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An Exercise For Memorial Day: Read Bill Moyers' "Message to West Point"

leah's picture

In November of 2006, Bill Moyers was asked to give the Sol Feinstone Lecture on The Meaning of Freedom, an endowed serial event for the men and women cadets of West Point.

It is an amazing speech to read, and it should warm the hearts of all liberals that West Pointers are being exposed to material like that Bill Moyers chose to honor them with.

I suppose I could, and perhaps should, leave the link and let you go and read it, but I've decided to highlight certain aspects of Moyers' lecture, although you should still go and read the extended excerpt published at TOM PAINE from which I am working.


Moyers frames his lecture as an inquiry into the realities of war by someone who has never served in uniform, speaking to young men and women who are facing the almost certain prospect of an on-going war in Iraq.

I have never been a soldier myself, never been tested under fire, never faced hard choices between duty and feeling, or duty and conscience, under deadly circumstances. I will never know if I have the courage to be shot at, or to shoot back, or the discipline to do my duty knowing the people who dispatched me to kill—or be killed—had no idea of the moral abyss into which they were plunging me.

I have tried to learn about war from those who know it best: veterans, the real experts. But they have been such reluctant reporters of the experience. My father-in-law, Joe Davidson, was 37 years old with two young daughters when war came in 1941; he enlisted and served in the Pacific but I never succeeded in getting him to describe what it was like to be in harm’s way.

Moyers had a similar experience with an uncle and a close friend.

His desire to understand the reality of war, Moyers notes, was the motivation behind one of his many PBS series - "D-Day To the Rhine," in which he and a camera crew accompanied a group of WW2 veterans and their families on their first trip back to the European Theatre of Operations in which they served. This is what Moyers told those West Pointers about one of the moments he shared with one of those vets:

What I remember most vividly from that trip is the opening scene of the film: Jose Lopez — the father of two, who had lied about his age to get into the Army (he was too old), went ashore at Normandy, fought his way across France and Belgium with a water-cooled machine gun, rose to the rank of sergeant, and received the Congressional Medal of Honor after single-handedly killing 100 German troops in the Battle of the Bulge—Jose Lopez, back on Omaha Beach at age 79, quietly saying to me: “I was really very, very afraid. That I want to scream. I want to cry and we see other people was laying wounded and screaming and everything and it’s nothing you could do. We could see them groaning in the water and we keep walking”— and then, moving away from the camera, dropping to his knees, his hands clasped, his eyes wet, as it all came back, memories so excruciating there were no words for them.

Moyers tells the cadets that he also turned to poets and poetry to understand the reality of war, and lest you think he's pushing it here, turns out there are good West Point precedents for such a maneuver:

I admired your former superintendent, General William Lennox, who held a doctorate in literature and taught poetry classes here because, he said, “poetry is a great vehicle to teach cadets as much as anyone can what combat is like.” So it is. From the opening lines of the Iliad:

Rage, Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ Son Achilles…hurling down to the House of Death so many souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion for the dogs and birds….


Poets with their empathy and evocation open to bystanders what lies buried in the soldier’s soul. Those of you soon to be leading others in combat may wish to take a metaphorical detour to the Hindenburg Line of World War I, where the officer and poet Wilfred Owen, a man of extraordinary courage who was killed a week before the Armistice, wrote: “I came out in order to help these boys—directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.”

People in power should be required to take classes in the poetry of war. As a presidential assistant during the early escalation of the war in Vietnam, I remember how the President blanched when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said it would take one million fighting men and 10 years really to win in Vietnam, but even then the talk of war was about policy, strategy, numbers and budgets, not severed limbs and eviscerated bodies.

That experience, and the experience 40 years later of watching another White House go to war, also relying on inadequate intelligence, exaggerated claims and premature judgments, keeping Congress in the dark while wooing a gullible press, cheered on by partisans, pundits, and editorial writers safely divorced from realities on the ground, ended any tolerance I might have had for those who advocate war from the loftiness of the pulpit, the safety of a laptop, the comfort of a think tank, or the glamour of a television studio. Watching one day on C-Span as one member of Congress after another took to the floor to praise our troops in Iraq, I was reminded that I could only name three members of Congress who have a son or daughter in the military. How often we hear the most vigorous argument for war from those who count on others of valor to fight it. As General William Tecumseh Sherman said after the Civil War: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

As you can see Moyers is unafraid to talk to these military cadets from a highly political perspective, and he's just getting started. As an example of those who call for war without any notion of serving themselves, Moyers focuses on Rupert Murdoch:

In the months leading up to the invasion Murdoch turned the dogs of war loose in the corridors of his media empire, and they howled for blood, although not their own.


