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Intro to Warfare

Zambarda was one of Kennedy-Boudali’s best students. “Mark and the other cadets are smart; they don’t take a lot of things for granted,” she says. “And they’re kind of cynical, which is good, too.”

When a West Point graduate is killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, word passes quickly. Marya Rosenberg had heard about Phil Neel the day before the announcement in the mess hall.

“He was in my company two years ago,” she says. “And I was on a team with him in my second year here. I don’t want to jump on other people’s tragedies, because I didn’t know him that well. I’m really sorry this happened for his family. Some of my friends in the company are really devastated by his death. They were close to him, and that was upsetting, to see them upset. Two of my good friends from the class of ’05 are in Iraq right now, though thankfully they’ve been okay so far.”

Rosenberg is acutely aware that her hometown believes Neel’s death, along with the thousands of others in Iraq, was in the service of a falsely entered, then mismanaged war. But she sticks to the cadet’s duty not to publicly criticize the chain of command. Whatever mission she’s sent on, she’ll fulfill. Still, she doesn’t necessarily disagree that the war in Iraq has been misguided. “I don’t want to get into criticizing the president or anything,” she says diplomatically. “But I have a lot of respect for the retired generals who have spoken out against things that are clearly wrong.”

Sometimes, though, after taps is played each night at 11:30, talk in the barracks turns to who is to blame for the mess in Iraq. “People don’t attribute the mistakes to any one person in particular,” says one cadet. “Well, okay—Donald Rumsfeld. And there’s a disappointment with the civilian leadership overall.”

Interestingly, though, the leaders who come in for the harshest critiques are the ones in uniform. “The generals haven’t spoken up as much as they should have,” says a New York cadet. “When you become a four-star general, the expectation is that you’re a politician as well as a military leader, and you can’t always hold your tongue. Sometimes you have to speak up, and a lot of people feel that hasn’t been done. The troops just aren’t getting what’s needed over there, or they’re getting it too late. That’s what makes people upset.”

Another thing that makes cadets mad is the public’s indifference to their sacrifice. Joseph McCarthy, 21, who grew up in the Bronx, was in class at Stuyvesant when the planes hit. “Anyone who’s in support of the troops, I’d just like to say, let the troops know, you know?” says McCarthy, who is headed for an artillery unit. “Everyone has different opinions on the war, but at least let the soldiers know you’re there for them.”

Zambarda loves a good argument; often playing devil’s advocate, he constantly turns issues over in his head. He reads the Times every day, and has been closely following the debate in Congress over setting a deadline for withdrawal. “As far as setting a deadline, it’s a step in the right direction,” he says. “It’s forcing the government to evaluate; what is the exit plan? As long as it doesn’t come to the point where we’re leaving the soldiers hanging out to dry.” Still, he says, “if I really wanted to make policy decisions, I should have been a politician. My job is to execute the orders, the lawful orders, of those above me.”

At the end of the day, there’s simply not much point in debating something that is a fact of life. “The larger Army attitude doesn’t really change,” says one cadet. “We’ve all gone through stuff here we thought was pretty unpleasant. So if you stay the four years, you have that attitude: Maybe things suck, but you have to put your head down and keep going. And that characterizes people’s attitudes toward the war.”

Rosenberg recently went back to Hunter, her old high school, to talk to students about what it’s like to be a cadet right now. Mostly the students were respectful; the faculty was another story. “One of the teachers, when I walked down the hall in my uniform, yelled, ‘No blood for oil!’” she says, her face reddening. “Um, I had nothing to do with that. Then I talked to my old art-history teacher, who’s a sweet guy, and I wanted to tell him I’m taking a bunch of art-history courses now. He was like, ‘Oh, so you’ll know what [the] buildings are before you drop bombs on them.’”

Lately she’s racked up honors that even the liberals at Hunter can appreciate: Scribner chose one of her poems for The Best American Poetry 2007. And in April, she was selected for a scholarship to pursue Asian studies, so she’ll spend the next year in Hawaii. She’s considering studying for a law degree after that, but the Army is making no promises. “To be honest, I don’t want to go to Iraq,” Rosenberg says. “I’ll go if my unit deploys, but I don’t want to go there, or to Afghanistan. Sometimes I feel kind of guilty about that, when other people are putting themselves in harm’s way.”