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West Point Four Eyes

Updated on January 4, 2016

The West Point Library


West Point's Library

This is not really big news. But along the Hudson River there is a school unlike others, possibly with the exception of the Virginia Military Institute, in which a chosen few are in various ways prepared to become disciplined soldiers. An English teacher has written about them in a fashion that makes one wonder. There are certain books that all fields of inquiry hold in common. Broadly speaking, most of us share a bible, though there are different versions, translations, and emphases. But here is a rather elite corps of individuals who have a predilection for the Harry Potter canon. It strikes me as odd since the "plebes" will, at some time, be expected to lead troops overseas, where there are any number of trouble spots. Why read at all? I find myself asking. Why not use the extra time for sit-ups, pull-ups, and push-ups?

Chapter one, understandably, includes The Odyssey. It is not imperative to does don a uniform to read it. The author's main focus is on soldiers who return from active service, either to stay or rest up. In Homer's story, Odysseus comes back, after several ordeals, to kill faithful Penelope's suitors, betting he is gone forever. It is a lasting classic as well as an ideal of sorts. I do not remember reading in these pages about another angle, that of Caesar, who divorced his wife on the basis of a rumor. Of course, the latter is an historical fact, not the grand ending to a well-plotted narrative. Still, an archeologist discovered Troy in the 19th century, so that it is not completely bonkers to speculate on the authenticity of Odysseus, minus a few subplots that are too fantastical. It is also worth remembering that ancient histories mingled fact and fancy. All the same, Caesar's ego cannot be doubted.

Best Years of Our Lives


The Movies

It is unusual to come across an English Professor with a thorough knowledge of relevant movies. But they are part of her theme: Till the End of Time (1946), The Pride of the Marines (1945), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and The Blue Dahlia (1946) are mentioned together with The Odyssey. The G.I. Bill that helped servicemen earn degrees also gets a nod. She is a true patriot. But these are dated films. They are tough-minded, though possibly not tough enough. Censorship played a role in the visual displays that were approved for public consumption. Since WWII, many songs as well as films have become much darker in tone as both works of art and anti-war as well as anti-warrior statements. Dalton Trumbo's novel, Johnny Got His Gun, published in the late 1930s, preceded WWII, but is not brought up. Trumbo, a screenwriter, was blacklisted until 1960's Spartacus. But this reference would have been in my book, not hers, which lists a number of other, quasi-realistic homecomings.

It is hard for me to say. Maybe West Pointers need to toe the line. Many litterateurs of renown turned Leftward prior to the advent of Joseph Stalin. I'm guessing that the school does not have an Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Still, it would serve no purpose to overintellectualize the enemy, would it? From 1917 onward, Communists had their arguments. They wanted a better world, a fairer workplace, and a more humane society. So they said. In 2015, they are as scarce as unicorns. But again, this madness would have been in my book, not hers. I might also have referenced The Woman on Pier 13 (1949) and My Son John (1952). Both deal with a subject that still sends shivers up the spine: the American Communist. It remains a touchy subject. Nevertheless, historically, Communism revs up fairly quickly as Fascism bows out.


Entitled, Between Scylla and Charybdis, Coming Home, chapter two reminds me, as if I needed it, why I was not an English major when I loved books more than normal. I had to google the definition, roughly to be in between a rock and a hard place. Unless you've been there or close to someone who has, it is impossible to imagine the everyday soldier's commute -- going off, then, if it was meant to be, coming back. For instance, a new Pavlovian response infecting the public causes minor sensations whenever someone in uniform is seen. Suddenly, thank-you's and handshakes multiply. A comparison-contrast with how it used to be, when nearly every man in his prime had been called up, is revealing. In the old movies, dialogue, giving cynicism equal time, can be either sardonic or patriotic.

Some trivia falls flat. What our officers borrowed from the library does not raise eyebrows. Mostly, they read the classics, bearing in mind, as the author points out, that at least one, Dickens' Great Expectations, began its serialization in 1860. Well, the 19th century did not have Terry Southern or Hunter S. Thompson, did it? Then, there is confirmation of what we might have suspected -- great generals, not only American, were superstitious. The author cites Napoleon and Grant. Stonewall Jackson, also a West Point graduate, had certain, inexplicable habits, though today he is called a hypochondriac. The main point, I think, has to do with how literature might have affected their thinking. How they thought was what ultimately made history. Then again, there are no tools by which the impact of the written word on the mind can be measured, especially since everyone reads, just as everyone writes, differently.

