It's Thursday night at the Firstie Club, West Point's campus bar for seniors, and the cadets' dress code is college casual. For once, the shoes aren't shiny, nobody's wearing a hat with a plume. Instead, they're in flip-flops, board shorts or jeans, baseball hats or visors, bead necklaces purchased on spring break. But still they give themselves away at every turn. They're like undercover cops infiltrating a frat party. Their shoulders are a bit too square. They don't slouch. They plow efficiently through dishes of peanuts, eyes darting about the room, scanning for friends as they would targets on the practice range.
Three cadets squeeze into a booth along a wall. All three belong to the same company. They have labored through the same obstacle courses together, passed the same calculus exams and are just weeks from graduating from West Point as commissioned officers in the U.S. Army. Greg Zielinski came to West Point from his Connecticut prep school to become an officer and a gentleman but fell in love with the mud and marches of the infantry. Tom Pae, the son of Korean artists, feels his parents' pride in his success and their fear about what comes next. Kristen Beyer was recruited for swimming, not soldiering, and struggled to find her place in the post-9/11 Army--until she first got a taste of flying a Blackhawk. Now she, too, is eager to join the long gray line of West Point graduates alongside her thousand fellow cadets of the class of 2005.
There's a particular buzz tonight. The cadets have just attended their last branch meetings, at which they glimpsed their immediate future in the specialty each has chosen. For most, the future will soon include a taste of war: 71% of the class branched into combat units and could deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan as little as a year from now.
A pair of infantry-bound cadets swig beer and shake off their doubts. What, after all, could be tougher than West Point, where failure to have your books arranged by descending height on your desk can earn you hours of forced marching in the rain? "That's how they get us fired up for Iraq," says one. "After four years here, anything's better." Another suspects that for all the training, they still don't know what they are in for. "West Point is an academic institution, not a training ground," he says. "I think a lot of us are going to be surprised to find that it's a no-s___ business when you leave here. In Iraq either you get it done, or you're in real trouble." A cadet talks about his choice of major, economics. "I really think it's got marketable skills," he says. Pause. "Hopefully, I'll be alive to use them."
Like everything else at West Point, even happy hour has a basic utility for the profession of arms. Far beyond the bright lights of the Firstie Club, there's a twilight war that West Point's class of 2005 will soon ride out to join. With each story swapped, every joke told, the cadets test the strength of their long gray line, that celebrated bond that is both lariat and lifeline, roping them into war and pulling them back out as safely as possible.