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In a Time of War by Bill Murphy, Jr.

Posted by John Reed on

John T. Reed’s review of In a Time of War by Bill Murphy, Jr.

One of my roommates from West Point recommended I read In a Time of War by Bill Murphy, Jr. I bought it that same day.

It is the true story of a group of West Point cadets from the Class of 2002 starting with what led them to West Point. The Class of 2002 were at the beginning of their senior year when 9/11 happened. They were the first class to graduate from West Point after 9/11. The group focused on consisted mainly of a handful of members of the Class of 2002 who were assigned to Company D-1 (Company D, 1st Regiment) during their four academic years at West Point. There are about 25 to 30 cadets from each class in each company. Cadets are assigned to other units during the four summers before they graduate.

This is not a standard book review like you might see in the New York Times Book Section. Rather, it is a review from the perspective of a member of another West Point class that graduated into a different War, Vietnam, in a different era, the 1960s—contrasting the experiences of the classes of 1968 and 2002. I am also writing the review because of its relevance to a number of articles I have published at this Web site about West Point and the military.

I graduated from West Point in 1968. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, which is generally regarded as the start of the Vietnam war, occurred in August, 1964, which was my class’s first summer at West Point. I was in Company C-2. 20 of my classmates died in Vietnam. I did a tour there as did the vast majority of my classmates.

Military families

The book gives further evidence of a trend that I have read about elsewhere. Namely, the U.S. military officer corps is increasingly drawn from fewer and fewer families—“military clans” the Wall Street Journal called them. This is disturbing and unhealthy for the nation and its defense. The cadets portrayed in In a Time of War seem to have far more relatives who are, or were, also military officers than cadets did when I was there in the 1960s. There is also far more intermarriage between male and female officers and West Point graduates. I discussed this in my article about why we need a draft and my article about whether a person should graduate from West Point.

Marriage complications

In my Web article “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?” I expressed great concern about the ability of West Point cadets and officers to find and marry a suitable spouse. According to In a Time of War, it’s worse than I thought.

Somewhat to my surprise, dating at West Point seems to be as bad as when we were there in the 1960s. (I am aware that today’s college students do not like the word “dating.” They think it’s dated. But when I ask what the new words is, they do not have one. They sputter about “hooking up” and “hanging out.” Let me know when you get an appropriate replacement word. Until then, I’ll call it dating. Generations before mine called it “courting.”)

The problem is the addition of female cadets seems not to have fundamentally changed the romantic opportunities of male cadets. They still struggle to conduct extremely long-distance relationships with women who are attending co-ed colleges. We did the same. They had a high failure rate. In a Time of War did not mention many failures, probably to avoid unnecessarily embarrassing the guys being written about, but I would expect the percentage of break-ups is greater now than when I was a cadet for a number of reasons relating to the lower prestige of the Army, women’s lib, and so forth.

Eloping to comply with Army regulations

But the marriage situation depicted in In a Time of War seemed quite odd and anachronistic to me. In the 1960s, too many cadets married right after graduation. It seemed to me that it was because they felt deprived by lack of female companionship at West Point and wanted that to end absolutely once and for all ASAP after graduation. I also wanted that, but I was not interested in getting married as a way of accomplishing it. Indeed, I thought we were retarded, literally, with regard to females and needed to correct that before we started thinking about getting married.

The small group in In a Time of War struck me as too much in a hurry to get married. One reason that I never heard of when we were young graduates was money and military policy regarding spouses. In a Time of War’s young West Point graduates were eloping and getting married to avail themselves of increased housing allowances, and to avoid aversion to living together among natives of the Southeastern part of the U.S. where many military bases are located and where 40% of all Army officers now come from. They also considered the Army’s refusal to let girlfriends or fiancees even enter a military base without filling out guest paperwork every time. By getting married, in addition to more housing money or larger post quarters, they also get moving expenses for the spouse’s property, Army base car registration stickers and a military dependent ID card for the spouse which entitles them to free medical care, PX, and commissary access.

What I do not understand is why this is so important to the graduates described in In a Time of War. The same rules applied when we were young. Furthermore, people were poorer then. A Time magazine cover story on the “Science of Happiness” around 2000 said that people were about three times richer now, after adjusting for inflation, than they were in my youth. Yet the members of the Class of 2002 seemed to be making decisions about marriage to a much greater extent based upon the financial benefits and Confederate-states-and-within-the-officer-corps social approval it would confer upon their spouse. I recall no such discussions at all in the late 1960s. I am surprised that people in the South still disapprove of living together without being married in the 21st century. My wife and I lived together in the early 1970s. We got a little bit of crap from people and just ignored it.

The great increase in the number of female cadets and officers in the Army has produced a corresponding increase in the number of married couples where each spouse is an Army officer. Appropriately, the Army only makes the location of a spouse, not a girlfriend, a consideration in officer assignments. Furthermore, perhaps less defensibly, they “try” to keep spouse officers within 100 miles of each other, but they often cannot do so, especially where both spouses are trying to have “competitive” careers, that is, get promoted to general eventually.

Logically, but I think unwisely, officers who are considering marrying another officer often accelerate the decision to marry so as to take advantage of the Army’s willingness to try to keep spouse couples together geographically. If they do not marry, they are unlikely ever to share the same base or region for more than a year or so.

My wife and I felt living together before we got married was a wise decision and contributed to our being married still 33 years later. Our oldest son did the same and is now married to the woman he lived with. The fact that living together appears to be a difficult, if not impossible, path for career military officers will increase the number of unhappy marriages and divorces among them. That is unacceptable for the most important decisions of your life: whom to marry and when to marry them.


Weddings are less important, but not unimportant. Both the Wall Street Journal article about “military clans” and the book In a Time of War describe West Point graduates as having enormous difficulty scheduling weddings. There are two reasons for this:

• increased numbers of career military personnel in the families of West Point graduates
• more short-notice changes in assignments

Military clan wedding scheduling

When either the groom or the bride is a member of a military family, they may have one to four or five relatives on active duty in the military. When both spouses are from military families, the total number of close relatives on active duty can get into double digits. Scheduling a wedding under such circumstances, especially when military assignments and deployments are changed on short notice, is like waiting for an alignment of planets.

As a result, the West Point graduates were getting married twice. The first marriage was a quickie, justice-of-the-peace affair with no guests or ceremonies other than the vows and paperwork. Then they would attempt to schedule a traditional wedding complete with bachelor and bachelorette parties, a church, minister, guests, reception, and all that. Such events have to be planned well in advance to be assured of building reservations, music, catering, and all that. But in today’s military, long-term planning is all but impossible. At best, military families are scattered across the U.S. and in Europe, Korea. Nowadays, many are also deployed to war zones where wedding attendance is not a valid reason for granting of leave.

Short-notice changes in assignments

During the Vietnam era, we graduated from West Point, had 60 days leave, then attended a series of Army schools for two to eleven months. Then, if you had chosen a U.S. first assignment, you would go there for four months, then to Vietnam. If you chose an overseas assignment, you knew you would be there for a year or two before going to Vietnam. In addition to graduation leave, we also got 30 days leave a year. At that time, it was typically taken between the end of your schools and your first assignment. We also got another 30 days leave between our stateside assignment and going to Vietnam, even if we had not accumulated that many days, and another 30 days after we returned from Vietnam.

That was all a pain in the ass, but compared to the Class of 2002, it was quite predictable and offered numerous opportunities to schedule weddings. I attended a bunch of them in the two years after I graduated from West Point.

Ranger school and scheduling

According to In a Time of War, Ranger School, my first assignment in 1968, was all by itself a scheduling disaster. Many West Pointers were bumped back to a later class or instantly flunked out. In 1968, you went through the whole damned school for two months and only found out whether you passed or failed at the end. (I passed.) Graduation from Ranger then was on a remote airstrip in the swamp. There were no spectators at all. None were possible.

My classmates and I were together by branch for most of the first year after West Point. For example, while at Fort Monmouth, I was in the wedding party of a classmates whom I did not know well at West Point, but about 40 of us classmates were all at Fort Monmouth taking various courses at the same time so he invited a number of us classmates/branchmates to his wedding which was in the Fort Monmouth region.

But the Class of 2002 did not know how long Ranger school would last for them. It could be 63 days plus however long you had to wait for your class to start. Or it could be far less if you flunked out. Or it could be longer if you had to repeat one of the three phases.

Leaving Ranger school early or late would then screw up your schedule for attending your next school and so on, like dominoes falling. We had no such nonsense. If you flunked out of Ranger School without completing the course (typically because of an injury), they would send you back, but not until the end of all your other schools so as not to screw up the schedule.

Vietnam versus Iraq/Afghanistan deployments

Vietnam veterans almost all arrived in Vietnam alone and returned home alone. The chartered jets were full, but of people whom you did not know. In retrospect, that was considered to be a big mistake. Now, they send entire units to Iraq and Afghanistan together.

Originally, I agreed the Vietnam approach was a bad one. For one thing, Vietnam vets have almost no unit reunions. World War II and Korea vets go to them all the time.

But I now see some advantage of the Vietnam-era approach. Our departure for the war, and return from it, were known to us, within weeks, starting when we were in the spring of our senior year as cadets. So we could plan about two years ahead. Also, Vietnam units were in constant daily transition. So there were always guys with many months experience in that unit and zone of the war and there were always rookies learning the ropes. At least one new guy arrived in your unit almost every day and at least one guy who had been there a year left almost every day.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the whole division are rookies with regard to the local area and the war when they arrive, and experienced in both when they leave, but they are replaced by a new set of rookies. Progress that had been made with local Iraqis and Afghanis is obliterated overnight and the new unit and locals have to start all over.

Almost no ability to schedule

Back to the weddings. The Class of 2002 did not know when they were doing anything other than when they were starting their first Army school. If it was Ranger School, all that followed was of unknown start date. Other schools would go off on schedule, but once you were scheduled for Ranger, good luck scheduling anything else afterward.

When we got to our stateside unit, we knew we would be there for about four months give or take a week, then thirty days leave and off to Vietnam. Not so the Class of 2002. Those poor guys sometimes did not even go to the assignment they were promised—especially if that unit had been shipped to a war zone. If they did go to the promised unit, they might be there a week, a month, a year, whatever. It all depended upon when the Army decided to send that unit to another country.

We had schedules that were generally adhered to. The Class of 2002 seemed to have to rely mainly on conflicting, swirling rumors. That is they had to rely on the unreliable or just hope that any schedules they made would come true.

‘About love’

A passage on page 12 purports to tell us about the essence of West Point but instead tells us more about the essence of author Bill Murphy. Here’s the saccharine passage.

...stripped of its pomp and circumstance, the place was really about love. Love of your country, love of your classmates and friends, and love of the future officers you’d someday serve with. Most of all, West Point was about learning to love the soldiers you would someday lead, the privates and sergeants, knuckleheads and heroes alike, who might, just once, in a life-justifying moment, look to you for leadership in some great battle on a distant shore.

My primary reputation is that of a no-bullshit, brutally-honest guy. Here is that version of what Murphy is trying to say.

