Friday, June 10, 2016

Summer Reading List: West Point and its Graduates

The Summer Reading List project was by no means meant as a military history exercise.  My goal was to put together a list of novels and histories that would not only teach me something but also expand my literary horizons.  It was fun because some of my friends got really into it.  By the time I was done, I had what I felt was a very good list.
I’m expanding the project because of a conversation I had last week on Twitter.

There may be a definitive list of books about West Point graduates (“Old Grads”) and their actions in service to the nation, but if there is, I’m unaware of it.  Regardless, I’m a sucker for a good history (historiography) project, so...  

This is my list.  In places where I’ve not read the books in question--or simply cannot remember them clearly--I’ve quoted a promotional blurb.  Otherwise, you’re stuck with my personal commentary, for better or worse.
As one might expect, there are a great many books out there about West Point and its influence on America.  The historiography has some surprising holes as well.  For example, the Civil War continues to fascinate, and as a result, there are many, many books about the Academy’s part in it.  This spills over to the Mexican-American War since most of the Civil War’s legendary generals, especially those from West Point, served as company grade officers in Mexico.  The same can be said of the Indian Wars that came afterwards, especially in relation to General George Custer and Little Bighorn but also for Sherman and others.
Less is written about the Spanish-American War and World War I.  There are plenty of biographies of General John J. Pershing, but trying to parse the contribution of, say, the Class of 1880 or 1916 requires rather more diligence.  It’s not impossible, but if there’s a firsthand account of World War I from the company or battalion level as told by the West Pointers who served in the trenches, I am unaware of it.
Similarly, there are reams of material covering West Point’s World War II generals, but an influential guy like General John K. Waters doesn’t yet have a biography, nor are there many creditable accounts of the close fight in North Africa.  Historians have focused on the systemic problems the Army faced in the war’s early going, but what was it like to fight Panzers, as Waters did, with the disastrously under-gunned Stuart light tank?  Some enterprising young officer could probably get a paper published in Armor Magazine by breaking down Water’s fight at Sidi bou Zid.  Though he was eventually captured, Waters managed to break even against the Germans armed with perhaps the worst piece of equipment in American military history.
The Korean War is much the same.  It’s easy enough to find biographies of MacArthur, and there are a few truly excellent histories of the war in general, but there are fewer volumes focused on the small-unit level with West Pointers in the leading roles.  I found exactly one.
This reverses completely once we get to Vietnam.  We Were Soldiers Once… and Young is perhaps the best of the books from that era, but there are many, many others.  I’ve made no effort to catalogue them all.
The Gulf War spawned the same kinds of books as did World War II, with reams of material covering Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and the strategic/operational level of war.  First-person accounts exist as well, but it’s more difficult to find scholarly treatments of the small unit actions.  This may well work itself out over time.  Then-Captain H.R. McMaster fought at 73 Easting and has kept quite busy in the years since.  Now a lieutenant general, best-selling author, and something like the godfather of evolving military strategy, McMaster and his class (’84) may someday get the Class of 1848 treatment.  That would be a valid approach in attempting to explain America’s strategic experience from Reagan to the twenty-first century.
The same can be said of Iraq and Afghanistan.  West Pointers played critical roles at the top, and quite a few junior officers have written first person accounts, some of which appear to be excellent.  It’s still early days, though, to try to summarize the contributions of classes from the 80s, much less the later decades.  I’ve chosen to focus this list away from the politics and the strategy of the wars and stick with the smaller unit stuff.  I’ll leave it to future historians to tell us what the rest of it means or meant.
Where possible, I’ve tried to take the best of the choices on a particular topic, but in some cases there’s not much more than a memoir or two.  If you want a recommendation, start where your interests lie.  My personal favorites are So Far From God and An Army at Dawn, but by all means, learn about what you find interesting.
Putting this list together became quite a project.  Your comments or additions are more than welcome.
West Point Leadership: Profiles of Courage by Daniel E. Rice, John Vigna, & Greg E. Mathieson
“The book contains the authorized biographies of some legendary West Point graduates such as Generals McChrystal, Petraeus, Dempsey, Austin, Odierno, Brooks as well as many other military leaders from contemporary and historic times such as Grant, Pershing, MacArthur, Eisenhower. The book also includes the authorized biographies of West Point graduates who have led in many other fields such as Senator Jack Reed, Coach K, Buzz Aldrin and many more. The book has a total of 200 biographies and over 1,600 unique photos- many of them never seen before.”

