Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Review: In a Time of War

Bill Murphy, Jr., In a Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002.

Bill Murphy writes:
Todd Bryant and his classmates in the West Point class of 2002 were the heirs apparent to a military in crisis. In the wake of Vietnam, the leaders of the first army in American history to lose a war faced a stark strategic choice. They could study the war intently, learning and applying its lessons so they would never be caught flat-footed again. Or, they could decide that Vietnam was simply the product of a strange confluence of unfortunate geography, misguided tactics, and a lack of political will at home: an unnerving episode, but unlikely ever to be repeated. With a few notable exceptions, the leadership of the late-twentieth-century U.S. military chose the latter, more comfortable course. The Army set aside its Vietnam-style missions against insurgents and guerrillas, and instead prepared almost exclusively to fight the hordes of Soviet tanks that they expected would one day invade western Europe.
Because of these decisions, members of the West Point Class of 2002 would find themselves on the front lines of war in which neither they nor the majority of their commanders were prepared. Instead, belatedly, they were forced to learn on-the-job while military and political leaders made misstep after misstep until the arrival of General David Petraeus and the implementation of a new strategy and new tactics. But that is only the backdrop to Murphy's work. At the heart lay the individual and collective stories of some of the cadets of the West Point Class of 2002. Young men and women who entered the Academy in 1998, at a time when:
A great gulf had opened between those who served in the military and those who didn't. Americans no longer believed they had to serve to be good citizens. Instead, they simply had to "support the troops," whatever that might mean.
With no Cold War and no other major conflict on the radar, the Army was searching for its identity and the bicentennial class of 2002--dubbed the Golden Children--were to be in the vanguard of the new Army. They entered with careers in mind that weren't necessarily related to war fighting. And perhaps it was the seemingly remote chance of ever fighting in a big war that enabled romantic thoughts of battlefield glory. Yet, no matter the individual motives for entering the Academy, the cadets emerged with a sense of duty and a camaraderie with their classmates that was deeper than personal ambition.

The reality of the Iraq War scraped the luster off of the battlefield medals that had danced in the heads of so many of these young Army officers. And decisions made higher up in the chain of command, such as taking the tanks away from a cavalry unit prior to their deployment to Iraq, were met with disbelief, consternation and a can-do attitude. They may not have approved of the decisions being made, but they followed orders and made due. If for nothing else, then for each other and, more importantly, for the men under their command. In the end, that was the ultimate goal of the platoon leader: to bring all of his men back from patrol. How it may or may not have helped the policy of the United States government was secondary. Especially when they had doubts as to the overall strategy and observed the gap between the rhetoric and the reality they encountered. As one soldier wrote, "These people don't want democracy...It is totally against their culture. They do, however, want capitalism."

The war affected their outlook on a career in the Army, too. To one young officer:
[T]he idea of making a twenty-year professional commitment to a large, bureaucratic organization--even one with as honorable and important a role as the U.S. Army--was foreign to most people of his generation....Of his West Point classmates, he could hardly think of any who were talking about staying in past five years. But they were all worried about the stop-loss policy...
And the arguments used by higher-ranking officers to try to persuade younger officers to make a career of the Army fell on many a deaf ear:
Today's field-grade officers had had it easy when they were [his] age. You could walk around Fort Hood and see plenty of majors and lieutenant colonels without a combat patch on the right sleeve, meaning that in ten or fifteen years in the Army they hadn't once deployed to war. What right did they have to judge him and his cohort?
But there were also members of the class of 2002 who valued their place in the Army and believed in its mission:
Visiting his family...he felt he was forever defending his choices: going to West Point, serving in the Army, fightin in Iraq. Civilians didn't always understand why the military mattered to him so much. He, his classmates, and his fellow soldiers had given their all for the nation....[He] understood that a moajority of his countrymen no longer thought the war in Iraq was worth fighting, but he [and others thought] America had learned from its mistakes and was no following a viable strategy [under General David Petreaus].
As another soldier, injured in Afghanistan, explained to a group of friends from Europe and America:
The U.S. invasion had been launched with the best intentions, he told them, and by liberating the country from Saddam, America had intended to bring prosperity to the Iraqi people. Obviously things haven't gone as well as we hoped...but he was convinced if the United States pulled out now, the result would be utter chaos. Having created a power vacuum...America had an obligation to stay until it was certain that whatever emerged in the wake of the U.S. military would bring postive change to the country.
Finally, on his way to his third deployment, a soldier was able to remain optimistic, no matter his personal sacrifice:
"What do you think about the surge?" the man asked.