Stripped of its pomp and circumstance, West Point has no reason to exist. As a college, it is unremarkable. As far as I know, West Point is not held in high esteem by any segment of academia nor would a fair evaluation of the academic skills of its graduates reveal any performance not seen in equal or greater quantities at 100 selective civilian colleges.

As a summer ROTC program, it is only shades better than the summer ROTC programs at, say, Fort Bragg, where I was stationed in the summer of 1969. And if West Point is a better ROTC program, it should not be. Whatever is better at West Point should be spread around to all summer ROTC programs so they are all equal to West Point’s.

West Point’s reason for existing is its pomp and circumstance: the military boarding school life style with its uniforms, military student body organization, parades, saluting, etc. I challenge anyone who agrees with Murphy’s statement to take it as an action plan. That is, strip West Point of all its pomp and circumstance. End all the military boarding school stuff like wearing uniforms, saluting, keeping your room neat, etc. See how many people apply to go there next year. See how many Americans are willing to spend tax dollars to support a college owned and run by the Army with no pomp and circumstance.

See my article “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?” for more details about these issues.

‘Love of country’

Murphy is right that West Point cadets are about love of country, but that is not a surface motive. Maybe not a primary motive. They go to West Point for more mundane, selfish reasons like the “free” education, the perceived prestige of being a cadet and graduate of West Point, wanting to wear the cadet uniform and march in parades (a desire that quickly disappears after you become a cadet), the opportunity to play Division I intercollegiate athletics with regard to cadets who received no other such offers. Many cadets intend a civilian career and go to West Point to get a “free” education and a diploma that they believe will help them launch a civilian, not a government, career. They may have a love of country but they have a greater love of Wall Street or Silicon Valley.

These are practical, selfish, motives. Love of country may be in the background and count as one of each cadet’s motives, but when I was there, any cadet who started talking like Murphy in a bull session would probably trigger eye rolling and accusations of bullshit and comments like mine about the real complex mix of cadet motives. Murphy was never a cadet. He is just a journalist who talked to cadets. Journalists overestimate their ability to get inside the heads of interview subjects, especially in unique and unusual circumstances like being a West Point cadet.

‘Love of your classmates’

West Point cadets know their classmates better than civilian college students. Cadets bond with each other to a far greater extent because of the shared ordeal of West Point and simply the greater amount of time cadets spend with each other, 24/7 eleven months a year, than civilian college students. But every cadet has classmate friends and classmates he does not like. “Love” is a rather strong word. Cadets are more like civilian college students than different from them with regard to bonding with classmates.

To the extent that civilian college students share an ordeal and spend a lot of time together, like my oldest son at Columbia where he was on the football team all four years, there is little difference between the feelings Columbia football teammates have for each other and the feelings West Point cadets have for each other.

‘Love of the future officers you’d someday serve with’

With regard to love of future offices you serve with. First off, this appears to be above and beyond the classmates. In other words, this is love of West Point grads from other classes, love of officers of all ranks, and love of ROTC and OCS officers.

My ass!

West Point grads look down on OCS and ROTC officers at least in the first several years. It’s not politic to admit that, but look at the logic of it. We spend 24/7 eleven months a year for four years at West Point. OCS guys spend a couple of months at an Army school with far lower admissions and graduating standards and no academic classes. ROTC guys party for four or five years at a co-ed civilian school, taking a little time to attend some ROTC classes during the school year and go to summer camp. We spent orders of magnitude more time acquiring our gold bars than they did. We had to meet far higher standards to get ino our officer training program and far higher standards to graduate from it. And it shows. The OCS guys tend to be blue-collar enlisted men in officer’s uniforms. The ROTC guys, at least in the first several years, do not know how to put their uniforms on correctly or give commands. We laughed out loud at them on a number of occasions.

And don’t get me started on “love” of our superior officers. I wrote a couple of dozen articles on them elsewhere at this Web site. As cadets, our relationships with our superior officers ranged from distant to hostile. When I visited West Point for my 40th reunion in September, 2008, my wife and I walked through Central Area with a colonel as cadets were going to class, mostly in the other direction. We were going toward the mess hall which has a few classrooms. The cadets were mainly going toward Thayer Hall which has a zillion classrooms.

I was surprised to hear the colonel greet many of the cadets by their first names as he returned their salutes. I recall no such behavior in the 1960s. We would salute and say “Good morning, sir” or “Beat Navy, sir” and he would return the salute and say “Good morning” or “Beat Navy.” It was very formal. I do not recall an officer ever calling me by my last name at West Point other than to accost me or call on me in class. I do not recall any cadet being addressed by his first name by an officer. So cadets apparently have a slightly less distant relationship with many officers there now, but I sensed no love. We respected and liked some officers better than others. Some we greatly disliked. I have heard of officers who were worshipped and loved by the subordinates, whose men would do anything for them, but I never saw such a superior with my own eyes or heard of one on active duty during my time in the Army. (Other than one senior during my first month of West Point but we were very young and probably easy to impress then.) In short, I think Murphy grossly overstated the affection between cadets and their current or future superiors.

The Army officer corps is a hot bed of Machiavellian office politics and cynical ass-kissing and maneuvering for promotion. There is some bonding between peers and between those who have to work closely together in combat. But otherwise, the other officers with whom you work are just another bunch of federal government bureaucrats, only worse.

‘Love of our future soldiers’

We tried hard to love our subordinates. And we did love some of them. But “knuckleheads” understates the problem with many of them. Later in the book, we read that one Class of 2002’s platoon sergeants was a hard-core alcoholic who sometimes did not even show up for work. And they still took him to Iraq as the platoon sergeant. (A platoon sergeant is the enlisted equivalent of the platoon leader. He is second in command of the platoon.) I would have court marialed his ass or tried. I’m sure I would have been told to “counsel” him and all that. I would have said, “Bullshit, sir. The man is not fit. And he is not my only subordinate. The other 39 are liable to die because this guy is unfit. Either court marital him or court marital me, sir, because he is not going to be our platoon sergeant any more, especially since we leave for Iraq tomorrow.”

By the way the result of such a confrontation would probably be my being relieved as platoon leader. So be it.

We tried to love our soldiers. It is necessary to do the job. We were successful with many of them, but not all. Far too many active duty soldiers are not fit to be there. They are drug addicts and alcoholics, career criminals, too stupid to live, and so on. The Army should get rid of them but they can’t make their numbers at the Pentagon without them. And I would have responded, “Yes, sir, and I cannot accomplish my mission and care for the welfare of my men with them. And my mission and men trump your public-relations numbers. It is not my job to go into battle with these millstones. It is your job to persuade Congress to appropriate more money, or institute a draft, to get better soldiers.”

The reason the situation exists and will continue is that Army officers do not have the balls to resist it. As Murphy tells it, love conquers all. Let him take a platoon that includes unfit men into battle. Let him call for support from other units during a battle and find that they have unfit guys there who prevent him from getting needed support. The real world rarely fits the touchy-feely, “all you need is love” paradigm, no matter how fervently people like Murphy believe it should.

Red shirting kindergarten

In my book Succeeding, I recommended red shirting kids in kindergarten, that is, not sending your son to first grade until he’s seven rather than the standard age six. It would also work for girls, but it has some downsides for them.

On page 16, Murphy says the father of West Point ’02 cadet Drew Sloan did that. Did it work? He became a star man (top 5% of the class). I seem to recall that Sloan had some other accomplishments as a cadet, but I could not find them because the publisher, Henry Holt, cut a corner. The book has no index. Cheap jerks. All my books have indexes.

In Succeeding, I said that redshirting in kindergarten makes the student in question bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic, more confident socially, smarter academically, and more likely to be a leader all through school and college and seems to last a lifetime in more subtle ways.

‘Service project’

Apparently, cadets now have to spend several of their summer weeks doing a “service project.” What’s that? Apparently, a sop to liberals. Drew Sloan’s was to work at an elementary school in Chicago’s Chinatown.

Sounds like total bullshit to me. Not that the cadets and the people they worked with wouldn’t get some small benefit out of it. But since we haven’t won a war in over 60 years, I would have thought cadets had more pressing things to do.

‘Marketable skills’

On page 26, Murphy tells of a cadet who chose military intelligence as his branch on the theory that it would give him “marketable skills for the civilian world.” I have a news flash for that guy and any current or future cadets who might think similarly. Few Army branches offer marketable skills: medical service corps, finance corps, transportation, military police, adjutant general corps, or aviation. Military intelligence is a stretch. Furthermore, no Army branch offers general marketable skills. These are very specific. They would only have some appeal to civilian employers where almost the exact same skill and knowledge would be needed.

For more on transferability of military skills to the civilian world, or more accurately, the lack thereof, see my articles, “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?” “Process versus results orientation,” and “Is the U.S. military as good at producing leaders as it says?

Ranger School: both the beginning and the end of many West Point careers

When I went through Army Ranger School in 1968, it was required of all West Pointers who chose one of the five (then) combat arms. I chose Signal Corps which was one of the five combat arms as they were defined then. I passed the course, and received the Ranger tab, but I did not wear it.

According to In a Time of War, Ranger is now a huge deal. If you flunk, your military career is over as far as ever making general is concerned. Furthermore, the criterion for flunking out are silly, random, arbitrary, and really just a fraudulent game the purpose of which is to have a high flunk-out rate so those who “pass” can brag about how great they are because only a few “passed.”

Page 61 of the book says:

For days and weeks beforehand, [ranger school] candidates had watched one another practice push-ups and sit-ups, making sure their form was pristine; they’d heard a Ranger instructor might send them home for the smallest imperfection. The rumor was that Ranger was chronically oversubscribed, and that instructors kicked students out on the first day to cull the herd. In fact, Drew and Ryan learned that exactly that had happened to Drew’s plebe-year roommate, Dave..., only a week or two before.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Dave had yelled at the instructor who failed him less than an hour into the first night at Ranger. In eight years in the Army and at West Point, he’d never failed a PT test. “Eight more!” called out another instructor. Sure enough, eight of the fifteen candidates behind him failed as well.

According to the book, all eyes go to your left shoulder when fellow military first meet you and the lack of a Ranger Tab results in the question, “What happened to you at Ranger?” One West Point graduate who did not get the tab was even unhappy to hear he was being assigned for the summer to West Point because he would be disgraced by not having the tab.

So Dave spent eight years in the Army as an enlisted man and as a cadet, then his military career ended in an instant because some sergeant randomly picked him to fill that day’s flunk-out quota. You can’t make this shit up.

The books tells of a Ranger graduation ceremony with parents, wives, and girlfriends in attendance. When we graduated, it was on an old temporary World War II airstrip in the swamp. There were absolutely no spectators of any kind. If any had suggested spectators, the Army would have been horrified because we looked as if we had been liberated from Dachau. We had lost 20 or more pounds each. Our eyes were sunken. Our skin was pure white and wrinkled like when you stay in the water too long. Civilians would have taken us to a hospital, not lined us up for an awarding-Ranger-tabs ceremony. Mothers would have physically attacked the Ranger cadre after they got a close look at us. Also, the damned course was only two months long. I graduated from five post-West Point Army schools. My single mom had better things to do than travel around the country to watch me graduate from Army schools every so many weeks.

The Rhodes Scholar who didn’t make it to Oxford

Believe it or not, flunking you out for no reason is one of the nicer things they do to students at Ranger School. Click here to read about the worse things. In a Time of War tells about one that I also covered at my Web article.

