Three weeks ago, before the World Trade Center bombing, I was still,
after all these years, smarting over Vietnam, still, on occasion, rummaging
around in the deepest recesses of my imagination searching for clarity
about our contribution to the Nation’s well being. I don’t think there’s
one of us here today who doesn’t at one time or another do that kind of
excavation work--makes little difference whether we actually went to Vietnam.
It was our war, and it still plays with our minds.
Vietnam, which fate gave this class for its mission, turned out to be
unsatisfying, demeaning in ways we rarely mention, and in the aftermath,
hauntingly traumatic for many. We were sent by the Nation to endure
the bloody business of a civil war not our own, but almost nothing in our
background, nothing in our training and our education, had prepared us
for the loneliness of that endurance. No one, during those formative years
at West Point or elsewhere, had hinted that such loneliness could last
a lifetime--ripping the very soul out of a man’s service to the nation.
Vietnam never seemed to matter much to anyone else besides those who
went and a host of trapped and scrambling politicians. . . and those who
worked overtime not to go. Through the years, it has become more and more
difficult for Vietnam to matter to any of us. And yet we cannot forget.
Once upon a time, it was our calling, and in our service there, we defined
ourselves, even as we took our quiet, obscured place in this Nation’s memory.
It is that place in memory that interests me this afternoon.
Let me digress now as a way of moving forward.
I think it fitting that our class gift calls lasting attention to the
idea of reconciliation. This phalanx of plaques stretching before
you bares the thread of a story more central to our lives and our experiences
as soldiers than anyone might have imagined 40 years ago. It is a story
that cadets and young officers should hear and understand much earlier
in their professional lives than we did, and I, for one, am pleased that
we have put it before them. I only hope those young men and women can discover
the significant, hidden meaning among these graven images. The key to the
story’s unraveling sits over there at the beginning, in the dedication
to fifteen young men we once knew, classmates who gave their lives in the
service of country. We will return to them in time.
The historical relationship between our class and the class of 1861,
interests me only in passing. The span of a hundred years--1861-1961-–and
the numbers themselves play on my mind in an amusing way, the way Westmoreland,
or maybe it was Rich, played with our minds that day in Cullum Hall so
long ago when one of them told us that our class rings could be read right
side up or upside down. We would be 1961 no matter how we or our admirers
looked at the numbers. We laughed obediently, eager to get out of the room
to the afternoon’s greater delights.
If I seek a deeper significance than the numerical one between our classes,
I must look beyond the obvious. We were not, like those of 1861, a divided
class. We did not fight brother against brother, classmate against classmate.
We were not, as a class or as a nation, engaged in a civil war of our own
making. We were not at war over our own national values . . . or so it
seemed at the outset. Our war was not 1861's war, and yet there is a striking
similarity about these two wars that sits at the very heart of soldiering.
After their conflict ended in 1865, a need to come back together grew
stronger and stronger as it became more and more evident to soldier and
citizen alike that the Nation’s wound needed to heal. But the suturing
of the torn flesh required not only a delicate set of political hands but
also a long, long time for the healing. Today, as a nation, we still resist
that earlier war’s imperatives. One hundred and thirty six years after
the fact, we remain divisively set apart by race. Of course, there have
been significant and overwhelming changes, but beneath our unity, the problem
persists. The class of 1861 may have reconciled, but the nation did not,
altogether, has not, altogether.
Little wonder then that the reconciliation you and I long for, has been
denied us for nearly three decades. In the beginning I think we sought
a sign from the nation itself, some kind of recognition that what we had
done counted. Many of us harbored images of reunion from earlier wars–-parades,
homecomings, celebrations. But the sign never materialized for us, and
when George Bush senior claimed years later that the victory in the Gulf
had healed the wound of Vietnam, it was clear that he mistook the nature
of the soldiers’ wound. The denial of victory was not the source
of our ailment. But despite the fact that all of us needed to be re-united
with our fellow Americans, there was no one around who could speak a convincing
language of reconciliation. And so we waited for a sign from the gods,
a majestic but simple utterance, some language that would draw us back
into the graces of community.
In his compelling book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma
and the Undoing of Character, Jonathan Shay reminds us that Homer made
clear this need for reconciliation in the Iliad. Shay, who has spent
more than two decades working with Vietnam vets suffering from Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder, tells us that Homer had "seen things that [those working]
in psychiatry and psychology had more or less missed," things pointing
to the root causes and consequences of battlefield trauma, things deeply
connected to a human being’s primal need for communal solidarity.
What soldiers most need in war is a chance to grieve over the loss of
comrades. But they yearn for something else as well. Shay reminds us that
a returning soldier needs "a living community to whom his experience matters."
He is convinced, and so am I, that "combat veterans and American citizenry
should meet together face to face in daylight, and listen, and watch, and
weep, just as citizen-soldiers of ancient Athens did in the theater at
the foot of the Acropolis." They need to do it today, almost three decades
after the conflict has ended.
