On the table at which I write is a small silver mug with a square handle; it is inscribed to Eugene L. Vidal, Jr., October 3, 1925—a gift from the West Point football team to its mascot, which that year was not a mule but me. I drank milk from the cup for a good many years and from the look of the rim did a bit of teething on it, too.
I have no early memory of West Point. Apparently I was born in the cadet hospital on a Saturday morning because my mother had decided to stay on the post and go to a football game. I was delivered not by an obstetrician but by one Major Snyder who happened to be officer of the day at the cadet hospital. Later, as Surgeon General of the Army, he looked after President Eisenhower (“Just indigestion, Mamie,” he was reported to have said when she rang him in the middle of the night with news of the Great Golfer’s first tussle with the Reaper. “Give him some bicarbonate”). More than thirty years later I visited General Snyder at his office in the basement of the White House. He recalled my birth; was still angry at my mother for not having gone to a civilian hospital; was most protective of his old friend the President. “Though South German peasant. There’s nothing at all wrong with him, you know, except this really nasty temper. That’s what’ll kill him.” Then the inevitable question, “Why didn’t you go to the Point?” A member of a West Point family had chosen not to join the Long Gray Line. Something wrong there.
At the time of my birth Eugene L. Vidal, Sr. was known as Gene Vidal to the world of jocks—and to just about everybody else in the country, for in those days college athletes were like rock stars (Scott Fitzgerald’s apostrophe to Princeton’s Hobe Baker is plainly tribute to a god). Class of 1918 at West Point, G.V. was an All-American quarterback; he is still regarded as the best all-around athlete in the history of the Academy, moving with equal ease from track to basketball to football to rugby (learned in one afternoon); a master of every sport except the one invented by Abner Doubleday (West Point 1842). “Baseball is the favorite American sport because it’s so slow,” G.V. used to say. “Any idiot can follow it. And just about any idiot can play it.” After graduation, he came back to the Point as football coach; he was also the first instructor in aeronautics.
Shortly after I was born, G.V. resigned from the army (he found it boring) and went into civil aviation. But as with most West Pointers of his generation the links between him and the Academy proved to be unbreakable. Although his disposition was ironic, his style deflationary, his eye for the idiocies of the military sharp, he took some pride in being not only a part of the history of the Point but also a sort of icon for those graduates who came to prominence in the Second War.
The Eisenhowers, Groveses, Stratemeyers, Ridgways, and Maxwells created the American empire; they also gave us the peace-time draft, a garrison state, and the current military debacle in Southeast Asia. With the best will in the world (and with the blessing of their civilian masters to whom the cold war was good business), these paladins have in the quarter century since Hiroshima wasted lives and money while treating with contempt the institutions of the republic. Now the game is changing—the army, too. Currently the West Pointers are fighting for a permanent draft. Otherwise, they tell us, we will have an “unrepresentative” (i.e., black) military establishment. But these same officers never objected to the prewar army, which was redneck and every bit as unrepresentative of the nation—that is to say, every bit as dumb as the coming black army because nobody smart (black or white) is going to be an enlisted man in the American army if he can help it.
I was less than a year old when my parents moved into the Washington house of my mother’s father, Senator T. P. Gore (where I was put to bed in a bureau drawer). Like a number of high-powered cadets Gene Vidal was hypergamous. Yet, as a boy growing up in Madison, South Dakota, he was not particularly ambitious, as far as one can tell—which is not much: he had no memory for the past, his own or that of the family. He was so vague, in fact, that he was not certain if his middle initial “L.” stood for Louis, as he put on my birth certificate, or for Luther. It was Luther. At fourteen I settled the confusion by taking my grandfather’s name Gore.
