The following is the foreword by Wesley Clark from The Golden Fleece: High-Risk Adventure at West Point (September 2017) by Tom Carhart. Clark is a retired U.S. Army four-star general, Vietnam War veteran, and valedictorian of the West Point class of ’66.
Over thirty years ago a young Washington Post reporter chose to write a compelling memoir of young men in an officer’s school, their wartime experiences in Vietnam, and their lives afterward. Who were these men who served and fought in an unpopular, deeply divisive war, and how did their experiences affect them? It was the story of the West Point Class of 1966, called The Long Gray Line, by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Rick Atkinson.
Now, long after that class of 579 graduated—most commissioned in the army, a few in the air force or navy—their story is almost told. All but 3 of the army officers served in Vietnam, where 30 died and many times that number were wounded. After the war many left the service and went on to other careers. Today, in their mid-seventies, most of this group have retired from those careers. Among the class were fabulously successful businessmen, entrepreneurs, noted jurists, many successful local and community leaders, educators, academicians, and a number of colonels and generals.
The lessons and meaning of their lives are just now truly coming into focus. Perhaps the most compelling of these lessons is “character”: how idealistic, talented young people are shaped by the challenges, pressures, and restraints of a hierarchical and authoritarian institution, and particularly how they blossom with poise, creativity, and courage to face their futures.
Tom Carhart, whose story featured prominently in The Long Gray Line, takes us deep into his own life and the lives of other members of that class, as they planned, plotted, and succeeded in stealing Navy’s heavily guarded mascot, the Navy goat, just prior to the annual Army-Navy football game. It is a story rich with the particulars of the time—the “Leave it to Beaver” wholesomeness of the generation whose childhood was infused with Walt Disney, Mickey Mantle, and the “dull” presidency of another West Point graduate named Dwight Eisenhower. Theirs was a generation just beginning to experience the openness and rebellion of the sixties. These men faced the growing recognition that they would soon be thrust into a life-and-death struggle in the war in Vietnam.
This is also a timeless story of the path to adulthood—breaking the bonds of parental restriction while also taking risks, all in the pursuit of lofty aims and glory. Long ago Apollonius of Rhodes mythologized the quest for adulthood in the timeless story of Jason and the Golden Fleece: a young man must leave home and risk his life in a distant land to capture the magical wool that will make him king. He uses guile and charm and daring, escaping near-certain death, to ultimately succeed.
Ironically, this is virtually the same story, as Tom and his band of brother Argonauts penetrate the foreign and hostile grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy to steal its famed mascot. But this is a true story, and they succeeded against long odds and high risks. The men involved built on the success of their quest and it became the nugget of each of their life stories: success against the odds but achieved through smart planning, risk-taking, and perseverance.
For the rest of our class the theft was one of those moments that flashed across our lives. We applauded, we gloated a little, we shared in the triumph of our classmates. We sensed at the time that this was no mere prank—it was a classic small-unit military operation done in defiance of our own chain of command. We also sensed that it spoke to some special qualities of our classmates who pulled it off—as the record of their later accomplishments shows. Many of us, no doubt, wished we had had the imagination and daring to be a part of that effort, and perhaps vicariously we absorbed bits of the lesson ourselves.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur, while serving as West Point’s superintendent in 1922, expressed it this way: “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other battlefields, will yield the fruits of victory.” So it has been, for this group of men. Read their story, beautifully told by my classmate and friend, Tom Carhart.