The New Long Gray Line

West Point Gets Set for Iraq

Dress Gray, by Lucian K. Truscott IV

One of the jarring memories of September 11 was the glory of a day that plunged so suddenly into horror. In New York it was cool and clear, a heat-wave-ending early autumn morning with a half-moon lingering in an indigo-blue sky. The day was even prettier 50 miles north of the city at West Point, where the United States Military Academy—the nation's premier training site for leaders of the armed forces—sits atop the dramatic Hudson highlands on a peninsula overlooking a scenic bend in the wide river, the same river that is believed to have helped guide the terrorists toward their Lower Manhattan target.

"It was probably one of the most beautiful days we had," recalled George Forsythe, an army colonel and vice dean for education who has spent 22 years at the academy. That morning the deans were due to address the sophomore class about their selection of a major course of study. Sophomores are called "yearlings" at the Point because they have survived their rigorous and often traumatic breaking-in period as first-year plebes. Many cadets drop out in their first year, and they aren't asked to choose a major until their second.

Cadets Liesl Himmelberger and Paul Thomas: ready to serve in a looming war, yet wary of ethical minefields that may await them
photo: Jay Muhlin
Cadets Liesl Himmelberger and Paul Thomas: ready to serve in a looming war, yet wary of ethical minefields that may await them

On 9-11, Forsythe said, West Point's leaders had to decide first whether or not to go ahead with meetings that involved assembling 1000 of the academy's 4000 cadets in one spot at a moment when no one knew how many airborne terrorists were in the skies. The academy opted to stick to its routine. A quick risk assessment was undertaken, said Forsythe, and a decision made that cadets needed to stay focused on their assignments.

"But the selection of your major takes on a whole new meaning on a day we are attacked," added the colonel. Later, there were raw emotions in the cavernous lunchroom at Washington Hall, where normally a noisy and boisterous student body gathers for the mandatory noon meal after parading in squad formation outside. "It was certainly more somber than usual," said Forsythe. "I know I had some cadets who had family in danger who were near tears." Other cadets, nervous at being all in one place, bolted their food. "You've never seen people eat so fast," said one upperclassman.

It shouldn't be surprising that even a 200-year-old college dedicated to instruction in the art of war would be caught off guard by the terrorist attack. As much as 9-11 was a shock to the system for an entire nation that hadn't endured a foreign assault of that size on its own soil since British troops burned Washington in 1814, so too did it stun the leaders-in-training of the armed forces.

Since then, however, the Point has been readying itself for service in the international war on terrorism as well as for the one that looms in Iraq, a conflict that is intended to be fought along more classical military lines. When seniors made their selections this fall of which branch of the army to enter upon graduation, so many chose the infantry (as opposed to engineers, armor, artillery, military intelligence) that more than two dozen had to be turned down because there were not enough slots, according to West Point officials.

Unlike other recent armed American excursions—Panama, Somalia, Serbia, even Desert Storm I, as it is now routinely called—Iraq is shaping up as the real thing. "We perceive we are in for the long haul," said Forsythe.

President Bush said as much right there at West Point's Michie Stadium in June in his address to the graduates of the class of 2002. Bush invoked the Point's historic role, summoned the hallowed names of graduates Lee and Grant, Eisenhower and MacArthur, and then told the cadets their time had come as well. "History has also issued its call to your generation," said the president, who went on to describe his game plan for Iraq. "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long," Bush said. "The war on terror will not be won on the defensive; we must take the battle to the enemy."

The White House tape of the president's speech reveals only modest applause for those remarks. The cadets' rowdiest moment came when Bush announced amnesty for those being disciplined for minor rules infractions. The loud cheers for the speech's politics came later in the conservative press which hailed Bush for his bold new resolve in a foreign policy certain to cost American lives on the battlefield, and possibly off it as well.

And even though the current crop of West Point cadets are at least six months away from active duty, the prospect of the coming war is all-consuming to the young men and women in attendance.

"I think for any soldier right now if it didn't occupy their attention that would be cause for concern, particularly for an officer," said Paul Thomas, a senior and one of those who applied successfully to serve in the infantry.

Thomas was dashing to his second class of the morning on 9-11 when a cadet whispered to him that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. He got out of the class in time to watch the collapse of the towers on TV in an orderly's room. Like everyone else, soldier and civilian alike, he was struck by the audacity and callousness of the acts. He later learned that one of the victims was a hero of his, a former infantry platoon leader in Vietnam named Rick Rescorla, who was killed while working as a security adviser to a major financial firm at the trade center. Rescorla was a hero of the battle of the Ia Drang valley, the bloody 1965 fight immortalized in the book and movie titled We Were Soldiers . . . , and the year before he had visited Thomas's military history class. Thomas said Rescorla, who sang to his battered platoon as they held off a regiment of the North Vietnamese regular army, seemed to exemplify the kind of soldier Thomas and his classmates hoped to become.

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