On March 20, 2003, the United States launched a pre-dawn missile attack on Baghdad. On March 21, 2003, the first American casualty of the war was reported as Marine 2nd. Lt. Therrel Shane Childers, a 30-year-old Citadel graduate. In the three ensuing years, the local military college has lost a total of 11 graduates, and America has become increasingly torn about a conflict that seems never-ending.

On campus today, you’ll find some of that ambivalence, mainly among the students and nonmilitary staffers, who question the motives that led to the war and ponder the outcome. The military veterans, on the other hand, remain gung-ho for the conflict and firmly believe victory is inevitable.

“It’s a hard road ahead, but a democratic way of life can be achieved,” says U.S. Army Col. Cardon Crawford. Crawford, 43, heads the military science department at The Citadel. Out in the field, he served in Afghanistan as Director of Operations — the “O” in Army parlance — from June 2004 to March of 2005.

Crawford notes gladly that “support for the military has been terrific,” unlike the Vietnam era, and scandals like the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib have been viewed as isolated incidents, aberrations from political and military policies.

Still, he believes that everything has changed since the war began.

He and his fellow military trainers are all veterans of the fighting in Afghanistan and/or Iraq and are intent on passing along their knowledge to cadets, many of whom will be following in their bootsteps. Even the selection of cadets who may one day become officers has been fine-tuned. Now, the quality of battlefield leadership clearly has life and death consequences. Even with the new selectiveness, applicants for Army contracts (basically, scholarships paid back not in money but in service) have risen from 60 per year pre-Iraq to 90 per year now.

As the Tactical Officer of 4th Battalion at the school, Col. James Dorton, 64, serves in a central, fatherly role for many cadets. According to this veteran of two tours of Vietnam and one tour in Somalia, the Iraq War is “a necessary evil”— like all other wars.

He believes America is in Iraq to ensure liberty, prevent tyranny, and help create a “global brotherhood of peace,” and that the nation has committed so much of its reputation, its soldiers, and its wealth that it cannot pull out — which it did in Vietnam, in Lebanon, in Somalia, etc.

Living and working so closely with cadets, Dorton has perhaps taken the 11 deaths a little closer to heart. He has also noticed an increased interest in the student body about joining the military.

On the other hand, Dorton suspects more and more parents are dissuading their sons and daughters from attending The Citadel exactly because so many are being funneled into the military right after college.

Marine Sgt. Christopher Robinson, 26, attends classes at The Citadel after having completed two tours of Iraq, initially in the attacking vanguard and then as operations chief leading 750 men in planning essential convoys of men and material. The sergeant says he has always supported the war, but more so after hearing horror stories of what the regime did to Iraqi citizens, including children.

Robinson fondly remembers the gratitude expressed at first light of liberation, but admits the situation has become a lot more complicated — although the goals are still honorable. Personally, he “no longer takes life for granted,” and feels good knowing that the cadets who will go to Iraq benefit from being around savvy combat veterans such as himself.

Marine Col. K. F. Frederick, 49, a professor of naval science and the commanding officer of the school’s NROTC who was stationed with the Marine Expeditionary Unit in Kuwait, feels the war is right — even after all the mistakes and the killings in order to help those people who want freedom.

Frederick feels that Americans’ lives have changed forever since 9/11, and is impressed with students’ desire to serve their country in wartime and is proud of The Citadel. He acknowledges that training has stepped up a notch or two in intensity. Trainers do not want to fail their battle-bound cadets, nor their parents.

Lt. Col. Ben Legare Jr., 68, the Citadel’s director of governmental and community affairs, thinks the present war is completely warranted, and in Iraq, as in Vietnam, the military’s hands are tied due to fear of world opinion and the killing of innocent civilians. In other words, the military cannot use its superior weaponry to its fullest effect and that is handicapping its ability to win this war. And because of the limitations, the war will drag on and more young men and women will be killed.

Including Citadel graduates.

Cadet S.* initially thought the decision to go into Iraq was correct and just, but, given subsequent intelligence, he is no longer sure of the soundness of the Bush Administration’s motives to go to war. While he will shed no tears over Saddam’s demise, Cadet S. quotes from St. Augustine: “War is a means to bring about a better peace.”

Cadet S. has noticed that those guys and gals who are “contracted,” committed to serving in the armed forces, definitely have a greater sense of purpose and are less listless than their counterparts who are headed for civilian careers.