As it turned out, the congressman from South Dakota was ambitious enough for two; after watching G. V. play football at the University of South Dakota, the congressman said, “How would you like an appointment to West Point?” “And where,” answered my father with his usual charm and inability to dissemble, “is West Point? And what is there?” He was promptly appointed; thus ended his dream of becoming a barber because barbers seemed to have a lot of free time. Apparently in a town like Madison there was no one very interesting to emulate. Certainly G. V.’s father Felix was no model. Felix had been an engineer on whatever railroad it is that goes through South Dakota; for reasons unknown, he got off at Madison one day and went into the coal business.
Felix’s father had been born in Feldkirch, Austria, of Romansh stock (descendants of the Roman legionnaires who settled Raetia in the first century). A hypergamous adventurer and phony MD, Eugen Fidel Vidal married Emma von Traxler Hartmann of Lucerne, Switzerland—an heiress until she married him and got herself disinherited. “A real countess,” my aunt used to say with wonder. In 1848 the unhappy couple came to Wisconsin where the Grafin was promptly deserted by her husband. She brought up five children by translating American news stories for German, French, and Italian newspapers. She had every reason to be bitter; and was bitter. I go into all this family history because it has a good deal to do with the kind of men who went to West Point in those days.
Athlete. Lapsed Roman Catholic. The meager prairie background, somewhat confused by a family tradition of exciting wars (the Traxlers and Hartmanns had been professional soldiers for several hundred years). Then West Point and the companionship of men like himself. In the class three years ahead of G. V. were Bradley and Eisen-hower (Ike was known as the “Swedish Jew”—my father as “Tony the Wop”); while in the class of 1918 were Mark Clark, Leslie Groves, and Lucius Clay (who once persuaded me to write a speech for his friend President Eisenhower on the virtues—if any—of integration: the speech was not delivered). Among those my father taught was the grand architect of our empire’s Syracusan adventure in Southeast Asia, the Alcibiades of counterinsurgency, Maxwell Taylor.
These men had a good deal in common even before they were put into the pressure cooker on the Hudson. Most came from rural backgrounds; from lower-middle-class families; certainly they were not representative of the country’s ruling class: in this century our nobles have not encouraged their sons to go to West Point. There were also no blacks at the Academy and few, if any, Jews or Roman Catholics. West Point was a very special sort of place.
According to K. Bruce Galloway and Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr. (West Point: America’s Power Fraternity), “The Military Academy offers an ideology, not an education, and because of this and the uniform, the graduates find themselves annointed with access to America’s ruling elite.” The authors take a dark view of the Academy and its graduates, and they tend to see conspiracy where there is often only coincidence. For instance:
By 1933 President Roosevelt had created the position of Director of Aeronautics … and appointed Eugene L. Vidal (W.P. 1918) as first director. Vidal had to deal immediately with the controversy over the place of aviation in—where else?—military affairs. He survived that problem, only to be faced with the airmail scandals of 1933 and 1934. … In the years following, West Point control of civil aeronautics lapsed only temporarily.
Actually, it was civil not military aviation that pushed for my father’s appointment, while the decision for the army to fly the mail was Roosevelt’s. After a series of aerial disasters, Roosevelt turned to my father one evening and said, “Well, brother Vidal, we seemed to’ve made a mistake.” Ever a good (if sardonic) soldier, G.V. took the rap for the President. “I liked that ‘we’ he used.”
Galloway and Johnson would be more nearly right if they simply said that all West Pointers tend to look out for one another. In 1943 (aged seventeen) I enlisted as a private in the army and was assigned to a much-publicized Training Program, which promptly collapsed. Aware that I was about to be shunted off to an infantry outfit that was soon to contribute a number of half-trained eighteen-year-olds to be butchered on the Rhine, I signaled to the nonexistent but very real West Point Protective Association. I was promptly transferred to the Air Force. I do not in the least regret this use of privilege and would do it again; but privilege comes from the Latin words meaning “private law,” and even in a would-be canting democracy like ours there ought to be only public laws.
