She’s tried to dissuade a few of the cadets she cares about most from rushing into action. “I’m not as worried about myself as I am some of my friends,” she says. “A guy that I was dating for a while, that I’m still good friends with, wants to be a pilot, and he’s crazy to get into combat. He’s just worried that the war’s going to be over before he gets there. He was one of the people who was really upset when Lieutenant Neel died, and I said to him, ‘This is why I don’t want you to be so gung ho about going to combat. And he’s like, ‘Well, I’m invincible, so don’t worry about me.’ He’s kidding, but…”
Rosenberg’s parents are thrilled she’ll be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for the short term, but the anxiety is still there. One way Richard Rosenberg has tried to cope is by wearing his allegiance on his chest at nearly all times: His closet is full of shirts and jackets emblazoned with the United States Military Academy logo. (“I couldn’t quit West Point,” Marya says with a laugh. “My father wouldn’t have anything to wear.”) Still, he swings rapidly from pride at what his daughter has achieved to anguish about where the future will take her. “There’s nothing Marya could have done that I would have regarded with greater respect. But the dark side of that is the fear that something bad could happen.” He closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, tears seep from the corners. “I, I, um, what can one do? These things are worrisome. Fortunately, the Army doesn’t allow women in direct combat—artillery, infantry, armor. My own view is that women could do a great job, but I’m grateful for the policy. Because I don’t want my baby to get hurt.”
Kate Rosenberg interrupts. She wants to make it clear she didn’t vote for George W. Bush, either time. Asked what she’d tell Cheney if she somehow got five minutes alone with him at graduation, she shakes her head slowly, biting her tongue so as not to cause any trouble for Marya.
“They have heard much more powerful voices than ours and not listened,” Richard Rosenberg says. “So what could we say?”
Perched high on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, West Point seems to gleam in the spring sun. Its granite buildings loom like a beautiful fortress over the green grass and slate courtyards. On this April day, as I meet with Zambarda on campus, down in Washington, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is announcing the extension of military tours from twelve to fifteen months.
Lately, with his deployment looming, the possibility of being wounded occupies Zambarda less than the concern that he’ll need to shoot someone. “I just went to a class a week ago on the moral justification for killing,” he says. “No one wants to deal with, for the rest of their lives, having killed someone. That’s scary. Some people accept the idea, that it’s my job, I’m the Army. But for anyone who’s in the Judeo-Christian tradition, there’s a lot of ‘Thou shall not kill.’ How do you deal with that? It will plague you for the rest of your life. We went over a lot of theory. Whether it proved to me whether I should feel justified killing someone or not—that’s not as important as that it got me thinking.”
This is Zambarda’s primary method for dealing with fear: He tries to think his way past it. He has immersed himself in tactics and practical preparation, and he’s majoring in Arabic. “It might give me five seconds to react—extra,” he says. “On the front lines, it could save my life, or more importantly, one of my soldiers’. The most potent weapon on the battlefield for me isn’t going to be my rifle. It’s going to be my brain.”
He well knows, however, that Iraq is a place that defies logic. One of Zambarda’s best friends is First Lieutenant Daniel Sjursen, who also grew up on Staten Island and graduated from West Point two years ago. Sjursen is now in Baghdad; Zambarda e-mails him regularly, and is troubled by the changes he’s seeing in his pal, whom he considers one of the toughest, most competent officers he knows. “He’s in armor—that’s tanks—and he’s had one of the highest platoon attrition rates. He’s lost a lot of soldiers,” Zambarda says. “It’s sad. The kind of fight we’re in today, it’s not always about how good you are tactically. There’s a lot of randomness.”
He tries to tamp down the uncertainty by thinking about the men he’ll soon be leading. “The thing with being a leader—you’re that beacon that all the soldiers underneath you are looking at,” Zambarda says, his words rushing out. “As much fear as I may have to deal with, I know that I’d be more afraid of my guys breaking down and everything going to hell.” He pauses and looks out the window, at the cadets striding through the sun on their way to class. “It’s hard to predict how I’ll react when the first bullet goes by my ear and I say, ‘Okay, what now?’ Everyone’s looking at me; I can’t be saying, ‘What now?’ I gotta be telling people what to do.”