WEST POINT, N.Y. — Two hundred and seventy-two.
That was the number my birth date drew in a national lottery that meant something, the draft lottery of 1969.
It was sufficiently high that I didn’t have to serve. My Yale roommates had low numbers but found ways to avoid military time. We all went to antiwar rallies and looked down on soldiers.
People often ask how often it takes me to write the weekly columns that I’ve been producing for the past dozen years. With research and writing, typically a day, but it all depends on whether I can approach a subject with an easy conscience or a distressed one.
Here at the U.S. Military Academy, shortly before Memorial Day, plaques like this one are hard to miss: "In memory of those classmates who gave their lives in the service of our country while serving in the Republic of Vietnam." My conscience is not easy, because (dare I write this?) U.S. casualty reports were good news for my comrades and myself. U.S. deaths in Iraq work the same way for some among the left today.
Here at this majestic site on a cliff above the Hudson, it seems that people should measure up to at least this part of the Cadet Prayer: "Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong." I did not: I chose a wrong not only easier but vile. So did the United States in its post-Watergate twitching, as we suddenly withheld arms from our Southeast Asian allies and were thus complicit in the creation of killing fields.
Here, in sight of statues of Eisenhower, Patton and MacArthur, Cadet Jon Hendershott explained one of his reasons for entering West Point and planning to serve in the Army for at least five years after graduation: "In a lot of occupations, you don’t get a sense that you’re helping. In Iraq, we’re helping people, solving problems, spreading democracy."
"Helping." It’s not a word most people would associate with those generals, but they did lead armies that freed Europeans and Asians from fascism. West Point graduates tried to save the people of Indochina from communism, and they have led the way in freeing Iraqis from Saddam Hussein. So it’s true: In a fallen world where terrorists and dictators aim to hurt and enslave innocent people, the United States Army is a helper.
Who are the 4,000 helpers-to-be now bunking in these massive stone buildings? To get here, they need to be much more mature than the typical high school senior. By benches labeled "courage," "perseverance" and "determination," Kelsey Tardieu — 15 percent of the students are now women — mentioned that she was valedictorian at her Oregon high school and, along with submitting mountains of paperwork and winning her congressman’s recommendation, had to be interviewed by a panel of 10 retired generals and colonels.
To stay here, they need to be disciplined. Students are expected to know the day’s lesson before class begins. Since classes are small, they can’t hide at the back of a lecture hall. With students and most professors living on campus, even heavy snowfalls don’t create class cancellations. And the honor code stipulates that "a cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do."
The Academy, unlike most U.S. secular universities now, is not hostile to theistic belief, and students report that they aren’t, either. Maybe one reason for religious sensitivity is that many of my 20-year-old Texas students think they have at least 50 years before it’s time to think about death. The realization of students here that they may face it in not more than five concentrates the mind wonderfully.
So this hard-to-write column is in honor of West Point and those who died to protect me not only now when I’m grateful, but also a third of a century ago when I was at my worst. And isn’t that how Christ dies for sinners?