, I see, at the Napoleon House in New Orleans, suffering through an absentee introduction, which is to say, that for which I remember him best is not necessarily that for which he should be best remembered. But Thensted will have the last word, for sure:
“I went to West Point idealistic as hell,” Thensted said with a grimace over his customary single Dixie beer at lunch one day. “When I got out of the Academy I mean, I discovered that the whole country is a giant toilet. You’re shot full of dedication to an ideal world, and then you graduate, and you find that the congressmen who appointed you to West Point in the first place are parroting patriotism and lying and taking money and skimming from contracts on the side. It doesn’t take much looking to catch a glimmer of the truth. That’s probably what causes most guys to get out of the Army. Finding out the truth is such a shock after so many years of isolation, you just can’t get over it. I haven’t gotten over it yet myself. I still find myself being obsessively cynical. It’s like a defense mechanism after years when one’s only defense was one’s curiosity.”
“For me, Vietnam was a big turning point. I didn’t want to go over there in the first place. I remember trying to figure out ways to get out of it, and finally I just gave in and went. When I first got over there, my company commander called me in and asked me what I wanted to accomplish in my year of Vietnam duty. I told him I wanted to get out with my arms and legs and get my guys out. He said, ‘Yeah, I feel the same way.’ That’s not much of a way to get into a war.”
“I was over there for 12 months, and I had that ADA (Air Defense Artillery) platoon in the field the whole time. I refused to take a job in a rear area. It wasn’t because of any hero thing — I just couldn’t stand what was really happening in Vietnam, and it was all happening in the rear areas, in the division base camps, where colonels and generals lived in air-conditioned trailers, went swimming every day, had live-in hookers, and couldn’t give a shit what was happening in the field except for the almighty body count. After I’d been over there a while, I got interviewed for every general’s aide job in the region, because I was a West Point grad, and they figured I was ripe. They would ask me the same things, and I’d give the same answers, and they’d agree with me. I never heard a general say the ‘If we don’t stop the Commies here,’ thing. They wanted to get out and get it over with the same as we did. Anyway, at the end of every interview, they would ask, ‘Why do you want this job?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t want it,’ and they’d ask, ‘then what are you doing here?’ I’d say, ‘battalion or division sent me down.’ It was eerie.”
“One time I took a couple of guys from my platoon to the Long Binh PX (post exchange) which I guess was the largest in the world. They wouldn’t let them in because they were too dirty! In a war! We flew in, right off a chopper, out of the boonies, and these guys at the door of the PX wouldn’t let my men in the place. I couldn’t believe it. After awhile, whenever we were in a rear area, we just stopped saluting rear area officers. You’d walk past them, and look at them, and they’d look away. You could see the guilt in their eyes. They never did shit in that war, and they were pulling down ribbons and rank, and they knew it.”
“The guys in the rear disgusted anybody who was in the boonies. We lived in a different world, a different reality. Like the time my platoon fire support base was overrun by the Vietcong. It was a terrible, savage scene. I had 60 men out in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly, the VC were everywhere, they were coming over the wire, the night just lit up with fire. There were a lot more of them than there were of us. We figured them at company strength. We took a lot of casualties, five dead, 15 wounded. We found 12 VC bodies. The whole thing was so incredible. One VC popped up about thirty feet away from my APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) and was getting ready to rocket us, when the squad dog took out after him, jumped, and latched onto his arm. The VC started running for the wire, and the dog was still after him. I remember the whole thing like it’s in slow motion in my mind.”
“One of my squad leaders got shot in the spine, and his gunner got one hand shot off, but both of them hung onto their 20 millimeter Duster, the squad leader propped up against it firing, and the gunner loading with his good hand, and they were shooting up the woods in every direction. Everything was crazy, people were running everywhere, the VC were inside the wire, and those two guys virtually held off the major thrust of the attack. They were totally shot up, covered with blood, but they hung on and laid down enough fire forten guys. So I put them in for the Silver Star, and I put a bunch of other guys in for the Bronze Star with ‘V’ device, the little ‘V’ pin, for valor. When the awards came down from battalion, they were given the Army Commendation Medal with a ‘V’ for valor, the ‘green weenie’ they were called. Guys in the rear area got green weenies for going to the latrine at night. It wasn’t just an insult, it was a slap in the face.”
