Copyright John T. Reed
I suspect I am considered a hypercritical commenter on the U.S. military and my undergraduate alma mater West Point. See my many articles on the subjects at www.johntreed.com/military.html. My criticisms are accurate. Others can characterize them.
My West Point roommate/ranger buddy/Dating System co-inventor/best man/49-year friend recommended I get and watch the documentary Into Harm’s Way. I did.
It is subtitled “The story of the West Point Class of 1967.”
We graduated in 1968.
Did I know any of the guys in the documentary? Yes.
I was a disk jockey on the KDET radio station. The head disk jockey my junior year was “The Fat Daddy.” He used to answer the phone at the station saying, “The Fat Daddy speaking, sir.”
His name is Doug Pringle. He is the amputee in the movie.
So what is my criticism of this documentary?
I have none.
What!? John T. Reed watched a 94-minute movie about West Point and has NO criticism of it!?
Correct. And I suspect West Pointers will all be proud of this documentary. It did not win my vote by criticizing West Point or the Army.
What magic formula did the director use to silence the hypercritical John T. Reed?
Simple. No one speaks in the documentary other than President Kennedy at commencement, Vietnam commanding general William C. Westmoreland making a speech, a Class of 1967 wife, and members of the class.
In other words, it is as pure as the ideals of the place. Just grads who talk about deciding to go to West Point, going there, graduating, Vietnam, and life afterward. Some liked West Point, some did not. Some liked the Army, some did not. There is a total absence of what I now realize is the target of most of my criticism of West Point and the military—hype.
West Point boosters and PR people promise more than West Point delivers. The men who speak in this documentary do no such thing. They just give honest accounts of their experiences. Unlike me, they do not try to analyze and deconstruct it. They report. You decide. Analyzing both theory and empirical evidence as to whether the theory is correct is what I do. The fact that neither the documentary director nor its on-camera participants do that says nothing about whether it is a good idea to do it. Each approach is equally valid. Directors do a subtle version of that by choosing what to include and what to leave out.
I did not care for, nor did my West Point roommate care for, the intermix of recent video of current cadets. The documentary seems to imply that all the visuals are of the Class of 1967. The hell they are! Some are recent including showing female cadets. We had none of those. But that does not change the basic message of the film. It’s just an anachronism that only we grads would notice or worry about. The director may think the current classes at West Point are clones of the class of 1967. They are not. The Corps has.
Another part of the film is discordant, but does belong in the documentary. One class member who is featured is a guy who refused to serve in Vietnam. He thought he was going to be put in jail for that. Instead, they just honorably discharged him. They sort of did the same to me, although I did go to Vietnam. I had, and have, no problem with the morality of the Vietnam war. I just refused to go along with standard Army officer bullshit that conflicted with the official, publicly-proclaimed values of West Point and the Army. See my articles on O.V.U.M. and military integrity.
The problem with the Vietnam refusenik in the film is he does not know what he’s talking about. He has a bunch of Hollywood or “Upper East Side of Manhattan” notions about Vietnam.
Basically, he read a lot of New Yorker magazine articles about Vietnam while he was a general’s aide in Germany. And he believed them. Sounded like a bunch of anti-war bullshit to me. He reminded me of a new, non-West Point lieutenant who arrived at my unit in Vietnam when I was stationed at corps headquarters for a while. The guy kept saying he did not agree with the war. Apparently he had been brainwashed by his civilian college peers. He seemed to feel a need to repeat his opposition to the war about every two minutes. I finally said, “So what exactly bothers you? The way that guy over there puts his paper in his typewriter? The free first-run movies we see in the mess hall a couple of times a week? Are the refrigerators with the Cokes too big? Too small? What great moral crime are we seeing here? I can’t quite make it out.”
The director never put the refusenik in a conversation with his classmates who went to Vietnam. They would have told him what I’m saying—the New Yorker version was propaganda—inaccurate or grossly overemphasizing uncharacteristic incidents or taking words that were said in jest—gallows humor—and depicting them as having been said seriously as literal truth or standard operating procedure.
I am not complaining about the refusenik being in the film. What purpose he serves is illustrating how very different men who actually went to war talk about it compared to those who did not, but who think they know about it. The nonsense the refusenik spouts about Vietnam is quietly refuted, albeit not directly, by the very different accounts of the combat vets. He ran away from the U.S. for 30-some years as a result. His parents and fiancée disowned him. He was a bum in Germany until the German woman he married saved him there. ???? Rather un-West-Point-grad-like, not so much in his decision not to go to Vietnam but in his incompetent handiling of the predictable aftermath of that decision.
He seems to feel really bad about not going to Vietnam and says he should have been incarcerated. One of my classmates deserted to Sweden. Later, he turned himself in and was convicted, sentenced to hard labor at Leavenworth, and dishonorably discharged. He made a substantial financial gift to the class at the 40th reunion. I always suspected that he deserted to avoid going back to ranger school, which he had flunked out of, not Vietnam, but I never got a chance to talk to him about it.
Anyway this Class of 1967 refusenik is too much of a drama queen. He should have asked his classmates coming back from the war about the war, not taken New Yorker magazine articles as 100% accurate, totally sufficient depictions of the war.
When he got honorably discharged with no punishment, he should have regarded it as one of the fortunes of war—like being unscathed when a mortar round blows up killing and wounding several guys who were standing around you. They also “serve” who manfully turn themselves into the post provost marshal to be court martialed as he did, then unexpectedly get honorably discharged. C’est la guerre.
You lucked out, buddy. Enjoy. Forget about it. Knock off the freaking whining and hang-dog crap. It was out of your control. You did what you thought was right. You did a horseshit job of researching to find out whether you had it right or not. But you did what you thought was right. You did not desert. You never missed a day of duty. You could have been shot by a firing squad for what you did. You were a lousy investigative journalist, but there was nothing wrong with your motives or turning-yourself-in actions. But I’m not going to give you any credit, either. My reaction to watching you in the movie was, “Idiot!”
Why was he discharged honorably with no punishment? I immediately figured it was because the Army wanted to avoid the embarrassment of media coverage. My roommate agreed. Indeed, in the film, the refusenik gives the exact same opinion. The fact that he was relatively early in the war was probably also a factor. There came a time when yet another embarrassing refusenik West Pointer would no longer have deterred them from punishing him.
Why did they go after me in a year-long hearing? Because I was repudiating the integrity and dignity of the lifers around me who outranked me and who were behind my discharge. The Class of 1967 refusenik was just repudiating Washington politicians.
I highly recommend the documentary to any who wish to understand West Point and its cadets and graduates in that era. I also recommend it to teenagers who think they want to go to West Point now—and their parents who will probably understand it better than teenagers.
Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military