“It is precisely because life is so precious to me that I am prepared to die.”

5 Min read

Letter to wife in the event of death

A Soldier’s Own Obituary, NYTimes 3 March 1971

Major John Alexander Hottell, III

Memorial Day

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I first saw this in my son’s Bugle Notes 2020-2024, a pocket-sized book with mission and oath of the United States Military Academy, the current leadership, honor code, creed, ranks, medals and badges, history, and much about Army values and traditions. So it surprised to me stumble upon this very last entry, a letter written by “Alex” to his beloved Linda in the event of his death in Vietnam. The letter is not in the Table of Contents or noted elsewhere. Neither is it part of my own well-worn Bugle Notes 1987-1991, the covers curved, embarassingly, from the hot days and weeks of wear in the back pocket of my gray uniform trousers as a young cadet in basic training.

Tabbing the page and noting it on my calendar to read over Memorial Day, I am sharing it here with you. I hope you will take a minute to read Alex’s own words. In so doing, please take time to reflect and remember all those who gave their last measure of devotion.

*

MAJ John Alexander Hottell III, US Military Academy Class of 1964

December 24, 1942 to July 7, 1970

Killed in Vietnam

Fallen Warriors of the West Point Class of 1964, John Murray

*

“A Soldier’s Own Obituary,” New York Times, 3 March 1971

*

I am writing my own obituary for several reasons, and I hope none of them are too trite. First, I would like to spare my friends, who may happen to read this, the usual clichés about being a good soldier. They were all kind enough to me and I not enough to them. Second, I would not want to be a party to perpetuation of an image that is harmful and inaccurate: “glory” is the most meaningless of concepts, and I feel that in some cases it is doubly damaging. And thirdly, I am quite simply the last authority on my own death.

I loved the Army: it reared me, it nurtured me, and it gave me the most satisfying years of my life. Thanks to it I have lived an entire lifetime in 26 years. It is only fitting that I should die in its service. We all have but one death to spend, and insofar as it can have any meaning it finds it in the service of comrades-in-arms.

And yet, I deny that I died FOR anything — not my Country, not my Army, not my fellow man, none of these things. I LIVED for these things, and the manner in which I chose to do it involved the very real chance that I would die in the execution of my duties. I knew this, and accepted it, but my love for West Point and the Army was great enough — and the promise that I would someday be able to serve all the ideals that meant anything to me through it was great enough — for me to accept this possibility as a part of a price which must be paid for all things of great value. If there is nothing worth dying for — in this sense — there is nothing worth living for.

The Army let me live in Japan, Germany, and England with experiences in all of these places that others only dream about. I have skied in the Alps, killed a scorpion in my tent camping in Turkey, climbed Mount Fuji, visited the ruins of Athens, Ephesus, and Rome, seen the town of Gordium where another Alexander challenged his destiny, gone to the Opera in Munich, plays in the West End of London, seen the Oxford- Cambridge rugby match, gone for pub crawls through the Cotswolds, seen the night-life in Hamburg, danced to the Rolling Stones, and earned a master’s degree in a foreign university.

I have known what it is like to be married to a fine and wonderful woman and to love her beyond bearing with the sure knowledge that she loves me; I have commanded a company and been a father, priest, income-tax advisor, confessor, and judge for 200 men at one time; I have played college football and rugby, won the British National Diving Championship two years in a row, boxed for Oxford against Cambridge only to be knocked out in the first round and played handball to distraction and all of these sports I loved, I learned at West Point. They gave me hours of intense happiness.

I have been an exchange student at the German Military Academy, and gone to the German Jumpmaster School, I have made thirty parachute jumps from everything from a balloon in England to a jet at Fort Bragg. I have written an article that was published in Army magazine, and I have studied philosophy.

I have experienced all these things because I was in the Army and because I was an Army brat. The Army is my life, it is such a part of what I was that what happened is the logical outcome of the life I lived. I never knew what it is to fail, I never knew what it is to be too old or too tired to do anything. I lived a full life in the Army, and it has exacted the price. It is only just.

*

FOOTNOTES

*From a journal entry discussing his possible demise: “It is precisely because life is so precious to me that I am prepared to die, and there is no paradox in this. The meaning I found in life is embodied in West Point; not just the place or the people, or even my four years there, but the total concept of the place. Its history reeks of nobility, its sons personify duty and honor, and that other great source of meaning, our country. It is the poetic words of MacArthur, gloom period, football weekends, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the United States Corps of Cadets.’ It is the pride in wearing your country’s uniform and giving the troops something to believe in; it is the embodiment of the history of the American fighting man and, by damn, if I die taking part in that, I die happy and satisfied. Of the possible meanings of death, it is the best.”

*Excerpt about his death from  Fallen Warriors The West Point Class of 1964 by John Murray. “Alex returned to begin his new job in late April and by July the monsoon rains had arrived. On the evening of Saturday, the sixth, Al and his classmates in the division area, Jed Brown (who had been in Linda and Al’s wedding four years before) and Jim Carson (a former roommate who was also at Fort Campbell with Al) decided to have a beer in the Officers Club tent. After about two hours of chatting, Al invited Jed to accompany General Casey and himself the next morning on their weekly Sunday visit to the division’s wounded soldiers at the Cam Ranh Bay hospital. Although Jed’s outfit, the Eighth Engineer Battalion, had several soldiers hospitalized, he declined the offer, stating that he’d probably better stay around and help break in his newly arrived battalion commander.

“That decision saved Jed’s life, for the next morning en route to Cam Ranh Bay the general’s helicopter, descending through the clouds to refuel, crashed into the side of a mountain, instantly killing all on board. It was several days before a massive search found the crash site. In the States, Kaye and Mike rushed to Linda’s side. Mike recollects: “The funeral at West Point was a ‘Who’s Who’ of our army at the time. It was profound and moving and emotional and fitting. And it was sad. Linda received the American flag and was left with the memories of the too short marriage and the images of what was to be. Colonel and Mrs. Hottell greeted everyone with a smile and a thank you and internalized their grief. Colonel Hottell died a few years later and his wife soon after. Their grief was overwhelming. Alex, you see, was their life.”

May 26, 2023

2 Comments

  1. Bill Golden

    So much to so many. Yet everything to a few. Wonderful and thoughtful article Mylinh. Thanks

    • mylinhshattan

      Grateful to such Americans, that they LIVED.

About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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