“It Is Only Just”: The Powerful New York Times Self-Obituary of a Young War Hero
by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Faint
John Alexander Hottell III finished 10th in the Class of 1964 at West Point, part of a graduating class that knew they would almost certainly all serve in the Vietnam War. His first duty station was with the 101st Airborne Division, followed by a stop in the United Kingdom for a stint as a Rhodes Scholar, and then company command in the 82nd Airborne Division. Hottell was subsequently offered a second command in the First Cavalry Division and shipped off to war.
While in Vietnam, he served as company commander, division historian, and in the Division Intelligence staff. He also earned the Silver Star. Twice. But more importantly, he earned the respect of his men. Of them, he said:
“They will do anything even though they feel that life and society have dumped all over them; they can still drive on and fight like demons, march like Jackson, and soldier like the very dickens when they have to it fills me with inspiration. They are truly the great people of this war the forgotten civilians who will probably never receive their due for their valor on the fields of battle.”
In addition to being highly observant, Hottell was also deeply reflective. Whether considering himself, his troops, or the enemy, he thought it was all worth thinking, and writing, about:
“In the heat of battle one hardly has time to stop and think about how well things might be going. In a struggle for survival, valuations are reduced to a simple standard: good is alive; bad is dead or wounded. Then, too, nearly everyone was simply too busy and too involved to allow the luxury of such reflection. The only thing that was really clear was that there was a hell of a fight going on.
To the trooper who has lost a buddy, no amount of figures will be able to make it appear that the battle was a success. For all of us the carnage and wreckage of a bitterly contested battleground is not the atmosphere for exultation, even if the carnage all belongs to the other side. No matter who you are, you cannot help but see mothers and wives in the face of a dead enemy.”
After one particularly fierce firefight, then-Captain Hottell suggested that the members of his unit write home to prepare their families for the prospect of their death. His letter took the form of an auto-obituary which was to be opened in the event that he did not return alive from Vietnam.
Captain Hottell’s death did come in Vietnam, but not at the hands of the enemy. His intelligence, talent, and leadership ability gained the attention of the First Cavalry Division Commander, Major General George Casey, who asked Captain Hottell to extend his tour of duty in Vietnam and serve as the general’s primary aide. Hottell accepted, and both of them, along with five other Army soldiers, were killed in a helicopter crash in July of 1970. General Casey was one of the two pilots at the controls when the helicopter burned in.
Hottell was posthumously promoted to major, and his letter made its way back home. It was such a powerful and moving document that it was shared widely, and was ultimately published in the New York Times.
The humility, gratitude, and pride that Hottell felt as an Army officer comes through in his obituary. He makes it clear that he did not “die for his country,” he lived for it. He describes the opportunities the Army afforded him: schooling, travel, life experiences. He talks about the importance of family, and briefly addresses what it was like to lead men in the Army. And despite fighting in what was then the longest period of continuous conflict in our nation’s history, he expressed pride in his nation and gratitude for having the ability to serve.
Unlike MAJ Hottell I did not attend West Point as a cadet, but I taught there for five years and it was the most fulfilling and meaningful thing I’ve done in the military. My first three years were spent in the Department of Social Sciences, and just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, I was offered the opportunity to head up MX400, the Superintendent’s capstone course on Officership that all cadets take in their last year at the Academy. I held that position for two years, working out of the Simon Center in the old First Division Barracks. One of the Simon Center’s endowed academic Chairs is named after MAJ Hottell, as is an award in the History Department, and I first read about him and his auto-obituary on a plaque on our building’s first floor. I was struck by the power of his words, an effect that was magnified when I realized he bore more than a passing resemblance to me when I was a young infantry officer.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that drafting one’s own obituary was a useful exercise for getting young people to reflect upon their own mortality, their time at West Point, the things that matter to them, and in the incredible responsibility of the unlimited liability they will soon assume as an Army officer. I therefore made the drafting of an auto-obituary a requirement for the MX400 students that I taught directly, and encouraged other MX instructors to do so as well. I allowed my students complete creative license: they could do a “newspaper” style obituary, they could do a poem, a song, whatever they wanted. They could write it as if it were published now, or they could project themselves into the future. They simply had to read MAJ Hottell’s obituary and then create their own, and to include a favorite photo. As you might expect there was some initial reluctance at the idea of writing one’s own death announcement, especially by people who are about to start their adult lives. But most of them took the assignment seriously and appreciated its utility. I gave my students the option to share their obituaries in the classroom, and many of them chose to do so. And of course I did one as well. In this way, MAJ Hottell’s impact on the Army and on West Point continued, even after his death.
Like MAJ Hottell, I am also the son of a military man and I also served in our country’s wars, in my case Afghanistan and Iraq. I didn’t write my own obituary when I was downrange, nor did I write a letter home to be opened in case of my death. I did, however, make a video montage of photos that was to be shown at my funeral if I died during one of what ended up being seven deployments. I made the video in-theater using the MovieMaker program on my work computer, and then sent it to my sister for safekeeping. It is to my great fortune that it has never been seen by anyone else.
Major Hottell’s self-obituary is shown in its entirety on the following page. In what is now the longest period of conflict in our nation’s history, when such a small percentage of our nation has ever known military service, it’s worth reading. If you ever wondered “why do they do it?” you now have your answer.