Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Good Wars, 'Bad' War - Three Who Spoke Out

A small historic boy’s school upriver on the Hudson has long sent its graduates to fight America’s big wars. My brother Jeff Sharlet and I both graduated from the Albany Academy (AA or Academy), and each of us in turn had gone off to the country’s 20th century wars, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Academy was founded in 1813 as a private college preparatory school. At the time, Albany, the bustling capital of New York State with over 10,000 residents, was the 10th largest city in the United States, settled in the early 17th century under Holland’s House of Orange-Nassau as the frontier trading posts Forts Orange and Nassau. By the early 19th century, Dutch could still be heard spoken in the streets of Albany, so renamed under the English.

The newly established Academy offered a classical secondary education, including Math, Physics (then called Natural Philosophy), Greek, Latin, Belles Lettres, and Natural History. In the school’s 200-year history, it has boasted among its graduates a number of American notables, including Herman Melville of Moby Dick fame; Joseph Henry, a pioneer of the telegraph and adviser to President Lincoln; and, in the 20th century, William Rose Benet,   winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Albany Academy celebrated its 200th anniversary, May 2013 

From the Academy’s inception well past the mid-20th century, the names of the oldest Dutch landowning families of the 17th and 18th centuries, called ‘patroons’ – among them the Van Rensselaers, the Ten Eycks, the Pruyns – were to be found on the school’s rosters. Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, Governor Theodore Roosevelt and, over the decades, other New York governors as well, sent their sons and grandsons to the Academy. In my day, Governor Dewey’s youngest son John and I were in the Class of 1953 – just another classmate except that John had a bodyguard.

The academy grew in the first half of the 19th century; its graduates prospered, many becoming men of means and influence in the region. With the outbreak of the War of Secession, a very large number of Academy men volunteered for the New York State regiments being raised for the Union forces. Many would fall on storied battlefields, including quite a few officers, junior and senior.

Many of the regimental officers and men had graduated from the Academy in the years before the Civil War, had gone off to college, and were often practicing law or holding public office in Albany, the capital, and its neighboring towns. Of the several who fought with uncommon courage and died heroically in 1864, General Lewis Benedict, AA ’34, a member of the New York State legislature, had first worked closely with the governor getting the state on a war footing until he led the 73rd NY in the Siege of Yorktown of 1862.

Appointed commander of the 162nd NY on the Louisiana front, Benedict was killed in a charge which successfully stopped the surging Confederates, a victory credited with saving the Union Army in the southwest. General Benedict’s body was brought back to Albany and buried with the highest honors.

On the Virginia front, Colonel John Wilson, who had left the Albany Academy in 1854 due to the death of his father, also fell in ’64, leading the 43rd NY in the Battle of the Wilderness; while Major Charles Elisha Pruyn, AA ’56, mentioned in dispatches for valor at the Battle of Fair Oaks before Richmond, was killed in action in June of that year commanding the 118th NY in the assault on Petersburg.

Major Pruyn, 118th NY – Albany Academy, Class of 1856 

Of all the Academy men and boys who gave their lives defending the Union, perhaps the saddest account was the very brief story of William Cady, a recent graduate of the school, who upon hearing news of the Southern attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 – the first engagement of the Civil War – rushed to volunteer for the Union. Always somewhat frail, William’s parents were opposed at first, but he was so full of patriotic fervor that they relented. The relevant dates tell his story:

April ’61 – Cady enlists in Albany
May ’61 – Assigned Co F, 3rd NY
June 10, ’61 – Wounded in action
June 14, ’61 – Died, age 19

The North soon realized how ill equipped it was to prosecute a major war. Much public discussion ensued on the need for a better prepared citizenry. The Albany Academy responded by adding elementary military training – drill and the manual of arms – to its curriculum in 1861. A decade later the student body was reconstituted as a battalion organized into several companies.

Uniforms were introduced – a day uniform of grey trousers and shirt and black shoes and tie, and a parade uniform of white ducks, West Point style jackets, field caps for the ranks, and high plumed headgear along with sword for the officers. The Battalion would show off its marching proficiency annually by parading through Albany on Decoration Day, later renamed Memorial Day, and after 1918, on what used to be called Armistice Day. Early on, a drum line marching behind the Cadet Major helped the ranks keep step.

