WEST POINT: The video feed was fuzzy, but that did not seem to bother a group of officers-in-training, who stared with rapt attention at images of their immediate future beamed directly from Afghanistan. The West Point cadets were soaking up every word of a video teleconference linking them to young officers stationed at Bagram Air base, Afghanistan.
Many of the officers now talking about life in Afghanistan only completed a few years ago their education at the prestigious military academy — America’s elite training ground for the army generals of tomorrow. “Is it hard to win hearts and minds?” one cadet asked a battle-hardened officer.”There are different situations and environment across the country,” came the nuanced reply from the officer in Afghanistan.
“Learn the history of the part of the country where you are going to be deployed, talk to the units who are coming from there, meet as many people as you can,” was the young officer’s advice. “You have to keep your cynicism in check: you can’t distrust everyone.”West Point initiated these video conferences as a way to acquaint its cadets with the challenges and dangers that may await them in just a few short months, when many of them deploy to Afghanistan after their graduation in May 2011.
The Academy at West Point — the oldest of the United States’ five service academies — was founded in 1802 and has been the training ground not only for America’s elite army officers, but for a long roster of US political and business leaders. The student body, or corps of cadets, as they are called, numbers 4,400 at West Point. Each year, a graduating class of around 1,000 cadets are commissioned as second lieutenants in the US Army.
The officers in the video feed, stationed with the elite 101st Airborne, are now experienced officers at Bagram, the biggest US military facility in Afghanistan. The huge NATO airbase some 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of Kabul, Afghanistan’s heavily-guarded capital, opened following the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.
Now Taliban militants, who are leading a nearly nine-year insurgency against the Afghan government and its foreign backers, have increased attacks on Kabul and on NATO bases — including the one in Bagram. The young officer stationed there who was queried about winning Afghans’ “hearts and minds,” had a caveat to the young cadets. “Never forget: the enemy is adaptive, innovative and resourceful,” he said.
“Make sure that your soldiers are aware of the smallest changes on the sides of the road. If the kids are not coming out to play, you must notice it. Attention to details will save your life.”The young West Point cadets appear undaunted by the challenge. Some said they were inspired to join the military after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
“I was 10 on 9/11,” said David Douglas, 21. “From that time I knew that I wanted to do something, to be part of those who are going to catch Osama bin Laden.”
Most of the professors at the academy are officers recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, and pepper their lectures with advice and anecdotes learned on the battlefield.
There is also an increasing amount of coursework on culture, history and Afghan society that the students will need to navigate their way in their interactions with the population.
Conferences and lectures are held by senior former officers, researchers, journalists, diplomats. And there also are two new professors of Farsi, which is similar in many ways to the Dari language spoken in some Afghan provinces.
Lieutenant General David Huntoon, superintendent at West Point, said his own Vietnam-era training bears little resemblance to what soldiers are getting today.
“These cadets will face a very different environment: it is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. It requires leaders of character, who have the capacity to adapt and to innovate,” he said.
“For these cadets, the war is immediate. We have lost 79 graduates of West Point to the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds have been wounded.” Huntoon said it is as critical a part of their training as their weapons drills, and essential for success in Afghanistan.
“There is an immediate cognition on the part of these cadets that they are connected to this fight, because the cadet who was just a year in front of them has now leading in combat, maybe has been wounded,” Huntoon said. The video conferences with the young officers, “brings it home to the cadets, in a very dramatic way,” he said.-SANA