JERSEY CITY, N.J. (RNS)—The lights in a Jersey City mosque flickered at dawn, and more than a dozen West Point cadets stirred in sleeping bags scattered across the prayer room.
As Imam Hussein Wahdan began the melodious call to prayer in Arabic, bearded men filed past the cadets, kneeled and then bowed to the floor to begin their morning worship.
The cadets came to Jersey City for three days to be immersed in the religious and cultural life of one of the most ethnically diverse cities in America, the highlight of a semester-long course called “Winning the Peace.”
They met imams and observed prayers at mosques, a Hindu temple and an African-American church. They met leaders and young people from the city's Indian, Pakistani and Egyptian Coptic Christian communities. They heard from Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, who talked about the challenges of governing a city where 50 languages are spoken.
The aim of the course and field trip is to give future Army lieutenants insight into cultures and religions that may be unfamiliar to them. It is part of a broad recognition by the U.S. military that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that troops in the field must win the trust of the local people to have any hope of defeating an enemy hiding among them.
The elective course first was offered in 2003. Although the launch of “Winning the Peace” coincided with the beginning of the Iraq war, the idea came from a West Point instructor who had just returned from a humanitarian exercise in Haiti and saw a vast culture gap between the soldiers and the people they were trying to help.
Col. Cindy Jebb, the deputy head of West Point's department of social sciences, said the Army is trying to send a message to its future officers that they will lead troops into many kinds of battles. All West Point cadets receive commissions as Army 2nd lieutenants upon graduation.
“In the 1990s, we as an Army went through a kind of schizophrenia. Are we war fighters? Or are we peacekeepers?” Jebb said. “It's clear right now that we're both.”