Copyright by John T. Reed

Infantry take the hindmost

When I was a senior at West Point in the spring of 1968, we could choose our branches. A branch in the Army means infantry, artillery, armor, and so on. At that time, the choice went by General Order of Merit, that is, class rank based on grades and ratings by peers and superiors. The class valedictorian stood up in an auditorium and announced his choice. Then the salutatorian stood up and did the same and so on until the last man in the class, nicknamed “The Class Goat,” had made his choice.

For most of the twentieth century, the guys who ranked highest in the class, generally chose the engineer branch. They build or blow up bridges, roads, and such. They also spend a lot of time overseeing civilian dams, bridges, levees, and all that. You see Corps Of Engineers signs on such projects. Douglas MacArthur, valedictiorian of his West Point Class of 1903, chose engineers initially.

During my four years at West Point, I believe the bottom guys in each class except 1966 were forced into the infantry because not enough guys higher in the class chose it. The bottom guys in the Class of 1966 were forced into the Signal Corps. In my class, the bottom 71 guys were forced to choose infantry. Our Class Goat as killed in Vietnam.

I am told that has now been reversed. In recent years, the top of the class apparently chooses the infantry. The bottom are forced into the engineers.

Why such a big deal?

A lawyer friend of mine had a nephew at West Point. He asked me, “Why is branch choice such a big deal to the cadets?”

Because it greatly affects your chances of getting killed, maimed, or promoted to general. I expect that the three most dangerous Army branches today are infantry, armor (tanks), and combat (Apache) helicopters. All three routinely get within sight and weapons range of the enemy.

Death count by branch choice

A number of my classmates died in Vietnam. Here is the count of them by branch choice:

Armor: 6
Artillery: 3
Engineers: 1
Infantry: 9 (4 from the bottom 71 guys in the class)
Signal Corps: 2
Other branches: 0

A lot of guys in Armor died in Vietnam apparently because of aggressive infantry-like tactics used by the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. One of my roommates was in that unit and got two purple hearts. Vietnam was not a war that was relevant to normal armor. Armor works best against enemy tanks on open fields or in desert. In Vietnam, the 11th ACR and others used M113 Armored Personnel Carriers (APC) as sort of mini tanks in the jungle. But those so-called “Armored personnel carriers” were not very armored. A .50-caliber machine gun bullet would go in one side of an APC and out the other.

I met a couple recently whose son is a member of the West Point class of 2010. I asked what branch he planned to go. “Infantry,” they said. I urged them to ask him to reconsider that. “We already had that conversation,” the dad said. “See if you can persuade him to read the book In a Time of War before the branch drawing at West Point,” I suggested. His mom assured me, “That’s what he wants to do.” My answer was along the lines of he’s too young to know what he wants to do, too inexperienced to know what it means to be in the infantry in combat, and too ignorant of what he may be giving up, namely a long life of marriage, children, grandchildren, good health, a rewarding career.

During the Crucifixion, Christ supposedly said, “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do.” 20-year-olds who “know” they want to be in the infantry in a war make me think, “Protect them, father, for they know not what they do.”

Baltimore Sun article about Annapolis midshipmen choosing the Marines

I was inspired to write this article by a newspaper story in the Baltimore Sun. It said that Annapolis midshipmen were choosing the Marine Corps more than usual. The Marines are the Navy’s Army. They have sub-specialties like infantry and so forth like the Army. Unlike West Point, where the branch choices go by your academic and some leadership performance, Annapolis midshipmen being allowed to go into the Marines seems to have a secret society selection component. In other words, smart guys sometimes get rejected in favor of dumb guys. I suspect they are doing what I call “central casting” when football coaches do it. That is, selecting a guy for a position because he looks the part rather than whether he is the best man for the job. There is no more image-conscious, Hollywood, public-relations-oriented military branch than the Marines.

Orders of magnitude more dangerous

My basic problem is that the most dangerous branches are orders of magnitude more dangerous than the other slightly dangerous branches and infinitely more dangerous than the least dangerous branches which typically go through a whole war with zero fatal casualties—even in the wars “without a front line” that we have had since the Korean War.

This begs the question, how should cadets and midshipmen be allocated to the dangerous branches. Apparently, they have decided academic grades are the best way at West Point. In my era at West Point, that meant the punishment for a slight relative lesser intelligence and/or lesser academic diligence carried a greatly elevated chance of dying or getting wounded in Vietnam. I would have thought that drawing lots would make more sense, especially in my era when most classes had bottom-of-the-class members who had no choice and had to go into the infantry.

