Professor returns to discuss new book on Nininger Award recipients

By Meghan Dower-Rogers Academic Research Division - September 14, 2022
Capt. Kevin Mott, U.S. Military Academy Class of 2007 graduate and recipient of the 2014 Alexander R. Nininger Award for Valor at Arms, spoke of his Soldiers who fought and died in eastern Afghanistan during a 10-day operation to clear a haven overrun by insurgents. Mott was presented the award Sept. 18, 2014, at a dinner inside Washington Hall by then U.S. Military Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. and Ellen Houlihan, Association of Graduates’ Board of Directors vice chair. While Mott wasn't the focus of the book, “Elite Souls: Portraits of Valor in Iraq and Afghanistan,ˮ it still is about the narratives that character matters among those who earned the award over the years. (Archive Photo by Mike Strasser)

The mood in the Haig Room on Sept. 1 was light. After being introduced by Dr. Joshua King, associate professor in the Department of Social Sciences, which sponsored the event, guest lecturer Dr. Ray Raymond walked up to the podium and announced to his audience of cadets, staff and faculty that he was “the oldest living West Point graduate,” drawing quiet laughter.

Then, Dr. Raymond grew serious, painting a grim picture of modern warfare: No front lines, no discernible enemy and gruesome injuries caused by contemporary weapons. 

He then asked his audience to go back in time with him to 2008 in Iraq, where Bobby Sickler and another Soldier flying in a Kiowa helicopter about 50 feet above the ground witnessed a woman and her children who had been murdered by insurgents and had left the bodies in place to draw the Soldiers, who the insurgents knew would try to come to the civilians’ aid because of their moral code. When they got low enough, the enemy would shoot. The Soldiers were undeterred.

This incident was only one of many examples of young West Pointers putting others above themselves under the most extraordinary circumstances, which is the subject of Raymond’s new book, “Elite Souls: Portraits of Valor in Iraq and Afghanistan.ˮ

  The book, published by U.S. Naval Institute Press and set to be released in October, centers on the actions of five young officers: Sickler, Anthony Fuscellaro, Ross Pixler, Michael Eslinger and Stephen Tangen, who all earned the Nininger Award for valor in combat.

  The theme throughout the narratives is that character matters.

The title “Elite Soulsˮ comes from the 19th century French military thinker Ardant du Picq, who argued that selfless service in combat is found in moral courage personified by elite souls. The thesis is very much in line with Dr. Raymond’s own.

Raymond has been affiliated with West Point and the Department of Social Sciences since 1985, first as a British diplomat leading a group of European North Atlantic Treaty Organization members visiting West Point for a discussion on burden sharing, then as an Adjunct professor. He has mentored cadets in the Scholarship Program for nearly 30 years. In 2006, he was awarded the Outstanding Civilian Service Award by the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.

The idea for the book came from an essay he was asked to write for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, which led him to ask, “What is courage?”

To illustrate, he referred to his grandfather and cousin, a British Army officer in World War I and a Royal Navy commander in World War II, respectively. His grandfather, who was in his late 40s and married with children, volunteered to fight despite being eligible for exemption, and was killed, the fate of many officers in that war.

His cousin, Joseph James Maudsley, who commanded Royal Navy Escort Groups across the Atlantic guarding British, American, Canadian and other Allied ships carrying LendLease equipment from the U.S., was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross by His Majesty King George VI in 1943 for his valorous service. 

Somehow, Raymond wanted to take the idea of moral courage exemplified by his family members and apply it to West Point. He found a way to do so by focusing on the five Nininger Award recipients.

He was assisted in his endeavor by then Association of Graduates President retired Col. Robert McClure, who offered to reach out to the officers regarding their interest in the project, and from then Social Sciences Department Chair Col. Suzanne Nielsen, who wrote letters to the officers on his behalf. 

The men agreed, after being assured that their stories would be told in a way that would show West Point objectively, be honest and accurate, and be unsparing in its depictions of combat, which occupy most of the book.

To that end, Raymond interviewed not only his subjects, in some cases multiple times, but their commanders, family members and others who know them well.

  Raymond noted that all of the men were driven by moral character to attend West Point, an institution they knew would encompass their beliefs, instilled by their parents. The author gave the example of Pixler’s father, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Arizona, who continued pursuing Mexican drug cartels despite death threats to himself and his family. 

The officers’ West Point education played a large role in shaping their moral compasses and how they would respond in combat, a factor that is strongly tied to Raymond’s thesis. 

They learned how to decipher the Honor Code under the guidance of then Superintendent Lt. Gen. Dan Christman, who started the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic, and who the men credited with teaching them how to apply the code in morally challenging scenarios in the real world. They also benefitted from being taught by faculty with combat experience. 

Raymond poignantly stated that each man had told him that they had never killed an innocent civilian during their deployments. 

In his lecture, the author encouraged the cadets to pursue international graduate education, as it would not only prepare them to be advisers to the National Command Authority, something that they were sure to confront, but also to learn how other countries approach political situations.

  He said that often, nations impose their own beliefs onto those of others, expecting them to act as they would in a given scenario, which could lead to dire consequences. 

He offered the example of United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who thought he could use diplomacy to counter Hitler’s invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s. Chamberlain had no grasp of Naziism or the evil it represented and appeasement failed.  

Following the lecture, Dr. King opened the floor to questions. Lt. Col. Walt Cooper, a former Rhodes Scholar, asked the author to elaborate on the connection between moral and physical courage.

  Raymond cited Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who believes that moral courage is doing something because you believe it is the right thing to do no matter what as he proved during the final months of the Trump administration.

Raymond then illustrated a different kind of selfless courage with the example of Fuscellaro, who kept making helicopter runs, without orders, and while very low on ammunition and fuel, to ensure the safety of his Soldiers.

A cadet then posed the question of whether diplomacy is always the best option. Raymond explained that in some cases, as with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine, negotiation is not possible. 

However, when it can sometimes be effective, Raymond stated that “Diplomacy is always better. For heads of governments as well as their senior military and diplomatic advisers, the key to success is to know when and under what circumstances diplomacy is the best approach to resolving a problem and when force is necessary as a last resort.”

The biggest challenge in writing the book, according to the author, was being objective about West Point, which he admitted was difficult due to great love and admiration for, and strong connections to, the academy.

What Raymond most wants from the book is to provide cadets, the next generation of young officers, to draw inspiration from the five “Elite Souls,ˮ the five Nininger Award recipients.