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An Army Mule Named Sid Berry Takes Command at the Point

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Douglas MacArthur sat in this room. Through the windows, the Hudson is visible, the great gray river that American revolutionary forces at West Point once guarded. It is a large room, somber, paneled in oak. At one end a fireplace, in pale, gothic stone. On all four walls, high up, a solid band of portraits, each exactly the same size, of the men who have been superintendents of West Point.

This is the heart room a cadet never sees. The only way to see it, they say, is if you’re the first captain or getting kicked out of school. There’s one other way: you become Supe.

The new Supe is Sidney Berry, who at age 48 is one of the youngest major generals in the army. Behind him lies a brilliant record as a field commander. His hair is gray, going to white and cut exceedingly short. His face radiates intelligence, a cold face, proud, unyielding. On his finger is a heavy gold wedding band; on his wrist a chronometer that gleams like a surgical instrument. His arms are revealed by short khaki sleeves. They are sinewy. The word “Ranger” is on the point of one shoulder. Maxwell Taylor was 44 when he became Superintendent—four years younger than Berry. Robert E. Lee was 45; Westmoreland, 46. Douglas MacArthur was 39.

Numbers do not prove everything, but this year over 11,000 young men applied for admission to West Point—a record. Something like 6,100 were nominated by their Congressmen and 1,435 were finally admitted, one of the largest classes ever.

“The country, the army and West Point have emerged from Vietnam,” Berry says. “We are looking ahead.” But since he recently took over as superintendent, Berry must look as much to the present as to the future. He is, in a sense, still in training—just like the new cadets in their first summer, whose faint sounds can be heard from the far-off parade grounds. These roaring hot days of July and August have long been known as Beast Barracks, “beast” being cadet slang for an incoming fourth classman. They are the crucible months. The ancient tradition was for them to be filled with unending humiliation and debasement, as if a man had to be reduced to nothing before he could be recreated. Over the years this has gradually changed. The hazing, like many things from a time now past, was once far more fierce.

And it was impractical. The task here is to produce the best possible soldier leader. It is approached somewhat like breeding cattle. The good points are preserved, the bad are gotten rid of. The day of high-handed authority is over. The emphasis now will be on building upon the natural dignity of the young men. There is no longer a place at West Point for learning what cannot be of later use in the army. This does not mean things academic, for the curriculum has been broadened and enriched considerably and a cadet has more freedom to choose among courses than ever before. It is the techniques and attitudes of leadership, things that have always been the academy’s special interest, that now demand fresh definition and attention.

They call West Point “The Factory,” both in admiration and scorn; it is dedicating itself to making certain that everything learned there is transferable to the career which follows. “Career” is a word Berry hates. He is a man of ideals. His conscience is written all over him, like that of a fine Southern lawyer. “Service is the key word,” he says quietly, “something other than personal gain,” But Berry, as he well knows, must address himself to a new army that has emerged from Vietnam. A chastened army. A volunteer army. An army with a radically new racial composition, nearly 20 percent black.

When Berry was a first classman in 1948, there was hardly a black face in the Corps. Between 1900 and 1969, only 70 black men graduated. Today 268 out of some 4,300 cadets, about 6 percent, are black—including 82 in the incoming class. Berry would like to see the proportion of blacks and other minority groups become at least as great as in the population at large. “We are encouraging all minority groups in every way to enter.”

Berry was not an outstanding athlete. Academically he was in the middle of the crowd. But he was well liked and popular. “Setting his standards by his father and Wendell Wilkie…” the yearbook reads. He rose to be a cadet captain.

He was sent to the occupation forces in Japan. It seemed a kind of exile. Everyone was requesting duty in Germany. Nobody had foreseen the Korean war. For Berry it was a great piece of fortune, the first of many. One needs luck to go with ability. Luck may even be part of ability, in fact. When in the later days Napoleon no longer knew all the officers in his army who were being promoted to general, he would put a mark by names he did not recognize and ask in the margin, “Is he lucky?” Berry was wounded in Korea and twice promoted on the battlefield, from first lieutenant to major. Fifteen years later he was wounded again in Vietnam—shrapnel, 16 holes. The man next to him was killed. He has won a Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star—four times—and the Air Medal an improbable 42 times. The days are gone when a single bit of ribbon on a man’s chest was a sign of heroic achievement. But wounds are still not cheap. And perhaps, God willing, he is lucky.

