Zambarda, 21, grew up playing with GI Joes in a blue-collar section of Staten Island, the son of an narcotics detective in the NYPD. Family friends died responding to the attacks of September 11, and his father spent days vainly searching for survivors. “I thought I needed to consider doing something to give back to the country. Less than three-tenths of one percent of the population is serving in the military,” the cadet says. Zambarda knew that one of his father’s few regrets was not serving in Vietnam. “You’re 18 years old, you’re ready to grab the bull by the horns. Joining the military seemed like a cool thing to do. I still think it’s one of the coolest jobs a guy can have,” he says. “But the reality of going to war wasn’t really a consideration.”
The reality of going to war has dramatically changed the experience of West Point. There are still the standard elements of a military education—Introduction to Warfighting, Tactical Leadership, Combined Arms Operations I and II—but the academy has adapted to meet the specific demands of battle in Iraq. The multiple-attacker exercise, which Winkle calls “the Gauntlet,” is part of a course called Advanced Close-Quarters Combat; Zambarda took it in the fall of his junior year. West Point hired Winkle as director of combatives in the days immediately following September 11, as one of the first steps in retooling a curriculum for an unpredictable and dangerous new period. He’d spent his career training Navy seals and Army Special Forces units. “West Point has changed almost everything it teaches about on-the-ground combat in the past five years,” says Winkle, who is now teaching at Indiana State. “In the Vietnam era, we were doing jungle warfare; in the first Gulf War, it was a lot of air strikes. Now we’ve moved into an era where urban warfare is predominant. I introduced military operations in urban terrain.”
Nine instructors, most rotating through West Point after tours in Iraq, teach the tactics of asymmetric warfare. “When you have to hunt the bad guy in the streets in the middle of people trying to live and exist, you’ve got some major issues,” Winkle says. “People are shooting at us from mosques, but if we return fire, we’re the bad guy. It’s extremely tough. We do a lot of mind-set training on what it means to be a warrior: When you’re terrified and someone’s trying to hurt you, how do you not squeeze that trigger? It’s critical that we give them an ethical basis to fall back on.”
Even as the churning of the leadership ranks has increased the pressure to produce greater numbers of field commanders, the academy has clung tenaciously to its mission—turning out well-rounded adults, not just battle-ready grunts. The debacle in Iraq has made that mission even more important. “The new lieutenants are coming out of four years at the academy, and they’re put in charge of guys who’ve done two or three tours already,” Winkle says. “They’re expected to show up and lead these soldiers. That’s a heck of a thing to hang over some young kid’s head.” Especially because Iraq is very much a platoon leader’s war. Fighting an insurgency means they’re out in front, commanding small units instead of working in larger formations directed by senior officials off the battlefield. The first lieutenants have unusual power to exercise independent judgment—but they’re also far more vulnerable than in other wars.
West Point has tried to prepare the cadets more thoroughly by expanding its menu of ethics courses—partly as a response to embarrassments like Abu Ghraib, but primarily because its graduates are dropped into the middle of a world of shadowy allegiances and unending stress. The academy has also added courses on terrorism, a subject barely addressed in the curriculum before September 11. It was only in 2003 that the academy opened its Combating Terrorism Center.
In classes like Terrorism: New Challenges, the school attempts to catch up with the modern threat. Inside Thayer Hall, sixteen cadets are riveted to a TV set, watching Dirty Kuffar, an infamous, somewhat goofy jihadist video made somewhere in England. On screen, a black-masked, gun-waving man dances and raps in front of a flag filled with Arabic slogans. The video cuts quickly to American soldiers being shot, to photos of President Bush shaking hands with Ariel Sharon, to a glimpse of a smiling Saddam Hussein.
“We cover the roots of terrorism, how does an individual become involved with a violent organization, the strategic uses of violence,” says professor Lianne Kennedy-Boudali, one of five part-time instructors in the terrorism program. “And we want the cadets to have an understanding of how their role fits in a larger strategic picture, both for their own safety and because what they do on a daily basis has an effect on U.S. policy. The cadets are going to end up on the ground in a year, so this is pretty practical information. They need to understand the difference between a Sunni Baathist, what that person wants out of an act of violence, versus Al Qaeda in Iraq, and who each is trying to influence. What changes most is the part dealing with insurgency, about the relationship between counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.”