He feels he should demonstrate his patriotism and join the military and probably go off to Iraq to fight. After all, he is a member of a military college with a proud history of serving one’s country. At the same time, he is also a candidate for several prestigious scholarships, two of them as rare as a certain woodpecker. Should he pass up these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities?

Cadet M. thought invading Iraq was the right thing to do, but, like his fellow cadet, feels more ambivalent now. He says he noticed that in last summer’s military training encampments, the cadets were definitely more serious than usual. He plans to join the U.S. Navy upon graduation and fly cargo planes. He very much wants to serve his country, but has no pressing desire to be fired upon.

Like the military, academics has its own hierarchy. Al Finch, 61, the affable dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, explains that the war seemed perfectly justified when it appeared certain that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and close ties to Al Qaeda.

Now that these claims have been proven false, he feels the government “has not done a good job planning how to deal with the situation after the initial assault.”

Politically, the dean says the government seems to lack a clear understanding of the Iraqi culture. For instance, he says, Iraqis identify more with their clans, tribes, and religious sects than they do with the country of Iraq, which makes installing a democracy there appear unlikely.

Personally, Finch, whose own son-in-law came home unhurt after a tour in Iraq, sees a nation struggling in the same way to figure out how to remove itself from Iraq as it did from Vietnam.

Academically, he sees more interest on campus in the countries of the Middle East, as well as a “rethinking of curriculum, an increased global perspective” emerging.

Another professor, who did not want his name printed, felt from the very beginning that the justification for invading Iraq was too weak to support such a drastic undertaking. Looking at the conditions there today, the professor wonders if the sacrifice of so many lives and so much treasure has been worth it.

Professor and biology chair Paul M. Rosenblum, 52, admits to “not being totally sold on the war,” but trusted the decision-makers. As events in the Gulf have unfolded, Rosenblum has become less and less comfortable with those decisions — primarily because explanations for the war have changed several times, which he finds “curious.”

Rosenblum, whose own son is currently attached to an Army unit stationed somewhere in Iraq, feels the biggest effect on the Citadel community has been deepened by each report of a Citadel graduate killed in battle. “We are all saddened by that,” he says.

Kathleen Turner — the librarian, not the movie star — is unhappy with the war and says she “never saw a good reason to be there. I saw no connection between Iraq and 9/11.” She could see the justification for entering Afghanistan, but not Iraq.

Turner, 63, perceives a cloud hanging over many cadets, finding them uniformly patriotic but also nervous about their future. She has known several cadets who have been called up in the middle of a semester to join their reserve or National Guard unit — and it hurts her, knowing that some may never return alive.

Licia Calloway, 36, an assistant English professor who describes herself as apolitical and nonmilitaristic, concedes the need for armed forces to protect the nation, but can’t help feeling badly for the cadets who are bound to go and fight and possibly lose their lives. When she started teaching at The Citadel, she was startled to realize that these men and women, some of them on the verge of marching off to war, were so young.

“My opinion has not changed from Day One,” says the adamant Rev. David Golden, 63, the school’s chaplain who spent 29 years as an Army chaplain, including a one-year hitch ministering to soldiers in Vietnam.

Golden was always dubious about the presence of weapons of mass destruction, but it seemed like a reasonable possibility given Saddam’s never-ending gamesmanship with weapons inspectors. But he holds little hope for the imposition of Western-style democracy in Iraq.

“It always seemed like a pipe dream,” says Golden, of the millennia of sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites and the Kurds. “We believed that the cry of the human heart for freedom would trump sectarian violence.”

He now thinks it was naive of the nation to believe this.

“I am not a pacifist; I subscribe to St. Augustine’s ‘Just War’ theory,'” says the chaplain. For him, deposing a despot like Saddam Hussein qualifies as a just reason for going to war.

What bothers Golden, though, is the fact that his country has shown no inclination to invade North Korea, a regime even more repressive than the one that ruled over Iraq.

The only consensus mustered at The Citadel now is that there is a long and arduous occupation of Iraq, with no outcome certain.

Many interviewed for this story cite a variety of reasons for their concern: no indigenous tradition of democracy, the conflict between Islam and Western ideals of social plurality, ancient sectarian disputes which stand in the way of nation building, interference from neighboring states who feel threatened by potential changes in Iraq, overreliance on military means of solving problems, and too few attempts at diplomacy, and so on.

One of the cadets sums up the situation in Iraq this way: fixing Iraq is akin to “trying to build or repair an airplane while it is flying.”