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 — 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 — 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 — 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.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Military Affairs, Terrorism, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Interestingly enough, the Class of ’04 at Annapolis is graduating more Marines this year than any class since Vietnam. Iraq and the chance to get in the fight was considered one of the reasons.

    Here’s a link to the story

  2. Ann says:

    As a member of the class of ’04, I can attest that it’s a very different world from when I entered West Point in June of 2000. I and many of my classmates came here looking forward to a stable Army career. Now, I look forward to being deployed for at least half of my Army career. That’s fine with me. At least I won’t have to worry about getting bored! While we all are certainly nervous (whether we admit it or not) about the possibility of being “in the sandbox” in as few as eight months, we have to have faith that our grandparents stepped up to the challenge and we will be able to do the same. Between now and then, all we can do is train hard and enjoy our last few days behind the gray walls together.

  3. MadHatter says:

    Those of us who are in the Armor branch will be finishing the basic course around December and many will be in Iraq/elsewhere by early next year. I know that’s good, because when I get there the Islamofascists will collectively pee their pants and flee the country. One good thing USMA does is bring in lots of platoon leaders, company commanders, etc. who have returned from Iraq. I learned a hell of a lot from talking to them and was very, very impressed with their attitude about the whole thing. The army has some truly amazing people leading it and I wouldn’t mind joining them at all. They also don’t have “reflective essays” and “engineering design projects” in Iraq, so it’s almost like a vacation with explosions.