Zac Miller was another member of the West Point Class of 2002. He won a Rhodes Scholarship. Figuring he would never be in better shape to endure the rigors of Ranger School, he decided to go there early in the summer after graduation then go to Oxford University in England in the fall. He never made it to Oxford. Ranger School killed him. He was found dead of heat stroke during a training patrol. That mean seem like a freak accident to you. It’s not. It’s gross negligence.

Ranger is held at Fort Benning, Georgia; Dahlonega, Georgia; and Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle. In the summer, those places are unbearably hot and humid. When we were at Benning, they kept having “Category-Four” days. That meant it was so hot and humid that all outdoor training was ordered stopped—except at Ranger School. I guess because Ranger students are superhuman even before they complete the course. A number of my Ranger School classmates passed out from heat stroke. One was reportedly just 15 minutes from permanent brain damage when he arrived at the hospital. Your tax dollars and “elite” Ranger instructors at work.

Then there is the issue of Miller being found dead alone. In Ranger, you do everything with your Ranger buddy. Where was Miller’s ranger buddy while he was dying of heat stroke? I have never heard an explanation of that.

Had he waited, he would have gone through Ranger School with many of his West Point classmates. One of them would have been his Ranger buddy and his death almost certainly would not have happened. We were taught to take care of our roommates from day one at West Point. If your roommate was late or his uniform was not in perfect order, the upperclassmen would demand of the late or sloppily dressed guy, “Who are your roommates!?” Then they would chew his roommates out more than him because they left him behind or did not inspect him before he left the room. Where was the Ranger instructor who is responsible for the safety of all the ranger students in his patrol? How was he punished? Was he punished at all? My guess is no.

No commo check

The book tells of a patrol in Iraq were one of the West Pointers’ platoons was suddenly attached to the 101st Airborne Division. They had enough time to decide that when they came under fire, the Airborne guys would jump off the tanks into the ditch by he road to return fire. As the battle started, they realized the tanks and infantry were using radios set on different frequencies.

Before every patrol in Ranger School, you go through a checklist. One of the things on it is a commo or communications check. When I took out a patrol in Vietnam, my commo check revealed that the guys who whom we would call for help had not remembered to turn on their radio. I sent a runner and got that straightened out before we went out on the patrol. In a Time of War sort of accepts as a given that the Army really trained the West Pointers to a super level of proficiency. Not doing a commo check before a combat patrol is really dumb. They did not teach it at West Point or any Army School I attended other than Ranger. But then they are so busy flunking everyone out of Ranger School that many never get to that part of Ranger.

Guys could have died on the Iraq patrol because of the failure to make a commo check and put the various radios on the same frequency. I don’t know if the West Pointer screwed up. But I strongly suspect he was never taught to make a commo check before going out on a patrol or other mission. At West Point, we were taught bits and pieces of military tactics, like alternating shooting and moving, but not big-picture stuff like the details of preparing for a mission.


The book reminds me of an aspect of being a young West Point graduate that had faded from memory. Camaraderie. We spent a lot of time with our fellow lieutenants at the apartment complex swimming pool, cheap restaurant meals, the officers club, in the woods on field training, watching football games, in camps in Vietnam, and so forth. Military officers depict this camaraderie as a virtue of military service.

It is a byproduct of forced isolation and shared hardship with a uniform group of people in terms of age, employment, attending the same college. A certain amount of that is good and normal and enjoyable, but I do not know of many who live like that their whole lives. If it’s so wonderful, why not? It is good men and women making the best of a very bad situation. The fact that soldiers have been doing that since Valley Forge and before is one of the remarkable aspects of the human race. But sane people who know better do not seek out such situations.

No tanks

Class of 2002 member Todd Bryant chose the armor branch. Armor means tanks. As you would expect, he was sent to tank school then assigned to a tank unit. Then his tank unit was sent to Iraq—without their tanks.

Say what?

Someone up the chain of command decided that tanks were not good in urban environments because they scared the civilians.

Uh, some of the civilians are the enemy. All the enemy pretend to be civilians. And what about our rifles? Should we leave them at home, too, to avoid scaring anyone?

I am not making this stuff up. They really told Todd Bryant, West Point armor officer, that his unit had to leave their tanks at home when they went to Iraq. They were changed into infantry, a job for which they had not been trained or drilled or equipped. The right way, the wrong way, and the Army way.

This meant that Todd and his fellow highly-trained tank drivers, loaders, and gunners moved around Iraq in hummvees. Remember that fact.

Todd and his wife got married a second time, this time with guests, a minister, and a reception. But deployment to the war hung over the whole thing like a dark cloud. In World War II, that affected every family. But with our current all-volunteer Army, only the families of volunteers like Todd get to experience that. See my article on why we should have a draft for more on that.

Lots of combat

I am a typical Vietnam veteran. The bases where I was stationed were attacked with rockets from time to time. No one was hurt in the attacks I was present for. The average amount of combat, that is a firefight where Americans and North Vietnamese were shooting at each other from within the effective range of their weapons (about 300 meters), was probably about 32 seconds. That is, if you added up each Vietnam veteran’s time in a fire fight, and and averaged it, most would be zero, like me, and a minority would have 15 or 20 minutes of firefight experience. The majority of Vietnam vets were never in a firefight. I would not be surprised if the majority of the guys claiming to have post-traumatic-stress syndrome were never in a firefight.

But according to In a Time of War, the Class of 2002 were in almost daily firefights. Even a female medical service corps graduate was at a base that took almost daily enemy attacks, and when that wasn’t happening, she as dealing with a MASH-like steady stream of horribly mangled soldiers and civilians. Some ’02 grads were in quiet areas of Iraq or Afghanistan, but most seemed to be shot at and/or and IED attacked almost daily.

I was very impressed by the prolonged intensity of the fighting and the number of wounded and dead. I was not impressed by the tactics imposed on these young West Pointers by their superiors. There is the above-mentioned leaving tanks back in the U.S. The book also tells of a commander who removed all the doors on their hummvees—the better to shoot back at the enemy—only to find it poured rain when they moved out. One of the Class of ’02 guys disobeyed the remove-the-doors order and he and his troops stayed dry on that operation.

Some may say that those battalion commanders led patrols, too, when they were lieutenants.

The hell they did!

If you were a lieutenant colonel in 2004, you were probably a first lieutenant around 1984. What, pray tell, war, was going on that year? None. The colonels ordering the West Point Class of 2002 on meaningless suicide mission after meaningless suicide mission never led a combat patrol in their lives.

Staying married

I have expressed great concern about West Point cadets and young graduates being severely handicapped with regard to finding a spouse. I have said less about staying married, but that seems also to be more difficult for those who graduate from West Point. The married lives of the members of the Class of 2002 were extremely short—they only graduated in 2002. But still, In a Time of War recounts numerous extreme difficulties. West Point graduates go off to war and to unaccompanied training leaving their spouse and children behind. More experienced military wives warn the less experienced ones of cheating, husbands changing as a result of being in a war zone to being a different person than the one you married—perhaps to a new person whom you would not have married.

Wives of the young West Pointers in the war zones were afraid to leave the house for fear of missing a rare phone call. Cell phone reception is less reliable than “land line.” West Pointers in the war zone wait in line for hours to make a call home only to find the lines have gone dead. When problems arise during separation, the couples have great difficulty communicating and dealing with the problems because of the limitations of email and audio-only communications. Grievances build up between communications—a relationship-management error known as “gunnysacking” when it is done deliberately, but it is no less problematic when gunnysacking is made mandatory and unavoidable by separation.

Soldiers in the war zone feel they are doing their part and then some ducking bullets and withstanding IED explosions. But nevertheless, spouses at home still resent being stuck with more than their share of dealing with such problems as pregnancy, miscarriage, and other problems and chores that are performed by the husbands of their friends who are married to civilians.

Todd Bryant

In a Time of War generally discusses a handful of Company D-1 ’02 men and women. But as I was reading, I noticed that the author seemed to have begun to focus on a West Pointer named Todd Bryant—quoting many of his love letters to his new bride and that sort of thing. I immediately sensed that I was being set up. They do this in movies when the camera gradually focuses on a tertiary character who is very likable. Then he dies.

Sure enough, Murphy was using that cinematic device to build up the death of Bryant by IED. The Hollywood writers who do that are writing fiction. This was not fiction. I do not care for that approach to telling of the death of a real person. And I will not be interested in hearing from anyone who thinks I “spoiled” the book by revealing that Bryant gets killed. That sort of nonsense does not apply to the death of a real human.

You will recall that Bryant was the graduate who chose armor (tanks) as his branch but whose unit was not allowed to take their tanks to Iraq because they scared civilians. One of the civilians who was not scared blew up an IED under Bryant’s unarmored hummvee. Bryant appeared to be partially conscious briefly after the explosion, but they could not find his legs and some sort of metal fragment or bullet penetrated his face. He died at the scene within minutes.

I am not certain, but based on the difference between tanks and hummvees, it is reasonable to figure that if Bryant had been in a tank, he would have survived that IED.

‘They’re in there’

Chapter 10 of the book tells a story rarely told but one that needs to be told more often. It is the notification of Bryant’s wife and mother by the Army of his death and the events culminating in his funeral.

Married soldiers generally live in apartments on the Army base provided by the Army. The size is based on your rank and the size of your family. I never lived in them because I was always a bachelor when I was in the Army. I always lived off the base. But I visited a few married housing units. They were like civilian apartments, only about 30% shrunken. Too small for civilian tenants to tolerate. For the lower ranking enlisted men and officers, they are also typically multifamily, attached units clustered together by the dozen on tree-lined streets like a 1950s suburban neighborhood.

When a soldier is sent to war, his wife and kids can stay in the post quarters until he returns and gets a new assignment. They usually do because the quarters are free, there is usually a base hospital which is also free, and the kids are in school on or near the base. The other military families also are a support group.

During war time, about half the houses on a street are occupied by wives, many who are pregnant and/or who have kids, whose husbands are in the war overseas. During World War II, next of kin were notified of deaths, wounds, and missing by telegram. As a consequence, being a Western Union boy delivering telegrams by bicycle was a miserable job, even when you were just delivering a message unrelated to the overseas soldier.

During and since Vietnam, notification is performed by a chaplain and one or or more other officers. Normally, soldiers on a base wear cammies, that is, the distinctive desert camouflage battle dress fatigues. “Casualty assistance officers,” however, wear class A uniforms. That is the Army olive drab equivalent of a suit and tie.

I never had to do it, thank God, but my roommate from West Point had to do it once. It was awful.

Terrified at the sight of an unknown car or van

Wives waiting for their husbands to return from a war are understandably terrified at the sight of even an unknown car or van moving on their street. The sight of officers in class A uniforms approaching their house is far more terrifying. If a car containing such officers stops and more than one get out, it almost always means someone near the car has lost a husband/father. Some wives cannot take their eyes off the street. Others close the blinds on the front of their house so they cannot see the cars.