In 1917 when the United States entered WWI, hundreds of later generation Academy boys rallied around the flag and marched off to war in France. All are memorialized on a large bronze panel at the school, including several descendants of James Fenimore Cooper and former President Theodore Roosevelt’s sons, one of whom later became a general and won the Medal of Honor in WWII. Stars mark the names of Academy graduates who didn’t return.

The Albany Academy’s contribution to WWII has been best remembered by the late Andy Rooney, AA ’38, the popular nationally known journalist. He had served as a combat correspondent covering the 8th Air Force over Europe. In his war memoir many years later, Andy fondly and eloquently memorialized some of his Academy classmates who didn’t make it back – Charley Wood, the class poet, who died in the Normandy invasion; Bob O’Connor, shot down over France; and his close friend and fellow football co-captain, Obed ‘Obie’ Slingerland, one of the school’s greatest athletes.

Lt Obed ‘Obie’ Slingerland, Guadalcanal, South Pacific 

In his weekly piece on CBS’s 60 Minutes and then in his memoir, Andy Rooney told the story of Obie, a Navy carrier pilot who died in a crash in June ‘45 during the invasion of Okinawa. Sadly, ever so sadly, he recounted:

                   I have awakened in the middle of the night
                   a thousand times and thought about the life
                   I’ve had – am having – that Obie never got
                   to have.* 

By the time I arrived at the doors of the Albany Academy, the Second World War was rapidly receding in memory, being displaced by the growing, tense ‘Cold War’ with the Soviet Union. In those days all males were subject to the Draft, short for the call to arms by the Selective Service System. College boys were deferred, but once out of school, summons to duty soon followed. 

Most of my classmates served in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, the six who became doctors upon completion of medical school. Another member of AA ’53, an Air Force pilot, flew the U-2 for the CIA. I too was a Cold War soldier as part of an intelligence outfit based in West Germany, having been trained in one of the Soviet bloc languages as an interpreter/translator.

Then came America’s involvement in a far corner of the world called Southeast Asia – in Vietnam’s civil war. It would not be long before it was evident that this would not be one of the country’s good wars enjoying nearly universal support. Well before it came to an end, Vietnam would be widely considered a bad war, a very bad war.

By ’65, when the US went into Vietnam in a big way with bomb runs and boots on the ground, all but the three of my Academy classmates who became career officers had done their duty and moved on to their respective career paths. However, over 90 cadets from the classes following ours, well into the late ‘60s, got caught up in the Vietnam era military – although a number of them were fortunate to do their tours in other sectors of America’s worldwide network of bases.

Going on to college, most of the Academy boys who were part of the Vietnam War came out of the Reserve Officer Training Corps programs (ROTC) with commissions, while several graduated from the service academies. At first in the ‘50s, it was a trickle, but then in the ‘60s as the war intensified, a flood of Academy graduates went into the forces.  Of those who had been sophomores when I graduated in ‘53, two went off to the war, one of whom eventually made admiral. In ’56, Gordon Livingston, Cadet Executive Captain, went on to the US Military Academy (USMA), also known as West Point, and later Vietnam.

From the Class of ’58, more were drawn into the services, including Cadet Captain Co B William Cross, who followed the same path to the USMA and Vietnam. Another was his fellow AA cadet officer, Keith Willis, a good friend of my brother, who served with Jeff in the Philippines and Vietnam.

Beginning with Jeff’s Class of ’60, the number of Academy boys called to duty during the Vietnam War rose rapidly. Ten that year, including Jeff, who had also held officer rank at the school; 16 the next year; and then, in the subsequent four years through the end of ’65, another 40 put on the uniform.

Jeff Sharlet, No. 25 (circled), Albany Academy Varsity Football 

Of the many AA graduates who found themselves in the ranks during the long Vietnam War, at least three who went to Vietnam came back disillusioned with the US mission in Southeast Asia – Major Gordon Livingston, AA ’56; Capt Bill Cross, AA’58; and Sgt Jeff Sharlet, AA ’60. Patriots all like their forbears and contemporaries who went to war, for all three disillusionment with the cause led to critical stances on the war.

Gordon and Bill had both received appointments to West Point. Gordon, a regimental surgeon, served with the 11th Armored Cavalry in Bien Hoa during 1968-69. Bill, an infantry officer, was military advisor to a unit of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in the Mekong Delta in 1964-65.