"It has achieved a lot, " Will said, but then added that he was worried that the next president might be unreasonably optimistic about how quicly American troops could be withdrawn. Iraq seemed to have all but disappeared as a political issu. In polls, far more people now said their chief concern in the 2008 election was the economy, or health care.

"In Bush's defense--" Will started to say. [His wife] was amazed to hear these words come out of his mouth.

But the man started speaking at the same time. "Everyone wants the war to be over," he said.

"Americans want everything instantly," Will agreed, shaking his head. Then he added: "I think we'll be there for ten years or more."
Murphy does a fine job of stepping back and letting the soldiers and their spouses tell their stories. The impact that decisions made up the chain of command have on these men and women are often disappointing and tragic. Especially to a group of officers who entered West Point in one environment and concomitant professional expectations but graduated into a world where war was at hand. As one Class of 2002 member observed, the cadets who entered West Point after 9/11 were different than his class:
He and his class had committed to the Army during peacetime. The cadets now attending West Point knew from their first day that they were probably going to serve in Iraq--or some other war zone--after they graduated.

"It is one thing to have to go to war...It is quite another to volunteer for it."
But whatever their expectations, they heeded the call to duty and some gave the ultimate sacrifice. Their personal stories have been well served by Murphy's re-telling.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Obama Already Among the Best?

It took historians a full term of George W. Bush's presidency before they declared he was "the worst president ever." Now, only days after the election, at least one prominent historian is declaring that the presidency of Barack Obama will be "unforgettable" (h/t).
Like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D.Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F.Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan - the most memorable of the 18 presidents who served in the last century - Obama seems likely to become an unforgettable personality who presided over a transforming administration....

If Obama's campaign that brought him from relative obscurity in Illinois to the White House in so brief a time is any true measure of the man, we can have every hope that he will acquit himself admirably in the days ahead - and claim a place in the pantheon of America's most distinguished presidents.
There's no doubt that the election of Barack Obama is already historic. But the confidence and the stake-claiming already being made by historians regarding his Presidency gives me pause. In the coming years, through the various trials and tribulations that confront every President, I suspect that many of the "Historians for Obama" will be less than willing to admit their man have been wrong over this or that. Instead, we'll have contemporary "history" being written to justify his decisions and--by extension--the wisdom of those historians who so very publicly supported him. The reputation of the profession will be at stake, you see.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Cliopatria History Blogging Awards

Nominations for The Cliopatria Awards for the best history blogging are open through November. Final selections will be made by panels of history bloggers and announced at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting in early January. Previous winners can be found here, and Cliopatria's History Blogroll can be found here.

Categories: Best Group Blog, Best Individual Blog, Best New Blog, Best Post, Best Series of Posts, Best Writer

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

President Obama

Obviously, the historical importance of the moment is unmistakable. An African-American President has been elected through the normal means we've always followed: through a vociferous debate over ideas and principles. Even those of us who oppose President-elect Obama on the issues can appreciate the skill and talent and weight of Obama's ideas that carried the day. Few thought this moment possible, but America is about possibilities. Americans have proved yet again that we are a land of opportunity, that we do live up to our ideals--if sometimes we take too long--and that we truly are the greatest nation in the world.

Tomorrow is another day, but for now, be proud.