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The Cyber Defense Review

Book Review: Pushing Limits: From West Point to Berkeley & Beyond

By By: Ted Hill Reviewed by: Dr. Chris Arney, Professor Emeritus, Department of Mathematics, United States Military Academy, West Point, NY | December 04, 2018

2020 Leader in the 1966 Army

Ted Hill was a different type of leader for the U.S. Army than West Point intended to produce when he graduated in 1966. He was adventurous, entrepreneurial, highly talented, quantitative yet out-of-the-box, irreverent to senseless authority, impatient, and very lucky to survive his 4-year required service to the Army after his United States Military Academy (USMA) schooling and commissioning. This autobiography of a West Point graduate, Army officer, and a highly successful academic professor is a fun, action-packed look at the anachronism of a modern 21st-century deep thinker serving in the highly structured Army during the Vietnam era.    

Ted Hill’s book combines episodes and reflections on his life as an Army officer, as a mathematics professor, and as a traveler. This book is titled with his mathematical humor as Pushing Limits: From West Point to Berkeley and Beyond. I especially enjoyed the book because it provided me with memories of my path through West Point, the Army, and mathematics just five years after Ted. Ted’s story is much more than a chronological replay of the exciting, wacky adventures and events of his life, although his stories are fun and reveal the turbulent times of 1960s America and society’s evolution and revolution through much social justice and military combat issues. Pushing Limits also goes inside the free-spirit mind of this amazing person where we learn his perceptions on his eight years of soldiering (four years as a cadet, two years in Stanford at graduate school, a year at Ranger School and Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and a year in combat in Vietnam). 

Ted revels in the memories of his exploits as he describes his times as a cadet and officer. As he rightfully reflects that everyone in the Army has “run-ins with authorities,” no one can experience Ted Hill adventures without many confrontations with authorities. Ted somehow survived his involvement in exciting and sometimes dangerous activities. He had the exquisite timing for screwing up or stepping out of line when even a minor infraction could result in a significant impact or luckily finding the right moments when a major infraction could be ignored. Ordinary goof-ups were not part of his Army life. Ted had the knack for finding and creating major trouble. He explained that one time after surviving the ordeals of plebe year at West Point and marching in a parade to commemorate that achievement, he just could not help himself not to celebrate by flipping off obnoxious upperclassmen and getting himself into serious trouble. This was the precise moment when all his classmates were finally relieved of their year of harassment, but Ted was immediately back in hot water. Later, he realized there was no prohibition for cadets to own and operate a bicycle on post. However, after Ted cruised his bicycle around the Academy for 24 hours, there was a new rule on the books --- no bikes for cadets.

From a personal perspective, I was excited to read the comments, mostly positive, that Ted made about the Mathematics Department at West Point, where I taught for nearly 30 years. Ted writes “West Point did more to build up mathematics in the United States than all the other colleges in the US combined, and … [for some period] the Academy was regarded as the paragon of scientific and technical training in the US.” He proudly added that “at the Academy, we learned to do mathematics on our feet, under pressure.” The West Point system’s pressure, along with his natural talents and years of intense graduate study, created an expert mathematician in Ted Hill. During his Academy days, he also saw first-hand how “the military worships mathematics since it has proven so terribly effective throughout history in designing instruments of war.” In today’s military, mathematics plays a more significant role in important areas such as cyber operations, artificial intelligence, Big Data analytics, logistics, intelligence, and network warfare.

A highlight from Ted’s Army time was his 15-page description of Army Ranger School in 1968 after being a graduate student at Stanford for two years, suffering a severe shoulder injury playing rugby, and surviving numerous run-ins with the law while riding his motorcycle and chasing relationships in San Francisco. Ted managed to make the ultimate Army-training challenge of Ranger School even tougher.  While Ted was on orders to go to Ranger School because of his West Point free education, the Army preferred for him to volunteer for the school --- military leaders believe camaraderie and uniformity, even when forced by psychological bullying, is a good thing. Even though his non-volunteer status had no real consequence on the school or his colleagues, nor did the fact that he was a Captain and most of his colleagues were enlisted soldiers or Lieutenants, Ted was going to attend Ranger School whether he signed the volunteer form or not. Ted’s principles and personality left him no choice --- he didn’t sign despite being told that he would be punished with a tougher experience in the “Ranger meat grinder.”  Through the extra hell of being “a marked man”, Ted Hill was one of the 50% in his class that received a Ranger tab. 

