The last time a West Point class graduated early – or having completed less than eight semesters – was in 1945, at the end of the Second World War. Until now. Though the circumstances are somewhat dissimilar – cadets have been taking online classes since their virtual return from Spring Break – the current class of seniors has indeed seen their traditional academy experience corona-circumscribed. They will soon graduate, on June 13, and enter an army engaged in a rather different "war” than the more linear battle their 1945 forebears waged against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Until rather recently, it was unclear just how the United States Military Academy (USMA) would proceed with the class of 2020 graduation. Then, on Friday, President Donald Trump apparently caught West Point officials off-guard with his sudden announcement that the cadets would, in fact, graduate in person, and that he planned to attend as the keynote speaker. Thus far, the media focus has unsurprisingly been on either the foolishness – or near criminality – of President Trump "requiring” West Point’s seniors to return to campus for the ceremony. These may, perhaps, be fair critiques; though, I wouldn’t be too quick to let USMA’s leadership off-the-hook: these folks tend to adore pageantry and tradition.
Look the health implications of Trump’s seemingly snap decision are real, but what also concerns me is what Trump might say in his commencement address. Time and again, especially since the early Vietnam War, commanders-in-chief have used these occasions to announce some pretty awful policies. One typically finds this interventionist red meat wedged between the lighthearted obligatory opening offer of amnesty for naughty cadets and sappy motivational closings about the romance of their future service. If not always loaded with profound doctrines of new militarisms, the speakers’ remarks usually toss in just enough deceit, vapid adulation, and foreign affairs cliché to turn one’s stomach, and, more importantly, these speeches inadvertently diagnose the disease of American exceptionalism. Let us survey just a few examples.
Rumors and Reverberations of War: The Vietnam Era
On D-Day, June 6,1962, a navy man and a hero of that past war to boot, – though not an academy grad – President John F. Kennedy, addressed the corps of cadets. Though some ten thousand advisers were already in South Vietnam by then, the war these young gentlemen would soon fight – and 22 die in – hadn’t yet shifted into full gear. The superintendent at the time, who Kennedy even referred to in his speech, was William Westmoreland, would go on to lead that failed war in the very near future. Still, the president assured the impending graduates that they were sure to be what he called "privileged" to be "heavily involved" in plenty of action against the mythical monolith of worldwide communism.
He specifically mentioned Laos, Cambodia, Iran, Thailand, South Korea, Latin America, and, of course, Vietnam. Utilizing an array of "new" tactics that JFK would mention – such as special forces and advisory teams – ’62 grads would "go forth" and fight not only for each other, but for those "all over the globe who are determined to be free." So long, he failed to mention, as they kept their liberty yearnings within the stark limits of America’s Cold War "sphere."
Of course, it’s not just presidents – they tend to rotate annually between the respective military academies’ graduations – who deliver speechifying doozies at West Point, but the senior officials they send in their absence: vice presidents, secretaries of defense, senior generals, etc. For example, at the very height of the Vietnam War in 1967, Kennedy’s post-assassination successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, tasked Secretary of the Army Stanley R. Resor to preside over the ceremony.
Addressing a class that would ultimately lose 29 graduates in Vietnam, Resor noted that America’s "superbly led" troops were even then putting the nations "ideals to the test of battle." It was one of the secretary’s only two uses of the word "Vietnam" in the entire address. In fact, beyond vague references to their future "defense of freedom," his relatively short – as compared to others – address devoted far more time to the educational and career opportunities ahead for the those members of the Class of 1967 who’d live long enough to seize them.
In 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew – who would later resign in corruption-disgrace – arrived at West Point to supposedly offer solace to graduates entering what was then quite obviously a failing war. Still, it appeared that the main conflict on Agnew’s mind was not so much Vietnam, per say, as the related culture wars into which he threw some snide barbs. Noting that West Pointers remained as "dependable as the rock foundations of these highlands," he pilloried those who "glamorize the criminal misfits of society while our best men die in Asian rice paddies to preserve the freedoms those misfits abuse."
The vice president admitted that Vietnam was a "lonely and difficult war," but blamed any shortfalls on antiwar villains: "the charlatans of peace and freedom [who] eulogize foreign dictators while desecrating the flag that keeps them free." He dared not describe all dictators and quasi dictators – including those in Saigon – that his Nixon administration backed. Instead, Agnew lauded the soldiers who "protected a remarkable series of genuinely free elections [in Vietnam] resulting in the formulation of a constitutional government in the midst of war." South Vietnamese elections, naturally, were hardly free, and the coup-ridden, corrupt Saigon regime lacked nearly all constitutional legitimacy. What’s more certain is that four Class of 1970 graduates would soon be killed in Vietnam – these proving to be, per John Kerry’s subsequent formulation, the last West Pointers to "die for a mistake."