Today Murdoch says he has no regrets, that he still believes it was right “to go in there,” and that “from a historical perspective” the U.S. death toll in Iraq was “minute.”

Moyers proceeds to evaluate the very notion of a minute number of dead soldiers by focusing on the story of just one of them.

Take out your handkerchiefs:


The word richoted in my head when I heard it. I had just been reading about Emily Perez. Your Emily Perez: Second Lieutenant Perez, the first woman of color to become a command sergeant major in the history of the Academy, and the first woman graduate to die in Iraq. I had been in Washington when word of her death made the news, and because she had lived there before coming to West Point, the Washington press told us a lot about her. People remembered her as “a little superwoman”—straight A’s, choir member, charismatic, optimistic, a friend to so many; she had joined the medical service because she wanted to help people. The obituary in the Washington Post said she had been a ball of fire at the Peace Baptist Church, where she helped start an HIV-AIDS ministry after some of her own family members contracted the virus. Now accounts of her funeral here at West Point were reporting that some of you wept as you contemplated the loss of so vibrant an officer.

“Minute?” I don’t think so. Historical perspective or no. So when I arrived today I asked the Academy’s historian, Steve Grove, to take me where Emily Perez is buried, in Section 36 of your cemetery, below Storm King Mountain, overlooking the Hudson River. Standing there, on sacred American soil hallowed all the more by the likes of Lieutenant Perez so recently returned, I thought that to describe their loss as “minute”—even from a historical perspective—is to underscore the great divide that has opened in America between those who advocate war while avoiding it and those who have the courage to fight it without ever knowing what it’s all about.

If you feel the sting of tears at this point, don't be embarrassed; they are not the easy tears of sentimentality; Moyers is dealing in tragedy here, multiple and many-layered tragedy. It should also be clear by this point that you are in the hands of a master rhetorician. As such, he takes a turn to link all this presentness to the deepest of American sources.

We were warned of this by our founders. They had put themselves in jeopardy by signing the Declaration of Independence; if they had lost, that parchment could have been their death warrant, for they were traitors to the Crown and likely to be hanged. In the fight for freedom they had put themselves on the line—not just their fortunes and sacred honor but their very persons, their lives. After the war, forming a government and understanding both the nature of war and human nature, they determined to make it hard to go to war except to defend freedom; war for reasons save preserving the lives and liberty of your citizens should be made difficult to achieve, they argued. Here is John Jay’s passage in Federalist No. 4:
It is too true, however disgraceful it may be to human nature, that nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it; nay, absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purposes and objects merely personal, such as thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition, or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families or partisans. These and a variety of other motives, which affect only the mind of the sovereign, often lead him to engage in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people.

And here, a few years later, is James Madison, perhaps the most deliberative mind of that generation in assaying the dangers of an unfettered executive prone to war:

In war, a physical force is to be created, and it is the executive will which is to direct it. In war, the public treasures are to be unlocked, and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war, the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered; and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.

I want to be clear on this: Vietnam did not make me a dove. Nor has Iraq; I am no pacifist. But they have made me study the Constitution more rigorously, both as journalist and citizen. Again, James Madison:

In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war and peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. Beside the objection to such a mixture to heterogeneous powers, the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man.

Having secured the now in the then, Moyers returns to a discussion of the current administration which he admits to the listening cadets is a tough one to pursue in the company of so many who may soon be on their way to Iraq.

Twice in 40 years we have now gone to war paying only lip service to those warnings; the first war we lost, the second is a bloody debacle, and both rank among the great blunders in our history.


