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In a Time of War
The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002
By Bill Murphy, Jr.
Henry Holt and Co.
HC, 384 pgs. US$27.50
ISBN: 0-8050-8679-X

Graduating into war

By Steven Martinovich
web posted November 3, 2008

In a Time of WarHarvard and Yale are commonly accepted as among America's finest universities but it's likely far harder to be admitted to an institution like West Point, only 1,200 new cadets enter each year, let alone survive the rigorous academic and physical curriculum. Since 1802, "The Point" has graduated thousands of second lieutenants into the U.S. Army, many of whom have served their nation in combat in virtually every war it has fought and boasts several presidents and numerous famous generals among its ranks.

One group of graduating cadets serves as the basis of Bill Murphy Jr.'s In a Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002, an engaging and powerful chronicle of a group of young officers from their time at West Point to their immersion in the wars in Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan. As with any school, deep friendships are formed among those in the same cohort but as Murphy illustrates, these young men and women pay a dear price for their service to the nation.

The core of Murphy's account is a group of cadets which has been dubbed the Ducks. Theirs is a daily struggle which sees them balancing classroom time with military responsibilities. For four years they navigate the treacherous shoals of West Point regulations and the demands for excellence enforced by both the institution and their peers. Like any students, however, there's always time for fun, dating and off-campus recreation. During that time America was struck on September 11, 2001, launched one war in Afghanistan and is poised for another in Iraq.

The reality of what Murphy's subjects are about to be thrust into becomes clear when many find themselves in Iraq. They drive around the dangerous streets of Baghdad, Fallujah and other cities in nothing more than thin-skinned HMMWVs while learning to command soldiers in the field. Even in combat they must learn how to balance their soldiering job with the reality of wives and children at home. Along with the weddings the class of 2002 attended after graduation come the inevitable funerals of close friends killed in combat.

For the most part Murphy keeps his personal thoughts about the Iraq War to himself but it is curious that having what appears to be extraordinary access to the class of 2002 and their families with 600 interviews conducted that most of those participating in his project, with only a few notable exceptions, seem to be opposed to the war. While this may have something to do with graduates not expecting to graduate into a war, unlike those who were admitted to West Point after them, it does seem to run counter to the many polls which shows strong support for the mission among active duty personnel.

That, however, does not weaken Murphy's effort in the slightest. In a Time of War is still a remarkable effort thanks to a fine balancing act between telling the stories of these fine officers struggling with war and its aftermath and the families who are no less veterans themselves. The war has been off the front pages for some time now, largely thanks to the American election and a far calmer situation in Iraq, but hopefully this emotional rollercoaster of a book will remind Americans once again that the war may have begun in 2003 but it is still bravely being fought by those in and out of country. ESR

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer and the editor of Enter Stage Right.

Buy In a Time of War at Amazon.com for only $18.15 (34% off)

Other related essays:

  • The new face of warfare by Steven Martinovich (June 28, 2004)
    Steven Martinovich came away very impressed by Evan Wright's Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War, a story of the men who fought the Iraq war
  • How the war was won by Steven Martinovich (March 8, 2004)
    Outside of some minor quibbles about his editorializing, Steve Martinovich thought Rick Atkinson's In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat in Iraq is the standard by which future books about the war against Saddam Hussein will be judged

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