“But the crowning blow came later. The general’s aide, who was a classmate of ours, told me that the battalion commander and the group artillery commander put themselves in for Silver Stars, and got them. They flew in a chopper out to the fire support base after the whole thing was over, and for that huge act of bravery, they gave themselves the Silver Star, and gave my guys the green weenie. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it. But the aide knew it was true. He processed the paperwork himself. Everybody knew that the guys in the rear, officers mostly, got 80% of the medals. But that one firefight changed me for good. That’s why I spent all 12 months in the field. I refused to go back to the rear. I refused to be a part of the most corrupt part of a corrupt war. It was a matter of principle with me. It was because of that incident that I developed an attitude that got me in a lot of trouble.”
“I couldn’t miss. With that ADA platoon I had, I was always attached to one unit or another. I was supposed to be used for fire support, or for reconnaissance missions, for whatever extra shit they had to do. It wasn’t like I was a platoon leader, under a company commander, under a battalion commander, under brigade, under division. I was always off by myself somewhere, in a platoon-size defensive perimeter, and that was just fine with me. The less we had to deal with the guys in the rear, and the farther away we were, the better.”
“Anyway, one time I had two of my Dusters, the 20 millimeter cannons, attached to the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), and we were supposed to be a reaction force for them. We were on the edge of the headquarters base camp, and one night I got a call on the radio, and the Division Artillery operations officer told me to take my two Dusters to the edge of the wire, and then when it got dark, to go to this road intersection and check identification of the indigenous population, and then at 2200 (10:00 pm) to head for another intersection and do the same thing. It was like they figured the Vietcong were going to carry cards saying, ‘Me, VC’, and we were going to haul in a bunch of them. So I said, no, I think I’ll pass on that nifty little mission, and I turned the radio off, so they couldn’t get to me again. I waited until it was too late to go on the mission. I wasn’t about to take 20 guys out in the boonies and get them shot up for nothing. Everybody knew the VC and NVA had all major road intersections targeted for mortars, just like we did. The whole thing was so ludicrous, I could hardly believe it, until later that night when I went to see the guy who had called in the order.”
“He was the division artillery S-3, for whom I technically worked. I walked in and saw his skinhead — he had one of those total burr haircuts — and I knew it was all over. I recognized him from the Office of Physical Education back at West Point. He was one of the gorillas who taught wrestling. And then he had been one of my instructors at the Basic Course and had kicked me out of class one day saying, ‘Thensted, don’t come back until you’ve gotten a haircut,’ presumably of his variety. Well, I opted not to return to his class, which didn’t earn me any points at the Basic Course. So the guy flames all over me for refusing a direct verbal order, it was a real courts martial scene. Then he called my battalion commander, who in his dreams was Audie Murphy, but in real life was more like Sarah Bernhardt. The battalion commander said, ‘Major, that lieutenant will do anything you tell him to do. If you want him to hang his ass out over the wire as target practice for the enemy, he’ll do it.’ Then he said the next time I got that mission, he’d go along, just to prove it was valid.”
“So the next night, they called me up with the same mission, and I demanded Infantry support. I called the battalion commander and said, ‘I’m ready to go out on this foolish mission, how about you?’ He was suddenly too busy to go out with us. Almost immediately, the entire base camp was hit with mortars, so we never had to go out that second night, but later, they had a hearing on my refusal to obey an order under combat conditions. I studied up, and pointed out that they had violated 20 rules of the unit operations manual, by failing to supply Infantry support, no reconnaissance, I can’t even recall all the details now. There was a big to-do, and in the meantime I had learned the real reason we were being sent out on a bogus mission in the middle of the night. The morning before, a division briefing had been held for a general who had flown up from Saigon, and when they came down to ‘half an ADA platoon, attached’ we were doing exactly nothing, and the general raised his eyebrows, so they decided to send us out on the next half-baked idea anybody had for a combat mission. They wanted the briefing board to look good for the general the next day. In the end, I got yelled at, but that was it.”
“One of the great moments in my life in the Army came a month or so later when that same skinhead operations officer flew in a chopper out to a little platoon defensive perimeter I had in the boonies, about 30 miles from the nearest friendly unit. He was coming to check out my act, and he stomped around for awhile, and when he couldn’t find anything wrong, he went to get back into his chopper, and it wouldn’t start. The pilot messed around for a while, and it still wouldn’t start, so the major asked me if he could borrow one of my jeeps and a driver to get back to headquarters base camp. I said, sure, and I ordered one up. Then this major said, well, I seem to have forgotten my weapon today, do you think I could borrow yours for the trip back to the base camp? I reminded him that it was against regulations to ‘loan’ a weapon and refused. It was getting later and later, and the guy was in an obvious sweat. Finally he asked me, just how safe is this road back to the base camp after dark? I said, gee, major, I’m not a staff officer, I’m only a lowly lieutentant. I don’t have access to intelligence reports. And besides, you’ve been sending me out on missions for the past few weeks at night along this road, and you’re telling me now you didn’t know how secure was the area into which you were sending my platoon? By this time, the guy is in a state of near shock. He couldn’t face spending a night in the real boonies, he had no weapon, he couldn’t face making the drive along that road back to the headquarters base, so finally he called In another chopper to lift himself out. I never had trouble with that guy again. He never looked me in the eye.”
