In the last of three special reports on the US military for BBC Radio Four's Today programme I have been looking at the increasingly intellectual approach of the American army towards warfare, counter-insurgency and grand strategy.
West Point, New York State
I could be in an Oxford or Cambridge college, except the students scurrying between classes are dressed in a distinctive uniform of black tunic and grey trousers and forage caps.
This is where America trains its elite officers, and there is a determination they should join a new breed of military men and women, the warrior intellectuals. I am trying to find out if this promotion of academic free thinking helps America, and testing a pet theory of mine, that this stress on theory has actually ended up in a new orthodoxy which the president may have to challenge.
West point, north of New York on the Hudson river is old by American standards. It used to be George Washington's headquarters in the war of independence. The cadets can take all the usual degree subjects, history, chemistry, philosophy - with an added twist to some courses, the ethics of the military, the laws of war, and the history of Chinese warfare.
I sit in on a class where Colonel Matt Moten is talking about the lessons of the American Civil War. He's the best sort of teacher, pacing the class room engaging the students, with questions, insights and anecdotes. On the white board he writes in green marker pen: "McClellan...I can do it all. Confident. Cautious messianic."
They discuss Lincoln's forbearance with this arrogant and over cautious general before moving on to Grant's possible alcoholism, and his will to win.
West Point has been a military school since 1802. In the comfort of the Clausewitz study room which is furnished with all leather armchairs and old bound books, I talk to some cadets. They tell me the training is pointedly academic.
"It is a way of thinking, a way of dealing with problems, adapting, from things you've learnt whether it is in military theory or American politics," says one.
"You do homework before class. Answers aren't provided to you. And you have to figure out how analyse these problems and come out with solutions.
"And that prepares us to do a lot of intellectual work on our own and that prepares us for wars where we have to analyse lots of information quickly and where the answers aren't readily available," they tell me.
I put it to them this is rather at odds with a perception of some British and European observers that the American military knows all about going in hard, but at lower ranks at least, knows little about other cultures or languages, that they don't realise Kabul is very different to Kansas.
One says that is rather unfair, another says that the emphasis is changing.
"Some get it, some don't. You will get privates who aren't very smart. But I've interacted with sergeants who've already got their masters degree."
Colonel Moten agrees: "It's a work in progress. Earlier in the recent unpleasantness in Iraq and Afghanistan that caricature was probably truer than we would like to believe. But eight, nine years deep, our army has certain learnt the necessities of understanding the cultural terrain in which they operate.
"We're training people in languages. If you go to a unit, in say Afghanistan, the level of detail they will understand about the area they operate, which tribal leaders connect to whom, the economy of the region, and so on, it is astonishing," he adds.
The cadets are unlikely to stop their education when they graduate. To get to the top it seems army officers effortlessly swap the front line for the classroom, masters degrees and doctorates and valued as the medals on their chest.
Recently retired General James Dubik , now with the Institute for the Study of War was a senior commander in Iraq and a professor of philosophy. He thinks the conjuncture is very useful: "My study in philosophy has helped me as an army officer throughout my career. It's given me the opportunity to understand how to look at the same problem from many different perspectives. The issues haven't changed in 2,000 years. So you learn how Plato understood the problem. Aristotle, Hume, Locke, Kierkegaard, Hegel - they all look at the same problem from different angles. As a senior army officer this is a very useful skill," he says.
"So how did Kierkegaard help Iraq?" I ask somewhat quizzically.
"A lot," he replies. "In Iraq there was a tough intellectual problem. How to accelerate the growth of the Iraqi security forces, while the surge was going on, while fighting an insurgency, with the money that was allocated and no more."
"That is as complex an intellectual problem as you want to have. The discursive leadership style which emanates from Socrates was very useful in guiding the discussion, I had 13 generals working for me, from that emerged a process that ultimately worked."
It may be that American solders turn from their guns to their books where war isn't going so well. At another military school, over looking another strategically vital river, Fort McNair is built where the Anacostia meets the Potomac in Washington. Inside the former war of independence arsenal is the National Defence university. Its vice president for academic affairs, Dr John Yaeger (a former naval pilot and professor of grand strategy) shows me around the archives.