If a wife works, as most of the young ones do when they have no kids, the notification officers go to her place of work. Bryant’s new bride had no kids and worked as a Spanish teacher. When she got a message that she was needed at the office, “her chest caught.” When she got to the office, she was relieved to see no officers. Then a student saw her and said, “They’re in there.” She walked into the inner office and saw a fellow Army wife who did not work at the school and four officers in class A uniforms. She collapsed to the floor shrieking, “No! No!”

Then they had to notify her mother who was living temporarily in the post quarters with her and was at home.

When the van carrying the officers and the new widow slowed to a stop. Another wife saw it and became hysterical. She was the next-door neighbor of the Bryants. They went straight to the Bryant’s door where Todd’s mother-in-law came out thinking that one of the officers was Todd home on unexpected leave.

Simultaneously, Todd’s parents were getting the same treatment. His mother pulled into her driveway to find her next-door neighbor waiting for her, crying. As with Todd’s wife, his mother instantly figured out the meaning of the scene.

Once the primary (wife) and secondary (parents) next of kin have been notified, they are allowed to tell whomever they want. Thus began an instant phone and email tree as relatives and classmates spread the word worldwide, including to classmates in the war zones. The email subject line: “Todd.”


At the memorial service, the military personnel from the base who ran the ceremony did something I never heard of before. Apparently neither did Todd’s widow which I conclude was a very bad idea. A first sergeant from the base who was in Bryant’s unit but had not deployed to Iraq called roll of the uniformed soldiers attending. Each answered “Here, First Sergeant! ” in the normal manner.

But then he called for “Lieutenant Bryant” and, of course, got no answer. He did it again, then a third time adding the first name and middle initial, at which point a bugler began playing taps. Bryant’s widow lost it. So did I reading it.

That is an interesting bit of street theater, and I am sure extremely poignant, but the family should have been notified of it, and approved of it, in advance.

Dead body paperwork

Bryant’s body was not there. It was at Dover Air Force Base, DE. His brother, a Marine, went to escort the body home. As always with the Army, there was paperwork, including a strong recommendation to leave the casket closed. Bryant’s widow had to sign a form acknowledging that parts of Todd’s body had not been recovered (his legs) and agreeing to have a funeral for the recovered parts anyway.

Friends and relatives wanted to do a bunch of West Point and other military music at the funeral. His wife said no on the grounds that he was more than just a West Point graduate and officer. She also said, ‘...he was not as crazy about the Army or military itself.”

Bryant’s wife tried to see his body. The funeral director said no way. Although she had been told his face was unharmed, the body was thickly covered with cotton, gauze, and plastic. Apparently, this could not be removed from his face in any satisfactory way. All the director could do was expose his hands. His widow wanted to put his wedding and West Point class rings on his fingers for burial. He had left them home for safe-keeping. He had only worn the wedding ring for ten days. But the hands were swollen from the explosion wounds. She could barely get the rings past his first knuckle.

One of Bryant’s classmates came home from Iraq to attend the funeral. Then he had to go back. Also at the funeral were other classmates who had not yet been to Iraq or Afghanistan. The classmate who had to go back was upset by the talk of those who had not yet been there. “Nobody knows what it’s really like over there. They’re all looking forward to their tours,” with contemptuous emphasis on the abstract inadequacy of the word “tours.”

All of this talk of Todd Bryant makes a point I was unable to make effectively in a Web article I wrote titled “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?” I was trying to get across the real danger of going to West Point because I know prospects and even cadets think they are aware of the danger, but they only experience it as an abstraction, which is woefully inadequate awareness. Even at Bryant’s funeral, his other West Point classmates who had not yet been to war still did not grasp what they were about to do.

In a Time of War is required reading for anyone considering joining the Army or Marines, their parents, their girlfriends, fiancees, wives, and even prospective girlfriends. If the young men who read it still want to join, they need their heads examined. My message to them is the same as my mother told my father the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. He waned to enlist immediately. She persuaded him to wait until he was drafted. He did, he was, and served in Europe “for the duration.”

You may say, “But there is no draft now.”

Reverse Catch-22

Irrelevant. If everyone wises up and knocks off this insane volunteering craziness, there will be a draft, and that is the only sane way to handle this. I say that as the father of three sons who were born in 1981, 1984, and 1987. My sons will not serve unless drafted. For their sakes, I hope there is no draft. But that is selfish. It is unfair for us to let volunteers fight these wars. Volunteering for war is a sign of immaturity per se. It should trigger a reverse Catch-22.

Catch-22 is the name of a book and movie about American bomber pilots in Europe during World War II. Catch-22 as a fictional Army regulation that would not let you get out of flying bombing missions by claiming to be crazy on the grounds that if you recognized that the missions were extremely dangerous and you wanted to get out of them, that alone proved you were quite sane, so you had to go ahead and fly. On the other hand, if you actually wanted to go on missions, and had some other indication of insanity, they might take you off flight duty.

My reverse Catch-22 says the following:

If you want to enlist in the Army or Marines during a war, you are obviously too immature or too ignorant of what you are doing or too crazy to be allowed to sign the enlistment or West-Point-entering papers.

It is a legal doctrine called “competence.” Minors, for example, are not competent to sign binding legal documents because they are too lacking in experience or judgment to understand what they are doing. Insane or drunk persons are also not competent to sign binding legal documents.

I was 17 when West Point got me to sign the papers committing me to nine years in West Point and the Army. There was no war that day, but we were in one, in Vietnam, within two months of my signing. West Point and the Army had no business letting me do that at that age. The same is true of Todd Bryant. The American people take advantage of the youth, naiveté, and insecurities of young men when they allow, and even encourage, them to join the Army or Marines. It’s wrong. It’s profoundly immoral. It is akin to the evil recruiters for “Pleasure Island” where bad boys are turned into donkeys and made to work in the salt mines in the Pinocchio story.


I also write about real estate investment. In that field, I am very big on ethics. The main point I make on that above and beyond the normal tell the truth, keep your promises, and Golden Rule is suitability. That is, do not let an unsophisticated person sign a complex deal. Unethical real estate people do that all the time so they can bamboozle the other party. They protest, as do the Army and Marines, that they explained what the person was signing. The problem, in both real estate and military ground pounder wartime service is that explaining it to an unsophisticated person means little. They lack the experience and knowledge to understand what they are signing although they are unaware of their ignorance and think they do understand what they are signing.

In the stock market, this principle is well known and goes by the name “the know your customer Rule” and it requires that the securities salesmen not sell any complex financial instruments to persons whose net worth, experience, income, age, and emotional state indicate they are unlikely to fully appreciate the risks of, say, an options contract. The Army and Marines routinely behave in a way that would get them promptly banned from ever selling securities. In other words, a reputable stock brokerage would never sell an option to a 17-year-old young man—yet the Army and Marines are doing the equivalent where what is being risked is not money, but the life of the victim!

As I say in my article on why we should have a draft, not only should we have a draft, that should be the only way anyone is allowed into the Army or Marines. That way, the American people are not taking advantage of the youth and naiveté of volunteers.

Taking too much leave

One of the D-1 West Pointers who attended the funeral came there from Iraq. His leave orders said he could stay four days after the funeral, which he did. Then he returned to Iraq. But his battalion commander was angry that he did not return to Iraq immediately after the funeral ended notwithstanding the four days of leave he was officially authorized. He punished the 2nd lieutenant by delaying his promotion to 1st lieutenant by one month. That is the end of the young man’s career in terms of having any chance to make general. It is also the kind of thing that can get you riffed out of the Army after the war ends. A RIF is a Reduction in Force after a war ends. It is analogous to a large-scale layoff at a big manufacturing company in a recession.

The West Pointer in question figured he would probably die in Iraq. His predecessor had. Todd Bryant had. Another classmates almost died of serious wounds. He wanted to jam as much life into the four remaining days of his leave as possible then go do his duty in Iraq. Nevertheless, his battalion commander, who probably had never taken out a combat patrol in his life, destroyed the lieutenant’s career over his eminently understandable taking advantage of all the leave he was authorized.

When I was in Vietnam, my former West Point roommate, Ranger buddy, and best friend and I designated each other as the officer to accompany our body home from Vietnam if either of us was killed. Why? To give the other guy a week away from the war. As it turned out, we both survived. He was best man at my wedding and is still my best friend from West Point.


Another of the D-1 graduates, Drew, chose to be stationed in Hawaii, and was, but like almost everyone else, he soon was deployed to war, Afghanistan in his case. The guy was single and trying to keep alive a doomed romance with a woman who lived thousands of miles away. Typical West Point cadet and graduate behavior pattern. That pattern was caused more by necessity than stupidity, but it still doesn’t work very well as far as succeeding at romance is concerned.

Chance proximity

I admit I have an unusual perspective on finding and getting to know a spouse. If you are interested, you can read the details in my book Succeeding. Basically, we figured out how to meet women whose photos we saw in newspapers and college yearbooks and we met one or two new, attractive, educated women who lived within 60 minutes drive of our apartment per week.We called it “The System.” I married one of them and we will have our 34th anniversary in May, 2009.

Virtually all other twenty-something people, including West Point cadets and graduates use a method one book author called “chance proximity.” That is the notion that you never do anything deliberate to meet the opposite sex. That wouldn’t be cool. Rather, you just go about your life and it just happens. You end up marrying the person who was sitting next to you in an airplane or who lives in the apartment across the hall or who works at the bank where you have an account and so forth. Some enchanted evening and all that.

They also use a method my System partner and I called “friend of a friend.” And a lot meet by being in the wedding parties of classmates and relatives and other friends.

From a logical standpoint, that’s all a bunch of silliness. It produces far too few meetings and the quality of those you meet, in terms of similarity and compatibility with you, is too low. Furthermore, when you are a West Point cadet or recent graduate, your proximity to attractive, educated women who live within 60 minutes drive of your apartment is almost nil. That’s why we invented The System. Necessity was the mother of our invention.

We would arrive at a new Army base, immediately hit the local libraries and college libraries, and write down the names and towns of all the attractive girls pictured in the local papers and recent yearbooks. We got their addresses and phone numbers from college directories and other sources. We filled shoe boxes with 3 x 5 cards on them. (Personal computers did not exist then.) We became like private investigators. Then we invited them to lunch. Roughly half the single, still local ones said yes and we were having excellent dating lives within a month or two of arriving at a new assignment. Within a couple of months, we had more girls who would go out with us on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights than we could fit into the schedule.

Had we been in Hawaii like the ’02 grad named Drew, we would have been dating local beauties within weeks of arriving. We sure as hell would not have been fiddling around trying to maintain a relationship with a woman in Chicago from Hawaii.

To make a long story short, he was severely wounded in Afghanistan, almost died, and had to get many surgeries to get back to almost normal. The Chicago girl got married to a high school sweetheart. And Drew got out of the Army, after three combat tours, and went to Harvard Business School. Great move that last one. He also, while stationed in Hawaii, bought a condo with a classmate. By pure dumb luck, it went way up in value and he made a bundle.

I bought a duplex in April, 1969, ten months after I graduated from West Point, in Southern New Jersey when I was going to Army schools in Northern New Jersey. By pure dumb luck, I sextupled my money. I got out of the Army in 1972, got married in 1975, got a Harvard MBA in 1977, and my wife who came with me to Harvard ended up also getting a Harvard MBA in 1978. I assume that chance proximity and friend-of-a-friend woman-meeting methods will work quite adequately for Drew now that he is at Harvard (apparently class of ’09).

