40th Reunion Class Gift40th reunionclass leaders
Reverberations

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 fear.

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
ph3@nyu.edu