Duty, Honor, Country. That is the motto of West Point. It is curious that no one until recently seems to have made much of the ominous precedence that makes the nation the third loyalty of our military elite. Duty comes first. But duty to what? Galloway and Johnson are plain: the officer class. Or as a veteran instructor at the Point puts it, “In my system of values West Point comes first, the Army second, and the country comes third.”
Honor. Galloway and Johnson are particularly interesting on the origins of West Point’s honor system. The Academy’s true founding father, Sylvanus Thayer, was a passionate admirer of Bonaparte; he also found good things in the Prussian system. Although the United States did not seem to have much need for an officer caste when he took charge of the Academy in 1817 (of course the British had burned down Washington a few years earlier but that sort of thing doesn’t happen very often), Thayer set about creating a four-year hell for the young men sent to him from all over the country. They were kept constantly busy; treated like robots; given an honor system which, simply put, required them to spy on one another, to police one another.
This sort of system is always diabolic and usually effective, particularly in an environment like West Point where, according to Colonel L. C. West of the Judge Advocate General Corps, “at a tender age, the West Point Cadet learns that military rules are sacred and in time readily accepts them as a substitute for integrity. As he progresses through his military career, the rules remain uppermost in his code of honor. In fact, his ‘honor’ is entwined with the rules and so long as he obeys the rules, whatever their content, or whatever manner of man or fool may have written them, his honor is sound.” This explains the ease with which these self-regarding young men whose honor is, officially, not to lie, cheat, or steal (or go to the bars in Highland Falls) can with such ease cover up a massacre like My Lai, or, like General Lavelle, falsify bombing reports, invent military victories in order to help one another get decorations and promotions—not to mention take bribes from those large corporations whose manufacture of expensive weaponry absorbs so much of the military budget.
Country. To the West Pointer loyalty to the United States comes after loyalty to the Academy and to himself. Over the years this lack of patriotism has not gone entirely unnoticed. In fact, ever since the Academy was founded there have been critics of Thayer’s military elite and its separateness from the rest of the country. According to the third superintendent, Alden Partridge (W.P. 1806), the Academy was “monarchial, corrupt and corrupting … a palpable violation of the constitution and laws of the country, and its direct tendency to introduce and build up a privileged order of the very worst class—a military aristocracy—in the United States.”
Tennessee’s egregious congressman Davy Crockett introduced a bill to shut down the Academy in 1830, while in 1863 another bill in Congress also proposed abolition. Speaking for the later measure, the radical Republican Senator B. F. Wade of Ohio declared: “I do not believe that there can be found, on the whole face of the earth … any institution that has turned out so many false, ungrateful men as have emanated from this institution.”
For more than a century West Pointers have returned the compliment: they do not like civilians, while their contempt for politicians is as nearly perfect as their ignorance of the institutions of the country that they are required to serve—after duty, that is; after honor. Specifically, my father’s generation—the empire-makers—disliked Jews, regarded blacks as low comedy relief, politicians as corrupt, Filipinos as sly … still fresh in everyone’s memory was the slaughter by the American army of three million Filipinos at the beginning of the century: the largest experiment in genocide the world was to know until Hitler. The West Pointers regard only one another with true reverence.
The authors of West Point are particularly interesting when they discuss what goes on nowadays in the classrooms at the Academy. One of the authors graduated in 1965 and no doubt writes from personal experience. Since the teachers tend to be graduates, they often have no special knowledge of the subject they teach—nor do they need to have because each day’s lesson is already prepared for them in “blocs.” But then according to General George A. Lincoln, the Academy’s academic guru (and recent Nixon appointee): “West Point is an undergraduate scholarship school without many scholars or any great motivation for learning as far as a material proportion of each class is concerned.” He seems rather pleased by this. Galloway and Johnson are not. They believe that the cadets are taught “the ability to think and reason without really being able to do so.”