The superintendency has often served as a stepping stone to the very top. Berry has all the credentials. He was military assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the Pentagon. He earned a master’s degree at Columbia. He taught history. The proper mixture of education, exposure at high levels, the sound of guns. Like a race-horse making its move, he began to come to the front. He was the first in his class at the academy to earn a general’s star.

He begins, in his careful, undramatic way, to tell a story about a Vietnamese officer he knew who was given command of a division known as “the coup division” near Saigon. The moral turns out to be, in his words, that “generals must become more politically aware but not more politically involved.” He admires George Marshall, a man of strong principles and soldierly attitudes—”one of the outstanding men of this century,” he says simply. And Omar Bradley, Lee and Grant, strike him as leaders of great integrity.

“The symbol of the army,” he explains, “is the mule. The mule is stubborn. It works hard. It’s basically a very honest animal.”

Now, at this moment, the vivid caricatures of Dr. Strangelove—or the threat of holocaust—are worlds away.

The heat of afternoon lies over the green fields of West Point. There are grass cutters at work. The smell of the fairway. A question floats forth, apparently simple, though behind it is a certain amount of suspicion and guile. Could we have won in Vietnam?

The answer comes promptly: “No.”

And the reason?

“The political understanding and the staying power of the Communists,” Berry says, “were greater than those of our forces.”

This must certainly have been one of the more knowledgeable admissions made by any field or flag officer involved in Vietnam. There were generals who wanted in both Korea and Vietnam to go the whole way, to take on China. It would have to be done sooner or later, they argued. Berry was and is not one of these. It would have been crazy, in his view.

He is a man one trusts. Like many soldiers, he comes from the south, from Hattiesburg, Miss. His wife is from Decatur, Ga. They have two daughters and a son.

It was his children who brought him to Dostoevski and Hermann Hesse—and to a book he has read more than once, War and Peace. He seems to have read without passion, however. One senses he reads to broaden himself, dutifully, as if trying to learn a foreign language.

“I identify with Prince Andrei,” he says, referring to the nobleman in War and Peace whose bravery in battle was immortalized by Tolstoy.

The mule works hard. It is patient.

Vietnam is past. The presidents who committed us to it are gone, their advisers, their ministers of war; Kissinger is the only important exception. The army suffered badly there. Frustration and defeat. The loss of a sound moral position. The dissatisfaction, even the contempt of much of the country, especially the young, focused on it.

Resignation figures of West Point graduates rose sharply, going up to about 37 percent in the class of 1966. There was a four-year service commitment after graduation, so officers from this class could only begin to leave the army in 1971. Indications now are that the percentage of resigning officers is beginning to go down.

Berry has most recently come from commanding a division, the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky. The army was buffeted during Vietnam, he admits, but the 101st is far healthier now than it was a year ago, and it will be even healthier a year from now, he promises.

This image of a fighting general himself—behind him the years of dusty encampments, bloody battles, daring escapes, and obedient routine—this dedicated life as it is revealed in his character and face is perhaps the real lesson he will somehow impart to cadets. Among them is probably one who will some day sit in this very office when Sidney Berry is a photograph high on the wall, above the Whistler sketches, the Catlin landscapes. It is a life that is a proof of things which no longer seem to exist.

The cadets come from the great cities now, and from sprawling suburbs. The rural and agrarian character of the Corps is changing. These new young men know little of nature and the kind of everyday hardship that used to be part of American life. West Point can no longer attract the great football players either, or even the very top students, perhaps. Can it compensate, in part, by the fiber of those who do come? And where can they now be found? For a long moment, Berry stands at the window embrasure, cold gray eyes looking out over West Point. Once a fortress that guarded a river, it became a school to guard a nation. There are trophies everywhere, cannon taken in Mexico, the cannon that fired the last shot at Appomattox. Tradition and glory. Enormous eagles carved onto the buildings. An oxide-green General Patton standing near the library.

The afternoon is fading. The light on the river is stilled. Berry is reflecting. He thinks, perhaps, of the America which lies beyond the cities, which seems to be shrinking but which, when one enters it, is as endless as the sea.

“There are still a lot of Hattiesburgs around the country,” he says.

JAMES SALTER is a novelist, screenwriter (Downhill Racer, a graduate of West Point, Class of 1945, and a retired colonel.