MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. West Point is the premier school and training ground for new Army officers. For decades, cadets there learned military tactics to defeat large armies. Now, in Iraq and Afghanistan, they're faced with guerilla fighters, and they need new skills. For our series on the state of the Army, NPR's Tom Bowman traveled to West Point. He has this report on how cadets are being prepared to lead the Army in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
(Soundbite of marching cadets)
Unidentified Man #1: Company, attention.
TOM BOWMAN: Cadets assemble near the Plain, the wide lawn where MacArthur, Patton and Eisenhower marched when they were cadets a century ago. Eisenhower's statue stands there today, and a West Point professor, Colonel Matt Moten, stops at the base of the monument to talk about one of the school's most famous graduates.
Colonel MATT MOTEN (History, West Point Military Academy): When Eisenhower was going to school, it was rote memorization. So, there would have been a lot of math; there would have been a lot of engineering; he would have had a history course or two, mostly about memorizing facts and being able to recite them back to the instructor.
BOWMAN: 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.
Col. MOTEN: This type of warfare puts a premium on the ability to think on one's feet, to be able to understand political and cultural issues at the same time that you're leading young Americans who are 18 and 19 years old. So, one needs to be thinking on several different levels at the same time, and that requires a great deal of mental agility.
(Soundbite of classroom)
Captain BOB MIHARA (Irregular Warfare Professor, West Point Military Academy): Everyone ready? Everyone have a sheet of paper? Pull up the essay question real quick...
BOWMAN: Captain 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. Captain 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.
(Soundbite of classroom)
Unidentified Man #2: They didn't really fight an unconventional fight. They were fighting it as a conventional force trying to win militarily and...
Capt. MIHARA: A lot of them just sort of shake their heads and think, well, that sounds a lot like Iraq.
BOWMAN: Captain Mihara.
Capt. MIHARA: They say it for themselves, and I try not to impress upon them any particular understanding, because I think that stunts their development as mature military professionals, which is really the principal core of what I'm doing - I'm trying do here is to make this a class of education rather than training.
BOWMAN: Mihara served in Iraq a few years after graduating from West Point. He left here with little preparation, he says, for what he would encounter on the battlefield.
Capt. MIHARA: The way I got out of my experience here is, I came out more as a technician than as a mature professional, in that regard.
BOWMAN: 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 the war zone. Alex Bolan is a West Point senior. His brother, Andrew, graduated just before the teaching began to change. He is now serving in Iraq.
Mr. ALEX BOLAN (Student, West Point Military Academy): So, he showed up right when stuff was happening in Afghanistan, that Iraq hadn't even started until he was actually cadet, so the curriculum, I think, changed drastically.
BOWMAN: What are you learning that your brother didn't learn?
Mr. BOLAN: Foreign languages, and how what a lot of the manuals say is not the way you have to conduct things.
BOWMAN: 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 Major Chad Foster, a trainer at Camp Buckner.
Major CHAD FOSTER (Trainer, Camp Buckner, U.S. Army): You have villagers showing up, tribal leaders showing up, at your patrol base asking you if you can help with a water problem or with some medical support for his - the people of his village, and having to deal with that on top of fighting a hostile force.
BOWMAN: The Army has been trying to teach counterinsurgency on and off since before Vietnam. Seniors like Samuel Aidoo wonder if the new training and courses will work this time.
Mr. SAMUEL AIDOO (Student, West Point Military Academy): Whenever I read about the insurgencies and how so many people have fell down, it just strikes me as, like, gosh, are we ever going to get this right? Are we ever going to figure this out?
BOWMAN: Aidoo has a reason for his, let's say, more jaded view. He's 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.
Mr. AIDOO: 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. They know as soon as we graduate, we're going right back.
(Soundbite of marching cadets)
BOWMAN: 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.
Ms. JACKIE HORCHAK (Student, West Point Military Academy): One of my classmates actually has a combat jump, another one that has a Purple Heart, and pretty sure he told me he still has shrapnel from it in his shoulder. So, they're kind of quiet about it, to be honest. There's a lot of humility.
BOWMAN: Horchak will be graduating in the spring and will soon be leading a team of soldiers. Her former classmates email her from the war zones.
Ms. HORCHAK: You can't help but think about people being killed and the prospect that maybe you or someone you know will be that name being read over the loudspeaker someday.
BOWMAN: 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, and the long and repeated combat deployments, give some cadets pause about making the Army a career.
Ms. HORCHAK: Could I feasibly make it a career very easily? You know, yes, at this point, because I have no one else to worry about pretty much but myself. But who's to say, three years down the road, that there won't be a situation that changes?
BOWMAN: West Point graduates are required to give five years of service after they finish school, but more and more leave after that five years. They're leaving at a time when the Army needs even more of them. It's 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 at least until 2013.
Major CHRISTIAN TEUSTCH (Military History Professor, West Point Military Academy): I had roommates who have gotten out that I wish had stayed in, but you know, I know guys who are, in my opinion, better officers than me, it would have been great if they'd stayed in.
BOWMAN: Major Christian Teustch teaches military history. He graduated from West Point in 1997, and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
(Soundbite of history class)
Maj. TEUSTCH: And what becomes known as the lost-cause mentality among former Confederates once the South is brought back into the Union ...
BOWMAN: The cadets in his classroom are starting the Civil War. Soon, they'll find themselves facing the stress of combat and the tug of family and duty.
Maj. TEUSTCH: So if you understand Shiloh, you can understand the Civil War...
BOWMAN: In the meantime, Major Teustch can only hope his students are better prepared for what they'll face than he was. Tom Bowman, NPR news.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.