Ambassador Eisenhower was the son of the late president, a general in his own right, and an excellent military historian.  His history of the Mexican-American War is my all-time favorite non-fiction volume.  It covers the actions of the Civil War’s greats when they were Company Grade Officers, and yes, that is just as amazing as it sounds.

Waugh’s book covers much of the same ground as Eisenhower’s, but it’s more rah-rah West Point.  If you want to understand the rivalries that drove some of the events of the Civil War and get some insight into what these guys thought of each other, this is a terrific book.  If you’d really rather read the story of that time Stonewall Jackson kicked ass in Mexico, you’re probably better off with So Far From God.

Stonewall Jackson by James Robertson
Another personal favorite.  Robertson’s biography gives readers a chance to really know Jackson, the man, before he became a legend.
The biggest lesson I took from this book is that everyone during the Civil War knew what Jackson knew--that finding the flank and out-maneuvering the enemy were the keys to success.  What truly set Jackson apart, then, was not his genius but rather his determination.  Amongst Civil War generals, he alone had the will and the drive to train his men for the physical rigors of the war that they faced and to then push them forward when it counted.  This allowed him to out-march and out-fight his opponents at every turn.

“Today's Goat, the West Point cadet finishing at the bottom of his class, is temporary celebrity among his classmates. But in the 19th century, he was something of a cult figure. Custer's contemporaries at the Academy believed that the same spirit of adventure that led him to carouse at local taverns motivated his dramatic cavalry attacks in the Civil War and afterwards.”

I confess that I’ve not read Grant’s memoirs.  They’ve been sitting on my bookshelf since 1993.
That’s bad.  I know.
“America’s first ‘celebrity’ general, William Tecumseh Sherman was a man of many faces. Some were exalted in the public eye, others known only to his intimates. In this bold, revisionist portrait, Robert L. O’Connell captures the man in full for the first time. From his early exploits in Florida, through his brilliant but tempestuous generalship during the Civil War, to his postwar career as a key player in the building of the transcontinental railroad, Sherman was, as O’Connell puts it, the ‘human embodiment of Manifest Destiny.’”
“Black Frontiersman is Flipper's autobiographical account of his service with the Tenth U.S. Cavalry in Texas and Oklahoma and his years as a civilian that followed - one of only a handful of such accounts by a black American.”
I’ve not read this book, and the blurb describes it only as “The story of the Spanish-American War.”
So.  Col. Reeder is a legend at West Point, one of the many soldier/historians the Academy has produced in its 200+ year history.  If memory serves, the “Red Reeder” room is today located in Washington Hall.  
“General John J. Pershing may not be as honored as American military heroes Washington, Lee, Grant, and MacArthur, but he outranked them all: He's the only man ever to hold the rank of six-star general. And he certainly earned each one, with a career spanning from the final frontier wars of the 18th century to his leadership in the Spanish-American War in 1898 to his pursuit of Mexican bandit Pancho Villa in 1916.”
Atkinson is modern America’s best popular historian.  An Army at Dawn is not, strictly speaking, about West Pointers, but it’s an excellent history, and of course, you cannot tell the story without getting deeply into the lives of Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and others.  
This book is another personal favorite because, my God, they were so screwed up in 1942, and yet they came together and did something amazing.  It gives me hope for the future.
“If second lieutenants are fortunate at the start of their careers, they are helped by good sergeants. I was fortunate in having Sergeant James C. Sheriff as a platoon sergeant soon after I began army life. He knew more about leading men than I did, and he was patient with me. There is a character in this story named after him. However, the real Sergeant Sheriff did not have the gambling instinct the “Sergeant Sheriff” in this book has.”
I know that I’ve read this but cannot remember a thing about it.  Bonus points because it was written by Red Reader.