I would prefer to speak of sweeter things. But I also know that 20 or 30 years from now any one of you may be the Chief of Staff or the National Security Adviser or even the President—after all, two of your boys, Grant and Eisenhower, did make it from West Point to the White House. And that being the case, it’s more important than ever that citizens and soldiers—and citizen-soldiers—honestly discuss and frankly consider the kind of country you are serving and the kind of organization to which you are dedicating your lives. You are, after all, the heirs of an army born in the American Revolution, whose radicalism we consistently underestimate.

There is much more; indeed, what I've left for you to discover is the heart of Moyers' "Message to West Point,' the amazing, utterly American story of
Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish immigrant, trained in his native land as an engineer and a artillery officer, who, "arriving in the 13 colonies in 1776, he broke down in tears when he read the Declaration of Independence."

The next year, he helped engineer the Battle of Saratoga, organizing the river and land fortifications that put Americans in the stronger position. George Washington then commissioned him to build the original fortifications for West Point. Since his monument dominates the point here at the Academy, this part of the story you must know well.

But what many don’t realize about Kosciuszko is the depth of his commitment to republican ideals and human equality. One historian called him “a mystical visionary of human rights.” Thomas Jefferson wrote that Kosciuszko was “as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.” That phrase of Jefferson’s is often quoted, but if you read the actual letter, Jefferson goes on to say: “And of that liberty which is to go to all, and not to the few and the rich alone.”

There is the clue to the meaning of freedom as Thaddeus Kosciuszko saw it.

After the American Revolution, he returned to his homeland, what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1791 the Poles adopted their celebrated May Constitution—Europe’s first codified national constitution (and the second oldest in the world, after our own.) The May Constitution established political equality between the middle class and the nobility and also partially abolished serfdom by giving civil rights to the peasants, including the right to state protection from landlord abuses. The autocrats and nobles of Russia feared such reforms, and in 1794, when the Russians sought to prevent their spread by partitioning the Commonwealth, Kosciuszko led an insurrection. His untrained peasant forces were armed mostly with single-blade sickles, but they won several early battles in fierce hand-to-hand fighting, until they were finally overwhelmed. Badly injured, Kosciuszko was taken prisoner and held for two years in St. Petersburg, and that was the end of the Polish Commonwealth, which had stood, by the way, as one of Europe’s leading centers of religious liberty.


For this émigré, as for so many who would come later, the meaning of freedom included a passion for universal justice. In his Act of Insurrection at the outset of the 1794 uprising, Kosciuszko wrote of the people’s “sacred rights to liberty, personal security and property.” Note the term property here. For Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” Kosciuszko substituted Locke’s notion of property rights. But it’s not what you think: The goal was not simply to protect “private property” from public interference (as it is taught today), but rather to secure productive property for all as a right to citizenship. It’s easy to forget the difference when huge agglomerations of personal wealth are defended as a sacred right of liberty, as they are today with the gap between the rich and poor in America greater than it’s been in almost one hundred years. Kosciuszko—General Kosciuszko, from tip to toe a military man—was talking about investing the people with productive resources. Yes, freedom had to be won on the battlefield, but if freedom did not lead to political, social and economic opportunity for all citizens, freedom’s meaning could not be truly realized. (emphasis mine)

Think about it: A Polish general from the old world, infusing the new nation with what would become the marrow of the American Dream. Small wonder that Kosciuszko was often called a “hero of two worlds” or that just 25 years ago, in 1981, when Polish farmers, supported by the Roman Catholic Church, won the right to form an independent union, sending shockwaves across the Communist empire, Kosciuszko’s name was heard in the victory speeches—his egalitarian soul present at yet another revolution for human freedom and equal rights.


It says something hopeful about our country today that it was a military institution like West Point that invited Moyers to give this lecture, unafraid to allow him to speak freely, without resort to the comforting cliches of the patriotism of lapel flap pins, to cushion a discussion of such serious and fractious matters, but it also says something outrageous about the state of our free press that it is so difficult to imagine any other mainstream journalist being capable of giving it.

And I've only taken you through the first half of the lecture.