Boys who go to West Point today do so for a variety of reasons, none having much to do with learning. There is the romantic appeal of the Long Gray Line. There is the cozy appeal of a life in which all important decisions will be made by others. There is the attractive lure of retirement at an early age—not to mention translation to the upper echelons of those corporations which do business with the Pentagon. Simply by stepping on an escalator, the West Pointer can have the sense of duty done, of honor upheld, of country served—and self, too. It is an irresistible package. Yet an instructor at the Academy recently commented (anonymously), “The cadets at West Point are fifth rate.” To which the answer must be: they are fifth-rate because that is what the system requires of them. Since they are no different from other American boys their age, their intellectual torpor is due to a system which requires loyalty and obedience above all else—two qualities that flourish most luxuriantly in the ignorant; most dangerously in the fanatic.
It is no surprise that the military elite was ravished by the anticommunist line of their civilian masters. The Truman-Acheson, Eisenhower-Dulles, Kennedy-Rusk, Nixon-Nixon war on commies at home and abroad was thrilling to the military. For one thing the ideals of socialism are anathema to them even though, paradoxically, the West Pointer is entirely cared for by the state from his birth in an army hospital (if he is born into a military family) to taps at government expense in a federal bone yard. Yet the West Pointer takes this coddling as his due and does not believe that steel workers, say, ought to enjoy privileges that belong rightfully to the military elite. Retired officers are particularly articulate on this point, and their passionate letters supporting the AMA’s stand against socialized medicine are often as not written from government-paid private rooms at Walter Reed.
The cold war also meant vast military appropriations for weapons. One of the few American traditions (almost as venerable as the Warner Brothers Christmas lay-off) is the Secretary of Defense’s annual warning to Congress at budget time. Since his last request for money, the diabolical Reds are once again about to pass us—or have passed us—in atomic warheads, cutlery, missiles, saddles, disposable tissues. Distraught, Congress immediately responds to this threat with as many billions of dollars as the military feel they need to defend freedom and human dignity for all men everywhere regardless of color or creed—with the small proviso that important military installations and contracts be located in those areas whose representatives enjoy seniority in Congress.
In this fashion, more than a third of the nation’s federal income has been spent for more than a generation in order that the congressmen who give the generals the money they ask for will then be re-elected with money given them by the corporations that were awarded federal money by generals who, when they retire, will go to work for those same corporations. Beautifully, both nation and self are served because the commies are rats, aren’t they? Particularly the home-grown ones.
Just before the Second War, I listened several times to Air Force generals discuss with a humor that soon turned into obsession the ease with which the White House could be seized, the Congress sent home, and the nation kept out of the war that the Jew Franklin D. Rosenfeld was trying to start against Hitler. Although Hitler was a miserable joker (and probably a crypto-Jew) he was doing our work for us by killing commies. I do not think this sort of thinking is by any means dead today. I once asked Fletcher Knebel what gave him his idea for Seven Days in May, a lively and popular thriller about the possibility of a military coup in Washington. “Talking to Admiral Radford,” he told me. “He scared me to death. I could just see the Joint Chiefs kicking Kennedy out.”
The United States has now been a garrison state for thirty-two years. To justify all those billions of dollars spent, the military likes to have a small war going on somewhere in the world. Or as General Van Fleet (W.P. 1915) said with some satisfaction, “Korea has been a blessing. There has to be a Korea either here or some place in the world.” And so these blessings continued to shower upon us until August 15. Has peace at last come to our restless empire? Well, several weeks ago the new Secretary of Defense warned Congress that the Soviet’s iron fist is still powerful within that velvet glove. If this striking image does not get the money out of Congress, a military crisis in the Middle East, or a small war in Chile, say, ought to keep the money flowing in the right direction.
Galloway and Johnson are, I think, too hard on the individual short-comings of the West Pointers. After all, if we didn’t want them to be the way they are (militantly anticommunist, antipolitician, antidissenter) they would be different. A class of this sort is made not born. I have known a good many West Pointers of the imperial generation and found them to be men of considerable virtue though none had, I should say, much sense of the civilian world. But then how could they? Their education was fifth-rate; their lives remote from everyday cares; their duty and honor directed not toward the republic but toward one another.
