A Moving New Book Helps West Point '66 Bind the Wounds of War and Changing Times
updated 10/30/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 10/30/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST
The words were prophetic. In the four years that the class of 1966 spent sequestered on their windswept knolls above the Hudson River, the outside world changed around them. The festering little "engagement" in Southeast Asia erupted into an ugly, unpopular war. Marching in New York's annual Armed Forces Day Parade in 1966, just a few weeks before graduation, members of the class were jeered as baby killers. The values that had seemed so obvious, if daunting, when these hopeful teenagers had first stepped off the bus at West Point—duty, honor, country—appeared to be coming loose from their moorings, and the young men who had proudly marched off to the academy, chins high, felt strangely out of place.
Many of the college classes of the mid-and late-sixties—at Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard and Madison—graduated alienated. But the West Point class of 1966 suffered a particularly brutal shock. This class was the first to absorb the full impact of the Vietnam War—30 of their number died there—and also the first to reflect a growing national disillusionment, resigning from the Army in record numbers after the obligatory four years of service. Within 10 years, the West Point they had experienced would be an anachronism: some of the more humiliating traditions discarded, the manly atmosphere of the academy tempered by the arrival of women cadets and the sacred honor code sullied by a cheating scandal. Meanwhile the men of '66 were immediately thrown into a war that tested not only their bravery and leadership, but also their faith in the military. Just 17 months after graduation, popular Buck Thompson and 41 other soldiers were killed on Hill 875 in Vietnam when an American jet accidentally bombed their position. It was the class's seventh war fatality; many more would follow.
For former cadets like Tom Carhart, who earned two Purple Hearts there, the experience of Vietnam was disorienting. In 1969 he left the Army, briefly grew his hair long and joined the antiwar protest, only to realize, he says, that I didn't want to turn my back on the young men who had died in my arms." He was not the only '66er to find civilian life difficult and baffling. Classmate Jack Wheeler, a second-generation West Pointer, went from Vietnam to a theological seminary and then on to law school, all the while looking for a way to reconcile his spiritual needs with his sense of duty. Still others chose life in uniform. Col. George Crocker delivered 23 years of distinguished service around the world.
Though life led these men—and others—down separate paths, their remarkable stories, recounted in detail and with feeling by Pulitzer prizewinning Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson, have now brought them together once more. This month, in recognition of Atkinson's signal work, The Long Gray Line, nearly 100 members of the class of '66 gathered at an Alexandria, Va., hotel with their wives and girlfriends as class president Norm Fretwell solemnly handed Atkinson a saber inscribed, WITH DEEP APPRECIATION FOR WHAT YOU HAVE GIVEN TO OUR CLASS AND THE LONG GRAY LINE.
"It is a book about each and all of us," says Fretwell, who rose from near-poverty in Joplin, Mo., to become first captain of the West Point corps—and then was among the first in his class to resign his commission. It is also a book that Rick Atkinson, 36, was in a unique position to write. The son of a career Army man, Lt. Col. Larry Atkinson, Rick was accepted at West Point in 1970 and nearly enrolled. But he did not, and later concluded that "I would not have made a very good cadet." Instead Atkinson studied English at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., and then at the University of Chicago before becoming a reporter at the Kansas City Times. In the process, he crossed the great '60s divide, coming to question the military values of his childhood because of his deep skepticism about the Vietnam War, and felt deep relief when he pulled a high number in the draft lottery. "I was not part of the war," he says, "and I did not want to be."
Yet for Atkinson, the break with the old values was never complete. He knew his father, who did serve in Vietnam, to be an honorable man, and he still appreciated the sense of duty that imbued military life. "I probably realize more than some people the dedication of these people to their jobs," he says. "The hours they put in, the lousy pay, and they do it pro patria." The Long Gray Line is Atkinson's attempt to explain these singular men to others who often have scorned them. "I wanted to use this book in a binding sense," he says. "Some people who had been violently antiwar have read it and told me, 'Gee, I didn't really understand these were the men I was protesting against. I didn't realize how diverse they were, how conflicted they were, how much like me they were.' "
That haunting similarity became clear to Atkinson during a conversation with family friend Mike Fuller, West Point '66, in 1981. "He told me about his class and some of the characters in it," Atkinson recalls. "He talked about the idealism that had swept them to West Point in the first place and then swept them off to war." Intrigued, Atkinson attended the class's 15th reunion that year and began writing a series of articles for the Kansas City Times that helped win him the Pulitzer in 1982. Invited back for the 20th reunion in 1986, Atkinson realized that a generation of officers was passing—"the first generation of West Pointers," he would write, "to join a losing Army." He took a leave of absence from the Washington Post, which had hired him four years earlier, and staked with a $550,000 advance, devoted himself full-time to a book. Atkinson—who lives with his wife Jane, 36, a dentist, and their two children, Rush, 6, and Sarah, 4, in Washington, D.C.—traveled the country interviewing '66 classmates and their families, going back to some people as many as 25 times. "I was asking detailed personal questions about their lives, about the people who died next to them in the war," says Atkinson, now back at the Post. "In some cases it was cathartic for them, but it was also very painful."