He was going to pay his tuition and room and board out of his own pocket. But he visited a vet center in Boston just to let them know he was at Harvard and they told him the total cost of his going to Harvard Business School would be paid by the government: $100,000. That was because of his wounds. I was not wounded. All I got was a little GI bill which as I recall was about $300 a month during school months only.

Sloan ended up living in an apartment above the Pizzeria Uno in Harvard Square. That was the restaurant my oldest son and I always went to after the Columbia-versus-Harvard football games my son played in at Harvard. We also went there after a Columbia game at Dartmouth and generally eat there every time we go to Harvard.

After Harvard, Sloan is considering going back into government. He says

...individuals could, inspire change, but that it took government to effect progress on a wide scale.

I’m sorry. That’s incorrect, but thank you for playing “Philosophy of Life.”

I have a book called Books that Changed the World. Most of their authors, like the anonymous 7th century guys who wrote the bible and the koran, Karl Marx, Rachel Carson, Ralph Nader, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, etc., never served in the government. In fact, only one did: Mein Kampf author Adolf Hitler. He was definitely a wide-scale guy. Progress? That was a net negative with bad things like the government-run Holocaust offsetting good things like the government-sponsored construction of the Autobahn.

How about inventors who changed the world? Pasteur, Edison, Whitney, Jobs and Wozniak, Bell, Goddard, Berners-Lee, etc., all non-government.

I could go on doing this with athletics, art, education, and so forth.

Ronald Reagan got it right. “Government is not the solution. It’s the problem.”

Sloan is right about one thing. Government almost has a monopoly on a certain huge scale. National and multinational corporations effect on a wide scale, too. But thinking government is an agent of progress is perhaps the sort of naiveté that only a person who has been in the government or a university since high school is capable of. Now that he is a civilian, Sloan needs to get out more. He also needs to read the book he is in, In a Time of War. It chronicles one Kafkaesque government nightmare after another, many involving death and maiming and agonizing emotional trauma.

Other than setting some wise standards or winning the occasional just war, I cannot think of much cost-effective progress that has been effected by any government. And they also set so many unwise standards and get involved in so many unjust wars, they need to be restrained more than they have been even in those areas.

Milton Friedman said that government is an instrument of coercion and that there are very few areas—law enforcement, national defense, epidemic control—where coercion is the best approach.

Positive pregnancy test

One girlfriend of an ’02 grad who was in Iraq had a positive pregnancy test. Lovely. She’s single and already a single mom from a prior marriage, pregnant by a guy who is dodging bullets, RPGs, and IEDs as she is looking at the test results. She was not pleased. He was not able to comfort her much from the war zone. I doubt that was a typical dilemma for a West Point graduate, but is probably is pretty common for military personnel and it is the sort of situation you would expect to arise out of all this going off to war and trying to squeeze years of normal life into months of pressed-for-time relationships.

The ’02 guy survived the war. That particular pregnancy ended in miscarriage and they got married after he returned.

Married couple in Iraq

Two D-1 West Pointers from ’02 married each other and both went to Iraq together although separated by some miles. Both routinely came under fire and consequently worried about each other all the time. At one point, the wife was told that her husband had been wounded in an unspecified manner. It turned out to be incorrect, but probably took a year or two off her life until she found out the truth.

Training accident

Another classmate was killed on his last day of stateside training before deploying to the war. A passing vehicle hit the machine gun on his tank. The gun spun around and hit him in the head killing him.

If you are a civilian, this probably sounds like a freak accident. Author Murphy called it a “bizarre accident.” Nope. This shit happens all the time in the military. Hundreds of military personnel a year die in training and war-zone accidents. I already mentioned another above—the Rhodes Scholar who died in Ranger School. See my Web article for the exact figures. Probably almost every West Point class suffers training and other accident deaths in the line of duty, including classes who were never in a war. The military is a dangerous place, partly because of inherently dangerous activities like guns and explosives and enemy fire, but looked at over time in peace and war, it is mainly dangerous because of negligence, ineptitude, poor leadership, and lousy maintenance.

For example, I was never in tanks, but I would expect that machine guns can and should be locked in a forward-aiming position so that the accident I just described cannot happen.

Death and cigars

Dave Swanson, an ’02 guy who had been in the Army for four years before West Point, came back from an Iraq patrol in which his favorite enlisted man had been killed. He found the majors and colonels celebrating the operation as if they had won the Super Bowl. They were smoking cigars. They had not been out on the operation. Only the lieutenants and captains do that.

Swanson decided to get out of the Army, but not before a colonel demanded that he explain why the dead soldier had not been in the prone position (lying on his stomach) when shot. Some SOP from headquarters had ordered that position. Neither the book nor I will discuss that in detail. I will just say that when the shit hits the fan, you deal with it instinctively. The prone position rarely works because you have to see what’s going on and few terrain situations allow that from the prone position. In any event, the body position of soldiers in fire fights cannot be the subject of a headquarters SOP.

Routine lying

My biggest complaint about the U.S. military is the fact that officers routinely, daily lie, usually in the form of signed reports that are false. Page 205 of In a Time of War contains an exchange where one non-West Point female officer tries to rationalize lying on official documents to one of the female ’02 grads.

But another friend who had been drinking [in Afghanistan which violates U.S. military law] got off scot-free. She’d learned as an enlisted soldier before she was commissioned that telling the truth in the Army doesn’t pay, the friend explained to Tricia [the West Point grad]. “Sometimes you have to do what you have to do for your career.”

“If you can live with yourself, that’s great,” Tricia said. She was unhappy about being put in this position to begin with and now she felt that her friend was asking her to endorse the deception. “I can’t live with lying,” Tricia said.

Tricia, who is married to a classmate who wants to make a career of the Army, switched to JAG where some integrity is possible in my observation. I also had the impression that Army doctors could “get away with being honest” at times. See my articles “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?” and “The Army tries to get away with yet another whitewash of Pat Tillman’s death.

Make no mistake about my position. If you are an Army officer in certain positions in U.S. military units, you will be asked to sign false official reports. In my case, they were arms inventories, training schedules, and motor vehicle maintenance reports. I refused. I also never got promoted to captain. Only about a half dozen of my 706 classmates hold that distinction. The others were generally publicly opposed to the Vietnam war. I never opposed that war.

If you refuse, you will instantly be retaliated against. You will not be promoted and your career will otherwise be over immediately, or, in the case of West Point graduates, when your five-year commitment is up.

If an officer claims to have never signed a false document, and that officer has been promoted while in regular units, the burden of proof is on that officer to show by what convoluted career path they never held a position where they had to sign false official documents. The only way I can conceive of that happening would be if the officer spent an extraordinary amount of time in Army schools, then only had staff jobs or never was a motor officer or an arms inventory officer or a company commander. Some reports, like the daily report which is the daily attendance record of a units soldiers, are generally accurate. But arms inventories, motor vehicle reports, training schedules, investigations that embarrass the big shots, etc. are routinely falsified.

Supply convoys across Afghanistan

During a tour in Afghanistan, Drew and his men repeatedly escorted convoys across. This was over the same road with the same basic configuration of vehicles and weapons. That violates one of the main rules of moving in enemy territory: you never set a repeated pattern. It makes it too easy to attack you.

On one occasion, a truck full of Afghans took a different fork in the road from the one Drew’s group took. They were promptly blown up by an IED. Drew and his men went to help. The Afghans were unhurt and said they needed no help. In the middle of nowhere with no transportation? Strange people.

Ooookay. So Drew reported the event over the radio then resumed his trek on the other road. Five minutes later, his company commander ordered him by radio to go back and get the IED detonator. After arguing briefly, Drew did so. He was extremely angry.

I don’t think I would have done that. I would have made a “command decision” not to do that based on my superior perspective on the ground. Darkness got closer with every passing minute. They had a long way to go. The IED, like all IED’s was a command detonated mine. That means a bad guy was watching the road and triggered the explosion. Most likely, the bad guys were still there watching. They sometimes planted a second IED to get the rescue party. Then there is the low probability of finding anything left of the detonator and the likelihood that the military bureaucracy would make little use of it. Drew and some or all of his men could have died as a result of his going back for that detonator.

In case you are wondering whether I ever refused to obey an order, yes. I took out a recon patrol in Vietnam. The standing written orders said no one on the patrol was allowed to chamber a round in his rifle. I ignored that and ordered everyone in the patrol to chamber a round then put their safeties on. You need to be able to return fire instantly if you are ambushed. Having to remember to cock the rifle before firing was probably not going to happen with my draftee, non-ranger patrol members.

I spent the whole patrol going from one end of the column to the other making sure those safeties were still on. Then, at the end, I inspected each guy’s rifle to make sure the magazine was removed and all rounds removed from the chambers. On another occasion, I was ordered to drive from Long Binh to Phu Loi late in the afternoon. I decided that conflicted with the standing policy not to drive outside a base after dark and I refused to go until the next morning. Not quite the same as Drew’s situation. Actually, I would argue he had more reason to do what I did, that is, override the order. In my two situations, the enemy could have been there, but we had no evidence that they were. He knew they were there.

I would also note that what Drew was doing, driving through Indian Country, was something I did on a number of occasions in Vietnam. At any moment on those drives, I or Drew and his men could have been easily killed by the enemy. For whatever reason, they chose not to kill us. But that, and only that, saved us. We had neither the men nor the weapons nor the armor to withstand any but the smallest attacks. I was surprised that I was put into such positions in Vietnam. Before I was in a combat zone, I thought our military always gave Americans a fighting chance to survive by having enough guys, radios, weapons, and air or artillery fire support pre-arranged. I never had a radio on those jaunts. Our only weapons were .45 automatic pistols.

If the company commander had made it a direct order and threatened to court martial me if I did not do it, I would have said, “So be it, sir. I’m here. You’re not. My on-the-scene judgment is that your order is not lawful. You can court martial me when I get back if you wish sir, but I am not taking my men back to that IED.”

‘Tried to court martial you again’

I invited my superiors to court martial me on a number of occasions when I was in the Army and I was refusing to follow some improper order. They never did. In addition, my friends at the JAG offices at various bases told me on a number of occasions, “Your boss tried to get us to court marital you again. We talked him out of it.” They knew me because I consulted with JAG officers in most cases, but not all, before I disobeyed an order. I suspect they told the superior that he would be the one who looked bad in the media accounts of the court martial and that it would be more likely to end his career competitiveness, by putting adverse news clippings in his personnel file, than the lieutenant’s. I was an airborne, ranger, West Point, Vietnam vet who volunteered for a number of gung ho jobs in Vietnam. The guys who were threatening to court martial me were none of the above or they were non-airborne, non-ranger, non-West Point guys who were on their first Vietnam tour like me.

Generally, what they wanted to court martial me for was not going to parties or joining the officers club. Once, they made me collect money for some dance but they refused to give me a safe or other secure place to keep the tickets and the money. Furthermore, when I was out of my office, they let officers go into the box of cash and tickets without a witness or any paperwork. Predictably, there was not enough money to cover all the missing tickets. I was ordered to pay out of my pocket. I refused. The colonel was said he was going to court martial me. I still refused. A captain who was listening and had nothing to do with the situation said he would pay out of his pocket. I told him, respectfully, that he was nuts. But he could not stand the situation, even vicariously.

