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What Abides: West Point In Afterthought by James Ryan

What Abides: West Point In Afterthought

by James Ryan

376 pages
Sixty years have passed since President John F. Kennedy spoke at my graduation from West Point. This is where my book begins. Days spent at West Point stand clearly in my mind.

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Category: Biography:Historical
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About the Book
What abides over the sixty years since President John F. Kennedy spoke at my graduation from West Point. This is where What Abides begins. Days spent at West Point stand clearly in my mind. I can envision my daily life as a cadet: a bed made taut as a trampoline, spit-shined shoes, and a sworn oath to absolute honesty. No lying, no cheating, no stealing, no locks, no keys.

We woke in the early morning to bugles and drums. Another day in which to excel. Heavy academics and tough physical training ensued. We might be ordered to climb a flimsy ladder to the gymnasium rafters. We would leap into the swimming pool, all part of the survival swimming class. Academic classes, physical training, year-round competitive sports, sometimes an afternoon parade. Evenings we study. But West Point is more than this.

One day in June, President Eisenhower visited the barracks. I, on duty, greeted him and, improbably, we shared a joke together. Wintertime at West Point is dubbed Gloom Period. So the marching band played pop tunes and jazz in the mess hall to cheer us. Cadets also marked the world outside West Point. We traveled to an army base in Alabama. Our one Black classmate in the total class of six hundred met the real-world shock of Jim Crow racism. When we paraded down Fifth Avenue in New York City for the last time, we couldn't know that ninety cadets marching would die in Vietnam. What Abides is about a brotherhood, forged in rigorous training, devoted to living honorable lives.

Our parade in New York brought memories of applauding crowds, the grand backdrops of Central Park and Fifth Avenue. My looking out over New York harbor brought thoughts of why and how I attended West Point. Born during World War II, the triumphant victory subsumed the nation during my youth. The entry process was intensely competitive. The official catalogue warned that admission requirements were "somewhat" different from other colleges. Indeed they were.

Oh that first day at West Point! With shocking suddenness military discipline was imposed by upperclassmen. We left our homes as our parents' children. By late afternoon, shorn of hair, we were marching in cadence and had sworn an oath of cadetship.

In name West Point cadets, there remained much to learn. We were taught to make our beds, shine our shoes and march, all the West Point way. We ate sitting at attention. We memorized vast quantities of material from the obtuse definition of the word "discipline" to the mess hall's daily meal menu. Indeed it was all somewhat different.

What Abides unearths other aspects of West Point. Why the ignoring of Baron von Steuben in the founding of the real Colonial Army and military academies? The very model of a soldier/adviser, he seems curiously marginalized at West Point. Then there is Robert Strange McNamara. Not a West Point graduate but actually its nemesis. He considered his mentor, Curtis "Bombs Away" LeMay, as one of the best military commanders. Together, following orders, this disastrous duo had set ablaze the primarily wooden cities of Japan. A warm-up to the coming tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For West Pointers, where is the honor in civilian slaughter?

McNamara pulled out all his bombing stops in Vietnam. He said there were no experts available to guide him and that Vietnam was "terra incognita." This was the great lie that helped kill hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. Did anyone, West Point graduate or not, think about the war crimes of bombing civilians? It prevails today.

Also consider West Point throughout its history. Dubbed The Long Gray Line, one family can span a century of graduates. What Abides explains such a family. It also shows an example of West Point in the classroom as it analyzes leadership in times of war, peace and cold war.

All this and much more is what abides for me.


I did want to tell you how impressed I was with your work and that you should work on it. You have a strong way of telling a story while keeping it observant and tender.
- Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, personal note to me dated March 25, 1998 about what became the Lost One chapter of What Abides.



About the Author
James Ryan JAMES RYAN was born and raised in The Bronx, New York. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, he holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University. His poetry, short fiction, literary criticism, and political commentary have appeared in numerous publications. He was a columnist for Aydinlik Daily, a newspaper in Istanbul, Turkey.



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