Ted’s next military experience was somewhat surprising. Since he had never gone to his Engineer Officer Basic Course, the Army sent him to Fort Devens, MA to command a company in garrison before sending him to lead soldiers in combat. However, Ted was hardly ready for the responsibility of garrison leadership since West Point was all theory and barracks fun, Stanford was all women and mathematical fun, and Ranger school was all survival and hand-to-hand combat fun. Ted was smart enough to read a manual to get his uniform ready, but everything else as a new military leader he had to learn through experience. Despite advice from his staff and mentors about bucking Army culture, he refused to pad counts of meals, gloss over training, and close his eyes to misallocated recreation funds that left his unit poorer but better trained and him in more hot water. However, even as the commander of the unit, Ted managed to find considerable trouble in the form of exploding artillery simulators in a Wellesley College dorm to impress women. During that escapade, he was shot at by police, which seemed to happen to him periodically. When he was finally detained at Ft Devens, his concern was for two colleagues that he had led into the potential criminal mess of detonating explosives. Fortunately, the only result of this incident was that they were banned from Wellesley College for life. The next step in Ted’s life was much more serious and dangerous --- he was deployed to Vietnam.

Not too many soldiers on their way to Vietnam took mathematics books, but Ted did. However, like his other Soldiers in combat, he was soon involved in disarming booby-traps, performing body-guard duties for dignitaries, running precarious patrols, conducting tunnel searches, and resupplying outposts and remote firebases. Of course, somehow, he managed a couple of dates with a Red Cross volunteer and attended a rock and roll concert (just 50 yards from an active Viet Cong tunnel system) during the same month as the 1969 Woodstock concert in the US.  Through it all, Ted’s idealism, ethics, and highly-tuned, mathematically-based risk assessment survived. He was an activist who wrote senators about the fraud, waste, and abuse he saw everywhere. The extravagances, such as tennis courts for generals, fancy swimming pools, posh officer clubs revolted his sense of values. Others would shy away from such controversy, but Ted took on these situations.  The impotence of the US military technology astounded Ted as he saw Viet Cong units survive and exist where he thought it would be impossible. Through it all, he did what he did best – solve problems, think, and help and protect others. He was appalled by the body count math being used by his leaders, and Ted’s visits to a MASH-like hospital opened his eyes to warfare and its devastating effects on soldiers and innocent civilians.    

Talented as a problem-solver and courageous as a leader, Ted Hill used his quantitative talents to solve the problems he confronted and notified others when they needed to intervene. He was a technical leader in an Army that did not have technical positions for leaders with the talents of Ted Hill.    

After six weeks in a front-line combat engineer unit, Ted was transferred to a rear area construction agency. This move upset him as he was now helping to build expensive, unnecessary and wasteful facilities like clubs and movie theatres. It turned out some of these facilities were taken over much later by Saigon University. Ted gave math talks there many years later where he saw some of his handiwork put to better use. He also lectured at Hanoi University, where he met the offspring of the enemy that he had been ordered to fight and kill. Despite his innovative work on construction projects, he was labeled insubordinate (lack of loyalty) by his commander and transferred back to command a combat engineer company. There he saw more corruption and officers making big profits on drugs and war materials. Later, Ted volunteered to extend his deployment to keep his brother from being transferred into combat. He luckily obtained a position as a Rest-and-Relaxation coordinator --- mostly living in Japan, but formally stationed in Vietnam. 

During that time, the future General Wesley Clark, a classmate and good friend of Ted, was recovering in Japan from wounds sustained in Vietnam, so Ted did the honors of smuggling him out of the hospital to drink at the nearby officer’s club. In his liaison position, Ted learned how to travel the world and disseminate knowledge --- excellent skills for the globetrotting mathematics professor that he became.  Ted’s Army career ended after four years of service. Fortunately for him and the Army of 1970, Ted did not owe extra time for his two years in graduate school, which is the policy in today’s Army.  So, in the fall of 1970, newly appointed civilian Ted Hill was teaching mathematics courses at the Washington University in St. Louis.  After that Ted received a Fulbright fellowship in Germany for a year, more travel around the world, mathematics Ph.D. study at Berkeley, and eventually a faculty position at Georgia Tech. 

