Isn't it great when as a reader, we become so riveted that we feel as though we’re on the author’s journey with them? Reading Brotherhood: When West Point Rugby Went to War felt just like that for me.
Not only for the rugby-minded, Brotherhood is a first-of-its-kind look at the close bonds formed by teammates brought together –not only by the battles fought on the pitch, but also as graduating officers in a post-911 world. Here was an entire group of young men facing almost-certain duty on the front lines.
Martin Pengelly, Guardian US Washington Breaking News Editor and former Rosslyn Park lock (Roehampton, UK), witnessed first hand the strength and bond of the West Point Brotherhood. In early 2002, Rosslyn Park hosted West Point Rugby at Aldershot. It was, it would happen, right before much of the West Point team was due to graduate and fulfill their commitments to the United States Army.
As player, writer, and historian, Pengelly's interest was piqued from the outset. Here were these young men; students, sons, brothers and mates, just at the start of their adult lives, yet saddled with the added weight of knowing what lay imminently ahead. And, he noted, mighty decent guys on top of it all.
While he wasn’t conscious of it at the time, a seed was planted. As he said, it was lodged in him; he’d always wondered what happened to the boys. So, a decade after the storied match, Pengelly began research for a feature article on the West Point Brotherhood; within a couple of years the project grew into chapters of a book. The driving factor: this was the strongest rugby brotherhood Pengelly had ever seen. He wanted to know more.
In 2015, Pengelly first took the train journey out to West Point for a tour. As it happened, he was introduced to outgoing rugby coach Mike Mahan just as Mahan was packing his office to retire. Mahan showed Pengelly the photo of the 2001-2002 team in kilts. Mahan also shared the fate of three of the players.
That’s when Pengelly knew with certainty that there was a story there. He’d always wanted to write seriously about rugby and could see no better vehicle to tell it. The team were rugby lads; Pengelly “recognized the characters, because I knew them from home.”
Rugby people believe our values to be a cut above. The rugby brotherhood is borne of a reliance on one another to advance the ball toward the goal, phase after phase. Each of the fifteen players support one another to this end. They celebrate the joys of victory and lament the losses as one unit, always striving toward improvement. Teammates keep each other accountable on and off the pitch, and are present for all of life's ups and downs, 80 minutes and beyond. It’s a serious bond. Friends-for-life stuff. Best man and godfather stuff.
Two elements add to the intensity of the West Point brotherhood: The team coexists in a literal sense, living and toiling together. They basically exist in each other's pockets, raising each other up in a manner of speaking. But more critically, the young men you’ll get to know are excruciatingly aware that they're likely headed for active duty sometime after their graduation in June of 2002.
Pengelly does a fine job introducing us to the West Point Rugby team. We get to know about a dozen of the team fairly well, and half of that with a much closer lens. So close, in fact, that without offering any spoilers, it should surprise no one that getting to know some of these boys is heartbreaking.
By no means a criticism, Brotherhood is a unique and refreshing mingling of styles; the skill with which Pengelly weaves his narrative is a triumph. The facts are written as a reporter would present them. Fitting, because that is how Pengelly plies his trade. So in Brotherhood, Pengelly does his research, conducts his interviews, connects the dots, and draws it all together as any investigative journalist would do. But woven into the juxtaposition of narrative and imagery, Brotherhood becomes so much more. The fact that Pengelly offers a glimpse into his own story adds an element as well. Of his intention to do so, he said “that was a conscious decision made with the editor Joshua Bodwell at Godine. The story is that I played them and it lodged in my head.”
These are boys who become men in the shadow of 9-11. And this is their story. Their Brotherhood.
One is left wishing they'd seen them suit up together as a team, spoken to them in the after-match. Certainly, you will feel as though you know them.
The sensitivity with which Pengelly approaches his story is evident due to the number of years he spent working on the book, spending time with the surviving members of the team, or on the train headed to West Point (or further afield), poring over reports and papers and tapes. Pengelly was not just a contemporary of the players on that team, he became an intimate.
At the end of the book, Pengelly visits Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. This passage is especially poignant:
“The sky was uniform blue. To the north, the obelisk of the Washington Monument, burnt umber. Dusk was on its way. In the trees that dotted the paths, shadows gathered. There was the wind, the birds, and the rumble of DC traffic. A plane took off from Reagan National Airport, south down the Potomac. Another.
“I turned east down York, into welcome shade, used my phone to find the point to turn south again, out into Section 60, the right row of graves to walk down. Naked to the sun, the grass was dry and brittle. I loosened my tie, passed my jacket from arm to arm…”
The friendships made and respect built become increasingly evident. The narrative is integral to the story; should there be a film adaptation of this book, the narrator is as much a ‘character’ as the young men Brotherhood embraces in this work about love, loss, and the unique bonds of young men headed toward uncertainty.
While not a brother-in-arms, Pengelly became a brother all the same, sharing more than a modicum of that unique rugby personality. He’s become good friends with a couple of the lads, sharing a love of rugby and history. And books. He jokingly alludes to a secondary brotherhood, the “Brotherhood of the Row’ between Second Row Forwards” that he shares with Bryan Phillips.
Brotherhood: When West Point Went to War is published by Godine Press and is available at many fine book stores throughout the US, elsewhere on Amazon, and will be released shortly as an audio book by Tantor Media.
Karen L. Gasbarino, January 2024, Rugby Hive Editor