Posted: 2:51 a.m. Monday, July 29, 2013
When Henry Hudson sailed up the river which now bears his name, and “claimed” the territory for the Dutch, it didn’t take long for the Dutch to understand that it was a highly strategic territory, from “Manhattanus” and well upstream. For the Dutch, it was a highway to bring beaver pelts to European markets and the lucrative trade had to be protected.
The value of the Hudson wasn’t lost on George Washington, either, who had a fort built on high ground overlooking the river, able to shell anyone who ventured that far upstream.
The fort ultimately became one of America’s treasures when it became the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point. The graduates of the Academy have arguably contributed more to America than any other group.
We were asked to review a book about the USMA called West Point Leadership: Profiles Of Courage.
The book is really pretty stunning because it helps you to look at the Academy with some meaningful perspective.
The authors intelligently split the book into sections like Founding Fathers Of West Point, Heads Of State, Medal Of Honor Winners, Trailblazers, Aviators, Astronauts, and so on, and cover 180 former cadets.
How could you do it otherwise? When the Long Gray Line starts to make itself known to you, it’s almost overwhelming. The tradition just rolls over you, the myth becomes real and the greatness evident.
We were interested first of all in Coach K, who has a generous profile (pp. 340 by the way) as a leader who exemplifies West Point values and traditions.
And that was great to see, particularly for Duke fans. But there’s so much more.
We were humbled by Henry Flipper, the first African-American cadet, and shamed by his treatment. Born a slave in Georgia, Flipper graduated West Point in 1877 despite being severely ostracized and mistreated. He had an excellent career but was court martialed in a grossly unfair manner (Bill Clinton gave him a long-overdue pardon in 1999).
We were amazed to learn that J.E.B. Stuart graduated in 1854 – just six years before the Civil War started and that he died at just 31. The C.S.A. army was a startup operation, but still: that’s incredible.
As you go through, the names start to hit you like waves on a beach: MacArthur, Eisenhower, Patton, Grant, Lee, Bradley, Schwarzkopf, Pershing, Stillwell, Ridgeway – the accumulation of Duty, Honor, Country – it’s enough to make you want to be part of it.
These men understood that war is not an abstraction or a mythology but something that they are likely heading straight into.
So once you understand that too, you understand why so few of them smile in their West Point photos (Krzyzewski is a rare exception and seems actually happy).
This is not a college in a normal sense (and how they must see the rest of us, drinking beer, chasing decadence at every opportunity, being patently inferior in many respects). It’s a place where the thin line between life and death is always there. These people are serious beyond their years because they must be: they live with legends and martyrs at every turn.
The essence of West Point, as much as any outsider can understand it, really comes through in this book.
We would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the history of this country, because almost no matter where you look, a West Point graduate is there. It’s a fascinating book.