War and the Class of ’04
LA Times — War More Than Academic Exercise For West Point Class Of 2004 [otbblog/jamesotb]
For the class of 2004 here, the war in Iraq is much more than an academic exercise. The conflict has overshadowed their final year at West Point as they prepare to be commissioned as second lieutenants Ã¢€” and make the practical and psychological adjustments of shifting rapidly from students to trainees to combat commanders.
When this year’s class entered the academy four years ago, the country was at peace. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were a year away. The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq came during their “yearling” (sophomore) and “cow” (junior) years, respectively.
Now the cadets are bombarded with the latest updates on the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan Ã¢€” from newspapers, television, the Internet and from friends, relatives and mentors serving in the combat zones. They are very much aware that they could face the same difficult decisions confronting recent West Point graduates who are now officers leading soldiers into combat.
Cadets are commissioned as second lieutenants the day they graduate Ã¢€” this year after a scheduled commencement address by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. They attend an officer’s basic course for several months to a year, depending on their specialty, and then report to an active-duty unit, many of which are preparing to deploy to Iraq.
On average, according to West Point officials, certain cadets could find themselves in Iraq in eight months to a year.
For several years, cadets have taken courses in Middle Eastern studies, Arabic and urban warfare. The academy also has created a “combating terrorism center” that brings in veterans of special operations units and other guest speakers with experience in counterterrorism.
But no matter how many combat veterans and commanders return to their alma mater to lecture on the realities of war, there is no way to fully prepare young men and women (16% of cadets are female) for the death and brutality of the combat zone. Many cadets say they realize they won’t know how well prepared they are until they actually lead soldiers into combat.
“The academy does as good a job as possible to prepare the cadets for combat, but certainly actual combat isn’t something you can fully prepare for until you’re there,” said Capt. Aimee Hobby Rhodes, an assistant professor of law at the academy.
Since the Iraqi invasion began in March 2003, the academy said, 11 West Point graduates have been killed in action. They range from a lieutenant colonel who graduated in 1982 to a first lieutenant who graduated two years ago.
While war has been a possibility for every class graduating the Academy–it’s their raison detre, after all–this is the first time since the Vietnam era that cadets have had the near certainty of combat duty hanging over them as seniors. While there have been more military engagements than I can recall off the top of my head over the last twenty years, none of them until now have lasted more than a few months. Most have been much shorter than that, even. The Classes of ’02 and ’03 graduated into war, but it was a sudden thing in both cases. This year’s graduates know exactly what they’re getting into.