The second of a four-part series
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Army cadets make their way through the West Point campus on March 30, 2007. More than 100 of the 4,000 current students have served tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Army cadets make their way through the West Point campus on March 30, 2007. More than 100 of the 4,000 current students have served tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Brian Fishman lectures U.S. Army cadets during a terrorism studies class in 2007. This class is one of several offered in combating terrorism.
Brian Fishman lectures U.S. Army cadets during a terrorism studies class in 2007. This class is one of several offered in combating terrorism. Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
For decades, cadets at the Army's premier training ground, West Point, learned about military tactics and how to defeat a large army. Now, faced with guerrilla fighters and nation-building, they need new skills.
On a recent day, the cadets assemble near The Plain, the wide lawn where Gens. MacArthur, Patton and Eisenhower marched when they were cadets a century ago, Eisenhower's statue stands today. West Point professor Col. Matt Moten stops at the base of the monument to talk about one of the school's most famous graduates.
"When Eisenhower was in school, it was rote memorization," Moten says. "There would have been a lot of math, a lot of engineering — he would have had a history class or two. It was mostly about memorizing facts and being able to recite them back to the instructor."
As a history instructor, Moten is not interested in just reciting facts — he's trying to prepare West Point cadets to lead on complex battlefields.
"This type of warfare puts a premium on the ability to be able to think on one's feet," he says. "To be able to understand the political and cultural issues at the same time that you're leading young Americans who are 18 or 19 years old. One needs to be able to think on several levels at one time, and that requires a great deal of mental agility."
Education, Not Training
Capt. Bob Mihara is trying to teach agility in his class on irregular warfare. A dozen or so cadets sit in a semicircle, discussing the British experience in Northern Ireland.
Mihara says the British lost support of the local population in the 1970s. They rounded up too many detainees — innocent and guilty alike. One cadet quickly sees the British mistake.
"They didn't really fight it as an unconventional fight," the cadet says. "They were fighting it as a conventional force trying to win militarily."
"A lot of [the cadets] just kind of shake their heads and think that sounds a lot like Iraq," Mihara says. "And they say it for themselves, and I try not to impress upon them any particular understanding. I think it stunts their development as mature military professionals. The core of what I'm trying to do is make it education rather than training."
Mihara served in Iraq, a few years after graduating from West Point. He left the academy with little preparation, he says, for what he would encounter on the battlefield.
"That's what I got out of my experience — I came out more as a technician than as a mature professional in that regard," he says.
A technician: Someone able to take a hill, flank an enemy, read a map. The West Point curriculum says that's not good enough now, given what officers will be called upon to do in a war zone.
Dramatic Curriculum Changes
Alex Bolan, a West Point senior, says his brother Andrew graduated just before the teaching began to change. He is now serving in Iraq.
"So he showed up just when things were happening in Afghanistan," Alex Bolan says. "Iraq hadn't even started until he was a cadet. The curriculum changed drastically."
Bolan says he is learning foreign languages and how to handle complex situations — things his brother didn't learn at the academy.
Senior cadet Brady Dearden says reaching for a weapon is not always the answer.
"What you do in this situation as a lieutenant — it's not necessarily a military situation; it's a political situation or it's an economic situation," Dearden says. "You have to build a school or a hospital, pay individuals in an area. So it's a focus on how will you handle this situation."
The cadets practice what they're taught at Camp Buckner, a few miles down the road. It's a sprawling training area of woods, streams and mountains. Not long ago, cadets here practiced their combat skills. Now, locals play tribal sheiks, civilians and even reporters at makeshift villages meant to simulate Iraq.
Many of the scenarios are based on actual incidents in Iraq or Afghanistan, says Maj. Chad Foster, a trainer at Camp Buckner.
"You have villagers or tribal leaders showing up at your patrol bases asking you if you can help with a water problem or with some medical support for the people in his village on top of having to deal with fighting a hostile force," Foster says.
The Army has been trying to teach counterinsurgency on and off since before Vietnam, and seniors like Samuel Aidoo wonder if the new training and courses will work this time.
"Whenever I read about insurgencies, it strikes me that so many people have [fallen] down," Aidoo says. "It just strikes me as, 'Gosh, are we ever going to get this right? Are we ever going to figure this out?' "
Aidoo has a reason for his more jaded view. He is a combat veteran, one of about 100 among the 4,000 cadets, and there are more professors with combat experience than at any time in a generation. Aidoo says his classmates have lots of questions for him.
"You know, 'What are the sounds of war? What are the feelings of being in war?' Very, very curious because they know what they're getting into," he says. "They know as soon as we graduate, we're going back."
After class, cadets line up for lunch outside Washington Hall, a massive Gothic building of stone. Jackie Horchak walks along The Plain and talks about how she noticed classmates who have been in combat.
"One of my classmates has a combat jump, another has a Purple Heart, another still has shrapnel from it in his shoulder," she says. "They're kind of quiet about it, to be honest. A lot of humility."
Horchak graduates in the spring and will soon be leading a team of soldiers. Her former classmates e-mail her from the war zones.
"You can't help but think about people being killed, and the possibility that you or someone you know may be that name being read over the loudspeaker someday," she says.
So far, the names of 66 West Point graduates killed in Afghanistan and Iraq have been read over the loudspeaker at lunchtime. That continuing toll, as well as the long and repeated combat deployments, give some cadets pause about making the Army a career.
"Could I feasibly make it a career very easily? Yes, at this point, because I have no one else to worry about, pretty much, but myself," she says. "But who's to say three years down the road there won't be a situation that changes?"
West Point graduates are required to give five years of service after they finish school, but increasingly, more leave after those five years — and they're leaving at a time when the Army needs even more of them.
The Army is trying to expand its ranks by 65,000 soldiers. Squeezed between an exodus and a need, the Army expects to be short 3,000 captains and majors until at least 2013.
"I had roommates that have gotten out that I wish had stayed in, but I know guys that are better officers than me, it would have been great if they'd stayed in," says Maj. Christian Teustch, who teaches military history. He graduated from West Point in 1997 and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The cadets in his classroom are studying the Civil War. Soon they'll find themselves facing the stress of combat and the tug of family and duty. In the meantime, Teutsch can only hope his students are better prepared for what they'll face than he was.