For a half century now West Pointers have been taught that communism is America’s number one enemy without ever being told what communism is. Paradoxically, fascistminded Americans tend to admire communist societies once they actually visit them. The Nixons and the Agnews particularly delight in the absence of dissent; not to mention the finality of all social arrangements. Certainly the world of Mao (less some of his subtler thoughts) is nothing but the civilian world as West Point would like it to be. And if Mao is not an admirer of elites—well, neither were the founders of the American republic and just look what we have created! Anomalies are the stuff of political systems.
Certainly the West Pointers would approve the puritanism of the communist societies. Galloway and Johnson give a grim picture of the sexual deprivation of the cadets which, they maintain, makes for a lifetime of uneasy relations with women—not to mention “the entire company (that) once masturbated together in the showers.” Life on the Hudson was even more austere in my father’s day. But there were occasional mavericks. Although G.V. never much liked Eisenhower (“a sour cuss, always on the make”), he did give Ike credit for having managed, under the most perilous conditions, to lay the wife of the post dentist. Obviously supreme commanders are made early.
The military-industrial-West Point complex is more than a century old. One of the first functions of the Academy was to supply engineers to the nation. West Pointers built the first railroads as well as many roads and dams. Working as engineers for the early tycoons, West Pointers were brought into close contact with the business elite of the country and the result has been a long and happy marriage.
The military was also used to protect American business interests overseas. On at least one occasion the business interests tried to get the military to overthrow a president. In 1933 the Liberty League secretly approached Major General Smedley Butler and asked him to help them remove President Roosevelt. Butler turned them down flat. He also launched the most devastating attack ever made on American capitalism. Of his thirty-three years in the Marine Corps, he declared,
I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism…. Like all members of the military profession, I never had an original thought until I left the service…. I helped make Mexico—and especially Tampico—safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped to make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in….
He also lists among his field of operations Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, China (where the Marines protected Standard Oil’s interests in 1927). Butler summed up, “Looking back on it, I feel that I might have given A1 Capone a few hints. The best he could do was operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
Our military today operates on all five continents with results that no longer please anyone except those businesses that make weapons and pay for presidential elections. The final irony is that despite all the money we pour into our military establishment it probably could not win a war against anyone—except perhaps the American people. The disaster in Vietnam showed that the services could not fight a war in a primitive country against a “highly motivated” enemy. Naturally, the West Pointers blame this defeat on the commie-weirdo-fags (and/or politicians) who forced them, in the President’s elegant phrase, “to fight with one arm tied behind them.” Whatever that meant: after all, the military were given a half-million American troops and more than 100 billion dollars to play with. Admittedly there were a few targets they were told not to bomb, like hospitals in Hanoi—or Peking or Moscow—but secretly President and generals bombed pretty much whatever they wanted to. Perhaps the generals felt betrayed because they could not use hydrogen bombs on the jungles and dikes of North Vietnam—or attack China. Yet even the bloodthirstiest of the Pentagon hawks did not want another go ’round with Chinese ground troops after the rout we suffered in Korea.
It should be noted that the American fighting man has been pretty lousy from the beginning of the republic—and more power to him. He has no desire to kill strangers or get hurt himself. He does not like to be told what to do. For him, there is no duty; no honor: his country is his skin. This does not make for a world conqueror. In fact, according to a 1968 study of American performance in World War II and Korea, “the US side never won unless it had a 2-to-1 superiority of forces over the other side.”* Shades of George Washington, who disliked taking on the British unless he was certain to outnumber them, preferably five to one. Even then, Washington’s troops were usually beaten. Like the Italians, we Americans are killers for personal profit or revenge; the large-scale stuff doesn’t really grip us.