Thensted had been in the midst of what amounted to a tirade, and he paused as the waiter at the Napoleon House brought two more Dixies. Then he began to reflect.
“I’m glad I went over there to Vietnam, and I’m glad I was in the war as a commander, out in the boonies, on the front lines, such as they were. The war was one of the formative events of our generation, and I was a part of it. I’m not ashamed. I had serious questions about the validity of our involvement there in the first place, and my experience did nothing to dispel those doubts. When the war ended as it did, with Marines airlifting people off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon, I felt nothing. Still, I have no regrets.”
“Lucian, you would be amazed to know the number of people our age who have done nothing. Absolutely nothing. They went to high school, they went to college, maybe they got married and spent some time in a commune or something, and then they went to grad school, secured a degree, and wham! right into some business, some factory. They haven’t been out in the world. They haven’t worked, they haven’t had any real responsibility, and they don’t know anything. I run across it in law school here at Tulane every day. Some professor gets up there and says the sun rises in the west, and half the class takes it down in class notes. They’re unreal, and yet they’re perfectly real. They are the product of an age which has coddled certain of its citizens almost into middle age. People complain about welfare. They should take a look at the ‘permanent student’ population in this country. And if they’re not permanent students, some of them end up permanent academics, taking up residence at the college where they started out. But they don’t piss me off as much as these people who accept the word in the law school as if it were the gospel. As if memorizing lectures is going to win you cases when you get out, when you’re a lawyer. What you’ve really got to rely on is your imagination, your wits, and your interest in and dedication to the case. These days, I see so many people buying the farm before they’ve even seen the land. It’s worse than when we were at West Point, and Jesus, we were pretty idealistic and innocent.”
Thensted paused, and I could see that he didn’t want to appear like he was beating his own drum. Truth of the matter is, to be interviewed is by definition to beat your own drum, so I pressed on, and learned that not only was Thensted number one in the Tulane Law School senior class and editor of the Law Review, but another classmate of ours, Tim Brown, had been made Chief Justice of the Moot Court, the highest position a student could hold outside the Law Review. During the academic year, it will be Tim Brown’s job to run the Moot Court system, in which all students take part and are graded.
It should be explained here that Tulane is not your average southern law school. New Orleans is like a Paris, France, of the South, and the French Quarter is its Greenwich Village, its Left Bank. When you go out to eat in New Orleans, you don’t hear traditional southern accents mixing with the Almaden and Oysters Rockefeller. New Orleans likes to think of itself as a “cosmopolitan” city at the southernmost edge of the South, and it is. So when we talk about two West Pointers holding the two most powerful student positions at New Orleans’ most powerful law school, we’re not talking about a bunch of crackers lapping up the West Point legend, especially in the case of Charlie Thensted.
“I turned in a guy on an honor violation in my first year at Tulane,” Thensted recounted late one hot afternoon. “It must have been the first time it had happened in years. The whole place went bazoo. This is what happened. A big part of the law exams during finals is time. You’re supposed to be able to budget your time, and do the important stuff first, and the lesser stuff afterwards. For example, they give you three hours to answer a five hour question. Now, when the bell rings, you’re supposed to stop working, gather your papers, and take them out to a faculty monitor in the hall, where you’re logged in. The system was much the same as it was at West Point. So freshman year, I happened to be in a classroom at the end of a corridor, and when the test ended, I got my stuff together, and walked down the hall to the faculty monitor. I was last in line or nearly so. It took about 45 minutes to get logged in, and as I was walking back out of the building, I saw this guy sitting in one of the classrooms still working on his test. So I walked up to him and said, hey, you’re working past the stop work bell, and according to the rules that was an honor violation. The honor code at Tulane is simple. It says that one student shall not take advantage of another, and clearly, if this guy was working 45 minutes more than the rest of us, he was taking advantage.”
