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The Long Gray Line by Rick Atkinson
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The Long Gray Line (1989)

by Rick Atkinson

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Showing 4 of 4
One of the hazards of being Santa Claus in a library is that one sees all sorts of interesting items in between promises for Barbie dolls and AK-47s. I happened to run across Rick Atkinson's Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966 in the Forreston Public Library. This is just a wonderful book. Based on scores of interviews, Atkinson spent 10 years gathering material. The reader gets to know the pains and pleasures (very few indeed) of 4 years at West Point. The class becomes a microcosm of American society for the next 20 years as many of the officers suffer the same agonies and worries as their countrymen. Atkinson describes the revolution that Kennedy tried to foment in the officer corps. In his address to West Point in 1962, Kennedy referred obliquely to the war in southeast Asia as a new kind of war with insurgents, assassins, ambushes and an enemy seeking to win by exhaustion rather than engagement. Kennedy wanted the new officers to be as much diplomats as soldiers, particularly to be nation builders. After Vietnam, an American officer said to his Vietnamese counterpart: "You know you never beat us in battle." To which the other replied, "That's true, it's also irrelevant." West Point resisted the change. They were used to creating a fighter who gave no quarter and who won by massive firepower. Yet the army desperately needed a new mission in the atomic age so counter-insurgency techniques were a godsend yet these proficiencies were virtually unknown. In 1951, a senator asked Omar Bradley if the army had learned anything new fighting in North Korea. His reply was that "we have certainly been up against one type of warfare we never had before, and that is the guerilla type, in which you have infiltration of your lines by large groups." Military historians were stunned. The 19th century army had destroyed a whole continent of gorilla fighters, often by fighting unconventionally; they had successfully defeated the Tagaloos in the Philippines, not to mention the British in the late 18th century. West Point Superintendent Dave Richard Palmer wrote, "The army corporate memory was little more than one generation long, stretching back no further than the experiences of the men in it."
The impact of Vietnam on the corps was tremendous. The contrast between the strict honor code of the Point and the mendacity of the army in the field: lying on readiness reports and digging up graves to inflate body counts. Ironically, the first class of '66 graduate to die became a metaphor for the war. His own rifle killed him when he became mired in mud and handed his M-16 to a soldier butt first without the safety on. The soldier accidentally hit the trigger and Frank Rybecki died in a hail of his own bullets. The number of soldiers killed by friendly fire was astonishing. In the book's most intense section we watch several '66 graduates maneuver their troops up hill 875, 6 of the 8 classmates in the battalion were to become casualties. One died as a jet flew the wrong trajectory and dropped his bomb in the middle of Company C killing 42 and wounding all the rest. Paradoxically, the hill was then evacuated after finally being taken. The West Point chaplain's story is particularly poignant as he presides over an increasing number of funerals of boys whose weddings he had officiated at not too many months before. Atkinson follows the class through Grenada and Panama and for many into their civilian careers. An interesting tidbit: Battle fatigue causalities (acute environmental reaction -- which I always thought was something parents suffered from) was much lower in Vietnam (2-3%) than in WW II (20-30%). A WW II study found that soldiers reached peak efficiency at 90 days of combat and that after 200-240 days the value of battle-hardened men to their units became negligible. That was the reason for one-year tours in Vietnam. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Pulitzer prize winning author Rick Atkinson has achieved something remarkable with this book. It is an epic portrayal of a generation's experiences via the prism of the US Military Academy at West Point and their lives beyond the wide-eyed days at 'Beast Barracks' in 1962.

Following the Class of '66, and focusing on half a dozen cadets in particular (though the engrossing cast is actually of dozens), Atkinson takes the reader on an emotional journey from the first days of induction, through their 4 years at the Academy and into service with the Army, surfacing in the chaos and tragedy of the Vietnam War, and beyond to the 1970s and 1980s. This isn't just any military history lesson though. He skilfully rotates the narrative from one player to the next, filling in their family stories, their relationships, inner thoughts and fears, and hopes and dreams. The parallel story of America's own adjustment from the era of John Kennedy and "what you can do for your country" to the days of Reagan's White House and the trauma of Vietnam in between is fascinating too.

The Class of '66 suffered terribly with casualties in the Vietnam mire and some of our protagonists have never returned. I felt something of each loss as I felt I had gained an element of familiarity and understanding with each and every young man and his loved ones, thanks to the excellent writing. This moving book portrays beautifully what happened to this generation, and the personal battles each faced away from the field of combat. It reads like a thriller and I couldn't really put it down without wanting to push on and know what was going to happen to them all.

An extremely powerful and affecting book, written with love and great craftsmanship. You will not regret reading The Long Gray Line. ( )
1 vote Polaris- | May 29, 2011 |
about life at Westpoint
  jdixon | Aug 17, 2008 |
3783. The Long Gray Line, by Rick Atkinson (read 17 Aug 2003) On the dust jacket this book is given a subtitle: The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966. The book covers the men who entered the Military Academy in 1962. The book is full of poignant and searing vignettes of the years between 1962 and 1989, when it was published. The author (winner of the 2003 Pulitzer for his book An Army at Dawn) has done a difficult job well telling of the Academy and of the men who graduated in 1966 and many of whom died in Vietnam. A very great and much appreciated book. ( )
2 vote Schmerguls | Nov 11, 2007 |
Showing 4 of 4
Atkinson's book is exquisitely crafted. It reads as smoothly as a novel, involving the reader emotionally as well as intellectually and has the sort of multi-threaded narrative that propels its long story swiftly... It has all the power, and then some, of Neil Sheehan's mammoth Vietnam book of 1988, A Bright Shining Lie, and a bushel more style.
added by Polaris- | editKansas Star
 
The Long Gray Line is a very moving book. Stunning in its descriptions...tolerant in its judgements, astonishing in its incidents, vivid in its delineation of character and expert in its knowledge of a particular world, beyond all these things it possesses a great and healing generosity.
added by Polaris- | editWashington Post
 
Rick Atkinson has written a story of epic proportions... although it is a work of non-fiction The Long Gray Line shares the force and sweep of a Ben Hur or Gone With The Wind. It is an awesome feat of biographical reconstruction... a difficult book to put down.
added by Polaris- | editBoston Globe
 
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We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blook with me Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, This day sheall gentle his condition. Shakespeare, Henry V
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For Jane and Rush and Sarah
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Even on the Sabbath dawn Penn Station was a busy place.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805062912, Paperback)

The first trade paperback edition of the New York Times best-seller about West Point's Class of 1966, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Atkinson.

This is the story of the twenty-five-year adventure of the generation of officers who fought in Vietnam. With novelistic detail, Atkinson tells the story of West Point's Class of 1966 primarily through the experiences of three classmates and the women they loved--from the boisterous cadet years and youthful romances to the fires of Vietnam, where dozens of their classmates died and hundreds more grew disillusioned, to the hard peace and family adjustments that followed. The rich cast of characters includes Douglas MacArthur, William Westmoreland, and a score of other memorable figures. The West Point Class of 1966 straddled a fault line in American history, and Rick Atkinson's masterly book speaks for a generation of American men and women about innocence, patriotism, and the price we pay for our dreams.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:28:25 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

On cover: The American journey of West Point's class of 1966. Reveals the true heart of the military over the past quarter century as told through the lives of three classmates.

» see all 2 descriptions

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