At West Point, doubts bow to duty: cadets who may soon be fighting in Iraq have no illusions about the war or its popularity at home.
West Point has added classes on how to avoid ambushes, proper convoying techniques, and the correct procedure for emptying a room when fighting door to door. "I'm 22 years old," says Cadet Ramon Ramos, "and sometimes I'll think, 'Wait a minute, did I really just have a class on how not to get blown up by an insurgent?'"
E-MAILS FROM THE FRONT
Outside of combat classes, e-mail brings the war to the dorms. The night before the battle for Falluja began last September, Mark Erwin, a senior, got a message from his brother, Lt. Mike Erwin (West Point '02): "Markie--I will be carrying your cadet picture in my right breast pocket with my prayer to St. Michael, dog tags, and St. Michael's medal," the big brother wrote. "If by some chance something happens to me, you're the voice to the family." Cadet Erwin never deletes an e-mail message from his brother. "You worry there might not be another," he says.
Lunch can be particularly hard for the cadets.
"If they say the words, 'Please give your attention to the first captain,' you know it's coming," says Cadet Michael Linnington. Another senior, Cadet Megan Williams, says: "Everyone shuts up. You're so afraid of it."
Linnington explains: "There was one the other day. The first captain gives a 30-second spiel--what year they graduated, how they died, if they were married."
The death of Todd Bryant ('02) in Falluja touched many seniors. When Ramos was an 18-year-old plebe (a freshman), Bryant was his intramural football coach. "I sat at his table," says Ramos. "Some upper class give plebes a hard time. Not Todd. He was just a nice guy."
Cadets deal with death more than most 20-year-olds. Williams attended a funeral for David Bernstein ('01), who was killed in Taza, in northern Iraq. When Cadet Brandon Bodor was in Washington for the inauguration in January, he visited Arlington National Cemetery and the grave of Leonard Cowherd ('03), who was killed in Karbala.
Cadets don't have to read the polls to know they're heading off to an unpopular war. Applications to the military academies are sharply down. At West Point, applications hit a post-9/11 high of 12,383 for the school year that began in 2003. The 10,412 applications for the coming school year represent a 16 percent drop in two years. Applications are down 20 percent for the Naval Academy and down 24 percent for the Air Force Academy, in just over a year.
After two years at West Point, a cadet is given a last chance to leave without having to serve in the military. Last summer, 52 members of the sophomore class of 963 left, compared with 32 the year before and 18 the year before that. West Point officials were relieved it wasn't more. "We were hearing rumors of mass resignations," says the admissions director, Col. Mike Jones. "But it was just rumors. Our numbers are down, but still very strong," he says, citing 10 applicants for every slot.
Cadet Bodor says it's no mystery why the numbers are down. "Iraq," he says. "When you're in an unpopular war, people question, 'Is this what I want to be doing?'"
These cadets, who get a free education in return for five years of military service, are likely to face two Iraq tours if projections hold. Their own feelings about the war seem surprisingly mixed. While Erwin and Williams express confidence in the effort to establish a democratic society in Iraq, Linnington and Ramos sound less hopeful.
"There are cadets who might not want to go, they might not believe we should be over there the same way the American public feels," Linnington says. "But as military people we have a duty."
Among the 13 cadets interviewed for this article, Jarick Evans was the most critical. "The thing that disturbs me most, we don't have an exit strategy," he says. "There's a big fear we'll go back and forth, back and forth our entire military career because there is no clear mission."
THE LESSON OF GRANT
The interviews took place in Grant Hall, and it was clear these cadets had mastered a central lesson of the life of Ulysses S. Grant (West Point, 1843). Grant fought brilliantly in the Mexican-American War, even though he considered it an imperialist land grab. And he fought brilliantly in the Civil War, which he believed in with all his heart.
Evans has two brothers who have served in Iraq, including Jerel ('01). "He told me the biggest thing is to have a good attitude," Evans says. "If the leader doesn't have a good attitude, he can't expect his troops to have a good attitude." So despite misgivings about the war, Evans is good to go. "I'll have a good attitude," he says. "The Army's been good to me. This is my job."
DOUBTS BOW TO DUTY
Young West Point cadets have no illusions about the war in Iraq, or its popularity at home, but they accept their duty to serve.
To help students better understand the challenges and concerns facing young West Point cadets who are looking toward likely tours of duty in Iraq.
CRITICAL THINKING: By looking at the attitudes of tomorrow's young soldiers, this article can help students think about issues like commitment, honor, duty, and self-sacrifice.
The article says that for most Americans, the war seems very remote. Do students agree? Do they think much about the war in Iraq?
Can students imagine themselves in the place of the soon-to-be-officers now studying at West Point?
WRITING: Ask students to spend a few minutes composing an ending to this sentence: "When I hear news about American soldiers dying in Iraq ..."
Next, have students expand that sentence into a "letter" to West Point cadets. The subject: students' feelings about the war and the cadets' willingness to serve despite, in some cases, their misgivings about it. Have them note Cadet Michael Linnington's statement that even if cadets don't believe in the war, "as military people we have a duty." In the letter, they should discuss how they would feel if they were cadets who did not believe in the war. Would they still feel honor bound to serve in Iraq?
* Should cadets who resign from West Point be required to reimburse the government, either monetarily or with some form of community service, to compensate for the cost of their education to that point?
* Cadet Jarick Evans complains that the U.S. has no "exit strategy." Should the military have a plan for getting out of a war before it enters one?
FAST FACT: Women were first admitted to West Point in 1976. Currently, they account for 17 percent of cadets, the same as their percentage in the Army.
WEBWATCH: www.usma.edu is West Point's Web site. It offers more than 25 links to subjects ranging from the history of West Point to current news about the Academy, cadet life, visiting the Academy, and more.
Michael Winerip writes the "On Education" column, from which this article is adapted, for The New York Times. Winerip is based in New York.
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|Publication:||New York Times Upfront|
|Date:||Apr 18, 2005|
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