Thoughts on war and well-prepared defenders


May 02, 1999|By Norris West

I HAVE TO confess that I was somewhat anti-military during my formative years.

I say "somewhat" because I've not always supported the war, but I've always backed those who fought.

I speak especially of Vietnam (although Grenada also bothered me). During the Vietnam War, my childhood fascination with miniature soldiers and tanks engaged in fantasy combat dissipated as the real combat raged on my television screen.

Things got worse when the Army drafted one of my brothers. His heart sank when the notice came. Some of my cousins were drafted, too. None of them believed the war involved matters of morality or security. The "Domino Theory" was hogwash to them, and to me -- to the extent I understood it at the time.

I had learned to respect Lyndon B. Johnson for pushing civil rights and voting rights for African-Americans, but my admiration turned to scorn with his escalation of the war. Why was he sending men to their death in a country that didn't appear on the map to be close enough to threaten Americans?

Ali replaces LBJ

My new hero was Muhammad Ali, who showed courage in refusing the draft, risking fame and fortune. The boxing champion noted that the United States was fighting so-called enemies abroad while there were plenty of enemies of freedom at home. His stand endeared him to many young African-Americans, including me.

At night, I would pray for the war to end -- and before I reached draft age. Prayer works. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975, the year I graduated from high school.

Although I like to think that I would have been first in line to enlist to fight World War II, I wanted no part of military service after Vietnam, so I stayed far from it.

Despite being somewhat anti-military, I was hardly anti-soldier.

Just because Vietnam was wrong does not negate the obvious fact that the United States needs a strong military to protect its borders and interests, including top-notch equipment and well-trained men and women.

Which brings me to the U.S. Naval Academy.

I recently visited the academy to get a glimpse of the selection and training of midshipmen who will be the next generation of Navy officers. I was impressed.

I went there knowing the academy is still sensitive to reporting and re-reporting of the scandals that rocked the Annapolis school in recent years, particularly Mids' cheating.

But the academy also is justifiably proud of the quality of its program and of its graduates, who become ensigns in the Navy or second lieutenants in the Marine Corps.

The academy attracts some of the top academic performers from all 50 states, and it can afford to be very selective. Midshipmen have a rigorous academic schedule, which is heavy on math, science and engineering, even for English majors.

Midshipmen must adhere to a strict honor code, which prohibits relationships of upperclassmen and lowerclassmen and prevents couples from so much as holding hands at the sprawling Bancroft Hall dormitory.

Midshipmen must be fit. Only eight of the 4,000 midshipmen are over the academy's weight limit. As I watched the group's ceremonial march for lunch, I didn't detect any obesity.

The academy, however, needs to do much more to attract more minority midshipmen to reflect the diversity in the ranks.

Ryan's mission

The superintendent, Vice Adm. John Ryan, brings impressive military credentials and as much enthusiasm as his students showed before a lunch of hamburgers, chips and root-beer floats.

Admiral Ryan likes what he sees when he looks at the picturesque campus, but he knows there are cracks in the foundations of buildings and improvements to be made in building good officers.

My brother and Vietnam still come to mind when I think of the military, but those images now share space with my impressions of an institution building the kind of first-rate officers a country needs.

Norris P. West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County. He can be reached by e-mail at

Pub Date: 5/02/99

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