As Moyers asks us to contemplate the magnificent General Kosciuszko, let us contemplate the wonder of Bill Moyers in the midst of a formal lecture to an auditorium of Cadets and the Officer Corp responsible for their education saying this:

The Armed Services are no longer stepchildren in budgetary terms. Appropriations for defense and defense-related activities (like veterans’ care, pensions, and debt service) remind us that the costs of war continue long after the fighting ends. Objections to ever-swelling defensive expenditures are, except in rare cases, a greased slide to political suicide. It should be troublesome to you as professional soldiers that elevation to the pantheon of untouchable icons —right there alongside motherhood, apple pie and the flag—permits a great deal of political lip service to replace genuine efforts to improve the lives and working conditions—in combat and out—of those who serve.

Let me cut closer to the bone. The chickenhawks in Washington, who at this very moment are busily defending you against supposed “insults” or betrayals by the opponents of the war in Iraq, are likewise those who have cut budgets for medical and psychiatric care; who have been so skimpy and late with pay and with provision of necessities that military families in the United States have had to apply for food stamps; who sent the men and women whom you may soon be commanding into Iraq understrength, underequipped, and unprepared for dealing with a kind of war fought in streets and homes full of civilians against enemies undistinguishable from non-combatants; who have time and again broken promises to the civilian National Guardsmen bearing much of the burden by canceling their redeployment orders and extending their tours.

You may or may not agree on the justice and necessity of the war itself, but I hope that you will agree that flattery and adulation are no substitute for genuine support. Much of the money that could be directed to that support has gone into high-tech weapons systems that were supposed to produce a new, mobile, compact “professional” army that could easily defeat the armies of any other two nations combined, but is useless in a war against nationalist or religious guerrilla uprisings that, like it or not, have some support, coerced or otherwise, among the local population. We learned this lesson in Vietnam, only to see it forgotten or ignored by the time this administration invaded Iraq, creating the conditions for a savage sectarian and civil war with our soldiers trapped in the middle, unable to discern civilian from combatant, where it is impossible to kill your enemy faster than rage makes new ones.

No wonder we only see Moyers on PBS, not that I think Moyers wants to be anywhere else. Oddly, from what I've been able to tell, C-Span never taped this lecture, or perhaps that's because this particular lecture is meant only for the cadets of West Point.

Moyers reminds us that there is much to admire in our military traditions, particular the concept of the citizen soldier, but he also reminds us of the many ways in which we've betrayed, and abandoned those traditions.

I inquired by email of several faculty members at the Point what the reaction among the cadets was to this lecture. I heard from one of them that the response was highly positive, although I was asked not to identify my correspondent, so that is all I can tell you.

Believe me when I tell you there is even more to be enjoyed in this astonishing speech, so do yourself a favor, click on the link and go read.

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Submitted by lambert on

Did I mention that? Must be the damn paint fumes...

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] ?????. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

Submitted by lambert on

Must be a WASP thing. Hugs and kisses.

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] ?????. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

myiq2xu's picture
Submitted by myiq2xu on

Some were relatives, co-workers, and/or friends. Others were my NCO's when I was in the Army.

Most of them don't talk much about it. They might talk about other aspects of military service, such as funny stories about youthful exploits.

I noticed long ago that people who have seen war firsthand are usually the most reluctant to use military force in any given situation.

It's always the chickenhawks who are eager to cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war.

“Rules are not necessarily sacred,
principles are.”
- Franklin D. Roosevelt

Pat J's picture
Submitted by Pat J on

Stands as the primary reason I still support PBS.

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

It is a powerful speech, and all the more remarkable for the audience. Many people make the mistake of believing that the members of our military are militaristic. The vast majority of them, at least those with first-hand experience, are the last ones to argue for war.

If this were a rational country, we would all gather around on Sunday mornings to listen to Bill Moyers give the Lesson, chapter and verse.

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

Scott McClellan sticks the knife in, twists it slowly, and spills everyone's guts all over the floor.

If what McClellan says here holds up, it is first-person testemony that could put them all in prison. Somebody with a good media grasp should write something about this, and what it means for the fall.

trishb's picture
Submitted by trishb on

And waited to have some appropriate and inspired comment to post. Since I'm rarely, if ever eloquent that imaginary comment was never written. This post and the speech were hugely informative and thought provoking. We need more like Bill Moyers. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront. I've shared it with friends and family including my West Point educated BIL. I'm still waiting on feedback.