For two centuries, the United States Military Academy has produced generals for America’s wars, among them Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, George S. Patton and David H. Petraeus. It is where President George W. Bush delivered what became known as his pre-emption speech, which sought to justify the invasion of Iraq, and where President Obama told the nation he was sending an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan.
Now at another critical moment in American military history, the faculty here on the commanding bend in the Hudson River is deep in its own existential debate. Narrowly, the argument is whether the counterinsurgency strategy used in Iraq and Afghanistan — the troop-heavy, time-intensive, expensive doctrine of trying to win over the locals by building roads, schools and government — is dead.
Broadly, the question is what the United States gained after a decade in two wars.
“Not much,” Col. Gian P. Gentile, the director of West Point’s military history program and the commander of a combat battalion in Baghdad in 2006, said flatly in an interview last week. “Certainly not worth the effort. In my view.”
Colonel Gentile, long a critic of counterinsurgency, represents one side of the divide at West Point. On the other is Col. Michael J. Meese, the head of the academy’s influential social sciences department and a top adviser to General Petraeus in Baghdad and Kabul when General Petraeus commanded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Nobody should ever underestimate the costs and the risks involved with counterinsurgency, but neither should you take that off the table,” Colonel Meese said, also in an interview last week. Counterinsurgency, he said, “was broadly successful in being able to have the Iraqis govern themselves.”
The debate at West Point mirrors one under way in the armed forces as a whole as the United States withdraws without clear victory from Afghanistan and as the results in Iraq remain ambiguous at best. (On the ABC News program “This Week” on Sunday, the defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, called the Taliban “resilient” after 10 and a half years of war.)
But at West Point the debate is personal, and a decade of statistics — more than 6,000 American service members dead in Iraq and Afghanistan and more than $1 trillion spent — hit home. On Saturday, 972 cadets graduated as second lieutenants, sent off in a commencement speech by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. with the promise that they are “the key to whatever challenges the world has in store.”
Read More: NYT