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.
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.
“Every male member of my family has served,” says Mobbs, the son of a D.C. lawyer. “I’m not going to tell you I joined because of 9-11,” he says. “But I did know I would get to play an active role.” Mobbs attended Tulane University for a semester, and then dropped out, before enlisting with the Army Rangers. While in Afghanistan, he applied to West Point, and after a month in Iraq, he was accepted. He joined a handful of other plebe cadets with combat experience; in military jargon, they’re called “prior service.”
Mobbs has mixed feelings about West Point’s ability to prepare future military leaders; as a good soldier, though, he’s loath to express these thoughts (and indeed, would get in trouble for doing so). He does say there are too many officers on campus, far more than soldiers see in the real army. “When my commanding officer was around, it was ‘game on,’ ” he says. “Here, you’re saluting every minute.” Mobbs also says some of the battlefield tactics taught in “Beast Barracks”—the training course cadets take when they first arrive at West Point—were completely different from the versions he drilled in the army.
“It’s not West Point that produces good officers,” he says. “It’s up to that individual.”
Mobbs says it was his intention not to tell his fellow cadets that he was prior service. “I wanted to see if I could lead on my own,” he says. But word got out, and upperclassmen started peppering him with questions about his combat experiences. Caleb Goble, also a prior-service Ranger, says the same thing happened to him. “During the summer, it got annoying,” Goble says. “I try not to be mean about it.”
Colonel William Taylor says the recently leaked memo by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld provides a perfect opportunity for rigorous discussion at West Point. “Debating is the essence of democracy,” he says.
And Taylor should know. Now retired from the army, Taylor taught debate and national security studies at West Point from 1965 to 1981. His students included Wesley Clark. Norman Schwarzkopf was a colleague. He tells long off-color stories that he’d rather not see in print.
But Taylor is clear—and very public—on one subject in particular. “We did not do a good job of preparing our students for Vietnam,” he says in a phone interview with the Voice.
He believes a tension between the academic and tactical instruction at the academy meant students back then took away conflicting messages. The tacticians’ motto of “Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full”—translation: “whatever you say”—underpinned the pedagogy.
“My guys were not trained to say that,” he says. “They were trained to say, ‘Yes sir, I understand. And frankly, I disagree.’ ” Taylor wanted to teach his students about Vietnam, a move resisted by the school’s superintendent in that era.
“It was not a happy time,” Taylor recalls. “But I wouldn’t be deterred. I said ‘Guys. We have a problem here. We’re about to lose the war in Vietnam. Let me tell you why.’ ” As a result of that war, Taylor says, West Point did become more open, and he thinks the tension between the disciplines has eased over time.
“There are questions that need to be debated,” Taylor says. “What is a victory? How do we measure progress toward that victory? You don’t indoctrinate cadets. You teach. You debate.”
Little in the first half of Major Messitt’s Wednesday-morning class suggests that America today is fighting two wars and has more of its soldiers deployed abroad than at any time since Vietnam, or that the senior cadets in attendance—firsties, as they’re called—are less than a year away from their likely assignments in Iraq, where their future colleagues are being killed at an alarming rate.
No, the cadence in the classroom—freewheeling and somewhat noisy—is unexpected for a course called “Transition to the Officer Corps.” The conversation lurches from that hapless Chicago Cubs fan to Army football’s game with Louisiana, then back to the hardships of military marriages and on again to the prospects for a Halloween candy fight.
“Quiet down,” says Messitt, settling the room. “What’s going on in Iraq?”
First, the worst news: A recent graduate, and friend to some of the students present, has been killed when his patrol was ambushed. The day’s headlines, projected onto a screen at the front of a class, reveal another bombing in Baghdad. A new United Nations resolution is thought to have yielded mixed results for the United States. Messitt looks at the picture on the MSNBC homepage. “Who knew that there are Polish and Filipino soldiers in Iraq?” he asks.
Up on the “blackboard”—a course Web page projected onto a screen at the front of the class—Messitt posts documents for his class, including the National Security Strategy of the United States and the After-Action Report for the Third Infantry Division’s mission in Iraq. Messitt told students the first document is George Bush’s leadership philosophy. “There’s a lot of nuance,” he says. “It tells you what he goes to war for.”
But it doesn’t take long for the class to move back to what they’re here for—”officership.” After a short discussion on army pay (“You’ll get paid enough,” Messitt promises) and a case study on the officer as moral arbiter, only 10 minutes of class remained.
Messitt quizzes the students on what went wrong with Private Jessica Lynch’s company. One answers that the soldiers’ weapons jammed. That’s right, Messitt says. Some had only one clip of ammo. “Sir, why do they make heroes out of the guys that screw up?” another student asks. Messitt smiles. West Point’s lessons are already sticking.