The Gray and the Green

Stories From West Point, Between the Wars

Captain Chris Hickey is one of dozens of army instructors who fairly float across West Point's storied Gothic campus, performers in a never ending choreography of whiplash salutes and invulnerable formations. Officers like Hickey are called "the green," after the color of their fatigues. They impart war's lessons to "the gray"—West Point's cadets, in wintry shades that, frankly, look more like blue. All the players, regardless of clothing, are perennially short on time, so the whole show moves at double speed.

Hickey recently returned from Iraq. As a military instructor, he is charged with preparing his cadets for war, this one and the ones to come, which he does with the help of simulators.

"When they used to run the simulation, it was the Americans versus the Soviets. You would see the Soviets, and start shooting immediately," he says.

The new West Point cadet, raised on Hellfire sandwiches
photo: Scott Anger
The new West Point cadet, raised on Hellfire sandwiches

In the new version, cadets approach a village, where they spy a small dot on the horizon. The dot, says Hickey, represents villagers. "If you talk to the villagers, they tell you where the enemy is. The interesting thing is, no cadet fired until he had an identified threat."

It was a scenario the Harvard-educated captain says he saw up close in Iraq, where he served with the army's Third Infantry Division.

Tools like the new simulator, according to Hickey and other teachers at the nation's premier military academy, mean the next generation of West Point graduates is better prepared for America's future wars than their predecessors were for the wars they fought. They claim that the lessons from the army's mistakes—especially in Vietnam and Somalia—have been absorbed, and are now reflected in the academy's curriculum.

The next lessons may have more to do with winning the peace, an arena where America's success is much more in question. Early this week, more than three dozen people, including a U.S. colonel, were killed by resistance fighters in Iraq.

"We had lessons on how the war was gonna go. The cadets said we can beat these guys, but what are the next steps?" says Hickey. "If we had a cadet in charge, the [post-war] transition would have gone better."

It's a brave claim, this bit of academic hyperbole. In the face of an increasingly sophisticated insurgency, one has to wonder whether any amount of training could prepare 22-year-olds for the responsibility that comes with the role of occupier. What happens when the villagers don't feel like talking?

The United States Military Academy at West Point is one of America's elite undergraduate schools, a punishing mix of academic, physical, and military instruction that annually supplies up to a quarter of the U.S. Army's officer corps. Its focus, say administrators, stays more or less the same, irrespective of the day's news: Smart teenagers are transformed into gifted military leaders, a process that requires indoctrination into the army's values, ethics, and rules. War is similarly transformed, from the chaos it seems like to an outsider, to a set of measured tasks that require action—action informed by the army's values.

Academy brass call the environment open and honest. According to Colonel Andrew Stanley, the head of the Department of Military Instruction, if there is anxiety at the school these days, it exists "in view of what the army is asking cadets to do."

"It's the unknown," he says. "We talk to them a lot about this. They want to know, 'Am I going to measure up?' " Stanley says the current freshman—or "plebe"—class is the biggest in West Point history. "There's a sense of patriotism amongst the cadets, " he notes. "It's caused them to be more serious."

The cadets' best information on the war in Iraq comes in e-mails from recent grads deployed there. As a result, Stanley says, the view of the war has been "realistic and truthful." Students also study the After-Action Reviews of various army divisions and their battles, which are reasonably frank accountings of the missions, with all their faults.

"Army doctrine has evolved," says Stanley. "We talk about humanitarian relief. We talk about stable support operations. We've updated training centers."

But Major Todd Messitt says his students don't ask him all that much about the particulars of his recent mission in Afghanistan. "They ask me if I was prepared," says Messitt.

Students now think about so-called "asymmetric threats," urban environments, and complex terrain, like the mountains of Afghanistan, he says. "We have a 'thinking enemy' now, which in turn causes you to think. The army has tailored the threats, and modified how the threats act."

The history of the U.S. intervention in Somalia is filled with lessons on urban warfare. Messitt argues the soldiers trapped in Mogadishu showed "remarkable restraint" when faced with a population of hostile civilians, many of them armed. The film Black Hawk Down, based on the story of U.S. Army Rangers trapped in the city, is screened often at the academy.

Military terminology can be severe. The "remarkable restraint" praised by Messitt cost the lives of 300 Somalis.

At the West Point cafeteria, you can order a Hellfire sandwich, named after a helicopter-fired missile and stacked with Cajun roast beef. Other meals on offer include the Bouncing Betty (an antipersonnel land mine) and the Stinger (also a missile). Over a cup of coffee (no nickname), Michael Mobbs talks about his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his new life as a 22-year-old plebe.

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