The Long Gray Line: A Book Review

At West Point, I have but one desire: to succeed, to do everything I do, no matter what it is, the best way possible. I believe that anything someone wants he can have if he wants it bad enough. I want to be a success at West point more than anything else. I believe I will be.

Rick Atkinson is the author of two books on war including The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966, which, as the title suggests follows the graduating class of West Point Military Academy of 1966 into the Vietnam Conflict and back. In addition to being an author, Atkinson is also a staff writer/reporter for the Washington Post, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his series of articles on this same class of '66. It was probably his father, who served 28 years in the United States Army officer corps (though not a "West Pointer"), who put the interest of this subject in him. The Long Gray Line, originally published in 1989 by Houghton Mifflin Company, has been reprinted several times throughout the 1990's as recently as 1999.

You are to be congratulated on this opportunity for admission to the military academy, for it comes only to a select few of America's youth ... Now is the time for you to reconsider your decision to become a member of the Corps of Cadets. You should reassess your ambitions most conscientiously in the light of the mission of the academy, which is the training of young men for careers as officers in the regular Army of the United States. Without strong determination to achieve such a career, many of the demands of cadet life will be irksome and difficult.

This book is directed at a wide audience. History/war buffs and the general public alike will enjoy this novel, proved by the continuous reprintings of the book for over a decade. Those interested in West Point, Vietnam, or the political upheaval surrounding the country because of the Vietnam War will especially enjoy the book. It is a narrative text full of personal accounts based on numerous interviews with the surviving members, family, and friends of this cursed class of 1966. As stated in the author's notes at the end of the book, "all characters in this book are real... Whatever dialog is used is based on the account of at least one direct participant."

Now, hundreds of young men, all as nervous as Jack, crowded the Thayer. Most had never seen the academy; a few had never been on a military post. Many - those with their hands still clamped over their wallets - had just come through New York for the first time. Nearly two-thirds were the sons of military fathers, and they came as close to constituting an American warrior caste as the nation would allow.

Years later, men who had been in horrific combat in Vietnam would wake up shrieking from nightmares - not that they were about to be overrun by the Viet Cong, but that they couldn't find the proper hat [to wear] during clothing formation [during their Freshman year at the academy].

Though organized into chapters following a major heading, the real organization revolves around certain cadets (or officers as they later become). As the book begins, it follows nearly twenty or more cadets through "Beast Barracks", or first year at West Point where these Freshman are put through innumerable tortures both large and small, amusing and annoying by the upperclassmen and cadre. As time passes, the list of cadets dwindles as they quit or are expelled for one reason or another. For those that are left, we follow their post graduation life of marriage, Ranger training, and their first assignments. As the newly commissioned officers are sent to Vietnam, the list again starts to dwindle, this time much more rapidly as the class of '66, as a whole, suffer terrible casualties. By the end, the focus is on just three of the cadets, each whose story is amazing to follow. Of these stories, one examines Tom Carhart, an excellent cadet, who after a car accident in his Senior year at West Point has a lot of trouble in getting his commission as a Second Lieutenant, and then performing his duties as an officer because of the head injuries caused by the accident. The second was George Crocker, who was one of the first in the class to reach Vietnam, and who ended up being a career officer. The third was Jack Wheeler who while loving the Army, understandably did not want to fight in the bloody war being fought in Asia. Besides the cadets, other major characters followed throughout the book are the civilian Chaplin at West Point, James Ford, and a few of the Officer's wives.

Wrong, you dumb crot. The correct answer is "yes, sir." You are permitted only three answers: Yes, sir. No, sir. No excuse, sir.

The author makes several points in this book. Of these points are a few of the shortcomings of the Academy. It is made clear in the book that while doing an excellent job training the cadets to be leaders of men, very little time was spent training the men for war. "Duty, Honor, Country" was a prevalent theme, but no one told these young boys to prepare themselves for the horrors they would see or for dealing with watching friends and members of their unit laying dead after a battle. Another point made was the mistakes made by United States forces that cost many men their lives. One of these mistakes, which killed a member of the class of '66, was an event which occurred while a group of infantry and paratroopers called in an air strike because of heavy enemy fire while they were trying to take a hill. The air strike came, but dropped its bomb directly on top of a group of Americans, all of whom were injured and fighting for their lives because no one could get in to rescue them. Another critique of the US forces were that after winning a piece of land and loosing hundreds of American lives to do so, the men would be ordered to leave thereby giving their hard-earned prize back to the enemy. While no single battle in Vietnam could be compared to the losses at Verdun, this practice of giving up land after a victory occurred so often that this comparison was made.

One day when he was in the sixth grade, Jack had discovered his father's binocular case in a closet. Inside the container he found ghastly black-and-white photographs of a concentration camp near Nordhausen that Big Jack had helped to liberate in 1945. Jack, who had rarely shown much interest in his father's wartime adventures, had been shocked - and facinated - by the images of the skeletal dead and skeletal living. He was proud that his dad had fought to crush that kind of horror. Even so, the photos were fearsome. But warriors, he suspected, had to get used to fearsome sights. That was part of their trade, part of the initiation into the brotherhood of combat.

This is by far one of the best historical novels that I have ever read. It was packed with humor and excitement as well as a sense of reality and tragedy. The author paid incredible attention to detail, and made the book a very personal account of a few men while keeping the global picture of the war in place. In praise, critics said such things as "{He} provides a sophisticated, moving, and exciting journalistic account...", "well worth reading", "poignant and compelling", and "An awesome feat of biographical reconstruction." In contrast the critics also stated such things as "the book disappoints", and "little is said worth serious reflection." I would seriously disagree with the latter, as I found this book engrossing, and found myself staying up until all hours of the night reading because I just couldn't put it down. I'm even tempted to go find a more recent copy of the book so I can read the updated author's notes where Atkinson is said to have revisited the characters in the book and included their current situations as a part of his notes.

While not documented in the traditional sense, each chapter has its own section in the Notes in the back of the book. In these notes, and for each chapter the author writes a few paragraphs citing his sources and thanking certain people for the information they helped him retrieve as well as providing asides on the circumstances surrounding his travel to gather information. This being said, most of the material for this book was gathered from primary source material through interviews with actual participants whom Atkinson lists individually at the back of the book. Also included are photographs of the characters and events written about in the book.

As stated above, this is one of the best historical novels I have ever read. I would definitely suggest it to anyone, especially those interested in Vietnam, West Point, or the Army in general. In fact, I plan on checking out his book Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, in hopes that he treats this more recent conflict with the same skill as he did in The Long Gray Line. This book puts a true face on history rather than simply listing historical facts.

This book review was written by me for an undergraduate history class. Node your homework.

CST Approved