Nowadays, some might say the problem has been fixed by the fact that the infantry is the most popular choice and no one is forced into it. Something similar seems to be happening at Annapolis where it is now harder to get into the Marines.

But that puts the issue back with many of the points I made about why we need a draft.

Why volunteer for danger?

For starters, why would anyone volunteer for a military branch that is orders of magnitude more dangerous than other branches and infinitely more dangerous than branches that rarely have any fatal casualties?

Below are my suspicions as one who was there and went through it. I chose Signal Corps, which thereby also volunteered me for Army Ranger School. I also chose to be a paratrooper which, at that time, meant that I was also volunteering to go to Vietnam as early as possible. I could have chosen branches like Air Defense Artillery, which would have gotten me out of Ranger School and which had no fatal casualties in Vietnam. I also could have chosen Germany or Korea for my first assignment which would have greatly delayed my arrival in Vietnam if not eliminated it. So my own choices were a mixture of being sensible and being brave.

• peer pressure—the infantry is apparently the cool thing to do among cadets and midshipmen now
• officer pressure—the officers who run West Point and Annapolis see the percentage of top students volunteering for infantry as a sort of gauge of how good a job they are doing of indoctrinating the students
• career pressure—generally, it is well known in the military that the infantry get the highest and most general promotions (in the Air Force, it was the infantry-like fighter pilots until recently)
• glory seeking—you have more chance to get combat and bravery medals in the infantry than most other branches

‘Where the action is’

Listen to what the two midshipmen in the Sun article say. Guy A who picked Marines as to why:

An easy choice. I wanted to be where the action is.

This young man may have signed his own death warrant by choosing that branch. He certainly significantly upped his chance of dying violently and young. His alternatives were to be stationed on Navy ships or fly Navy aircraft, which have had few fatal casualties since World War II for the Navy and Vietnam for the air crews (flying itself is dangerous—I’m talking here about being shot down). Why? His “where the action is” justification sounds like precisely the sort of glib and breezy nonsense you would expect of one pushed to make the choice by peer pressure, officer pressure, and glory seeking.

Band of Brothers ‘action’ seeker

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg produced a TV mini-series called “Band of Brothers” based on a true story of a 101st Airborne Division in World War II. During World War II, units trained for war then went over as units. Later in the war, a number of replacements arrived to replace the killed and wounded. The guys who had been with the unit from the start, did not like or associate with the replacements. In one scene in a later episode, a combat hardened vet was assigned to a machine gun outpost with a new replacement.

The replacement chattered inanely about wanting to see some “action” and asking if the long-term member of the unit had seen any “action.” The veteran had seen “action” if you mean his buddies getting blown apart, hearing his buddies scream for their mothers as they died, watching guys die in his arms. Lots of “action.” The midshipman who wants to be where the “action” is needs to grow up—an activity he may not get a chance to do. He needs to watch fewer war movies and visit more VA hospitals and military cemeteries.

By lottery

Someone has to be in the Marines and the infantry. Who that is ought to be decided by lottery. The fact that insecure, immature young men will choose gung ho branches far from the battlefield in an auditorium at West Point or Annapolis does not change that.

Mr. “where the action is” provides some other verbal pearls of 21-year-old wisdom. With regard to “the likelihood of experiencing close combat,” he says, “That was a selling point for me—a big test of your leadership and character.”

They never found his legs

Is that what it is? That midshipman, like all those choosing to enter the Army or Marines or graduate from West Point or Annapolis, needs to read the book In a Time of War by Bill Murphy, Jr. It is about a handful of members of the West Point Class of 2002, the first class to graduate after 9/11. In there, he will read about Lieutenant Todd Bryant. He may have wanted to be “where the action was” and “increase his likelihood of experiencing close combat” and “test his leadership and character.” Bryant did end up “experiencing close combat” and “action.” Although he chose the armor branch, the Army, in typical fashion, prohibited his armor unit from taking their tanks to Iraq. So, poof, they were turned into untrained infantry. Bryant “experienced close combat” and “action” when the hummvee he was riding in was hit by an IED. It did not appear to be much of a “test of his leadership or character” though. After the explosion, he made some incoherent quiet sounds for a few seconds before he died—either from the metal fragment that left a small hole in his face or from the massive rapid loss of blood from his two femoral arteries. They never found his legs.

