They were fourth- and fifth-graders when terror struck on Sept. 11, 2001, and they have only hazy recollections of the day that galvanized the young men and women who filled these halls in the decade that followed.
Now, the seniors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point are poised to become the first in a generation to enter a force preparing not to fight insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan but to confront shrinking budgets and a postwar identity crisis. In doing so, they will be taking the helm of Army units made up of combat-seasoned veterans.
Unlike the cadets that came before them, those in West Point’s class of 2014 have learned about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as historical examples, rather than conflicts that would soon dominate their lives and careers. With graduation just months away, the students at this idyllic campus of gothic buildings on the banks of the Hudson River are wrestling with the same existential questions bedeviling Army leaders: What kind of military does the country want? And how much is it willing to spend on it?
“A lot of people want to frame this issue as if the American people, particularly politicians, want us to do more with less,” said Luke Schumacher, 22, a fourth-year cadet from Indianapolis. “If that’s the case, we’re playing a fool’s game. The fundamental challenge for our generation of officers is not learning how to do more with less but selectively determining what we’re going to do and what we’re going to do well.”
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, has warned that steep budget cuts threaten to turn the oldest branch of the U.S. military into a hollow force unable to keep its troops properly trained and equipped. He recently took on critics who have argued that new technology has rendered large ground forces increasingly irrelevant.
“There are a lot of intellectuals who believe land power is obsolete,” he said this year at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army. “ In my opinion, it is naive and, in fact, it is a dangerous thought.”
In future conflicts, Odierno argued, human interaction on the ground is likely to be more decisive than the advances in pilotless aircraft, surveillance and precision missiles that have transformed warfare over the past decade. Today’s Army, perhaps the most combat-tested in history, has a wealth of knowledge and experience that ought to be harnessed rather than pushed to the background, Army leaders have argued.
West Point “firsties,” as seniors here are known, enrolled shortly before President Obama visited the campus and announced he was ordering a troop surge in Afghanistan. With the U.S. combat mission there slated to formally end next year, cadets express disappointment at the prospect of starting their careers in units that are unlikely to see fighting in the foreseeable future.
“I think it’s a big concern for all of us,” said cadet Alex Carros, 22, of Edgewater, Md. “Some of us are pretty nervous stepping in front of our first unit, and there’s going to be people who have 15, 20 years of experience who are our subordinates and we have to learn through their experiences.”
West Point professors, many of them uniformed combat veterans, have infused their lectures with lessons from their deployments. An economics professor, for instance, used his knowledge about Afghanistan’s opium industry to illustrate a theory about supply and demand. During a recent international-relations class about failed states, students debated the pros and cons of nation-building and U.S. intervention, citing Iraq and Afghanistan as examples.
Schumacher, the cadet from Indianapolis, said studying the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan has made him highly skeptical of counterinsurgency doctrine, which held that conflicts could be turned around by gaining the support of the population.
“I don’t think we can throw dollars at problems,” he said. “I don’t think people are going to be persuaded in their opinions and in their hearts and minds by the prospects of money.”
Just a few years ago, these debates were far more than academic.
Capt. Walter Haynes, who graduated from the academy in 2008, recalled a somber campus ritual that became increasingly common as he inched closer to graduation. Each time a West Point graduate was killed in combat, the soldier’s name was announced during mealtime, rendering the massive dining hall mute. The names were often familiar to upperclassmen.
“It was a visceral reminder that there’s this war going on,” said Haynes, who deployed to Iraq as an infantryman shortly after graduating. “You could hear a pin drop.”
Cadets who joined alongside Haynes, now a civil-affairs officer, were in large part motivated by the Sept. 11 attacks, which triggered a spike in applications for slots in the academy and the ROTC, the Army’s main recruiting mechanism for officers. Army surveys show that while many still turn to the Army out of a sense of patriotism and a desire to serve, a growing number of officers say they are lured by a prospect of a stable career.
“Starting in 2008, more cadets did indicate a reason for getting an Army commission was because the Army provided better benefits and opportunities than jobs in the civilian market,” Mike Johnson, a spokesman at the U.S. Army Cadet Command, said in an e-mail.
Although the benefits offered by the military still rank as generous, today’s cadets are increasingly mindful that the era of largesse is over. That fiscal reality is shaping the cadets’ choices on their preferred disciplines within the force.
“I’m concerned about flight hours,” said Alex Brammer, 26, of Scottsdale, Ariz., a former enlisted soldier who enrolled in West Point to pursue a career as an aviator. “There are future tankers over here hearing stories about tanks being locked up in the motor pool, literally with padlocks, because there’s no fuel to drive them.”
Maj. Joseph Da Silva, who teaches international relations at West Point, has sought to impress on his students that the Army has weathered lean budgets before, only to rebound years later. At the end of the day, he said, the Army must continue to prepare for its most essential mission: to fight and win wars.
“I think the big challenge now is that the Army is searching for a narrative,” he said. “What do we tell the American people we’re all about? I think they know, but it’s not the message they want to hear.”