Stupid IS immoral

Drew decided that the company commander’s order was “not illegal or immoral, just stupid.” Stupid, in a life-or-death situation, is immoral. Same is true of a guy sitting back in a base camp overriding the judgment of a platoon leader on the scene of an enemy attack. Worst case, you protect your men and your main mission by disobeying the order, then you get court martialed and shot by a firing squad. I argue that is better than getting yourself or one or more of your men killed protecting yourself from being court martialed by going back to that IED. Most likely case, the company commander cools off and just gives you a lousy efficiency report.

Some would say that would end your career. Correct. So what’re you telling me? Your career is more important than the lives of your men or accomplishment of your main mission: getting the needed supplies to your forward base camp?

On a subsequent convoy, Drew’s unit was ambushed. He was “very seriously injured” by an RPG hit on his hummvee. A medic on the medevac chopper had to perform an emergency tracheotomy. That is, they cut a hole in his throat and shove a tube in to enable him to breathe. ‘Very seriously injured” is the most serious category of wound classification. The next highest is dead. Every bone in Drew’s head was fractured, among other damage to his body. Virtually unrecognizable was the way he was described in the hospital. He required many operations and much plastic surgery over a long period to restore eyesight and other functions. One operation was life threatening. As a badly wounded soldier, he got to meet Bush, but got angry when Bush jauntily remarked upon seeing Drew’s eye patch, “What did we lose an eye?” Drew did not say so to the President, but he greatly resented the word “we” in that situation.

Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith said during the Iraq war,

I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even by criminal, I cannot support that any more.

See my article on the morality of obeying stupid orders.

Nothing to do

West Point cadets—and I spent time with a number of them in September of 2008 when I attended my 40th reunion—are all fired up to lead men in combat. They think that is their career. In my article “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?” I tried to point out that in a 20-year career, you would be lucky to command troops more than about two or three years total.

That professional self-image motivates cadets and provides pride and self-esteem to career officers, but it’s not reality. The reality is there are relatively few command slots. Most officers are paper pushers or worse.

In a Time of War tells about Dave Swanson, the Class of ’02 guy who was in the Army for four years as an enlisted man before West Point and who flunked out of Ranger the first hour because of some imperfection in push-up technique or some such. After a year and a half of command in Iraq, he became assistant public affairs officer. I suspect there is no such thing as an assistant public affairs officer. About half the time I was an Army officer, my job was assistant to someone who was not authorized to have an assistant. My first job in Vietnam was assistant High Frequency platoon leader. I figured I was being jerked around because of my being in constant fights with my superiors, but one of my West Point classmates who was never in any such trouble, also held an analogous “job” in the same battalion.

Later in Vietnam, I was communications platoon leader of a mixed heavy artillery battalion—a real job—and assistant corps artillery signal officer—a nonexistent job. Of my total time in Vietnam, I believe I spent about three months in a real job and about six and a half in fake jobs where my main task was to find stuff to do.

Swanson said that on most days he had no assignments or duties. He worked out a lot in the base gym and played long games of Risk with other similarly situated first lieutenants who had nothing to do. Remember, this is in Iraq in 2004 while the Army is complaining they need more men. In Vietnam, my fellow officers and I got incredibly good at ping pong at one base. At another, it was volleyball.

When Drew Sloan returned to Hawaii after being wounded, he was an XO, a real job, but he did not have a real unit, just miscellaneous guys who for various reasons had not deployed to Iraq with the rest of the unit. He had little to do, but was saved from that boredom by becoming a general’s aide. Being a general’s aide has its plusses and minuses, but its attractions are invisible to most people including to civilian employers.

Memo to gung ho cadets who have been polishing their leadership skills: Work on your Risk, weight training technique, ping pong, and volleyball skills, too, because that is a very large part, maybe most, of what you will be doing while drawing combat pay. In terms of leadership, you probably will be a platoon leader for a few months or a year. You may be a company commander for six months or a year. And that’s probably it. The next command is battalion, and most career officers probably never command a battalion. Hardly anyone commands bigger units than battalions. Three years of commanding troops in a 20-year career may be above average.

Swanson got mad when he learned he would be getting a bronze star—same as the other Risk players many of whom never commanded men in combat situations. He thought he would be getting the V device for valor on his bronze star. See my article on military medals for more on that crap.


Swanson’s wife decides at the end of Chapter 17 that military life is “imprisoning.” That is exactly the way I felt from when I completed my post-West Point Army schools until I was discharged. The day I was discharged, I yelled “Free at last! Free at last!” as I drove off the base for the last time. In spite of having nine years toward his 20 (counting the four before West Point and the required five after—the four at West Point don’t count for retirement), Swanson decided to get out of the Army.

Four year marriage; three years of separation

A married couple who were both Class of ’02 found after four years of marriage they had hardly ever lived together. Various military assignments kept them apart.

Chopper pilot

The book tells of a Class of ’02 grad, Tim Moshier, who became a combat helicopter pilot. The pilot got to command a platoon in in the U.S. briefly, then he was replaced because platoon leader jobs were in short supply and had to be short so others could get their “tickets punched‚ as having been platoon leaders, too. His wife got pregnant. His unit deployed to Iraq.

Another ’02 guy who was a pilot was in a unit in Iraq whose job as flying VIPs around.

By the time Moshier got to Iraq, he was a captain. Captains were generally staff officers, not pilots. So after picking attack helicopters as his specialty, spending years learning how to fly them and use their weapons, Moshier was going to war to push paper in a unit where warrant officers also got to be pilots, and never got promoted to a rank where they would push paper. A warrant officer ranks above all sergeants and below the lowest officer.

But Moshier still occasionally got to fly. The regular pilots took breaks from time to time And Moshier needed a minimum number of hours to continue getting flight pay. The book says the Apache tank killer helicopters in Moshier’s unit were for intense combat, not patrolling. They were designed mainly to kill enemy tanks. But in Iraq, they were used on deterrence patrols. Author Murphy says they were not designed for that. Makes sense to me to use them for both purposes. A piece of equipment that can fire a lot of weapons would deter me if I were an enemy.

As I continued to read about Moshier’s tour in Iraq, I had the same feeling I did reading about Bryant. I made a marginal note in the book that Murphy seemed to be building up to telling the reader that Moshier was killed. He was. On one of those infrequent flights to give the regular pilots a break and stay qualified for flight pay, Moshier and his co-pilot were investigating some suspicious men on the ground when they suddenly disappeared from the sky. Pilots in other choppers saw nothing except a huge fireball on the ground under where Moshier had been flying.

His wife’s first inkling that something may be wrong was news reports of an Apache that was shot down in the area of Iraq where Moshier was stationed. No names in the news stories. The following day, as she put her new baby in her crib for a nap, she saw a van parked in front of her house. The officers in Class A uniforms came to her door.

I mention two Class of ’02 guys who were killed in this review. The book has a bunch more, including one who was shot by a sniper and paralyzed from the neck down. He could not breathe on his own. Although his mind was 100%, he asked to be taken off the breathing machine. He was and died. Oh, also, he was shot after his tour in Iraq was supposed to have ended. His tour had been extended because of the surge, which was accomplished in part by not letting soldiers already there go home when originally scheduled.

Concrete, not abstract

The main reason I say this book is required reading for prospective and current cadets and their parents is the details about the post-West Point lives, and in many cases, deaths, of this relatively small group of college classmates. Virtually all those who go to West Point and stay to graduate have only abstract notions of the dangers and lifestyle after graduation. They need more concrete awareness of those dangers and of the countless hardships of Army life. In a Time of War does a fantastic job of informing readers what it means to be a cadet and a West Point graduate in the post-9/11 world. All cadets and prospective cadets must have that information to make intelligent decisions about West Point.

The military and its true believer supporters would have you believe that when you go to West Point you graduate then go lead men in combat and otherwise have a more or less normal life with a slight olive drab tint to it for 20 years. In truth, the reality bears little resemblance to that. The Class of ’02 men and women tried to live that dream, but they had little success. Many of them did see a lot of combat, albeit of the “rarely seeing the enemy who was attacking you” variety. That was the way it was in Vietnam, too. Hard to make a war movie about that. Hard to feel you are in a war movie when all you experience is IED explosions triggered by unknown, unseen persons.

Soldier’s blow

There is a an old drinking song we had to memorize at West Point called Benny Havens O. It has this line:

May we find a soldier's resting-place beneath a soldier's blow,

Better you should live a long, full life. I favor a draft like the one that put my father into World War II. I believe those who are drafted in a fair draft, ought to serve. If so, I hope you survive unharmed. I see no virtue to being killed by an enemy soldier.

But even those who do will find little satisfaction in Iraq or Afghanistan. There are no enemy soldiers in either country. Drew Sloan guessed that the guy who injured him so badly was probably a “street punk.” In none of the deaths I read about in In a Time of War did we learn anything about the individuals who killed the young West Point graduates. Based on media accounts, they were probably killed by some combination of unemployed mercenaries, religious militia members, seekers of 72 virgins in paradise, and young men who resent our occupying their country and who kill Americans for sport.

The number of American military who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan is about twice the number killed on 9/11, the stated cause for our dying in Iraq and Afghanistan. The politicians would say they died for their country and for freedom and to liberate Iraqis and Afghans, and all that, but the reality is far more ambiguous and in dispute, not only here in the U.S. but also in the countries in question and around the world. In contrast, why American military died in World War II was clear to all.

But while there is extreme ambiguity about why American military are risking their lives and dying there and who is killing them and why, there is no ambiguity about whether they are dead.

There is also no ambiguity about the separation from loved ones, the frequent changes in assignments, the near impossibility of planning one’s life.

If this is what you want, join the all-volunteer military. I have trouble imagining it’s what anyone would want if they really understood what they were getting themselves into.

Military families are astonishingly able to deal with all of this mentally, but not all of their coping mechanisms seem based on accurate, comprehensive information about alternatives to military life, or on healthy mental processes. Much of their coping is fatalism, resignation to powerlessness, convincing themselves that their putting up with the travails of military service is a noble, patriotic sacrifice and that that excuses all the failings of the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that does these things to them.

Our law books are full of civil and criminal laws that are supposed to prevent unnecessary harm from coming to people. If a drug company sells a medicine that is not both safe and effective, they get sued and prosecuted. But the U.S. military can behave in ways that are neither as safe nor as effective as they claim and nothing happens.

If a corporation has too many workplace injuries, OSHA will shut them down and they will get sued and prosecuted. But when the U.S. military runs a far more dangerous workplace, nothing happens. The military just says that their profession in inherently dangerous. You know, like in the war movies. In fact, if you remove the injuries and deaths caused by enemy fire and other unavoidable dangers inherent in military operations, like normal accident rates per mile driven or flown, you are still left with zillions of stupid, only-in-the-military accidents—like the two class of ’02 members who were killed in Ranger School and by the spinning machine gun on the tank.

