Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Late in my cadetship at the Virginia Military Institute, Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet, was invited to speak at Washington and Lee University, the campus of which adjoins VMI. This was well after the cultural eruptions of the Sixties and sometime after the war in Vietnam had burned itself out. Ginsberg had somehow managed the transition from enfant terrible to eminence grise.

In order to attend the event at W&L’s Lee Chapel, cadets were required to leave the Spartan setting of the famous military school wearing a semi-dress uniform of grey tunic, white trousers and spit-shined shoes. We stepped onto the adjoining grounds of the graceful, colonnaded Athens of a Southern school where we proceeded, along with several hundred W&L students, professors, and Lexington, Virginia townies, to pack the chapel in anticipation of the event.

And so it would probably be difficult to guess who would have been more struck by the surreal nature of the event – Ginsberg, chanting the passages of his famous poem "Howl" while sitting not ten feet from the catafalque where the body of Confederate general Robert E. Lee lay in repose, while hundreds of uniformly-dressed military school students sat listening with respectful curiosity; or the cadets themselves, to whom the words

Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten Island ferry also wailed

may have been somewhat puzzling, or to whom the words

who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kaballa because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas

may have seemed a bit arch; although to whom the words

who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall

may have engendered a certain sympathetic resonance. Whether an inspection of the previously-mentioned catafalque would have revealed a General Lee rotating at a high number of revolutions per minute is a question which will have to remain unanswered for now, but as to the question of who might have felt more out of place – the cadets or Ginsberg – my vote would have to be cast in the direction of the bard of Haight-Ashbury.

I doubt that any of us cadets felt particularly overawed by the event, despite its massively countercultural tincture. For, perhaps more so than anywhere else, cadets at military schools are inculcated with the attitude that there are few points of view not worth considering. This is in keeping with the soldierly notion that a practiced curiosity about the world around one is a valuable tool for the assurance of survival.

Whether Ginsberg may have been flattered to see so many military novitiates giving attention to his inflamed and pulsating lyrics is a hard question to answer, but what he could not have known is that there is always a certain percentage of cadets at any military school who would be happy to spit-polish their shoes and sit through damn near anything in order to escape the confines of barracks life. Indeed, those who chafed under the special strictures of disciplinary room confinement would have been well-versed in the sub-sub-clause of the regulation book which spelled out that attendance at any gathering termed a "cultural event" would serve as an authorized avenue of temporary respite from their in-house detention.

Which brings us to MIT professor of linguistics and anti-Americanism Noam Chomsky and the recent invitation extended to him to speak at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
One wonders whether, when Chomsky was limousined onto the grounds of the great citadel-upon-the-Hudson, he recalled his statement that the Pentagon is "the most hideous institution on this earth" and, if so, whether he made the connection that the Pentagon has always been run by those whose values were shaped at West Point and its fellow service academies. Did he view, then, West Point as the sanctum sanctorum of those "absolutely American" values - I quote Theodore Roosevelt here - for which he has spewed out so much venomous contempt over the decades?

From the news stories I read, Chomsky was treated with respectful courtesy by the four hundred or so cadets, faculty and local civilians who turned out to listen to his talk. Of course, I did not need to read the reports to know that he was not subjected to demonstrations, catcalls, jeers, interruptions, physical assault or any other rude behavior. This is the sort of treatment reserved for conservative speakers invited to speak at rich kids' schools such as Yale or Duke, if they are allowed onto campus at all.

Chomsky’s talk was along the usual lines: the American intervention in Iraq constitutes an unjust war, an act of aggression by the United States that most people in the world didn't support. It was as though the fact that Iraq had invaded Kuwait, the fact that Iraq had been thrown out of Kuwait by the United States, the fact that Iraq had been required to abide by terms of an armistice, and the fact that Iraq had violated the terms of that armistice on a wholesale basis were utterly irrelevant to the case.

It was as though the actions of American and British forces on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 ought to be labeled as naked aggression, as though nothing that had happened in Europe between 1935 and 1944 were relevant.

There was one point that Chomsky made which was a change from his past statements. He claimed, as he often has, that before the events of December 7, 1941, American journals were publicizing American efforts to produce planes that could burn Japan's wooden cities to the ground. Chomsky has in the past stated, to the outrage of many, that these articles actually justified the attack on Pearl Harbor, in that it was essentially preventive in nature and thus equivalent to American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, at West Point he radically changed his "moral equivalence" tune: "Does that justify Pearl Harbor? Not in ten million years."

It’s not too difficult to imagine why Chomsky reversed course. A great deal of it may have to do with the fact that, in the last couple of years, all of the public statements he has made in trying to draw parallels between the events of the Second World War and current events have been subjected to thorough scrutiny and public attack by those who know more about military history than he does. An article published on, written by NYU linguistics professor Paul Postal, goes to great length to show that Chomsky’s claim with regard to Pearl Harbor is absurd and bears no relation to the facts.

On the other hand, maybe the Great Dissenter was advised by his booking agent to play to his audience so as not to endanger his speaker’s fee. After all, those thousands of dollars he was paid for a few hours of his time, invested in American corporations, as Chomsky is wont to do, could be put to profitable use.

Or maybe there’s one other possibility. Chomsky and his ilk talk a lot about standing up for their principles and speaking truth to power. Perhaps they do, but neither he nor his followers have ever put their lives on the line to do it. Their 'champs de bataille' are the classroom, the boulevard, and the public park.

At West Point, one can never escape the presence of those who have put their lives on the line, or are willing to do so. Such people study there, or teach there, or are buried there. It would be awfully difficult to stand before an audience of such people and tell them that America deserved to be subjected to craven and wanton attack.
And so it may just be that, on the hallowed plains of West Point, in the presence of true valor and unstinting heroism, Noam Chomsky finally lost his nerve.