West Point's Remarkable Story
Burke, Mike, Army
West Point's Remarkable Story
West Point: Two Centuries of Honor and Tradition. Robert Cowley and Thomas Guinzburg, editors. Warner Books, 304 pages; index; photographs; $49.95.
By Lt. Col. Mike Burke
U.S. Army retired
This really is a lovely book. The official book commemorating the bicentennial of the United States Military Academy is the product of a great deal of collaboration among West Point graduates, the institution, historians, writers, photographers, archivists and producers. It is meant, I think, to be the cornerstone of a slew of other kinds of special purpose media products coming out over the next few years that will help tell West Point's remarkable story.
Robert Cowley, former editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, and Tom Guinzburg, former head of Viking Press (and an Iwo Jima veteran) have assembled a diverse group of voices, each presenting a chapter in West Point's history. Thomas Fleming discusses the early days, the historical novelist Cecelia Holland the Thayer years before the war with Mexico, Stephen Sears the Civil War, Carlo d'Este the "frozen interval" between that conflict and World War I. Robert Cowley takes on that war and its aftereffects at West Point, Tom Wicker the next global war, Dennis Showalter the Cold War, Geoffrey Norman limns the history of athletics, and Brian Haig, the only West Point graduate among the authors, describes the four decades of tumult that span the 1960s to the present.
Interspersed among these longer treatments are shorter sections devoted to exceptional alumni, like O.O. Howard, the Civil War general and head of the Freedmen's Bureau, and Dwight Eisenhower, class of 1915; race and its difficult place in Academy history; the integration of women from 1976, when they were first admitted; and unusual non-graduates, like Poe and Whistler. Other sections present the profound effect of West Point graduates in engineering, business and national affairs. Still others describe the connections between Mark Twain and West Point (omitting, oddly, Twain's publishing of Grant's memoirs, saving them both from financial ruin), the role of the cavalry in cadet training, and dozens of other aspects of cadet and Academy life. Running along the top of virtually every page is a chronology (ably prepared by retired West Point history professor Ken Hamburger) that interrelates events in and outside West Point. My favorite piece is New York Times writer Stephen Dubner's contribution, two pages devoted to the cemetery, where I used to take my cadets and my daughter's elementary school classes for tours. No other place at West Point speaks so profoundly to the sacrifice and dedication of West Point's graduates.
What makes this book particularly attractive is the extraordinary range of archival and contemporary illustrations. West Point must be one of the most painted and photographed spots in America, and this book contains a comprehensive depiction of West Point's physical development. The book also includes thousands of images of West Point graduates in war and peace. At times, however, the magnificent art detracts from the text-I felt as if some of the authors were having to cut their chapters to make sure there was sufficient room for one more painting or photograph.
The editors selected writers with no real affiliation with West Point-Brian Haig excepted-an attempt at objectivity, perhaps, or at broadening the perspectives offered. Since this is, after all, a sanctioned project, no reader should expect absolute objectivity. The story is the standard history, one likely set by Stephen Ambrose's 1965 (revised in 1999) history, Duty, Honor, Country, though of course usefully fleshed out by all the sidebars and illustrations. …