- The Washington Times - Monday, August 3, 2009

WEST POINT, N.Y. | Cadets already had fought off an overnight attack by insurgents firing blanks when the morning brought even more simulated problems.

Local villagers - really, Arabic-speaking role players - massed outside their camp gate and made demands. Then cadets dispatched to stabilize a nearby village were hit by an explosive device. The ensuing battle went badly: Cadets suffered casualties and alienated the local sheik by ignoring him.

“You need to show respect to somebody when you enter their village and you have shot up their houses,” Sheik Yusef (actually Cadet Joseph Khalipha, of Fort Pierce, Fla.) scolded cadets during a debriefing. “We are worried, and we are upset. We can’t get to our homes.”

The latest update to summer field training at the U.S. Military Academy goes beyond tactics and drills. Senior cadets who face eventual deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan must think through ethical and political quandaries typical of conflicts in which it’s difficult to tell enemies from friends.

It’s the “handshake or hand grenade” dilemma, said Lt. Col. Chris J. Kidd, who heads the three-week program at West Point.

The hills of the Hudson Valley are far from the Sunni Triangle northwest of Baghdad. The bullets are blanks, and the insurgents are actors. But the exercises force future Army officers to think through thorny problems.

“It’s getting out of the comfort zone a little bit,” said Cadet Nick Lewis-Walls, of Plainfield, Ind., as he sat watch behind a machine gun. “It gets us to think of respecting cultural traditions and values, as opposed to just rocking through villages.”

Cadet Lewis-Walls is among the hundreds of cadets practically living in their digital camouflage uniforms this summer in the heavy woods around West Point. Senior cadets split into three groups: One concentrates on urban military operations, another searches and attacks in the woods, and a third is required to set up and maintain a combat outpost, or, in Army-speak, a COP.

The COP is set on a forest hilltop that cadets ring with concertina wire and protect with machine guns loaded with blanks. It’s near two tent villages where the cadets would like to cultivate relations as they deal with insurgents.

Cadet Brian Rodriguez, of Vallejo, Calif., was tested throughout his rotation as a platoon leader, first by the overnight attack, then by a sheik leading a crowd of local villagers to the gate seeking entry. Cadet Rodriguez could turn them away and insult potential allies, or he could let them in and expose his soldiers to a potential suicide bomber.

Cadet Rodriguez decided to tell the sheik, through a fellow cadet acting as interpreter, that he’d let them in, with conditions.

“We’re searching you just as a precaution,” Cadet Rodriguez told them.

A female cadet searches a woman, who is allowed to keep on her headdress. Once inside, Cadet Rodriguez gives his visitors peaches and takes the sheik aside to pump him for intelligence. Col. Kidd, watching closely, seems pleased.

“We learn about half this stuff in the classroom,” Cadet Rodriguez said later, “but I think experiencing this stuff is a whole other ballgame from sitting behind a desk and having an instructor teach it to you.”

West Point continues to adapt to post-Sept. 11 military needs. The academy pumped up instruction in Arabic, opened a Combating Terrorism Center and added new minors in terrorism and foreign area studies.

Col. Kidd said the academy tries to make the scenarios as difficult as possible with ethical and tactical dilemmas. The point isn’t necessarily to win every scenario but to get cadets to think.