Frequently, their candor was startling. John P. "Jack" Wheeler III, for example, provided such intimate details of his affair, as a cadet, with a New York ballerina, his failed marriage to a fellow seminarian and a later liaison with a San Diego woman that he thought it advisable to brief his mother before she read the book. But he had no misgivings about being frank. "I felt a duty to be accountable," he says. "Anyone who reads the book paid money for us to go to West Point. This is what I did with what you gave me, including the stuff my mom wouldn't have put in."
Wheeler, now a planner at the Environmental Protection Agency, smiles fondly at parts of the book recounting his and his classmates' good times as cadets—"It's a Betty Crocker for raising hell," he says proudly. But some passages still cause pain—among them, the book's final chapters, on the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Wheeler and other '66ers spearheaded the campaign for a memorial but also fought bitterly over the project. Wheeler's old friend Tom Carhart objected to the design submitted by Yale architecture student Maya Ying Lin, as "a black gash of sorrow and shame." After 1981, he and Wheeler refused to be in the same room together, but Atkinson's book is helping to mend that rift. Reading it, says Wheeler, "made it possible for me to see other classmates, particularly Tom, as their guardian angels would see them. It made it possible for me and Carhart to speak together again."
Another who opened her heart and her mind to Atkinson was Marcia Bonifas, whose husband, Art, was brutally hacked to death by North Korean soldiers in a border incident in 1976. The book, she says, has special meaning for her. "It's a legacy for my children," she says. "They were all so young when Art died. They never had a chance to ask him questions." Now her children—Beth, 21, who was just commissioned as an Army nurse, Brian, 19, and Megan, 16—can read not only about their father's military career but also about their mother's experience as a cadet's girlfriend and an officer's wife in an era untouched by sexual liberation. ("I deliberately set out to understand the women," says Atkinson, who discovered that at West Point "they were treated sort of like chattel, bused in and bused out.") Marcia and Art Bonifas courted at a time when cadets could be disciplined for any PDAs—public displays of affection—and they settled into married life when young wives were still required to wear white gloves and deliver calling cards to higher-ranking officers' spouses. Like many Army wives, Marcia often chafed under the strict rules and constant disruptions of her life, and she described those frustrations to Atkinson. She was somewhat embarrassed to see so much of her personal life in print, but admits that "every woman who dated a cadet will get a kick out of it."
There were, of course, some who found The Long Gray Line disappointing. Ron Bartek, a Vietnam combat veteran whose subsequent congressional testimony against the war is chronicled in the book, feels Atkinson gave short shrift to "the loyal opposition"—including soldiers in good standing who nevertheless opposed the U.S. presence in Vietnam. "The book would have you believe that everyone who opposed the war was a long-haired, dope-smoking recalcitrant," says Bartek, who later worked for the CIA and is now an aide to the House Armed Services Committee. "That was not the case. Dissent was a major part of that national experience and deserves a more balanced portrayal."
Similarly, Col. Hilton "Stretch" Dunn believes Atkinson devoted too much attention to men who left military service. Among the principal characters in The Long Gray Line, only George Crocker pursued an Army career. "Quite a few of us are still in," says Dunn, one of 131 '66ers still serving. "I thought that in a book about the military there'd be more of the people who retained that profession."
Yet both Bartek and Dunn attended the reunion, drawn by a sense of shared values and shared experience that runs deeper than their criticisms of the book. "Duty. Honor. Country. I still feel those three words as powerfully as any member of my class," says Bartek. "I'm glad I went to West Point. I still highly prize the ideals that were reinforced there." What comes out most clearly in The Long Gray Line is that each member of the class of '66 tried to live up to those ideals as he understood them, in and out of uniform, in confusing, chaotic times. To have done anything less would have been to betray the classmates who followed those principles to their death.