I’m sitting in LaGuardia Airport at the moment, returning home from a trip to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. I’m proud to have a tie to the Academy: I taught there as a visiting professor during the 2008–09 school year, and I’ve spoken a number of times at their annual Summer Seminar, which assembles younger scholars from all over the country for an intensive three-week immersion into the craft of military history. I’m one of their “hired guns,” so to speak, brought in to speak on their areas of expertise. It’s always a blast to meet and get to know young up-and-comers in the field, and West Point never looks more picture perfect than it does in the summer. Speaking at the seminar is always one of the highlights of my year.
This year was different.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. The seminar was amazing—well organized, packed with interesting ideas, and a wonderful opportunity to get to know some amazing people. For me, however, there was a pall over the whole thing. A few weeks ago I heard the kind of news you’re never really ready for. One of the cadets I had taught two years ago—his name was John—had been killed by a roadside bomb in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, along with six other U.S. servicemen.
I remember him well. His examinations are still in the hard drive of my computer, and the senior thesis he wrote, something all the history majors at West Point have to do, was a very solid critique of the Wehrmacht’s brutal anti-partisan operations in the Soviet Union. He was a good guy, a bit older than the other cadets, since he had had prior service in the Army.
Visiting West Point this year, I couldn’t get John out of my mind. I’ve been teaching for a long time. Undoubtedly, some of the students I’ve taught over the years have passed away. But this was still something new for me. It made me reflect on what really makes West Point or any of the other military academies unique. The young people in your classes are not merely “students.” They are also “cadets,” future officers and platoon leaders. When you discuss military history at West Point, you’re not just talking to buffs or budding young scholars, although many of the cadets are both of those. You’re also talking to future “operators,” those who will someday have to fight the same kind of battles you’re discussing, and may also be called upon to give their lives in the service of their country.
John did all those things, and finally, on May 26th, 2011, he did what so many others before him have done: he gave the last full measure of devotion.
I’d like to ask my readers to give a thought or prayer today to our soldiers fighting overseas. We’re currently involved in no fewer than three wars (whatever the government likes to call them), combat is still a highly dangerous business, and a very small number of young people are bearing the burden for all of us.