Stuart H. Loory’s Defeated: Inside America’s Military Machine is an analysis of the state of the armed forces today. If his report is true, let us hope that the Soviet military machine is in just as big a mess as ours. Loory begins with the usual but always staggering statistics. Between 1946 and 1972 five million citizens of a free republic were drafted into the “peacetime” (sic) armed forces. Year in, year out, 37 percent of the national budget goes to the military. Of all military expenditures by every nation in the world, the United States accounts for 37.6 percent. The army’s PX system is America’s third largest retailer. The Defense Department owns land equivalent in area to the state of Ohio. And so on.
But what are we getting in exchange for all this money spent? A fifth-rate “ticket punching” officer corps, according to Loory. Apparently no officer is allowed to stay in any job long enough to learn to do anything will. In order to be promoted, he must get his ticket punched: a brief time in the field, then to command school, to the Pentagon, etc. This moving about (“personnel turbulence” is the army’s nice phrase) has resulted in what appears to be a near-total demoralization of the basic units of the army. Officers are shipped out just as they get to know the names of the men in their outfits, while the problems of drugs and race occupy most of the time of the commanders, particularly in Europe. Even the nuclear forces of SAC, forever guarding the free world, are in disarray. Obviously the second law of thermodynamics is in operation, and irreversible.
Mr. Loory contrasts American troops in Germany unfavorably to the soldiers of the Bundwehr. Apparently American troops are assigned to broken-down barracks and constantly oppressed with that mindless chicken shit which so appeals to the traditional “West Point mind”: if you have nothing to do, police the area. The Germans, on the other hand, have modern barracks, interesting training, a good deal of freedom, and of course a stronger currency. In a nice reversal of history, the Americans are now the Prussians—in a sloppy sort of way—while the Prussians behave as if the private soldier is actually an intelligent member of the same race as his officers.
In the wake of the defeat of the American military machine in Asia and the resulting shocks to our institutions at home, a good many questions are bound to be asked about what sort of a country we want. Fatigue and lack of resources have stopped the long march from the Atlantic to the borders of China. The West Point elite have not served us well even though they have never disguised the fact that we are number three on their list of priorities. Yet even when they try to work peacefully for the country, they are often a menace. The Army Corps of Engineers has made such an ecological mess of our rivers and lakes that Justice Douglas has termed them “public enemy number one.”
Not unnaturally, the West Pointers are most successful at creating miniature West Points, particularly in Latin America (though Ethiopia and several other exotic countries have been seeded with Duty, Honor, Country academies). All around the world West Pointers are turning out military elites trained to fight not wars but those who would extend democracy at home. Galloway and Johnson have a particularly fascinating chapter on the links between West Pointers and their opposite numbers in Latin America, particularly with the dictator of Nicaragua, Tachito Somoza (W.P. 1946).
Galloway and Johnson favor placing the Academy’s four regiments in four different cities, making them closer to the grass roots of, say, Harlem or of San Francisco. They feel that this would in some way acquaint the cadet corps with their third loyalty. I doubt it. I agree with Davy Crockett and Senator Wade: an aristocratic military elite is deeply contrary to the idea of this republic and its constitution. Since the next great war will be fought by computers and by highly trained technicians, we have no need of a peacetime army of 2 million or even of 200,000. Certainly a large army controlled by the West Point elite will continue, as it has done for nearly a quarter century, to squander money and create wars.
Forgetting the morality of a republic trying to be an empire, we now lack the material resources to carry on in the old way (LBJ ran out of bombs one afternoon downstairs in his war room; while Nixon ran out of kerosene for his bombers). What money we have would be better used for internal improvements, in Henry Clay’s phrase: after all, the two most successful nations in the world today are Japan and Germany—and neither has much of a military establishment. This simple lesson ought to be plain to America’s capitalists; yet many of our magnates are as bemused by military grandeur as any plebe, misty eyed at the thought of the Long Gray Line and by the resonant self-aggrandizing horseshit the late Douglas MacArthur used so successfully to peddle.
