It takes all of about four minutes for 4,300 cadets to file into the West Point mess hall for breakfast. Meals are taken inside a graceful granite building whose arched ceilings, dark wooden walls, and low lighting give it the feel of a Gothic cathedral—one where the parishioners are dressed in gray or camouflage uniforms, and the saints, staring down from massive oil paintings lining the walls, are decorated generals. A rumbling chatter echoes as the cadets are seated, until a clear, forceful voice, coming from a balcony above the main dining-room floor, quiets the cavernous room.
“Please give your attention to the first captain!”
Then another voice, this one belonging to the top-ranked cadet.
“I regret to inform you of the death of First Lieutenant Phillip Neel, class of 2005. First Lieutenant Neel died on 8 April 2007, in Balad, Iraq, when his unit came in contact with enemy forces using grenades. Please join me in observing a moment of silence for this fallen graduate.”
Among the silent is cadet David del Cuadro-Zimmerman, 22, a son of Park Slope, who is in his final year at the United States Military Academy. Later that day, he nods solemnly; he remembers seeing Lieutenant Neel on campus not that long ago. “Those announcements seem to come more frequently now,” he says. Four years ago, as the war in Iraq began, del Cuadro-Zimmerman’s parents, both retired public-school teachers, had offered to pay for whatever college he chose—anywhere that would keep him from going to West Point. At the last minute, though, he picked Army over Boston College. Now he’s ready to start flight school and get to Iraq. Yet he can’t help wondering what his life would have been like had he taken up his parents on their offer.
Nine hundred cadets will graduate from West Point on May 26. Five are from New York City. After taking in a commencement speech from Vice-President Dick Cheney, and after tossing their caps in the air in the football stadium, the Army’s newest officers will scatter for months of branch training. Perhaps before it ends, Congress will cut off money for the war and bring the troops home. Perhaps Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, will prestidigitate a functioning government and police force. But the most likely scenario is that all but a handful of the 900 graduates will be in harm’s way by this time next year.
They’ll face grim odds. West Point graduates are taking a larger share of casualties than at any time in recent American military history. Of the almost 3,800 military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, 49 have been USMA alumni. That’s three times the percentage of graduate deaths in Vietnam, six times higher than what befell former cadets in the Second World War, and thirteen times the proportion of those killed in the First World War. Suicide bombers, IEDs, snipers—it’s little wonder that more officers are doing the “five and fly,” the term for leaving uniform as soon as the required five years of active duty is finished. The Army is now suffering from a shortage of about 3,000 mid-level officers, which has caused President Bush to gradually increase the size of West Point’s entering classes, growing the student body from 4,000 to 4,300 cadets in the past four years.
New York’s newest warriors are part of the first class to matriculate after the war in Iraq began. Some were pulled by patriotism; for others, joining the Army was a truly radical form of rebellion. All knew what they were signing up for—although they couldn’t have anticipated the questions that would arise about the weapons of mass destruction, or the country’s political sea change, or even that we’d still be there four years later. Somehow, they’ve held onto an inspiring, clear-eyed idealism. Or maybe it’s a self-preserving denial. “Everyone is optimistic about what lies ahead,” del Cuadro-Zimmerman says. “Dwelling on why the country went to war in the first place is a waste of time. It’s about making things right now, or at least doing right from here forward.”
Marya Rosenberg had been in the Army for ten days, and she was starving. It was June 2003, the beginning of the introductory summer session for new cadets—and for many, the roughest stretch of their entire four years at West Point. Rosenberg is a naturally lean five foot seven, but she had melted from 134 pounds to 122. Running in the summer heat with a 25-pound pack on her back contributed to the drastic drop, but the real cause was even more basic—and more cruel.
“They wouldn’t let me eat,” Rosenberg, 22, says of the senior cadets running the indoctrination. “I was screwing up everything at first—I couldn’t even march in step. So at meals, they put me at the haze table. They tell you anything you eat has to be small enough to swallow in three to five chews. This went on for two weeks, until my squad started volunteering to switch out with me because they thought I was dying.”
Rosenberg was 50 miles north of the city and a long way from home. She’d grown up on East 84th Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues, in a cozy sixth-floor two-bedroom. She could lean over the railing of her apartment’s rooftop deck and see the Met. Rosenberg’s parents are both semi-retired corporate lawyers with refined literary tastes. She’d gone to Hunter, one of the city’s elite public high schools, and a place where a liberal political viewpoint is as assumed as the school building’s staying upright.
By tenth grade, Rosenberg was feeling aimless. So when an unsolicited postcard from West Point arrived in her mailbox, along with dozens from conventional colleges thanks to her stellar PSAT scores, Rosenberg was curious, if unserious. “I thought it was hilarious,” she says. “It seemed so out of character in terms of everything I was doing. I said, ‘Well, I’m not making a commitment if I send in the card.’”
Marya’s father, however, was more intrigued. To Richard Rosenberg, West Point seemed a strangely perfect fit. When Marya and her younger sister, Alexandra, were small, their father would read them nightly bedtime stories, selecting the books with care. “I happen to like knight stories,” says Richard. “So in the beginning, there was a version of King Arthur, by Sir James Knowles. The last thing I read Marya was Moby-Dick, which I would say is a weird, sad, modern knight story. The medieval romances are, of course, fantasies—but nothing just happens in those stories. Everything is intended to teach—specifically, the values of the warrior class.”