I was almost killed twice in Vietnam. Only one of those would have been by the enemy. The other was an idiot enlisted man driving a duece-and-a-half truck at high speed then slamming on the brakes to stop it right next to me, only the truck had no brakes, as was written on its windshield in grease pencil. See my articles on military accidents: VIP demonstration deaths and Ranger School and military accidents.

If it had hit me, instead of plowing into the building I had just walked past, my name would be on the Vietnam veterans memorial in DC and people would say I was a hero who died for my country and freedom and all that. No, I would only have been a dope who foolishly trusted the U.S. military to properly train and supervise its soldiers and to properly maintain its vehicles.

U.S. military personnel call themselves professionals. In law, if you “hold yourself out to the public as possessing a higher degree of knowledge, training, and experience,” like doctors and lawyers and Realtors do, you are held to a higher standard of conduct. The U.S. military does hold it self out like that, but it does not live up to that hype and is held to no standard at all. See my article on whether there is any such thing as military expertise.

Indentured servitude is illegal. It has been for over a century, except in the U.S. military. Service academy cadets and midshipmen are indentured servants starting with the first day of their junior year. All of the member of the Class of ’02 who died in In a Time of War died during their indentured servitude period as a result of being in that servitude. They had to stay there to work off their debt just like the indentured servants of the colonial and earlier periods. Indentured servitude is what the law calls a personal-service contract. The inability of military people to leave until their contractual service period ends—and longer with “stop-loss” orders—is analogous to the threat of a specific performance lawsuit. A specific-performance lawsuits asks a court to force another person to fulfill their contractual obligations. But you cannot sue for specific performance on a personal-service contract. You can only sue for money damages or to force a person to sell you property they previously promised to sell you. In other words, if someone agrees to work for you for a period of time, then changes their minds, you cannot force them to stay. You can only force them to pay for the damages you suffer as a result of their quitting early. The military is exempt from this legal principle. Young men and women are dying because of that exemption.

Recruiters commit unconscionable acts against recruits, including service academy students, by providing incomplete information and taking advantage of the naiveté, inexperience, not-fully developed portion of the brain that performs judgment functions, insecurities about manhood, eagerness for adventure, and so forth of young people.

If you secretly videotaped an Army recruiter pitching a high school kid to join the Army, and broadcast it to an auditorium of young men and women who just got out of the Army, the audience would be howling with laughter and screaming curse words at the recruiter on screen and “run for your life” admonitions at the prospective recruit. That’s not right.

When I was a company commander, I got a steady stream of complaints from my soldiers that they had been lied to about the training they would get in the Army. They were going through that training while they were in my unit. For example, they and their parents were often told they would be trained on computers. This was in 1971 when computers were new and hot. Then they found that in a 13-week course, there was only 45 minutes of computer training and it was apparently irrelevant to the course and just thrown in to make the recruiter’s promise marginally accurate. I asked my troops at a weekly meeting if any others had similar complaints. Dozens did relating to all different sorts of fraud by recruiters. I gathered the info and started official proceedings to get redress for them. I was relieved as company commander and my efforts to correct recruiting fraud against my troops were apparently one of the reasons.

In our all-volunteer Army, every single dead soldier was started on the path to that death by a recruiter of some sort. If death is the possible result for all and the probable result for many, and it is, recruiters and the organization they work for have the highest duty to the potential recruit to make sure they fully realize what they are about to do. But there is a conflict. If the recruiting effort were honest and complied with suitability principles, they would not get enough recruits for the politicians to engage in foreign military adventures, so the recruits are lied to and taken advantage of.

In tort lawsuits, liability for damage done is allocated to the various parties after hearing the evidence in court. That allocation is made to determine who pays how much to the victim of the wrongdoing.

Allocating liability needs to be done with regard to the awful deaths of the members of the West Point Class of ’02, too, but not to assess financial damages. It needs to be allocated in order to diagnose the problems and thereby begin to put a stop to unnecessary military deaths and other pain to service members and their families.

The big picture is that everyone involved is partly responsible, from the lynch mob American public after 9/11 that demanded and supported invading Afghanistan and Iraq to the commander in chief who sought authority to send our troops there to the Congress who voted for it before they turned against it to the career military personnel whose inept interpretation of the details of implementing the president’s orders contributed to the number of unnecessary deaths and other pain, to the short-term soldiers who could have done more to avoid unnecessary deaths, to the young men and women who entered West Point in 1998 without investigating it as diligently as they and their parents should have.

The fact that everyone’s responsible generally results in everyone acting as if no one’s responsible. That is not the right response. The right response is for each link in the chain to examine their own actions and inactions, fix the mistakes, and prevent them from happening again.

The one most responsible for the deaths of the members of the West Point class of 2002 is George W. Bush. If he had not invaded Iraq or had let Afghanistan after running the Taliban out of the government, the dead class of ’02 members would almost certainly all be alive and pursuing their promising lives. He also could have done a better job of being commander in chief and selected better military commanders who would have conducted military operations in those countries more intelligently thereby reducing the number of unnecessary dead.

Military career people need to stop shrugging their shoulders and presiding over a never-ending SNAFU that kills its members unnecessarily.

At the other end of the chain are the West Pointers in the Class of ’02. If they had gone to Michigan or Stanford, they would almost certainly be alive today. The same is true if they had gone to West Point but chosen branches other than the John Wayne group of armor, infantry, and combat helicopters.

The Class of ’02 members are the least deserving of blame, but they are not exempt from blame. They were teenagers, most of them. I and my classmates made essentially the same mistake in the 1960s when we were their age. The young need to understand that you’re on your own. You cannot rely on the government or the military or any other “nanny” to take care of you. You are on your own if you are self-employed and you are on your own if you are in the military. If you throw yourself on the mercy or the competence of the military, you may come home in a body bag.

Accordingly, I implore prospective and current cadets to either demand that the military clean up its act or let the military find others to be IED and RPG fodder. America’s young people do not realize the power bestowed upon them by the switch to an all-volunteer Army. I discuss it more in my article on the need for a military draft and my article Should you go to, or stay at, West Point? They need to realize that power and use it to demand appropriate reform of the military and the use of the military by civilian politicians.

At an individual level, they need to make sure they know exactly all the things they are getting themselves into and risking when they join the U.S. military.

It’s all wrapped in the flag and thereby protected from criticism, including the stupid orders, unworkable military strategies, rationalizations about why we are still in Iraq once we learned there were no WMDs, rationalizations about why are associated with a narco-state government like that of Afghanistan, etc. And because it’s all wrapped in the flag and protected from criticism, it neither gets criticized nor corrected and it keeps repeating—going back to Vietnam in most respects, and to the Revolutionary War in some.

Good lines

I saw two memorable lines in the book. One, from an ’02 grad was

We went to war and America went to the mall.

I would tell you who and the page number but, again, Henry Holt is too cheap to put an index in this non-fiction book. The statement about the mall is true. It is a consequence of the all-volunteer Army which makes America’s wars only the concern of a tiny fraction of our society. With a draft, America would be thinking about the war while they were at the mall and/or staying home from the mall to avoid missing calls from their soldier.

The other line is actually from Winston Churchill.

Americans can be counted on to do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options.

They thought it aptly described the U.S. military learning the lessons of Iraq better late than never. As one who did a tour in Vietnam 40 years ago, and who has yet to see the U.S. military learn the lessons of Vietnam, I am far less sanguine about our progress in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am also painfully aware of those who are dying there during the period Churchill’s line jokes about. When young men and women are dying, the U.S. military needs to acquire a greater sense of urgency than the one depicted by Sir Winston.

Cadet Gray at West Point

Todd Bryant’s mom had a 1958 comic book called Cadet Gray at West Point when she was a kid. After Todd died, she saw it for sale on eBay and bought it. It’s now in a plastic display case in his room. They probably have a copy somewhere at West Point, too.

I was 12 that year. I also had that comic book. I remember Gray took a recon patrol out during summer training at West Point and got a compliment from the observing officer because he spotted an enemy group and rejected his patrol’s desire to attack. “We’re a recon patrol, not a combat patrol,” he explained. Correct response. I actually never was taught that lesson at West Point. But in 1970, when I took out recon patrol in Vietnam, I remembered the comic book lesson. In the event, we saw no enemy, so I did not have to make that distinction, but I would have gotten it right because of the comic book. I also learned to drop, not set down, my bag on the first day of Beast Barracks in that comic book.

My approach might have saved two of them

Todd Bryant died on a patrol that was taking the same route as a patrol the night before. Such pattern setting is to be avoided as we were taught emphatically in Ranger School. But I wrote another article before I ever heard of In a Time of War and Todd Bryant. The article is called the Reed (That’s me) Doctrine and gives my suggestions for doing a better job of accomplishing the mission and protecting our troops in the current wars.

Here is the very first suggestion of my “Reed Doctrine:”

U.S. personnel should not drive down roads that might be targeted by command detonated mines including improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This applies to routine repeat travel and to travel to respond to an enemy provocation that does not risk allied lives or assets and which might be an attempt to draw U.S. forces into an ambush. Very simply, with present training and equipment, our personnel have no way to either detect or protect themselves from such mines. Furthermore, there is no worthwhile trade-off between the casualties incurred on such missions and the cost to the enemy in territory or materiel or personnel destroyed or captured. In the vast majority of such attacks on U.S. personnel, U.S. personnel and equipment are destroyed and the enemy suffers no loss whatsoever other than the artillery shell and cell phone that are destroyed in the explosion. Although it is true that men have always died in combat, they always did so as a trade for territory, materiel, or enemy personnel captured or destroyed. Travel by vehicle over roads that have IEDs is only a valid military maneuver if it is part of an offensive in which the expected U.S. and allied casualties from the IEDs are worth the expected gains from the overall operation.

If Todd Bryant’s unit had followed the Reed Doctrine on that point, he would probably still be alive. Had I been an officer in Iraq, I probably would have come up with the same doctrine and started fighting with my superiors to let me patrol my AO (area of operations) my way, not always driving around in hummvees.

The other guy whose death is told in great detail in In a Time of War is Tim Moshier, the Apache helicopter pilot. Again, I wrote an article before I read the book that probably would have saved his life as well if he or Army brass had heeded it. It is titled “Are helicopters viable within range of enemy weapons?” It said this, in part:

Elsewhere at this Web site, I said I believed U.S. Navy surface ships were sitting ducks against a modern enemy. I feel much the same way about helicopters.

They are relatively slow-moving, extremely loud, metal objects that from the ground are silhouetted against the sky. Unlike some world war II aircraft, they do not seem to be be able to make it home safely after taking many hits, that is, they are very fragile. You cannot bail out of them when they no longer are airworthy.

[In Vietnam,] We could avoid enemy fire by traveling fast and low to the jungle. That worked because they could only see us for a second as we zipped by and then only if we went right over their position. Or we could avoid it by flying above the altitude where enemy weapons could reach us.

But hovering or flying relatively low where the ground was partly clear put helicopters at great jeopardy. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little vegetation so the enemy can hear and see helicopters coming for miles.

Moshier was killed while hovering low or flying low and slow in Iraq where there was little vegetation.

If a helicopter could fire back at the person firing at it, it would have a decent chance to win the gun battle. The problem is that many ground-based enemy soldiers could be firing at the helicopter simultaneously without the helicopter being aware of a single one until bullets hit the chopper.