When Ted left the service, the Army lost one for its best thinkers and problem solvers. The Army of the 1960s did not know how to use Ted Hill and had little need for someone who used his advanced mathematical reasoning to confront complex issues and mine data to understand problems better and develop solutions. In today’s Army, Ted Hill would have choices of immersing himself into modeling cyber operations, building operational theory as an Army operations research analyst, collecting and analyzing data to build networks of enemy operatives as an intelligence analyst, or organizing and managing complex port operations as a logistics expert.

At Georgia Tech, Ted became a highly productive mathematics professor, extraordinary teacher, successful and innovative researcher, fun partier and traveler, a problem maker and problem solver, and most of all an intellectual and caring leader. His areas of expertise in probability theory and fair division are mainstream applications related to the military and society. The skills he taught and used in his state-of-the-art research were the ones the modern U.S. Army needs in many of its young officers. 

Unfortunately, Ted had more challenges concerning the administration and bureaucracy of Georgia Tech. He discovered problems that were similar to those he fought to correct in the Army in Vietnam.  He was back in action, “exposing financial misdeeds, the cover-ups, and the personal attacks from administrators and colleagues.” In Ted’s eyes, Georgia Tech was run more like a corrupt business than an ethical university and preserving power had become more important than education. Once again, Ted rocked the boat and fought a long-protracted battle to clean up the problems. The result was slow, frustrating, and hard-earned progress at Georgia Tech, and early retirement for Ted. But his quest as a mathematician, problem solver, and adventurer continued --- he just had more time for intellectual contributions and party fun after his retirement.  

One episode in the book that intrigued me was when Ted Hill and then General Wesley Clark met to talk about their challenges and successes. Like Ted, Wesley was an intellectual – valedictorian of his and Ted’s West Point class and a Rhodes Scholar. These two highly competitive, extremely talented, West Point classmates, who were at the very top of their professions reflected about taking risks and performing hard work.  These leadership traits, along with tremendous intellectual skills, were the fundamental elements to their successes. They were leaders who were thinking, acting, and succeeding before their time. They were brilliant thinkers who could see the complexities of their professions, but they were surrounded by others who only wanted simple structure and order.  They were both outcasts who struggled with their environments yet still succeeded. In many ways, they were at least a generation (three decades) too early for the Army they served. Through their tremendous strength of character, both made the most of their anachronistic time warp to achieve success.

Not only did I learn about Ted Hill and his adventurous, academic, and in some ways controversial life, but I also learned about values-based leadership through strong character, leadership through consequence and competence, leadership through intellect and knowledge, and leadership by example and sometimes by luck. Ted Hill was a modern, complex thinker in a world and time that hoped for and promoted simplicity. Ted was not an angel nor a prude; he broke the rules both for fun and purpose; he always helped others who were innocent or sought to achieve a larger purpose than the one assigned to him; he told the truth despite risking punishment and ridicule. His character dictated that he went out of his way to make amends when he did hurt someone. He valued his and others’ pleasures and successes.  He accepted the consequences of his actions, and he made the most of his complex and sometimes dangerous situations with competence and innovation. Ted’s advantage in life was his intellect that often allowed him to think his way into and out of trouble and equally often talk his way into and out of complicated jams. Ted Hill was a learner, and he used failure to learn his lessons. He was a teacher and while for some things he used himself as an example, he wanted others (especially his students) to be better than he was. Ted Hill was a 21st-century deep thinker in a 20th-century structured school (West Point), organization (Army), and position (professor at “ultra-conservative” Georgia Tech). Pushing Limits gave me a glimpse of a world of adventure and challenge, risk and reward, math and military, and right and wrong and both. Thanks to Ted Hill for sharing. If only West Point were graduating many more Ted Hills for today’s Army, our nation would be stronger and the world safer. 



Pushing Limits: From West Point to Berkeley & Beyond

By Ted Hill

Publisher: American Mathematical Society (April 20, 2017)

Language: English

Hardcover: 294 pages

ISBN-10: 1470435845

ISBN-13: 978-1470435844

Price: $25

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