Self-delusion is a constant in human affairs. Certainly without self-delusion on the grandest scale we could never have got into our present situation; and West Point has certainly made its contribution. But reality has never been West Point’s bag. According to George A. Custer (W.P. 1861), “The Army is the Indian’s best friend.” While according to West Point’s current version of what happened in Vietnam, “The war … ended in August of 1968 when sorely battered Communist troops were unable to engage the allied war machine.” With historians like that who needs generals?
There is also mounting evidence that today’s soldier will not endure much longer West Point’s traditional oppression. John Helmer’s thesis in “Ideology and Primary Group” makes this pretty plain. According to Helmer, the division between the West Point officer class and today’s working-class soldier is now almost unbridgeable. Since middle-class men were able to stay out of the worst of the Vietnam war, the working class provided the combat troops. They quickly got the point that “in the search and destroy tactics most commonly used [the infantryman] was, strictly speaking, the bait to catch the enemy. According to the plan he was intended to be a target, a sitting duck for the other side to attack at its ultimate cost.”
The same cynical use of men is at work in Europe, where working-class American troops are, if not exactly bait, political hostages to ensure a “proper” American response in case of a Soviet strike. These men don’t have to be good soldiers; they don’t have to be anything but on the spot. It does not take great prescience, however, to know that should a Soviet army ever occupy Paris, the United States would abandon its own troops as swiftly as it would its allies. The American empire is not about to lose a single of its cities to save all Europe—much less three hundred thousand fuck-ups (in the eyes of the West Point elite) with their drugs, their brawling, their fragging of officers from an alien and hostile class.
Today the first order of business in the United States is the dismantling of the military machine. Obviously, we must continue to make it disagreeable for anyone who might decide to attack us (this could be done of course by not provoking other nations but that is too much to ask). Nevertheless the military budget must be cut by two thirds; and the service academies phased out.
What to do with the officer corps? That is a delicate point. West Pointers are now more and more into politics; and, as always, they are on the side of reaction. Their web of connections with the military academies they have created in Latin America, Asia, and Africa makes them truly International. Also their creations may give them dangerous ideas: it is not inconceivable that a coup of the sort that General Butler refused to lead might one day prove attractive to a group of the Honor, Duty, Country boys. Let us hope that Richard Nixon never asks General Haig (W.P. 1947) to send home Congress and Supreme Court so that the sovereign might get on with the country’s true business, which is the making of armaments and small wars. Finding suitable employment for our officer caste will be, as they say, a challenge.
I look guiltily at the silver cup, and think of the generals who gave it to me. On a bright day in May four years ago I stood beside my uncle, General F. L. Vidal (W.P. 1933), at the edge of an Air Force runway near Washington, DC. Awkwardly, my uncle held what looked to be a shoebox. “It’s heavy,” he muttered in my ear. I shuddered. Like the contents of the box (my father’s ashes), I am a lifelong thanatophobe. Behind us stood a dozen of G.V.’s classmates. Among them the solemn, pompous, haggard Leslie Groves—himself to die a few months later; and that handsome figure of the right wing, General Wedemeyer.
After the helicopter departed on its mission, the old generals of the empire commiserated with one another. The icon of their generation, the lovely athlete of a half century before, was now entirely gone, ashes settling upon the Virginia countryside. The generals looked dazed; not so much with grief as with a sense of hurt at what time does to men, and to their particular innocence. Although I have always found poignant (yes, even honorable) the loyalty of West Pointers to one another, I could not help thinking as I walked away from them for the last time that the harm they have done to this republic and to the world elsewhere far outweighs their personal excellence, their duty, their honor. But then the country that they never understood was always last in their affections, and so the first of their loyalties to be betrayed.
October 18, 1973
From “Ideology and Primary Group,” a paper delivered by John Helmer to the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association on August 27, 1973. The material in this paper will be included in the Deadly Simple Mechanics of Society, to be published by the Seabury Press early next year. ↩