Distressed by what he was witnessing in his gung ho unit – rough interrogation of severely wounded enemy prisoners and cavalier attitudes toward the lives and fortunes of South Vietnamese civilians – Major Livingston took on his commanding officer by writing and printing up an irreverent ‘prayer’ mocking the military ethos of his unit, and distributing it to a gaggle of generals at a change of command ceremony.†

Major Livingston, Bien Hoa, Vietnam, 1968 

Needless to say, his superiors were extremely displeased with their regimental surgeon. He had shocked them by boldly expressing his dissent, at least implicitly, in a front line unit in the midst of the combat zone. What to do with the maverick major? After some months, the Pentagon made the prudent decision not to proceed with prosecution under military law against a top West Point graduate and exemplary soldier-doctor who had been decorated for bravery.

Gordon Livingston was permitted to resign his commission and return to civilian life. He published his unusual Vietnam story, including his ‘Blackhorse Prayer’, in a national magazine and actively pursued his criticism of the conduct of the US mission in Vietnam. Subsequently Gordon has gone on to a distinguished career as a psychiatrist and author of remarkably inspirational bestselling self-help books based on his professional experience.

Gordon’s AA and USMA schoolmate, Bill Cross, even while tactically advising ARVN troops in battle, was becoming disillusioned with the US effort in Vietnam. Like Gordon, who had learned about Vietnamese history and culture before deploying, Bill studied the language for three months before shipping out and was also exceptionally well prepared for his field assignment.

Cadet Capt William Cross, Albany Academy ‘58 

After a year working with ARVN armored troops in a number of engagements with the enemy, Bill, obviously highly regarded by his superiors, was posted to West Point and promoted to captain. In his new assignment as a Professor of Military Psychology and Leadership, his disillusionment continued.

This was especially the case after the public exposure of the My Lai Massacre in ’69 when Bill and faculty colleagues sought to explore the atrocity in detail and draw lessons from it in the leadership course. The idea, however, was scotched by Bill’s military-academic superiors. Since then, of course, we’ve become aware that the egregious misconduct of Lt Calley’s platoon was not a one-off incident in a misbegotten war.

After a decade in uniform and upon completion of his West Point tour as a major, Bill chose to leave the Army, although, like Gordon Livingston, he too had intended to pursue a military career. Bill went on to earn a PhD in Psychology and become a college professor. Counseling veterans on the side, Bill has also become a noted contemporary antiwar activist.

In 1991, Bill Cross founded the Veterans for Peace chapter in Syracuse NY, and, a little over a decade later when the Iraq War broke out, he co-founded ‘West Point Graduates against the War’, subsequently renamed ‘Service Academy Graduates against the War’.

The final member of the AA trio who took issue with the Vietnam War was my brother. By now Jeff Sharlet’s story is fairly well known to readers of this blog, Searching for Jeff, so I’ll just add that he had preceded both of his schoolmates to Vietnam, serving there at bases near little villes called Phu Lam and Phu Bai during the early, low profile phase of the war, 1963-64. As a Vietnamese linguist, Jeff had unusual access to the culture and society of South Vietnam.

Like Gordon Livingston and Bill Cross after him, Jeff too had disillusioning experiences in Vietnam. He came back determined to do something about stopping the conflict. Jeff’s assessment was that only the troops themselves – the grunts in harm’s way, the guys actually fighting the war – could stop it.

To that end, in 1968 he founded the underground antiwar paper, Vietnam GI (VGI), which quickly became widely known and sought after wherever American troops were stationed – in the field in ‘Nam, at stateside camps awaiting deployment, and on US bases in Europe and Asia.

Although VGI ran for only 15 issues over 18 months, judging by the feedback in letters from GIs, Marines, sailors, and airmen – not to mention the reaction of the FBI as well as military commanders into whose hands a copy fell††– the paper had a major impact. 

VGI helped stimulate the emergence of the GI movement against the war by raising and focusing the consciousness of troops on the vital issues of the war affecting their lives.

Decades later in 2010, the Albany Academy honored Jeff posthumously for his antiwar work, conferring upon him its Distinguished Alumnus Award. Although Jeff didn’t live to see the war’s end, he had done his part, and the guys themselves, particularly the enlisted men in the front line and rear units, aboard the ships, and even on the planes did the rest.** 


*Andy Rooney, My War (1995), 101-02.

** For active military dissent against the Vietnam War in all branches of service including aboard planes flying over North Vietnam and among sailors on four aircraft carriers, see

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