Wednesday, August 15, 2018

#SBRLLR: Firstie (Part 1)

" I, ___, having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of Second Lieutenant, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter;. So help me God.”
― U.S. Army Officers’ Commissioning Oath
I met my counsellor at the end of cow year to again discuss my options.  He’d been happy to see me the last time, but this time he looked a little more serious.
Amber & Matt with my father at the end of cow year.
“Dan,” he said, “you have good grades, and you’re doing very well physically.  Colonel Wheeler told me that he’s already invited you on the department’s summer staff ride through the Ardennes Forest.”
“Yes sir.”  
Colonel Wheeler and a few of the History Department’s junior professors who’d served in Germany were taking some two dozen cadets on a driving tour along the 1940 German invasion routes into France and across the battlefields of the Battle of the Bulge.  Both occurred primarily in the Ardennes Forest, spanning parts of Belgium, Luxembourg, and northern France.
“Here’s the problem,” my counsellor said.  “You also need to do Cadet Troop Leader Training with a Regular Army unit this summer, and though you’ve got good grades in the History Department, your grades with the Department of Military Instruction are, well, somewhat less impressive.”
“You stand about 150th academically and about 115th physically.  That’s fine.  But you’re 967th in your class militarily right now, and considering that you’ve never been in even a slight amount of trouble, that’s truly astonishing.”  
Holy shit!  I thought.  How can I be both a well-respected military historian and a complete military fuck-up?  What the Hell?
I knew a moment of ironic satisfaction, but still, I was hardly unaware of my own shortcomings.  Bad attitudes at Beast and Buckner had told, and I’d never paid even slight attention during the Academy’s two-week post-Christmas Military Intercession periods.  Intercession occurred in the heaviest part of swim season, and since it didn’t count for much, I’d generally blown it off in order to give myself more time and focus in the pool.  I’d also struggled with Basic Rifle Marksmanship until cow year, when I’d—finally—shot thirty out of forty possible targets, thereby earning my very first Sharpshooter badge.  As embarrassing as this was, learning to shoot at least reasonably straight had been a major personal accomplishment.
“What does that mean, sir?” I asked at last.
My counselor shrugged.  “You ought to be able to branch Armor, and you might even do okay in terms of post selection when it comes time for that, but you have literally the last pick in the entire class for CTLT.  Those assignments are based solely on your military grade.  
“You’re headed to Fort Drum, New York, to work with a transportation truck company.”
“Yes sir.”  Was that supposed to upset me? 
“Do you have anything you’d like to say?”
“No sir.”  Then, because he seemed to want more, I added, “I’ve never been to Fort Drum, sir.”
“Be thankful you’re not going in the wintertime.  You’d have snow up to your armpits.”
* * *
I sat in the upper deck bleachers at Michie Stadium just a few short weeks later alongside my buddy Dave.  The Class of 1994 was graduating, and we were about to become first class cadets.  We watched as ‘94 threw their hats in the air, and then we turned our shoulder epaulets, revealing the first class brass we’d hidden on the underside.  
We were firsties!  Just one year left to go.
We’d spent the last week packing our stuff in the storage rooms below our barracks, and Dave, Chris, and the rest of my friends were all headed to various summer assignments across the Regular Army.  Chris had unaccountably majored in Math.  He was headed back to Camp Buckner for a stint as a platoon leader before flying to Cheyenne Mountain, where he would work on mathematics algorithms that the Air Force eventually used to track satellites in space.  Dave had long since become the rock star of the Chemical Engineering Department.  He too was headed for Buckner and then some chemistry assignment that I suspected he would use eventually to either homebrew beer or to custom distill homemade vodka regardless of its intended uses.
A few of my friends from the History Department were sticking around West Point with me for the next week or so to start preparing for our staff ride.  We met in civilian clothes shortly after graduation, a group us crowded around my friend Mike’s convertible Saab.  As firsties, we were finally allowed to have cars on post, and for once, we didn’t have anything pressing that we needed to do.  Mike had put the top down, letting us drool over his new car in detail.  
“Where to?”
“Someplace we can get some beer.”
Another friend recommended a place, and before the hour was out, we were headed off-post in relative freedom, having only to be back before taps in good enough order to work on staff ride preparation the following morning.
The entire week was like that.  We stayed in the mostly empty barracks at West Point, reading our department head’s book The Breaking Point38 about the Fall of France and A Time for Trumpets39 about the Battle of the Bulge.  With these, we plotted the movements of the units we’d be studying down to the battalion level on massive 1:50,000 scale topographic maps.  To this end, we huddled together in a long barracks hallway for days, cutting dozens of adjacent maps apart and then painstakingly taping the overlapping sections back together again.  This gave us each a massive, blanket-sized overview of each battlefield.  We spent our nights out on the town or down at the First Class Club, which was then a standalone pub located down at the former Armory Building on Trophy Point.  With no student loans, no expenses of note, and incomes of a bit more than two hundred fifty dollars per month thanks to our Army commitments, the Upper Hudson Valley lay entirely at our fingertips.
The tour itself was much the same.  COL Wheeler led us up Guderian’s line of march into France, talking about why the German envelopment of the Allied lines succeeded and about the leadership failures on the Allied side that made Germany’s enormous victories possible.  Our vans pulled over one day in a French field dotted with 1940s-era concrete bunkers.  Grass-covered hills stretched into the distance spotted with occasional stands of trees.  Closer at hand, a small herd of French cows lay beneath the shade of a single tree.
“The French,” Colonel Wheeler said, “had a very different theory of command coming out of the First World War than we do today.  Because of the massive casualties that trench warfare produced, they taught their leaders, and especially their generals, to stay at the rear, holding, as they said, ‘the handles of the fan.’  They expected another grinding war of attrition, and they wanted above all to be able to mass fires on a slow-moving enemy.  They therefore kept their leaders in the rear, so that they wouldn’t lose their command and control structure to the opening salvos of a conflict.  But they had fewer radios than the Germans did, especially the German panzers, and without any real leadership at the front, they quickly lost situational awareness during those critical first fights.  After that, there was little that French leadership could do little to stop the collapse.”
Point du Hoc.  It's the wrong staff ride but a pretty cool picture.
Paris as seen from the Eiffel Tower.  Still not the right staff ride, but...
We ran in the mornings along the rivers of northern France, and at night we had dinner in French cafés and at German Army kasernes.  I had the best pizza of my life in a little Italian place in Belgium, where Mike spoke to the owner in his native tongue.  On a rest day, a group of us caught a riverboat up the Rhine.  We sat out on the boat’s deck drinking bottles of sixty-cent Riesling that proved to be the best wine I’d ever had.  Later, we stopped for lunch at a tiny mom-and-pop place in the middle of rural Germany where we ordered some kind of schnitzel—and much, much more wine.

38. Robert A. Doughty, The Breaking Point: Sedan and the Fall of France, 1940, Archon: June 1990.
39. Charles Brown MacDonald, A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge, William Morrow & Co: Jan. 1985. 

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