Duty, honor, country

Posted: Mar 15, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- This week marked two remarkable anniversaries. One was horrific; the other, triumphant. The difference in how these two events were reported by the media is worthy of note. On March 11, the nation paused to eulogize the 3,038 people whose lives were snatched from them six months ago when 19 terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and littered the fields of Pennsylvania, the halls of the Pentagon and the financial district of New York City with human carnage. It wouldn't be hyperbole to note that the anniversary was observed by every media outlet, broadcaster and publication in the country. It would have been a shame not to have done so. Just five days later, only a handful took note of another anniversary -- the bicentennial of an institution that has produced some of the best soldiers and greatest leaders our nation has ever known: the United States Military Academy at West Point. On March 16, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law a bill authorizing the "establishment of a military academy to be located at West Point in the State of New York." Saturday's 200th commemoration of this event went almost unnoticed by the so-called mainstream media -- and that is a shame. For many of my colleagues in the Fourth Estate, the service academies are little more than large, lucrative, stationary targets. One can almost be assured of a front-page, above-the-fold placement -- or a prime-time broadcast slot -- for a piece critical of any or all of the academies. And of course, in Congress there are always the critics who argue that the academies are too costly in time and treasure -- that the nation can no longer afford such places to train their military officers. It's likely there were complaints about expenses back in 1790, when the Congress was looking for $11,085 to buy the land on which the "National Military Academy" was to be built. It had originally been the site of a Continental Army redoubt -- deemed by George Washington to be "the key to the continent." Despite Benedict Arnold's treasonous attempt to turn the place over to the British, they never succeeded, and it remains the oldest continuously occupied military post in the country. But more important than the terrain, playing fields, buildings or parade grounds are the legions of extraordinary graduates that West Point's hallowed halls have produced. The Military Academy's alumni rolls boast the kind of leaders that even revisionist historians cannot successfully denigrate. Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Braxton Bragg, "Blackjack" Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, Omar Bradley, George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, Mark Clark, "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, Carl Spaatz, Hap Arnold and Norman Schwarzkopf all marched on "The Plain" at West Point, where Baron Von Stuben once drilled the fledgling American Army. West Point not only produces great combat leaders, but as the oldest engineering college in the country it has also graduated some of America's greatest builders, explorers and scientists. George Washington Goethals, Class of 1880, built the Panama Canal. Leslie Groves directed the Manhattan Project and built the bombs that ended World War II. The New York City water supply system, the Capitol dome and the Library of Congress were all designed and built by West Point grads. Fifteen astronauts -- including Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, Frank Borman and Ed White -- were cadets. A few weeks ago, I went to West Point to shoot an episode for my Fox News television show, "War Stories," and I had with me a copy of the book, "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young." Hal Moore, a West Point graduate and co-author of the book, is played by Mel Gibson in the movie. Reading the vivid scenes of battle in the highlands of Vietnam reminded me to stop by Cullum Memorial Hall, to pay my respects to a fallen friend. Henry M. Spengler was West Point Class of '68. We first met on my "exchange tour" on the Hudson. We were both graduates of Jump School at Fort Benning and both served as Infantry Officers in Vietnam -- I in the Marines, he in the 101st Airborne Division. On April 5, 1972, he was killed in action in one of those brutal little battles in the Vietnamese jungle, but his body wasn't recovered until 1989. He's now buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to his father and grandfather. The sons of some of his classmates are now leading other 101st Airborne troopers in the mountains of Afghanistan -- hunting down al Qaeda terrorists. That's the legacy of West Point that this Annapolis graduate reveres. Next autumn, when Army and Navy take to the field in Giants Stadium for their annual gridiron classic, I'll once again yell -- just as I did when I was a Midshipman -- "Beat Army!" But this week, in honor of a great institution's 200th anniversary, you have my salute. MacArthur, the nation's most decorated soldier, delivered the last great speech of his long and distinguished life at West Point on May 12, 1962, less than two years before he died. He used the occasion to remind The Long Gray Line: "Duty-Honor-Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be." The old general had it just about right.