And so, here we are, finally, drawn together by the earlier memorial
service today, this dedication ceremony, and our class gift to join one
another in public grief and personal mourning.
The fifteen men to whom this monument is dedicated did not all die in
Vietnam, but all died in the service of their country. All died young,
before their time. And all, by a simple twist of fate, were denied this
healing moment of communal solidarity, just as they were denied the vexing
but compelling blessings of a longer life: the exhilarating moments coupled
with the occasional failures of raising children; the odd turns of marriages
either coming to fruition or flailing into extinction; the joy of parents’
extended lives undercut only by their final farewells; the untimely and
devastating loss of a spouse or a child; the shrinking of the world through
the wonders of electronics: chips, computers, cell phones, internet; and
now the wide embrace of terrorism. You and I have known it all, while they
have known the peace that passeth understanding.
We know, you and I, as we sit here in tribute to them this afternoon
that ours has been the greater blessing--no matter how we tally the score--and
theirs has been the sacrifice. They did in deed make the ultimate
sacrifice, and we have all lived long enough now to know more precisely
just what that sacrifice means. Knowing is the lot of the survivor.
We realize too, if we have been paying attention over the last three
weeks, that whatever sacrifice the rest of us made has been silently rewarded.
Rewarded not by anything that has been said to us, not by any special recognition
from men and women on the street, or from friends who have shied away from
discussion of what we did once upon a time, not by a declaration of Congress,
or even by a few words from the President. We know because three weeks
ago on September 11th this nation awoke from a deep sleep and
confirmed almost spontaneously and without thought the nature and depth
of its character, something about its willingness to recognize the need
for valor and sacrifice and selflessness, something about its willingness
to die for its cherished ideals.
For more than two decades, intellectuals here and elsewhere have argued
against the sanctity of such ideals; they have insisted that one ideal
is as good as another; all of them are suspect. But on September 11th,
four crystallizing acts of terror undercut that kind of facile theorizing,
and you and I could see instantly, as we watched the attack on TV or from
our neighborhoods in NYC and Washington, that what we had done almost 30
years ago matters. We could see on the faces of Americans, we could hear
in the voices of news people, even the youngest of them, that our American
belief in the sanctity of human life and our collective sense of freedom
and justice tap into the deepest, most sacred, wellspring of the human
spirit. Those values have the power to unite a people across the world;
they have the power to transform lives.
What became crystal clear to me in the midst of that long protracted
moment, when the nation gasped and you and I knew almost instinctively
what was going on, what became crystal clear was my own steadfastness in
the face of the mounting horror. And I knew without a shadow of a doubt
that my steadfastness was both mine and ours–-yours and mine. Steadiness
defines us. Our wives and our children have it too; they learned it from
us over the years--out of necessity. Together we came to realize that our
commitment was bigger than ourselves. And we perfected that commitment
at great cost. Make no mistake about it. But we know now what we didn’t
know then, when we started our life of soldiering: steadfastness is the
one thing that preserves a confused and divided nation, and steadfastness
loves company. So it is easy to see why, on that Tuesday morning in September,
I longed for your presence and for Ann’s–-who was ninety blocks up town,
isolated from me by the attack.
If you put aside the genuine heroic efforts of the police and the firemen
in NYC and Washington, men and women trained to do what you and I have
been trained to do, most other Americans became mildly and then almost
totally dysfunctional as their helplessness quickly transformed itself
into anger and confusion. People with whom I work could not make the simplest
decision related to their own survival. I listened to them all day and
watched their transformation in the wake of turmoil and flag waving and
As I longed that day to be in your company, it was a longing for solidarity,
a desire to be in the presence of others who could move into the chaos
and then through it without flinching. For perhaps the very first time
in my life, I knew how deeply ingrained in our psyches is the ability to
act against the prevailing wail of disaster. And I knew that this is the
place where we learned it, here on this hallowed ground.
West Point did not teach us how utterly lonely and isolating that experience
can and would likely be. It did not teach us to be satisfied that in our
service, no matter what the conflict, we matter to the nation’s memory,
whether or not at any given moment the nation’s people understand. Now,
it is easy to recognize and accept that fact. It has not always been so.
Reckoning and reconciliation are always a long time coming. For the
class of 1861, it took more than half a century to set the wheels in motion.
For us, it has taken almost three decades. And then at a defining moment
in our history, like a bolt from the blue, a war at our doorstep revealed
what Vietnam had hidden. We, of course, have always known that soldiers
make things last. We do so out of a deep primal need to preserve what we
most dearly cherish. We also yearn for the blessings of community, and
we know now, from our own experience with war, that as we serve, and in
the years thereafter, we must wait patiently and silently and with dignity
for the deeper reconciliation-–with ourselves, with our loved ones, and
with the Nation we so steadfastly preserve with our resolve, and, all too
often, with our very lives.
Pat C. Hoy II
29 Washington Square West, 2CS
New York, New York 10011