The very next spring, President Richard Nixon delivered a combination of euphemism, obfuscation, and undeserved flattery. For example he claimed that:
Through a long and bitter struggle in Vietnam, American fighting men have served the cause of freedom magnificently. American military leadership, much of it from here at West Point, has been superb.
Let’s break that absurdity down just a tad. Actually, it is – and was to anyone paying attention -fully apparent that the U.S. actually inherited and then took up the mantle of imperialism and sovereignty-denial in Vietnam. Furthermore, by 1971, far from performing "magnificently" – rather Trumpian hyperbole, that – the military was plagued by drug use, antiwar GI resistance, and was patently losing. As for the army’s leadership – much of it indeed West Point trained – it had performed dismally and was largely derelict in their duty to dissent and provide honest assessments of their forces’ capabilities.
Despite all that tremendous "triumph," Nixon then pivoted to the imminent end of the war, stating: "But now at last, we have the end of the American role in this war fairly in sight, and (his emphasis) we are ending our involvement with honor." Tell that to the desperate South Vietnamese collaborators who clung for dear life to the last US helicopter leaving the embassy in Saigon as victorious North Vietnamese tanks approached the former capitol less than four years after Nixon’s West Point commencement address.
A decade later, in 1981, it was President Ronald Reagan’s turn to motivate a new class of graduates. It was candidate Reagan, after all, who would rehabilitate the lost cause of Vietnam, which had he famously labeled a "noble cause" just a year earlier. The new president devoted much of his speech to braggadocio announcements of his coming defense budgets explosion – which would balloon the deficits he’d promised to close – but also decried the evils of the "Vietnam syndrome:" recent US hesitancy about waging extended far flung wars. Such days of caution were over, clamored Reagan, to be replaced with new "responsibilities to the free world." The stage was set for his successor’s "New World Order” and his son’s forthcoming global crusade.
The (Non) "Calm" before the 9/11 "Storm"
Ten further years on from Reagan’s first West Point commencement, on June 1, 1991, the elder George H. W. Bush spoke in the wake of all the triumphalism becoming his Persian Gulf War victory. He had only recently proclaimed that this "win" had "kicked the Vietnam syndrome." Yet, to be fair, the understated personal humility of the man was on some display, as he dedicated nearly half his speech to the place of race and civil rights at the military academies. Given all the racial rancor of the times, this was likely a political move.
Nonetheless, Father Bush – in a speech dedicated to the "character" of West Point – called upon the nation to "build a ‘we,’ not a ‘me,’ generation by carrying the ideals of this school to the Nation and the world." If the president meant well – and maybe he did – his messianic message was certainly used for militarist ill by a range of successors.
One could be forgiven for thinking that American exceptionalist-militarist fantasies would meaningfully alter when Bill Clinton – the first anti-Vietnam War, draft avoiding, baby boomer to serve as president – entered the Oval Office. Surely, something new was on the agenda? Hardly. As Clinton, eloquently as ever, spoke at the 1993 West Point graduation, it was clear that while the Cold War may have ended in an American "victory," there were still "remarkable challenges" ahead. America alone, of course, must address them. These soon to be second lieutenants would be expected to "keep the peace, to relieve suffering, to help teach officers from new democracies in the ways of a democratic army."
In an admittedly resonant bit of Clintonian flourish, Slick Willie even signaled the US global hyper-interventionism to come. He averred that "today’s bloodiest conflicts, from the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia to Armenia to Sudan, the dynamics of the cold war have been replaced by many of the dynamics of old war." No thought, it seems, and certainly no rhetoric, was devoted to just how and why American troops would positively contribute to these ever present evils. And, by the way, two of those ’93 grads would stick around the army long enough to get killed in Afghanistan.
Clinton’s eloquent hints at what was to come, were tragically followed by the predictions and pronouncements of chauvinist grandiosity that characterized the next administration. In the last commencement address before the 9/11 terror attacks kicked off the current age of endless war, President George W. Bush’s Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz – a true neocon’s neocon – declared that the 2001 graduates would "man the walls behind which democracy and freedom flourish. Your presence will reassure our allies and deter the enemies of freedom around the world." In the end, five of the seniors in attendance that day would later die in the wars Wolfowitz championed. It is, in retrospect, somewhat macabre that the deputy secretary described their future missions as "your own crusade."