Annapolis, Maryland Navy Grads


Clausewitz, Moltke, and Doyle

As far as Carl von Clausewitz is concerned, one can really say he wrote the book. On War (Vom Kriege, 1832) is a major work on theories of war that has no equal. Later, Helmuth von Moltke's On the Art of War possibly comes in second. In addition to the Prussian, then the German writer, the author includes England's Arthur Conan Doyle. Why? Because in the Sherlock Holmes stories one comes to appreciate the uncanny ability to see and grasp what eludes the sight and understanding of everybody else. Journalism enters the arena with A. J. Libeling's Mollie and Other War Pieces, dealing with World War II. Further, there is always Ernie Pyle.

John Keegan (1934-2012) is discussed. He wrote prolifically on war. The author uses him in a brief essay on preparations. True enough, European officers began planning the next war as soon as the most recent one ended. Keegan somehow segues into Livy on Hannibal and the execution of his ambitious plan to invade Rome by way of the Alps with trained elephants. The Battle of Cannae is still studied, though it took place more than 200 years before Christ. Tolstoy, apparently, in his era, found war relatively futile. His editorial interludes in War and Peace (1869) constantly harp on how an invader became the object of a more massive expulsion. It is, in his opinion, a zero sum game. Not long after the publication of this landmark book, Tolstoy turned to religion. The last book in the bible promises to put an end to war altogether. It could happen.

Virginia Military Institute


Name Dropping

It is inevitable that anyone writing up West Point drop, if only in passing, a few names that have been immortalized on various fields of battle. There is George Armstrong Custer, for instance, who entered the school in 1857. His service was outstanding in the Civil War, but ambivalent, by today's standards, during the Indian Wars. Sitting Bull, preparing for an encounter with Custer in 1876 at Little Bighorn, put himself in the days before through a humble, ritual cleansing. At first blush, a long Sun Dance might seem unproductive, but the need to at least feel an assurance of being on God's side is, universally, obligatory. To bring one's differences to a dangerous battlefield requires that they be more profound than matching one opinion against another, neither of which has been fully thought through. Edgar Allan Poe, a cadet in 1830, could not work up the enthusiasm to stay the course, though he made up for his failure by success in letters. There are limits beyond which nobody can push. Still, however tempting it is to leave outcomes of battles to God, there are credible reasons many religious eschew war altogether. It is more the way of man than God. As a science, it is somewhat evil. Curiously, Sitting Bull did not have the advantages his opponent did in the way of strategy as well as literature. Nevertheless, he fought not only to survive, but because of the fact, in his mind, that he was right, Custer wrong. In addition to names come reasons -- reasons to fight. These are varied, timebound, and important. The last point cannot be stressed enough. If there is no reason, do not fight.

Custer's Last Stand

Out of Harm's Way

The Land In Between, or, if this is what is also meant as No Man's Land (Preparation For War and Peace in Post-9/11 America), by Elizabeth D. Samet, is poignantly expressed in Coming Home (1978). Dramatic or comedic, the stuff of Academy Awards or not, there is something that prevents any transition from here to there to here from being smooth. To some extent, it is an experience shared by any group. It has to stay together in order to cope with the centrifugal totality. Vets already do this. Nevertheless, baby boomers are keenly aware how the Vietnam War created misfits. This is not the book. My hub is not a book review either, only a collection of random thoughts developed from a particular reading. Personally, I cannot comment on today, having parted from the mainstreams of existence a while ago. But it does not take much, possibly only to bump into someone who had been in Desert Shield, or Desert Storm, to understand. They returned with an illness that took a while to gain credence. Nobody who stayed behind had it, whatever it was.

It seems that a way back into the mold would incorporate some immersion in cultural affairs. Mention is made of Yehudi Menuhin concerts in Hawaii and performances of Macbeth at Fort Meade. But this is the 1940s, during which there was much talk about keeping up morale. People shared movies, too, especially back in the day, before the advent of the home theater. As to books, well, past the age of 22, few find the time, make the time, or take them seriously. The author quotes Shakespeare. I am a bit jealous. Maybe next time around, I tell myself. She also brings up T.H. White and characters like Merlyn -- all imports. Muggles and Squibs notwithstanding, I still believe in the written word, apart from the more lucrative media.

Depiction of Hannibal at Cannae



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