“He told me it was none of my business, that I should get out, that if he wanted to cheat it was his business. I told him if the grades were curved, it was everybody’s business, and that I was going to turn him in on an honor violation. He told me to get lost and kept working, and appeared at the end of the faculty monitor line just in time to make it look real.”
“Once my charge became formal, it became a big deal. Half the people in the law school figured I was some kind of Nazi coming from West Point. You know, you can’t get away from it. So half of them figured I was off-the-wall, and the guy I turned in was a victim. I took a lot of gas. As it turned out, the guy got off, and he’s still in the law school at Tulane today. They conducted the honor hearing like a trial, and he was entitled to counsel, he got the best, and since I was the only witness to the incident, they beat it by pleading that in order to prove an honor violation, you had to prove intent, and his story was that he got carried away, and didn’t know the test had ended. They let him off with that, and I was cast in the role of the crazy who had turned in somebody wrongfully.”
“Well, that was a year and a half ago, and since then, a lot of people have come up to me and said, hey, man, you did the right thing, I’ve seen that guy cheating in this way or that way, since then. Nobody has turned him in, and he’ll probably graduate, but when the election for editorship of the Law Review came around this year (Spring 1976), there were quite a few people who held different opinions about me now than they did back during the early days of the honor thing. There were five of us on the Law Review running for editor, and the rules say you can’t campaign, it’s all supposed to be on merit. One guy campaigned like crazy, and he used the West Point thing against me every way he could. When the vote came down, I carried almost all of the outgoing seniors, half of my class, and enough of the freshmen to win. It was close, but since then, I’ve had even more people come up to me and say, personally, that I was right to do what I did back then, when I turned in that guy on an honor violation. I have to admit that it’s been satisfying. That guy can graduate, and he can do what he wants in the New Orleans legal profession, but there are one hell of a lot of people who know what he did to get there.”
The case of Charlie Thensted is extraordinary, but no more so than that of Bill Taylor. For reasons not so vastly different, the Army lost two enormously talented young officers, Thensted to the civilian legal profession, and Bill Taylor to some sort of management position in city or county government, probably in Virginia, the state where we graduated from high school, and to which Bill Taylor feels most attached.
I have my own ideas, of course, about why more than 50% of my class has resigned from the Army. But for now, they will take a back seat to those of Charlie Thensted and those of Bill Taylor.
Charlie Thensted: “I think West Point had a lot to offer. It taught you a lot more about people than you would learn in a civilian college, more about their strengths and weaknesses, more of the ugly truths which make up life. There was something to the honor code. I think I’m more instinctively honest because of it. I’m glad I went there, for many reasons. I’m sorry I went there for many reasons. I lost four years of my life to West Point, and five to the Army. I am getting a late start, so to speak. And yet nothing can replace what I learned there, the experiences I’ve had since I graduated. I’m a cynical bastard — I’m not as cynical as you, Truscott, but I don’t think West Point changed me profoundly, not for the worse, anyway. In fact, the effect has probably been just the opposite. As a student, I’m hungry, and the relative freedom that law school affords as opposed to the Army is nothing that I can adequately explain. But you know something? I could be at the top of the legal heap tomorrow, like after graduation, and two years later, I could disappear, and so I keep my options open . I’m not yet 30, and already I’ve seen too many guys go down the creek.”
Bill Taylor: “For me, it boils down to our class, 1969, not just at West Point, but elsewhere. One of my professors here at Harvard, whom I really respect, Dick Neustadt, says that there’s something about the class of 1969. In his experience (at Princeton and Harvard) this class year was on the whole more related to public interest issues and occupations, and less towards raw professional careerist stuff. As a West Pointer, I have this feeling that while I was in school, and in the Army, I missed out on a lot. So I find myself spending time reading up on what we missed, talking with friends at Harvard, hanging out. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I graduate from the Public Policy School, but I suspect it will be something on the local government level, county, city, or state. I don’t have much faith in the ability of the Federal government to change things. I think it’s time people started affecting their own lives at their own levels. So far as West Point is concerned, I’m glad I went there, and there were experiences I had, and things I learned about people at West Point which have served me well over the years, and they will continue to do so. The difference is that now my energies will be directed in a direction different from that of the Army.”
When it comes to why West Pointers from the class of 1969 have resigned from the Army in such record numbers, there are no easy answers. If they existed, as a professional lazy journalist, I would be hot on their trails. In the next newsletter, we’ll hear from two officers who have elected to stay in the Army. Until then, if legally available, anybody with the Pentagon resignation study, please, please send it to me c/o the Alicia Patterson Foundation.
Received in New York on October 4, 1976.
©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.