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The Cost of Loyalty
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
The Cost of Loyalty: Dishonesty, Hubris, and Failure in the US Military
by Tim Bakken
(Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)
When I was a boy, I read about West Point. Being young, I was impressed by the photos of the dress marches, the perfect rows of rigid young men in formations, everything gleaming and immaculate. I guess my fascination came up in a conversation with my uncle, who told me his father owned a textile company that made blankets for the academy, and soon after, gifted me a genuine West Point blanket. Of course, it was gray, with stripes of gold and black, and a formal USMA printed toward the bottom. I was thrilled, and I kept that blanket until just a few years ago, when it became too ragged to serve any purpose. My admiration for West Point, and all of America's military academies, I'm sorry to say, had long since turned to disgust and loathing. I spent a little less than three years in the army, one of them in Vietnam, and I saw too many lieutenants fresh out of West Point with their arrogance and disdain for the men under their command, far more evident than that of officers who had earned their rank in Officers Candidate Schools. To this day, I have little respect for any of them.
Thirteen years after I left Vietnam, and twelve years after I found that my reassignment to peaceful Thailand included covert forays into an incredible battlefield I believe to be Laos, I found a Saturday evening TV broadcast titled "The Uncounted Enemy" that revealed that General Westmoreland, commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, had, in 1967, ordered that reports of enemy troop strengths going back to Washington not exceed a given number despite the obvious intelligence reports and observations that there were far, far more enemy soldiers with their weapons aimed at us. Yes, us! In late 1967 and early '68, I was a Pfc truck mechanic and driver based in a compound near Pleiku, South Vietnam. On the evening of January 30th, 1968, the enemy sprung a surprise attack throughout South Vietnam, the Tet offensive. Westmoreland had recently told Congress that the war in Vietnam was nearly won, and he could "see the light at the end of the tunnel." Our leadership eagerly passed on his message to us. If I remember correctly, Westmoreland limited his officers to reports of 350,000 enemy max, while it was clear there were more than 600,000 enemy facing us. Many of his officers and intelligence people were concerned, as every aspect of our war-fighting preparation and supply was governed by those reports. In November of '67, many of us had been recruited to haul supplies, especially ammunition, to Dak To, where the 173rd Airborne was engaged in the biggest battle of the war so far, reacting when it was discovered that a huge influx of North Vietnamese regulars had jumped off the Ho Chi Minh trail to threaten the Central Highlands. And then the Tet offensive exploded, devastating every aspect of Westmoreland's misguided battle plans. He rushed back to Washington to ask President Johnson for permission to use nuclear weapons, and thank God, LBJ denied him. Within a few months, Westmoreland was reassigned back to a stateside position, but now everyone knew the war was unwinnable. Profiteers throughout the military-industrial complex kept it going for six more years, in open defiance of the will of the American people.
After watching "The Uncounted Enemy" that Saturday evening, I knew I had to deal with my Vietnam experiences. Long story short, I wrote a long and very descriptive outpouring to my wife, typing alone in the living room night after night for nine months. That outpouring ultimately became a book. All of this is relevant to my review of Mr. Bakken's book only because my literary agent also represented another writer who lived a couple miles from me. Bruce Galloway had been an intelligence analyst and operations officer in 1967 and '68. His co-author, one Robert B. Johnson, Jr., had graduated from West Point in 1965 and served as a captain in the infantry in Vietnam from March, 1968 to March of 1969, almost certainly assigned to the war zone in the immediate aftermath of the Tet offensive. Bruce Galloway was my neighbor, and I never met Johnson. The book was titled West Point: America's Power Fraternity, published in 1973 by Simon & Schuster. Neither Bruce Galloway, Bob Johnson, nor the book West Point are mentioned in Tim Bakken's book, and he may not even be aware of them.
In his foreword to West Point, Lt. Colonel Anthony B. Herbert (ret), author of Soldier, writes: "Bob Johnson and Bruce Galloway present a theory backed with impressive, instructive factual data. And if they are correct, then someone somewhere is to blame—and that someone, contrary to what our so-called leaders are expounding today, is not the American people! The people are not to blame! …The responsibility for the tragedy of Vietnam is clearly established. It is imperative to all that we understand why we lost and then make the necessary corrections before it is too late. Vietnam was no accident of fate, but rather the goal toward which our army had been doggedly headed for years. And now the line is drawn; the professional officer corps, the "clique," must accept responsibility for the major role it played. And we must accept the responsibility for that which we permit to be done without protest, and therefore in effect condone, for as citizens in a democracy we must bear the burden for that which is done in our name…Bob Johnson and Bruce Galloway… have, in effect, got the ball rolling. It is now our turn—to read, to think, and then to act. The time is short!" Again, this book came out in 1973!
These two books, published 47 years apart, are arranged to sit side-by-side on my bookshelf. They are of one voice, although Galloway and Johnson use the word "aristocracy" more than Bakken. They point out that Representative David Crockett of Tennessee, introduced to Congress on February 25, 1830, a House Resolution No. 7 of the 21st Congress, suggesting that the US Military Academy at West Point "be abolished, and the appropriations annually made for its support be discontinued." Among his reasons, he argued "That each and every institution, calculated, at public expense, and under the patronage and sanction of the Government, to grant exclusive privileges except in consideration of public services, is not only aristocratic, but a downright invasion of the rights of the citizen, and a violation of the civil compact called "the constitution."
Davy Crockett was a famed pioneer and hunter who would die at the Alamo. In Vietnam in 1968, and even more today, his concerns have come to be our sad and threatening reality. Military officers, and I will mention incompetent, publicity-hungry Generals Petraeus and McChrystal as examples, have become a dangerous aristocracy. Tim Bakken writes about the abuses of power evident in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. As veterans, I suppose we all have our experiences, stories and personal observations. The aristocracy of American military officers is well established, and as sacred as it is deadly.
In the Spring 2020 issue of The Veteran, Ed White did a wonderful review of Tim Bakken's book. Ed repeatedly calls The Cost of Loyalty "devastating," and it is a very fair assessment. Ed suggests "This is a book that needs to be read by all Americans." I am adding this review to echo and draw attention to his very appropriate words.
Author Tim Bakken is the first civilian promoted to professor of law in West Point's history. He became a federal whistleblower after reporting what he believed was corruption at West Point and, after the army retaliated against him, became one of the few federal employees to win a retaliation case against the US military. He is still teaching at West Point. After reading his book, you will take hope from that statement.
This is the most powerful, realistic, and important book I've read in thirty years. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of two books about the Vietnam War.