New class of West Point officers faces a future marked by uncertainty

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WEST POINT, N.Y. -- 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.

West Point "firsties," as seniors here are known, enrolled shortly before President Barack 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. 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.

Mr. 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.

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 Capt. Haynes, who deployed to Iraq as an infantryman shortly after graduating. "You could hear a pin drop."

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