‘Leadership and character’

Or that midshipman may want to watch the movie We Were Soldiers or the true book on which it was based We Were Soldiers Once...and Young. In those, he will learn about a “close combat experience” with lots of “action” called the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. One bit of “action” in that battle is an American fighter bomber dropping napalm on the Americans in the battle. Had he been there, the midshipman could have “tested his leadership and character” by dealing with the situation of his men, covered in flaming gelatin that is napalm, running around like chickens with their heads cut off as they burned to death. Or, good chance the midshipman himself would have been one who was covered in flaming napalm.

If this midshipman/future Marine survives his “experiencing the action of close combat,” hopefully he will write a book. I suggest a title: We Were Marines Once, and Naive and Stupid and Arguably Suicidal.

To be a real life John Wayne

I accuse those in elite units of trying to be real life John Waynes and John Rambos. The main problem with that is that there has never been any such person as either John Wayne or John Rambo is the U.S. military. They are fantasy characters. Nevertheless, Midshipman B “disproves” my accusation with this explanation of why he chose Marines:

I grew up watching John Wayne movies.

Where to get cannon fodder? From the ranks of the immature

I also accuse those who volunteer for the military in general and those who volunteer for so-called “elite” units of being immature. See my articles on the need for a draft, Rangers, paratroopers. (I volunteered for airborne and ranger and for Vietnam) Here’s another item from Midshipman B proving that I am wrong about these volunteers being immature:

After being accepted to Annapolis, the Naval Academy ordered him to attend a preparatory school for one year. Midshipman B explains:

[They] thought I would benefit from a little more maturity—and I’m still working on that.

Evidently. Let’s just hope his immaturity and need to prove his manhood by volunteering for the Marines doesn’t get him killed before he matures.

‘Pick up where he left off’

Midshipman B’s high school friend went to Fallujah as a 20-year-old Marine and was killed there. Midshipman B says,

If anything, that motivated me even more [to succeed at the Academy and as a Marine officer]. I want to pick up where he left off.

What the hell does that mean? Nothing actually. It’s mindless blather. I love how the Sun reporter David Wood just writes this nonsense down and reports it as if it made sense or had some virtue. Maybe Wood can persuade some more young men to follow in the footsteps of the dead-20-year-old. (Actually, there’s no danger that a 20-year old would ever read a newspaper.)

When I was young and foolish...

Am I saying I was totally devoid of such stupidity and naiveté when I was his age at West Point? No. I am saying I regret the bravery component of my choices then, and I especially regret the bravery component of the decisions of my classmates who died in Vietnam. I know now, at age 62, all that they missed by dying so young. I also know now that the war in which they died was a war that we lost. That the nation that sent us there ultimately said, “Ooops! That was a mistake. Sorry about that.” Their friends and relatives need to believe otherwise, but the hard truth is they gave their lives for nothing in terms of saving South Vietnam from being taken over by the Communists. And there is no certainty that the Americans who have died, or will die, in Iraq and Afghanistan now are not being sacrificed for a similar political mistake, that is, being sent to a war that seemed like a good idea when it was started, but which was clearly a mistake from which we were trying to extricate ourselves by the time the soldier or Marine in question was sent there to die. When my West Point classmates and I arrived in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, the American strategy at the time, the strategy my classmates died carrying out, was called Vietnamization. Sound familiar?

Only if you have to

Why don’t those veterans who have “experienced close combat” and “action” feel more of an obligation to tell the young it is something you do if you have to, but never something you volunteer for?

When my mom, who was a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer, one of the thoughts I had was, “No one has the right to make us love them, then commit suicide.” This midshipman probably has parents and siblings, maybe a girlfriend or fiancee. Seems to me he ought to feel more of an obligation not to subject them to the horrific and everlasting emotional trauma that is so powerfully described in In a Time of War. He also has an obligation to himself to do a bit more research on what it’s actually like to be killed or maimed—and what it feels like to kill or maim enemy civilians or fighters—and what a full adult life has to offer, before he makes decisions that “increase his likelihood of experiencing close combat.”

