Today's Long Gray Line
IN A TIME OF WAR
The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002
By Bill Murphy Jr.
Henry Holt. 365 pp. $27.50
One of the demographic curiosities of recent years is that, despite the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the percentage of veterans in the U.S. population has dropped precipitously. In 1980, 28.5 million veterans lived in the United States. But as the population increased to more than 300 million people, the number of veterans declined to 23.7 million by 2005. The reason for the drop is obvious: Veterans of World War II are dying at the rate of 1,000 per day. And as those veterans die, something dies with them: a memory of a time when war and loss was, for Americans, a shared experience.
The nearly 300,000 U.S. servicemen who were killed in combat in World War II came from a broad cross-section of society, and their loss was felt by the entire country. By contrast, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought not by a conscripted force but by a very small professional military. Most young Americans feel no need to serve their country in uniform. In my graduating class at the University of Pennsylvania in 2000, for example, just two of us -- out of a class of over 2,000 -- were commissioned as officers in the Army.
One constant through the years, however, has been the unique fraternity of officers produced by our nation's military academies. Each summer, some 1,200 cadets enter the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; after four years of arduous training, about 1,000 graduate and are commissioned as junior officers in the army. Amid this perpetual rhythm, the graduating class of 2002 stood out in two ways: Its graduation coincided with the 200th anniversary of West Point's founding, ensuring extra attention for its members, nicknamed the "golden children." And the class of 2002 was the first since Vietnam to emerge, as President Bush noted in his commencement address, "in a time of war." Bill Murphy Jr. takes that phrase as the title for his group portrait, which he assembled from hundreds of interviews with members of the class and those with whom they served in combat.
The story Murphy has written is alternately inspiring and heartbreaking. It's inspiring because the U.S. military continues to attract some of the nation's brightest talent, accomplished young men and women who yearn to serve their country in difficult circumstances. (If the class of 2002 was valorous for leaving West Point at a time of war, one wonders, what about the class of 2006, which entered at a time of war?)
But In a Time of War is also heartbreaking because, inevitably, some of the golden children are now dying in combat, and their deaths ripple through close-knit networks of friends and family. When the second of her close friends from West Point died in Iraq, one young officer broke down. "I lost my brother today," she cried. "I'm losing them one at a time."
Another officer was in a hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center when he learned of his best friend's death in Iraq. His wife, watching him shake with tears, could not reach through all the wires and tubes to comfort him. "He just had to lie there and take it," Murphy writes, "alone."
Grief, however, is a luxury some of the officers cannot afford. With jobs to do and soldiers to lead, they must wait until they are alone or on the phone with one another to shed tears. Still, the deaths take a toll. "I have no faith anymore," one officer said at the funeral of a friend. Visiting West Point afterward, he turned to his wife and said, "The last time I was here, I had more friends."
Murphy's prose does not dazzle, nor should it. Drawing attention to one's own writing with a story this powerful would be the worst kind of vanity. There is also no need to worry that Murphy's book will contribute to the public romanticism of our military that has grown in inverse proportion to the percentage of Americans actually serving in uniform. War, as it is experienced by the officers Murphy profiles, is horrific. Soldiers kill and see friends killed and maimed for 12 months and then return to the United States to try to start families before they are called back to combat a year later.
A former Army officer (though not a West Point graduate), Murphy can seem a little cynical about the Bush administration, which should not surprise us; he began his book while serving as Bob Woodward's research assistant on State of Denial. Still, Murphy gamely highlights both President Bush's charming playfulness (he agreed to chest-butt a cadet at graduation, telling him to "bring it") as well as his inability to communicate meaningfully with the horribly wounded soldiers who return from Iraq to Walter Reed. ("Well, it looks like you lost a leg," the president told one soldier. "But you've still got another one. Hopefully you'll keep that one and things will get better.")
Presidents and their advisers don't personally fight wars, though, and this book isn't about them. At the ground level, wars are fought by painfully young men and women -- and by the junior officers who lead them. In a Time of War movingly profiles some of those officers, and as combat veterans grow more rare in American society, books like Murphy's become more important. ·
Andrew Exum, who led infantry platoons in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is the author of "This Man's Army: A Soldier's Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism" and founder of the military blogAbu Muqawama. He lives in Beirut, Lebanon.