Making the decision to go to West Point during a polarizing war is a bold choice for a high-school student living in one of the deepest-blue precincts of a staunchly antiwar city. “Everybody was all busy protesting the war at the time,” says Marya. “Hunter is really liberal, and I’m a liberal too. But I had one girl ask me what I was thinking about doing for college, and when I told her, she said, ‘How could you do something so immoral?’ They made fun of me in the yearbook.”
She is regularly reminded that, apart from her parents’ place on East 84th, New York is not her home anymore. “There’s a graduate of West Point who endowed this great program that sends cadets to the opera,” she says. “A couple of years ago, we went to the Metropolitan Opera and The New Yorker wrote an article and they were dubious about the idea. There was a line in the story, something like ‘After all, Josef Mengele liked to listen to opera when he was torturing people.’ That made me so angry. Do you guys recall who stopped Josef Mengele? It was not reporters at The New Yorker, or people in New York City with correct moral principles. It was people in the Army.”
Richard Rosenberg, sitting in his Upper East Side living room, becomes visibly distraught at the thought of his daughter’s choice going unappreciated. “I grew up in Liberty, New York, the Catskills,” he says. “When a child from Liberty gets into West Point”—his voice breaks—“they get their picture in the paper, you know? They make a big deal of it.”
But the reaction Marya got from her Hunter teachers and classmates only confirmed her decision to join the Army. And her sister has followed in her footsteps. Alexandra is now a plebe, finishing up her freshman year at West Point.
Richard glances up at his wife, who is slicing some coffee cake from Greenberg’s. “Kate was upset when Marya got interested in West Point,” he says.
“I just knew it was going to happen,” she says quietly, adjusting her tortoiseshell glasses.
“Like the fates had been arranged,” Richard says.
The attackers have Mark Zambarda surrounded. They’re rushing in, fists flying—first one, then another pair, then a fourth, closing fast. Everyone is taller and heavier than Zambarda. But he doesn’t wait, or run away. He charges the nearest man, pins his arms, and uses him as a shield. Punches rock Zambarda’s head, but he doesn’t panic. He keeps moving, pivoting, warding off blows with the body of one of his enemies, sweat turning his fatigues a dark swampy green.
The whistle blows after two minutes. Zambarda and his attackers—his classmates—suck wind. He’s exhausted, but he’s upright, staggering across the matted floor inside Arvin gym. “Most kids are crushed the first time,” says professor Jason Winkle. “They forget what they’re doing and end up cowering or becoming a punching bag. Mark was a natural. He was the aggressor, and he stayed under control. As far as heart, he’s one of the biggest kids in the world.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
At times, he uses bravado to get past the worry—especially at home, when he knows he can get a rise out of his mother by saying he can’t wait to feel the adrenaline rush of combat. Zambarda’s father spent twenty years in the NYPD, and knows what it’s like to have a gun pointed at him. “I’ve only heard the sound of a bullet flying past my head once,” says Mark Sr., “and it’s not a good sound.”
Mark’s mother, Nancy, an administrator at Merrill Lynch, absently clutches a large pillow to her chest as she talks about her son’s last chance to turn back. Midway through West Point, all cadets must make a decision: They can leave up to two years into their military education, but if they choose to stay, they commit to active duty. “I encouraged him to get out if he could,” she says. “As the reality of it started setting in, as a parent, I really got scared. I said, ‘If you have any doubt at all, get out.’ Many times. Many times.” Mark filled out an application to Cooper Union, where his best friend goes to school, just to remind himself he had options. He never submitted it.
Mark’s next choice thrilled his mother even less: He wanted to “branch” infantry. Zambarda had excellent grades; why not, his mother suggested, apply to medical school? The Army needs doctors, and five more years in classes wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Or, his father said, how about artillery? At least that’s twenty miles from the front lines. Infantry, Mark insisted, and, as always, he backed it up with logic. “He sold it to us that, if you’re gonna be over there anyway, infantry guys are the best trained,” Nancy says. “And if you’re going to be career military, infantry is almost a requirement. He sold it to me. A little bit. I’m a little better with it now.”
The Zambardas are inviting dozens of friends and relatives to celebrate Mark’s graduation. He’ll wear his class-of-2007 ring, with an engraved image of the Twin Towers and the class motto ALWAYS REMEMBER, NEVER SURRENDER.
“This coming summer, I have 60 days of leave, and my best friend from back home, he asked me if I wanted to go on a trip with him to the Dominican Republic,” Zambarda says. “It’s basically seven days and seven nights of drinking and partying. The person I was before I came to West Point, that would have been the perfect trip. But it doesn’t interest me now.” Instead, he’ll use his leave this summer to backpack in Europe, one last spasm of being a regular kid.
Lately, though, he spends a lot of time thinking about the day he departs for Iraq, and what he’ll say to his mother and father.
“I will just tell them I’m going to do everything I can to come back alive, and bring every single soldier I have alive,” Zambarda says. “I’m gonna do my job. And if I die on duty, that I’m sure I died doing something I’m proud of.”
He takes a deep breath.
“I know that if I die, that doesn’t affect me so much. It’s more worrisome for me that my parents will live the rest of their lives questioning ever letting me apply here.”