They cannot hear the enemy gun fire over the roar of the engine and rotors. Even when the helicopter crew becomes aware it is under fire, they still might never visually locate a single one of the persons firing at them.

I suspect there is a, “You can tell the men from the boys by the size of their toys” aspect to the Army’s fondness for fighter-plane-type helicopters. There needs to be a department of preventing military officers from procuring equipment just because it’s fun to operate and command and notwithstanding its questionable utility in combat—or because it means jobs to some Congressman’s district. That would cover fighter jets, some bombers, and most Navy surface ships as well.

Perhaps the best argument against combat helicopters is the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. We gave the Taliban Stinger missiles. The Russians had helicopters. The Taliban won in spite of the superpower status of the Soviets.

General impression

My general impression of the Class of 2002 is that they are having a much tougher time of being young West Point officers than we did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Our war had about ten times the casualties per average day, but it was much more of a true military mission. The enemy wore uniforms. They operated out of North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, all of which we bombed the hell out of. In the typical fire fight in Vietnam, the enemy would start firing at American soldiers from a tree line. The Americans would return fire and call in artillery and/or air support on the enemy. Collateral damage was rare and less criticized than now.

The purpose of the Vietnam war was clear: to prevent the Communist North Vietnamese from taking over South Vietnam.

In contrast, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are more like forcing American soldiers to go hang around in and drive slowly through extremely bad gang neighborhoods while wearing T-shirts that say, “Gangs suck.” Our troops are made to behave like the moving ducks in a shooting gallery. In the typical Iraq action, an IED blows up. The Americans have no idea where the guy who triggered it is. They typically have no opportunity to fire a return shot at the enemy because they don’t know where to shoot and/or because there are civilians are all around and the rules of engagement prohibit accidentally hurting civilians. The enemy wear no uniforms. Our best “military” strategy seems to be paying protection money to the enemy to get them to stop killing us. This strategy is called “the surge.” Americans who become P.O.W.s do not go to the Hanoi Hilton. They are beheaded, burned, and their corpses dragged through the streets.

The purposes of the Iraq and Afghanistan war have changed repeatedly and few today could articulate the current ones. The original purpose of the Afghanistan war was to take down the Taliban government and to run al Qaeda out of the country. Mission accomplished, so why are we still there? Vaguely, because there would be chaos if we left, the Taliban may return to power, and so forth. But there seems to be a lot of chaos around the world all the time: Darfur, Kenya, Somalia. The U.S. is not the chaos curer for the entire world. We cannot afford it financially, especially in 2009, let alone with regard to the blood we are shedding. If the Taliban regains control of Southern Afghanistan and has not learned not to let al Qaeda use that country as a base to attack us, we can come back. Although I would have version 2.0 done entirely by the Air Force.

Iraq was about WMD and ending Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror. Fine. Mission accomplished. So why are we still there? There would be chaos. Iran might take control of the Shiite areas of Iraq. There might be civil war. The Baathists might regain power. Etc. Pardon me if I do not think that’s worth a trillion dollars and 5,000 American lives. If Iraq becomes a threat to the U.S. again, we can return at 50,000 feet and express our displeasure persuasively.

All of the Class of 2002 members who died in Iraq or Afghanistan died during the “Why are we still there?” period.

I suspect the real reason we are still in both countries is it makes us look tough, whereas leaving would make us look weak. Those who advocate leaving are accused of “waving the white flag.” The U.S. is the toughest military opponent in the history of the world and has been proving that again and again for two hundred years. I doubt anyone is impressed with the details of our wars in the last 40 years, but there is no evidence that Americans are military cowards or that we are not capable of obliterating any enemy of any size anywhere in the world if we were inclined to loosen our current rules of engagement. Chickenhawks in government who avoided service in Vietnam but who are now big on sending in the troops may need to prove their manhood by putting the Class of 2002 in harm’s way, but the nation does not.

‘Never again’

“Never again” is phrase generally used by the Jewish Defense League and others. It refers to the inadequacy of the response to the Holocaust at the time it was going on. One troubling aspect of the Holocaust was the passivity of the vast majority of the people who were murdered. Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto fought back. They were ultimately defeated and killed. But that was arguably a better way to die than the way most other Holocaust victims died.

I saw a similar passivity by U.S. Army officers in Vietnam with regard to the doomed strategies of the commanders in chief and the military brass during that war. The NCOs and junior officers could see that search and destroy and so forth were not working, but no one in a U.S. Army officers uniform stood up for the 58,159 troops who died because of those futile strategies and tactics.

Based on various books I have read about Iraq and Afghanistan, including In a Time of War, speeches by recent war veterans, correspondents, and experts (usually at the Marines Memorial Association in San Francisco), and radio and TV stories, it appears to me that the U.S. military officer corps is every bit as passive toward the civilian and military war leaders today as during Vietnam. And the tactics and strategies are, if anything, worse than in Vietnam. Much of what we did in Vietnam worked; like B-52 strikes, the defense of Khe Sanh, and the invasion of Cambodia. Other than our paying protection money to sheikhs, I have not seen much of significance in Iraq or Afghanistan that has worked militarily.

We had some groups that were against the Vietnam War back then. Vietnam Vets Against the War. I was invited to join the Concerned Officers Movement, but that was a shadowy organization of active duty officers. I refused. For one, I was not against the war. I was just against conducting it ineptly. Same in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have not joined West Point Graduates Against the War. I am OK with wars that are declared, warranted, and that have clear goals and rules of engagement that are workable to accomplish the mission. All of those things could be fixed in Iraq and Afghanistan without leaving. I also did not join the Concerned Officers because I am not a shadowy organization kind of guy. If I had been against the Vietnam War, I would have said so publicly. As a practical matter, the Concerned Officers Movement was probably half FBI agents.

What I find disturbing about military officers in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan is their passivity in the face of daily stupidity that is likely to get people killed as well as just plain old grotesque inefficiency which prevents winning the war. The Class of 2002 is a lot smarter than their Army superiors, but they seem to just accept everything from above and do what they’re told regardless of the dangers, risk, waste, or ineffectiveness.

The reason is career protection and the habit of following orders without question. The top leaders of the U.S. military long ago gave up our needing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Junior officers need to demand better approaches to the war while they are on active duty. The main reason they do not is career fear. Even the two-year draftees officers in Vietnam would tell me they agreed with my various stances on signing false documents, being forced to give contributions, and so on.

But they said it’s not worth it. When I asked what they were afraid of since they were getting out of the Army the day they got home from Vietnam, they expressed fear that a bad efficiency report might be seen by a prospective civilian employer and adversely affect their getting their first civilian job. That’s pretty lame, but it was enough to silence millions of officers who had a moral duty to stop the waste of lives and money. West Point officers were fearful that their five years would not be as nice if their bosses got mad at them. (They were quite correct about that. I found out from experience.) They also were concerned about not having good efficiency reports hurting them with prospective civilian employers after their five years was up.

Thus far, as far as I know, no current or former U.S. military officer has said “Never again” with regard to the foolish loss of lives in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan.

Kitty Genovese times 60,000

Like the New York City neighbors who said nothing as they heard Kitty Genovese screaming as she was being stabbed to death, the military officers of the last 40 years did not want to get involved. The Wikipedia article on it said, prompted investigation into the social psychological phenomenon that has become known as the bystander effect (seldom: "Genovese syndrome") and especially diffusion of responsibility.

Wikipedia added,

There was no law, police officials conceded, that required someone witnessing a crime to report it to police. But they contended that morality should oblige a witness to do so.

I say the same about the U.S. military officers corps silently witnessing dangerous stupidity on the part of military superiors in the wars in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bystander effect

Bystanders are exactly what the officers in Vietnam were with regard to the deaths of 58,159 men and women. Nobody climbed the chain of command to raise hell about what was going on. Everyone assumed it was someone else’s job to fix it. And the Iraq and Afghanistan officers seem to be bystanders as well.

Here’s the definition of bystander effect from that Wikipedia article:

The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders.

That sounds just like what I saw is Vietnam and what I read in books like In a Time of War. There were 500,000 of us at a time in Vietnam. Surely someone else would stop the stupidity. No one did.

Diffusion of responsibility

Then there’s the phrase “diffusion of responsibility.” If you look that phrase up in the dictionary, there’s going to be a picture of the federal government next to the definition. The Wikipedia definition of diffusion of responsibility says:

Diffusion of responsibility is a social phenomenon which tends to occur in groups of people above a certain critical size when responsibility is not explicitly assigned. This mindset can be seen in the phrase "No one raindrop thinks it caused the flood."

Diffusion of responsibility can manifest itself:

1. in a group of people who, through action or inaction, allow events to occur which they would never allow if they were alone. Examples include groupthink and the bystander effect.
2. in a group of people working on a task that loses motivation because people feel less responsible and hide their lack of effort in the group (social loafing).
3. in hierarchical organizations, such as when underlings claim that they were just following orders and supervisors claim that they were just issuing directives and not doing the deeds.

Note number 3. That describes the U.S. military officer corps in Vietnam and as it comes across in In a Time of War. A bunch of junior officers who are consumed with keeping their men and themselves as safe as possible while complying with dangerously stupid orders from above. Ultimately, they are focused entirely on trying to survive and avoid pissing off their superiors before they get out of the Army. No one is willing to spend any political capital to stop the dangerously stupid orders. No one is willing to take even the slightest career risk, to include possibly not getting as good a first civilian job because they stood up to a military superior. The temporary combat tours, as opposed to the World War II “for the duration” tours, encourages a constant short-timer attitude, which, in turn, causes no one to want to take responsibility to stop the stupidity.

By the way, my theory on my first civilian job was that I would become a commissioned real estate agent (as part of learning how to become a real estate investment expert) and such employers would not care about my military efficiency reports. And that after that first agent job, my military service would be ancient history. Ultimately, I intended to be successfully self-employed. My general guiding belief was, “They can’t keep a good man down.” That all turned out to be precisely what happened.

My fellow officers, basically, believed that any of their military superiors could keep a good man down for his entire life—both military and civilian careers—with a single bad efficiency report. Or at least they thought it was a possibility they were unwilling to risk.

I was never certain my fellow officers were wrong about that when I was on active duty. But my attitude was that I would rather sell apples on the street for the rest of my life than put up with the bullshit my men and I were subjected to in the Army.

I do not mean to single the Class of 2002 out for being less morally courageous than my class or the classes in between. They are not. No West Point class has shown much moral courage. But I will say that the Class of 2002 and the others of the same era seem to have more reasons to resist stupid orders because they are getting a lot more of them than pre 9/11 classes did. It’s hard to imagine, but the current wars are less well managed than the Vietnam war. For example, we were not moving ducks in a shooting gallery in that war. Nor did we have the unbelievable restrictions on firing at the enemy they have now.

In a Time of War has also inspired me to make some comments about the impression of brainwashing and cult-like mind set I sense among the members of the Class of 2002. I will add those to my article “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?”

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions. If there are any errors or omissions in my facts or logic, please tell me about them. If you are correct, I will fix the item in question. If you wish, I will give you credit. Where appropriate, I will apologize for the error. To date, I have been surprised at how few such corrections I have had to make.

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