Insecurity about manhood

Young people who volunteer for combat are trying to overcome insecurity about their manhood. There are a zillion more intelligent ways to prove your manhood than volunteering to walk or drive slowly through an area where you and your men are within sight and weapons range of enemy fighters. And there is a lot more going on in a combat zone than “leadership and character.” Indeed, the more common thought process of real combat veterans involves the phrase “fortunes of war.” The main thing that gets “tested” in combat is not leadership or character, it is your luck and the luck of your men, and the competence of your superiors, from the Commander in Chief down to your commanding officer, who often order you into harm’s way for no good reason because they lack leadership and character. See my article on the morality of obeying stupid orders.

Survivor-to-volunteer advice

Although I did a tour in Vietnam, I was never in a firefight there. Many of my classmates are apparently mortified about their having a similar no-firefight experience in Vietnam. I know because I worked on our class memory book for our 40th reunion. Not me. I figure I volunteered for Vietnam and a LRRP unit and Green Berets. I never got any of those assignments for various chance reasons. I also once drove through a North Vietnamese ambush that let me go—apparently because they did not want to waste it on a lone jeep with a first lieutenant and a sergeant first class. So I could have been in combat. Luck of the draw kept me out of it. Fortunes of war. Thank God.

So I am interpolating the following. Suppose some bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, 21-year old cadet or midshipman approaches a reunion of, say, Ia Drang Valley survivors. He tells them he is choosing the infantry or Marines because wants to experience action and close combat and thereby test his leadership and character. I expect they would look at him with a mixture of pity and anger and foreboding and say something along the lines of,

Young man, we hope you do not get your wish. If you do, we hope you do your job and that neither you nor your comrades are badly hurt. But we can assure you that you do NOT want what you say you want. You do not know what you are talking about. You think combat is what you see in the movies. The movies love violence. But it’s sanitized Hollywood violence. They never show the real results of violence. If they made it truly realistic, people would run from the theater throwing up and crying and would have nightmares about it for the rest of their lives. You don’t even want to kill or wound the enemy. It takes away forever some of the good in you. You think you’re going to get bravery medals and that people will look up to you as a result. Maybe so. But if you do, you will not think it‘s worth it and you will feel guilty about receiving those medals and that admiration while your buddies who were just as brave or more brave lie rotting in their graves. You will give anything to trade in the medals and the admiration for the opportunity to turn back the clock and prevent it all from ever happening. Believe us kid, you do not ever want to be in any “close combat action” that results in serious casualties and if you ever are, you will wish it had not happened. Regular life has more than enough opportunities to test your leadership and character.

‘They are most attracted to battle who are most ignorant of it’

On 3/14/09, I heard Philip Caputo on a panel discussion about Vietnam on C-Span. He is the author of the book A Rumor of War. He put the following quote at the beginning of his book:

No great dependence is to be placed on the eagerness of young soldiers for action...fighting is agreeable to those who are strangers to it. Vegetius, a Fourth Century Roman writer

Caputo misquoted it as, “They are attracted to battle who are most ignorant of it.

Either way, it’s true. It is not surprising that young men are eager for an experience they know only through war movie glorification of it. True, they are sloppy about doing their homework and they are too careless of the emotional trauma they risk inflicting on those who love them. But the great immorality is not in the ignorant cadets and midshipmen who volunteer for combat. It lies with the grown-ups, from politicians to military brass to Hollywood to the parents of the cadets and midshipmen who do not object strenuously enough to those young men volunteering for the great danger of the indiscriminate chaos of combat. Were it not for young men who do not know any better, and the silence of older men who do, our various unnecessary, overly-costly wars would not happen. Those who accept and even encourage volunteering for combat are complicit in the deaths and maimings of these young men.

‘Whatever it takes’

The late Carroll O’Connor was an actor most famous for playing “Archie Bunker” in the legendary sitcom All in the Family. His son became involved in drugs and died as a result. O’Connor did a powerful commercial in which he ordered viewers to, “Do whatever it takes to get between your kid and drugs.” The admonition applies at least as much to getting between your kid and unnecessary close combat. While there are many differences between drug overdoses and dying in combat, at the funeral stage, about the only difference is the drug user can have an open casket.

Many who read this article will no doubt think I am overstating the case, including some whose loved ones are the volunteers. I guarantee you that the thought that I am overstating will be gone in an instant if you ever hear van doors closing in front of your house and see four officers in class A uniforms emerge and start walking toward your door. If the young man is still alive now, do whatever you can to save him. Otherwise, if he gets killed, I’m sorry for your loss.

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.