Honor Untarnished: A West Point Graduate's Memoir of World War II by Donald V. Bennett & William R. Forstchen
“Whether it was fighting Rommel's fierce Afrika Korps hitting the beaches of Normandy on D Day, surviving the Battle of the Bulge, or just being in the next room during the infamous 'slapping incident' of Blood-n-Guts General George Patton, Donald Bennett experienced the fiery crucible of World War II and survived to tell about it.”

Patton: A Genius for War by Carlo D’Este
“Patton: A Genius for War is a full-fledged portrait of an extraordinary American that reveals the complex and contradictory personality that lay behind the swashbuckling and brash facade.”
“The cadets of the United States Military Academy, West Point, are intimately twined with the country’s history. The graduating class of 1915, the class the stars fell on, was particularly noteworthy. Of the 164 graduates that year, 59 (36%) attained the rank of general, the most of any class in. Although Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, both five-star generals, are the most recognizable, other class members contributed significantly to the Allied victory in World War I, World War II and played key roles either in the post-war U.S. military establishment or in business and industry after World War II, especially in the Korean War and the formation of NATO. For more than half a century, these men exerted tremendous influence on the shaping of modern America, which remains substantial to this day. Individually, the stories of these military and political leaders are noteworthy. Collectively, they are astonishing.”

West Point ’41: The Class That Shaped America’s Future by Anne Kazel-Wilcox and P.J. Wilcox
“Bataan. North Africa. Sicily. Omaha Beach. The Ardennes. West Point 41: The Class That Went to War and Shaped America is an uplifting story of ordinary young men in extraordinary times, in extraordinary places, who graduated directly into the teeth of battle and displayed unwavering leadership, honor, duty, and determination.”
“They entered West Point shortly before the end of World War II. Four years later the class of USMA '49 graduated amid peacetime military cutbacks and national complacency. A year later these young officers were plunged into a cruel and unexpected war and were forced to compensate, by valor and leadership, for the nation's unpreparedness.”
I’m gonna have to add this to my own Summer Reading List.  If nothing else, it proves that nothing ever changes.
“Inspiring, outrageous... A thundering paradox of a man.  Douglas MacArthur, one of only five men in history to have achieved the rank of General of the United States Army. He served in World Wars I, II, and the Korean War, and is famous for stating that ‘in war, there is no substitute for victory.’”
If you are a West Pointer, you will know these speeches almost by heart.
“Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., retired in 1970 as a three-star general. His autobiography, capturing the fortitude and spirit with which he and his wife met the pettiness of segregation, bears out Davis’s conviction that discrimination—both within the military and in American society—reflects neither this nation’s ideals nor the best use of its human resources.”
“In November 1965, some 450 men of the First Battalion, Seventh Cavalry, under the command of Lt. Col. Harold Moore, were dropped into a small clearing in the Ia Drang Valley. They were immediately surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. Three days later, only two and a half miles away, a sister battalion was brutally slaughtered. Together, these actions at the landing zones X-Ray and Albany constituted one of the most savage and significant battles of the Vietnam War. They were the first major engagements between the US Army and the People’s Army of Vietnam.”
I want to say that this came out when I was a cadet, but my memory is hazy at best.  I do remember it sweeping through the Corps, getting onto everybody’s reading list.
“The Class of 1965 entered the Military Academy in July 1961. As cadets, they received a traditional West Point education but also studied new fields such as computers and nuclear physics. Upon graduation, members of the class received numerous national scholarships, including one Rhodes scholarship. During the Vietnam War members of the class received no less than one Medal of Honor, four Distinguished Service Crosses, one Air Force Cross, 94 Silver Stars, 5 Soldier's Medals, 175 Bronze Stars with V device for valor, and 129 Purple Hearts. In later years, members of the class served with distinction in Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and elsewhere. They became leaders in transforming the army after the Cold War into a much leaner, more agile, technologically advanced force.”
