Tuesday, September 30, 2008

“In a Time of War” by Bill Murphy Jr. – A Must Read for All Citizens

I have just completed Bill Murphy’s moving book, “In a Time of War – The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point’s Class of 2002.” The book is both gut-wrenching and heart-rending, yet it also leaves the reader inspired and proud of the young men and women who left West Point in the summer of 2002 to answer the call to fight the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The title of the book is drawn from the speech that President Bush gave to the West Point Class of 2002 as they graduated and were commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants in the U.S. Army. I was in the audience that summer day and heard him utter those words. I also have personal relationships with several dozens members of the West Point Class of 2002, so for me the book was particularly poignant. I have followed several of these soldiers through their multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. This book added to the depth of my understanding of the challenges they have faced as they lived and fought, sweated and bled, in those far off places.

Bill Murphy describes himself, in essence, as someone who has served in the military (as an Army Reserve officer), but without great distinction. He has, without question, distinguished himself in his ability to grasp the essence of the West Point experience for a representative sampling of graduates of the Class of 2002, and to bring the reader inside their lives as they took their West Point training and became officers serving our nation in a time of war.

“This, for Todd [Bryant], was the essence of West Point. ‘Duty, honor, country’ was the academy’s motto, and everyone talked constantly about honor and commitment, loyalty and patriotism. All that was true and good, but stripped of its pomp and circumstance, the place was really about love. Love of your country, love of your classmates and friends, and love of the future officers you’d someday serve with. Most of all, West Point was about learning to love the soldiers you would someday lead, the privates and sergeants, knuckleheads and heroes alike, who might, just once, in a life-justifying moment, look to you for leadership in some great battle on a distant shore.” (Pages 11-12)

I have never read a more concise or accurate summation of the West Point ethos as I have come to understand it through the eyes of my many friends who proudly stand as part of the Long Gray Line.
These newly-minted lieutenants faced the classic dilemma of what kind of leader to be, deciding where their ultimate loyal should lie:

“A new lieutenant had to choose between two leadership styles. He was obliged to follow his commander’s orders, of course. But he also had to decide whether, at his core, he was going to be his platoon’s envoy to the higher brass, or the higher brass’s man embedded with the soldiers. Todd chose the former style, and most of his soldiers considered him one of them. He was their guy, advocating on their behalf to the people making the decisions that controlled their lives.” (Page 117)

Along the same lines, Murphy does a nice job of painting a clear picture of the complex relationships that exist in an Army aviation unit among the three types of personnel found there:

“The majority of their soldiers were warrant officers, pilots with college degrees and ten or more years in the Army. Most important, they had many thousands of hours of flight time under their belts. Although he’s been out of West Point for almost two years, this was Tim’s [Mosier] first real opportunity to lead other soldiers, and he got off to a rough start. One day early on, they went to the rifle range for an annual qualification on M-16 rifles. Tim was nervous. He started checking his soldier’s canteens to make sure they were full, as if he were still a West Point firstie looking out for a platoon of clueless plebes. He reached out to grab the canteen belonging to one of the most experienced aviators, a chief warrant officer with eighteen years in the Army. The chief turned away with his mouth open, shocked that some brand-new lieutenant had the gall to touch him.
Another of his pilots realized that Tim was making the classic new lieutenant’s mistake, letting his anxiousness get the best of him.  ‘Your enlisted soldiers need leadership,’ the pilot told Tim. ‘Your warrant officers need information.’ Tim didn’t need to be told twice.” (Pages 177-178)

Tricia LeRoux Birdsall followed her mother into the military. The journal she kept while serving in Iraq gives a rare look inside the mind, the perspective and the world view of one serving in the “sand box”:
“In one of the last entries in her war journal, Tricia wrote: ‘It is such a great feeling to see an end in sight. There are very few things that I will miss about this place, but there are several things I can’t wait for once we leave.

I can’t wait to . ..
Fall asleep at night and not wonder if I’ll make it through the night;
Go through an entire day and not worry about whether or not my husband is safe;
Hear a door slam and not jump because it sounds like an explosion;
Not have a radio next to me at night;
Fall asleep in my husband’s arms and know it is not a dream and that we are really at home;
Not have nightmares about what I’ve seen here;
Grieve for those we’ve lost;
Celebrate our return;
Not be afraid anymore;
Carry a purse instead of my machine gun;
Wear anything other than desert colored uniforms;
Be truly happy away from here with my husband for the rest of my life.”
(Pages 244-245)

This book is tough to read, because not all the endings are happy endings; not all the main characters of this true life drama are able to experience living “happily ever after.” Yet this is a book that needs to be read by as wide an audience as possible. For those who have served and for their families, the book offers understanding and catharsis. For those of us who have not served in the military, it is instructive and challenging.

“Jimmy Mitchell returned to Fort Stewart a few days later, escorted by another soldier from the unit. ‘Mrs. Tucker, you should have seen Will.’ the other soldier told Sallie when she visited. ‘He was covered in blood from head to toe. It was awful.’

He paused, as if asking permission to tell her more. This was what a psychiatric nurse did for a living, counsel people; but never did Sallie’s work get this personal. That little detail – her husband, covered in someone else’s blood – hadn’t been part of her mental picture before. And as hard as it was to hear the details, she wanted to know. She needed the connection, needed as much understanding as she could get about what her Will and his soldiers were going through.
She let the soldier go on, taking in the whole account, even though every instinct of self-preservation told her to cover her ears and run from the room.
No, she told herself. Listen to the story.” (Pages 276-277)

Bill Murphy has done a masterful job of listening to many stories and weaving them together into a compelling narrative that is a tapestry of the lives of the West Point Class of 2002 living and dying in a time of war. The book is apolitical. The closest that Murphy comes to making a political statement about the war is when he quotes from a speech by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State Colin Powell:

“What we’re worried the most about is our best and brightest young officers – I’m speaking of our West Point graduates – who are resigning at extremely high rates when their duty is done. Now let me emphasize that their duty is indeed done. In fact, it is done and then some, so I don’t blame them. . . We have to recognize that we have a group of young officers in particular who are carrying the lion’s share of the hardship with this war and an unsustainable deployment schedule. For good reason, they’re saying, ‘Okay, I signed up to serve my country and have made enormous personal sacrifices, but other people need to step up to the plate as well.’” (Page 305)

I invite you to step up to the plate by reading this book and by giving away multiple copies – and by making yourself available to hear the stories of those who have fought.

West Point is about love. This book is about love – and loss.

Listen to the story.


No comments: