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Abizaid Reflects on How West Point Shaped Him, Other Leaders

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 26, 2007 – For insight into how the military academies are preparing future officers, one could talk to a graduate who went on to serve a long military career, a commandant who helped groom future officers or a combatant commander who watched them perform in combat.

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Army Gen. John P. Abizaid (right) turns over command of U.S. Central Command to Navy Adm. William J. Fallon during a change-of-command ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., March 16, 2007. Abizaid said he was impressed with the caliber of U.S. Military Academy graduates who served under his command. Defense Dept. photo by Tech. Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby, USAF

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Or one could just talk with Army Gen. John Abizaid.

The recently retired general is a 1973 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. He returned in 1997 as its 66th commandant and instituted sweeping changes. A decade later, he retired after more than three years at the helm of U.S. Central Command, a vantage point from which he observed officers he helped groom leading troops in battle.

Now settling into his retirement, Abizaid reflected on West Point: how it molded him and his military career and its impact on other Army officers who served with and under him.

Looking out his window toward the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains, the general said his West Point experience gave him lifelong friendships and shaped how he looked at and tackled challenges like those he confronted commanding the forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It gave me the ability to look at a problem, decide how to attack the problem, and then have the discipline to stay with it until it was finished,” he told American Forces Press Service.

Abizaid said he drew on the broad educational foundation he got at West Point -- one that emphasized not just engineering and mathematics, but also language and regional studies and other social sciences -- for the perspective he needed to deal with challenging circumstances.

“And believe me,” he said, “the curriculum at the service academies remain some of the most challenging in the nation today.”

Abizaid identified just one shortcoming in his West Point education: it was a bit too removed from the operational Army. “I was somewhat surprised that we were far away from the Army’s way of training,” he said. “There was a West Point way of training, and then there was the Army’s way of training.”

That gap began closing after Abizaid’s graduation, and he helped close it more when he returned to West Point in 1977 after a deployment with the NATO Stabilization Force in Bosnia. “When I became the commandant, it was clear to me that we needed to change and bring West Point military training closer to that of which the Army is doing,” he said.

One of his first moves was to step up the rigor of the military training offered. “We made it more physically demanding, aggressive, dynamic and problem-solving-oriented,” he said.

Rather than emphasizing “immediate obedience,” which Abizaid said had been “the West Point way,” training began focusing on small-unit leadership.

The general introduced other sweeping reforms, too. He introduced a cadet justice system more in line with the Army’s and began cracking down on hazing rituals that had persisted for years. “That is a tough thing to do away with, but I think we have … established a more professional atmosphere of seniors and subordinates,” he said.

Meanwhile, West Point also was undergoing a major curriculum change that put more emphasis on linguistic and area studies. The goal, Abizaid said, was to help cadets understand and be able to operate in the global situations they face as young officers.

Because he is the son of a Lebanese-American and speaks fluent Arabic, Abizaid had a head start on many of his contemporaries. But he worked at deepening his global awareness, earning a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University and becoming an Olmsted Scholar at the University of Jordan in Amman.

He said it’s critical that military officers serving around the world, particularly those in Iraq and Afghanistan, understand the cultures in which they’re operating. “The cultural gap in this particular conflict that we are faced with today is a problem that we have all got to recognize, understand and then adjust to,” he said. “So much of the problem that we are facing in the Middle East is a cultural gap that can be closed by earlier education in an officer’s career.”

The Army is responding to this need in a variety of ways through its training program, he said, “but the officer-building institutions need to be even more aggressive.”

That’s particularly important today, because West Point graduates don’t have the luxury of developing their officer skills for years before testing them in combat. Abizaid was 10 years into his military career before facing combat during Operation Urgent Fury in Granada, but he said today’s graduates could easily find themselves in combat within months of their commissioning.

As CENTCOM commander, Abizaid said it was particularly gratifying to see the way officers he helped groom at West Point responded to that challenge in Iraq and Afghanistan. He witnessed it in downtown Baghdad, when a young West Point graduate leading a platoon knew when to apply force and, just as importantly, when not to. That understanding extended to knowing who needed to be searched or questioned and who didn’t, Abizaid said, and what tools were available to help accomplish the mission.

“They are doing a great job out there,” he said of today’s combat leaders. “They are very competent, very courageous; they are innovative, (and) they understand what they are doing. I think the West Point training experience did a lot to help them prepare for what is certainly a very, very difficult and challenging time.”

But the most important lesson young officers need to take away from their West Point experience is “the ability to lead people in a positive, inspirational way,” he said.

Abizaid called this type of leadership essential in the professional, all-volunteer Army. “It is not a draftee Army. It is a professional force,” he said. “And our younger soldiers expect to be led with competence and setting of the example. And that is what the West Point graduates need to take away from it.”

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSecretary Robert M. Gates (left) on Dec. 20, 2006, during Gates’ first visit to Baghdad after becoming defense secretary just days before. Defense Dept. photo by Tech Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby, USAF   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageIraqi Maj. Gen. Othman Ali Farhoud (left) commander of the 8th Iraqi Army Division, shakes hands with U.S. Army Gen. John Abizaid during Abizaid’s visit to Camp Echo, Iraq, on Oct. 27, 2005. Abizaid said cultural and language training is essential for military members operating around the world. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Patrick J. Dixon, USAF   
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