Forever War and Beyond
Matters only deteriorated from there. Famously, in 2002, in the first post-9/11 graduation ceremony (which I attended as freshman – "plebe" – cadet) George W. Bush spoke to of "a conflict between good and evil," and unveiled a whole new off-the-rails policy of preemption:
Deterrence…means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies…
And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary…
This was nothing short of a not-so-veiled declaration of war on Iraq – a country that did not have nuclear weapons and had not colluded with Al Qaeda "terrorists." As for the Class of 2002, they ultimately had nine members killed fighting Bush’s concocted and ill-advised wars.
Barack Obama entered the White House promising to end the "dumb war" Bush had started in Iraq, but quickly expanded the doomed (and still ongoing) US military presence in Afghanistan, exponentially increased drone strikes, and expanded the scope of America’s wars to at least seven regularly bombed countries. Addressing the 2010 West Point graduation, "dovish" Obama spoke of the essential need to:
break the momentum of a Taliban insurgency and train Afghan security forces. We have supported the election of a sovereign government – now we must strengthen its capacities. We’ve brought hope to the Afghan people – now we must see that their country does not fall prey to our common enemies. Cadets, there will be difficult days ahead. We will adapt, we will persist, and I have no doubt that…we will succeed in Afghanistan.
We didn’t. Obama was first and foremost a politician – a foreign policy neophyte whose real interests were always domestic. Moreover, the record indicates that the young president quickly doubted – and resented – the generals’ promised troop-infused, counterinsurgency-imbued promises of success. What we do know is that at least three 2010 alumni were later killed in action. All of them died in Afghanistan, as did several other graduates after his announced surge 2.0 there extended a war one suspects he never really believed to be winnable.
Then, in 2016, during my last spring on the USMA history department faculty – and the last ceremony in the pre-Trump era – Obama sent Vice President Joe Biden to rally the graduating troops. As a senator, he had supported and long defended Bush’s Iraq War – no matter what the future presidential candidate would later claim – and did little to challenge the warfare state as VP. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Biden’s speech amounted to little more than a game of military buzzword-bingo – sprinkled, of course, with some praise for improved diversity policies at the academy. So, he spoke of how USMA had "forged" the cadets into "warriors, and strategists," whose "turn" it was "to write history." Look, it wasn’t a bad speech: it had its moments and there’ve been way worse.
Still, surveying Uncle Joe’s melange of platitudes and stale foreign policy thinking, one wonders about the degree to which it really matters who wins the commander-in-chief crown in 2020. The choice seems rather one of taste: how do you prefer your emperor? Coarse or polite? Undoubtedly, Biden offers more "stability," maybe less uncertainty; but where exactly has the reigning paradigm gotten America besides bogged down in hopeless wars? However, it must be said that Biden did offer one prescient nugget, as he surveyed the range of potential future missions for the momentarily commissioned army officers: Whether it’s fighting terrorism, training the US’s partners, or dealing with an outbreak of disease, he exclaimed – "we call you!"
Three years on, in 2019, the obligatory commencement task fell to a rather less scientifically-inclined vice president. Given his more miraculously inflected thinking on a range of issues – "smoking doesn’t kill," condoms are "very, very poor protection," the Bible is preferable to evolution, gay conversion therapy works, and "global warming is a myth" – no one should have expected much pandemic discussion from Mike Pence. What he did offer, perhaps appropriately for the man, was his own prophecy of sorts: perpetual war and loads of it. After listing a melange of overhyped threats on the horizon, Pence – a soothsayer with the unique capability to make his prognoses so – told the senior cadets that is was a "virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield…at some point in your life. You will lead soldiers in combat. It will happen." Well, he wasn’t wrong.
So now it falls, in about a month and a half, on Mr. Trump to offer words of encouragement and (heavens forbid!) some predictions of his own to a new crop of West Point graduates – albeit in the distinctly odd circumstances befitting these times. I, for one, wouldn’t mind if the, however insincere, candidate Trump – full of antiwar populism – would reemerge for his appearance on the banks of the Hudson River. But don’t count on it.
Short of that, it’d be great if the president would at least grace the class with brevity. The graduates themselves, and most assuredly America’s victims in waiting – countless foreign peoples the world – would be happier and healthier if, for once, The Donald kept his comments to just two words: Good luck!
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and contributing editor at antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order. Sjursen was recently selected as a 2019-20 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet. Visit his professional website for contact info, to schedule speeches or media appearances, and access to his past work.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen