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A festive crowd gathers on a beautiful spring afternoon at the United States Military Academy. Camouflage-clad cadets, middle-aged professors, assorted civilians and even a few children line the road to the academy's social-sciences department. Before long, the action starts, and a parade of costumed cadets trots by: a shark costume, an Uncle Sam getup and three young men in form-fitting bodysuits—as if the cast of Blue Man Group were training to be our next generation of military leaders. "That man is naked!" a little girl cries out, giggling. She's not quiteright, but still: it's startling to see a cadet jog through the crowd, wearing nothing but a Speedo and a smile.
This is West Point's "Sosh Run," in which cadets in a mandatory class make a colorful show of turning in their end-of-semester papers right at the deadline. It's an annual tradition: "Thirty minutes of creativity and blowing off steam," explains Col. Michael Meese, the department head.
All storied institutions have their customs. West Point's seem calibrated to reinforce to its cadets that they are perpetually connected to those who came before. Grant. MacArthur. Eisenhower. Every officer who left the academy and went on to martial greatness wore the same uniforms they do, marched in the same parades, told the same jokes.They were like you. You will be like them.
Composed largely of former high-school class presidents, team captains and National Merit Scholars, the latest class of cadets to graduate from West Point could make up the student body at almost any elite college. But there is an important difference. At least three times, these young men and women have sworn to serve their fellow citizens in the military—taking oaths at the beginning of their freshman (or "plebe") year, at the start of their third (or "cow") year and, on May 23, as they were commissioned lieutenants in the United States Army.
The cadets have never really known an America that wasn't at war. Ask where they were on 9/11, and most answers will have to do with homeroom and gym class. They arrived at the academy in May 2005, just after then–vice president Dick Cheney predicted that the insurgency in Iraq was in its "last throes." They studied and trained as Iraq plunged into civil war, and they watched as some of the American political leaders most associated with the invasion—chief among them, former Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld—left the battlefield.
The cadets entered their third year amid signs of the success of the surge; as their time on campus came to a close, the nation's foreign-policy focus had decidedly shifted, with a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and talk of a fresh push in Afghanistan. They are grateful that they have graduated in time to go.
"If you ask an officer here for career advice," says Andrew (A.J.) Pulaski, the 2009 class president, "they say the first thing you need to do is get out there and get deployed. Because pretty soon the war's going to be over, and you won't have that legitimacy, being an officer—like the only one in the Army—that hasn't served."
A few weeks shy of 27, Pulaski was the oldest cadet at West Point this year, an ex-sergeant and one of about 30 former enlisted soldiers who have already been to war. He skipped the Sosh Run that spring day, gathering with about a dozen classmates in a conference room to talk about what lies ahead. "I know what the Army is like, and I'm good at it," Pulaski says. He jumped out of an airplane with the 173rd Airborne Brigade during the invasion of Iraq, and he served a second tour there with the 82nd Airborne Division in 2004. Two of his fellow soldiers were killed in action.
"A lot of people say, 'If it ever stops being fun, then I'm getting out'," Pulaski continues. "Anyone who thinks that the Army is always fun has obviously never been on the receiving end of an improvised explosive device, or a firefight in the middle of the night."
Pulaski and the other cadets are at pains to emphasize that they don't feel they're pushed to conform their thinking to the military's party line. I mention an Army officer who taught in the social-sciences department years ago, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling. Every cadet learns about him soon after arriving, as they are all required to read his 2007 article, "A Failure in Generalship," in which he called out the Army's top leaders for utterly failing to plan for the war in Iraq. Pulaski mentions a recent visit from Col. Joseph P. Buche, the commander of the Third U.S. Infantry Regiment. Buche said he expects his junior officers to disagree with him on something important—and tell him about it—at least three times per quarter.
In exchange for their taxpayer-paid education, West Point alumni normally owe five years on active duty in the Army, plus another three in the reserves. But the academy touts statistics showing that the number of its graduates who stay on is remarkably consistent since the end of the Cold War: roughly half of all graduates stay for more than five years. Still, with the number of troops overseas, the Army needs more officers to stick around. One solution has been to encourage new lieutenants to agree to take longer active-duty commitments from the very start.
Cadet Seán Tolliver did just that, trading six extra years—until May 2020—for a guarantee that he'll be assigned to an infantry unit in Hawaii. While he has yet to serve in the "real Army," Tolliver says he's convinced that this is what he is meant to do. "I deliberated on it a lot," Tolliver says. "I knew I wouldn't be happy doing anything but the infantry; it's the only fit that would have worked."
It's easy to get caught up in an undercurrent here, a constant comparison of the relative worth of civilian and military roles. Cadets speak about the important contributions civilians make in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the idea that officers commissioned through ROTC programs can be just as good as West Pointers. But there's a sense that it's a military form of political correctness.
Colonel Meese and I talk about the phenomenon. We first met four years ago, because he had been the faculty sponsor to a soldier whose story I featured in a book about the academy's class of 2002. That young officer, Lt. Todd J. Bryant, was a California native who was killed in Iraq, and Meese has stayed in touch with Bryant's parents. The colonel served earlier this year in Iraq, where he was a senior adviser to Gen. Raymond Odierno (West Point class of 1976). When he came home, he says, he wrote an e-mail to Bryant's parents, telling them he hoped the policies he'd worked on would honor their son's sacrifice.
Nearly 70 West Point graduates have been killed in action since 9/11, many of them Meese's former students. "It was important that they know," Meese says, referring to Bryant's parents, "and that others know—it's almost too trite—that they did not die in vain."
There is something humbling in Meese's words, as if it were mildly embarrassing to ask a nation to remember and honor its war dead. I ask Tolliver about this. "Most of America seems to have forgotten we're still at war," he says. "I hope this reminds people that we're still here. After all, when Rome forgot her legions, her legions forgot her."
In March, the second-highest ranking cadet, Sally White, went home to North Carolina as part of a program, visiting high schools and talking about West Point. "I was shocked at how little [the students] knew about anything that was going on in the world," she says. "I was just throwing out information about Iraq that we all know and take for granted, and I had to ask, 'Do you guys know what's going on in Iraq and what happened with the surge and everything else?' And they were like, 'What? I mean, I know there's a war, but what?'?"
Today's cadets arguably have more contact with the outside world than any of their predecessors. But sometimes their glimpse of civilian reality can be unsettling. For a few days this spring, West Point was up in arms over a column that journalist Tom Ricks wrote in The Washington Post. Cadets were getting only "community-college educations," Ricks wrote, and proposed that it and the other military academies ought to be shut down to save money. Though most cadets dismissed the article as an attention-seeking stunt, some took it as a further sign that they are defending a country that doesn't understand them, and maybe doesn't appreciate them. They seem concerned that West Point has a giant bull's-eye painted on it, a sentiment never so strong as earlier this year, when the biggest media story out of the academy had to do with the suicides of two cadets and the attempted suicides of two others. Tragedies, yes, they say, when I ask. But they also wonder, how many students commit suicide at civilian colleges? Others react with frustration, even anger, at the cadets who took their own lives for bringing disrepute on the rest of the corps. Mostly they seem frustrated at the idea that their class would be remembered as the one that graduated during the year in which two cadets killed themselves.
For all its tradition, West Point has the capacity to change, and quickly. Its professors and alumni did some of its biggest intellectual and strategic heavy lifting in redefining the military's counterinsurgency strategy in recent years. But perhaps the most striking and obvious example is the way the academy has adapted over 30 years—a historical blink of the eye—to accept its female cadets. In 1976, the 119 women in the first coeducational class were welcomed by Gen. William Westmoreland, who declared, "Maybe you could find one woman in 10,000 who could lead in combat. But she would be a freak, and we are not running the military academy for freaks."
Half the women in that class were gone by graduation, but now, both the academy and the Army seem to have adapted. (In 2005, the Army awarded the Silver Star, the nation's third-highest medal for valor, to a female sergeant, and last November the Army tapped its first female four-star general.) Roughly 15 percent of cadets are female today—the same percentage as in the Army itself—and the West Point women say they're harder on each other than the men are. "I just read a book by one of the first female graduates, and it was very eye-opening to compare her experience with mine," says Cadet Caroline Miller, whose family lineage includes seven consecutive generations of West Point alumni, going back to 1836. "I have so much respect for those women. I can't imagine doing what they did. Now it's like I have a thousand brothers."
A week or so after graduation, I reconnect with the West Point class of 2009. "Easily the proudest day of my life," says the newly commissioned Lt. DeAnna Comstock. "Being out and free is a little bit weird, actually. I think the whole being-an-officer part of the deal will be more real when my leave ends."
Tolliver, the infantry officer, seems determined to make up for four years of foregone freedom before he reports to Fort Benning later this summer. "I'm excited," Tolliver says, "but it's not any different. You're the same person you were before you threw your hat in the air and got the bars put on. It's just who you developed yourself into over the past four years. There are no instant lieutenants."