Though not as famous as the next book on this list, Strength and Drive has the benefit of coming out much more recently and thereby providing a fuller scope of its graduates’ accomplishments.
Atkinson is one of my favorite historians, and this book is a good example of why.  Though he covers a mere smattering of his subject class, the men of ‘66 come alive, giving a full sense of who they are (or were) and what they wanted out of life.  The Academy has changed a Hell of a lot since 1966, but it’s also uniquely recognizable in these pages.  The Long Gray Line is a true must-read.
I graduated from high school a week after H-Hour kicked off the invasion and liberation of Kuwait.  Watching that, I wanted nothing more than to get in a tank and thunder across the desert.
Schwarzkopf’s autobiography came out a few years later, and I read it while I was still at the Academy.  He spoke there, too.  It was heady, inspiring stuff.  His book is much the same.  I recommend it in the strongest possible terms.
“Commanded by then-Captain HR McMaster, Eagle Troop was the lead element of the US VII Corps' advance into Iraq. On February 26, 1991, Eagle Troop encountered the Tawakalna Brigade of Iraq's elite Republican Guard. By any calculation, the 12 American tanks didn't stand a chance. Yet within a mere 23 minutes, the M1A1 tanks of Eagle Troop destroyed more than 50 enemy vehicles and plowed a hole through the Iraqi front. History would call it the Battle of 73 Easting.”
"The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C."
- H. R. McMaster (from the Conclusion)
“In an era where the American public is saturated with women selling sexuality, this book highlights those who, blessed with strong character traits, use them to make a positive contribution to society. Leadership is a matter of character; leadership is matter of how to be, not how to do it. Leadership is something that is instilled in you-and great leaders in turn instill the ability in others. The women in Porcelain on Steel exemplify this-for all ages and wisdom for all time.”
“In this surprise bestseller, West Point grad, Rhodes scholar, Airborne Ranger, and U. S. Army Captain Craig Mullaney recounts his unparalleled education and the hard lessons that only war can teach. While stationed in Afghanistan, a deadly firefight with al-Qaeda leads to the loss of one of his soldiers. Years later, after that excruciating experience, he returns to the United States to teach future officers at the Naval Academy. Written with unflinching honesty, this is an unforgettable portrait of a young soldier grappling with the weight of war while coming to terms with what it means to be a man.”

Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point by David Lipsky 
“As David Lipsky follows a future generation of army officers from their proving grounds to their barracks, he reveals the range of emotions and desires that propels these men and women forward. From the cadet who struggles with every facet of West Point life to those who are decidedly huah, Lipsky shows people facing challenges so daunting and responsibilities so heavy that their transformations are fascinating to watch.”

I wasn’t going to include this last one since it breaks fundamentally with the theme of every other book on this list, but my buddy Chris recommended it in the highest terms. As it happens, his recommendation carries quite a lot of weight.

“They came to West Point in a time of peace, but soon after the start of their senior year, their lives were transformed by September 11. The following June, when President George W. Bush spoke at their commencement and declared that America would “take the battle to the enemy,” the men and women in the class of 2002 understood that they would be fighting on the front lines. In this stirring account of the five years following their graduation from West Point, the class experiences firsthand both the rewards and the costs of leading soldiers in the war on terror.”
“What does it mean to teach literature to a soldier? How does it prepare a young man or woman for combat? At West Point, Elizabeth Samet reads classic and modern works of literature with America's future military elite, and in this stirring memoir she chronicles the ways in which war has transformed her relationship to the books she and her students read together.”

This post is now the second entry into what I've decided to call The Summer Reading List Project.  For the time being, entries into this series are archived in the Sketch In My Notebook tab of this blog.  

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