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It wasn't supposed to be like that. Whatever their image of West Point when they applied, their expectations of a peacetime Army were just another casualty of 9/11. Less than a month into their first semester, the world changed, the mission of the U.S. military changed, and the academy that produces its leaders, a place so dense with ancient tradition and ceremonial weaponry that it feels more like the Harvard of Sparta, would have to reinvent itself as well. Much of the faculty was soon rotating into the classroom straight from combat zones and bringing back combat skills--and scars. The engineering department learned to make replicas of roadside bombs so the cadets could learn how to spot them. Classes in counterinsurgency and comparative religion and sub-Saharan Africa became as essential as rifles and boots. Twenty-three times since 9/11, the cadets have stood in the mess hall at silent attention for a fallen graduate. "What these cadets don't know," says an instructor just back from battle, "is that I'm secretly teaching Iraq every second of every day."
We shadowed three members of the class of 2005--Beyer, Zielinski and Pae--through their final spring march to graduation: this weekend they will parade across the Plain, listen to speeches, throw their taut white hats into the air and go out as second lieutenants into an Army that has signed up for a generation's worth of war. Against the backdrop of Abu Ghraib courts-martial and new reports of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, as the Pentagon fails to meet its recruiting goals and Congress debates the ban on women serving in combat, many cadets too have freely questioned the effects of U.S. policy and wondered how hard that policy will land on them in the years ahead. But they are united in devotion to one another and the soldiers they will lead. They hear the reports coming from the war zones--the tales of terror and torture and the grind of nation building--and conclude that the world needs West Point's brand of physical and moral toughness more than ever. "People may come here for the wrong reasons," Pae says, "but they stay for the right ones."
THE ACCIDENTAL SOLDIER
Entering freshmen--the plebes--spend the summer together in Beast Barracks, designed to turn all those class presidents and Eagle Scouts into hairless, spotless, expressionless soldiers who for the next year or so won't speak unless spoken to. By the end of August, a certain number typically conclude that it was all a big mistake, that a nice liberal-arts menu would be more to their taste. The plebes going through Beast in the summer of 2001 were tough: only 41 members quit, the second lowest dropout level in 15 years. They would need to be, since the new superintendent who took command that July, Lieut. General William Lennox, was looking to sharpen the standards. "We had to tighten things up a bit," he says, "give more of the sense of what life is like in the Army." The changes were necessary because sometimes "you can lose focus when you're not at war."