While we are looking at Colin Powell's sword and papers, he tells me that Vietnam was the key moment.
"Our whole American military system is built on this. After we have a war or conflict we think 'oh we need a school so we can improve and capture the lessons learnt'," he says.
"We've revised our education system, so this university was built after the after the Vietnam war. But our oldest college, the industrial college of armed forces, was built after world war one. We didn't mobilise well and we demobilised even worse and we saw the need for a college to teach us."
Vietnam is indeed key.
The very model of a modern warrior intellectual is the commanding officer in Iraq, General Petraeus, and his doctorate was in the lessons of Vietnam. In 2008 he introduced a new army manual focusing on the doctrine of counter insurgency, or Coin as it is known.
It's the theory behind Bush's Iraq surge and Obama's decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.
The manual was partly written by Dr John Nagl who also wrote a book on the subject "Learning to eat soup with a knife."
A former lieutenant colonel in a tank regiment, he's now the president of the centre for a new American security. "I helped write the book - the counter insurgency field manual - which was downloaded a million and a half times the month after it was published found in Taliban training camps in Pakistan," he says.
"There's not much new in it frankly, the principles are timed honoured. But that doctrine helped capture the way the military were thinking about war. From thinking about war as a competition to destroy the enemy, turning that to a willingness to destroy the enemy whenever the enemy presents himself but focusing the population so the enemy can't hurt them.
"That is a very dramatic change and it reshaped the way American military thought about the war in Iraq, it is reshaping the way it is thinking about the war in Afghanistan," he adds.
The cadets at West Point leave me in no doubt that Coin is the currency they are expect to deal in. Two are taking courses in Arabic, another has spent a term studying in Cairo.
"The Army is really making a focus of trying to get cadets to understand what we are trying to do with counter insurgency, really pushing it. That is why so many cadets are going on semesters to places like Egypt, Brazil, not just France and Germany," says one.
Another adds: "It's heavy. My roommate has taken three different classes on Coin. We all talk about it all the time. It is definitely the focus. I think there are trends in the army, just like there are trends everywhere else and it's very fashionable at the moment."
Although everybody I talk to from the military establishment tells me the emphasis I've seen on the intellectual is all about thinking outside the box, it strikes me there's a danger with all this theorising that officers can get stuck inside a box.
A box marked Coin.
Counter insurgency is about winning hearts and minds, not just killing the enemy. That makes it an expensive commitment in terms of troops and support for a foreign government. It takes years to work. So are the military mentally locked into Afghanistan when the president wants to get out?
"The US military is an instrument of American policy, an important instrument, but just an instrument, it does not dictate policy, it does not drive policy," says Colonel Michael Bell.
As the Director of the College of International Security Affairs he believes the military is not mentally locked into Afghanistan: "The fact that we are out in the regions, that we have relations with many other countries means we have perspectives that other parts of the govt may not share or have, but we are very conscious of that role."
"You will see the military will provide advice, particularly during the policy formulating and debate phases - and sometimes that is taken seen as dissent - rather than recognise that once the orders are made, the military resumes its role as an instrument of policy."
But some worry Coin is a fad that has gone too far.
"As an army we have probably focused too much on the doctrine of counter insurgency. It was never meant to be a way of war, never meant to be a strategy," says Colonel Moton, one of those who is not bowled over by it.
"It is meant to provide lower level techniques of fighting insurgents and it has, because of a really good public relations campaign, it has taken on a life of its own.
"But I do think a number of people have conflated counter insurgency doctrine with American strategy and the two are not, and should not be conflated. We happen to be doing counter insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. And look, we've hundreds of thousands of people doing good work there and I don't mean to diminish their efforts. But the strategy is much broader than the tactics they are using on the ground in those countries."
Many American generals believe they can escape the doom of cliche, fighting the last battle. They hope they can actually win the last two wars by studying their failures and fighting them again, in a new way. But in their quest for new perspectives they may have trapped themselves inside a theory too costly, too exhausting for the nation to bear.
Mark Mardell's reports on Radio 4's Today programme can be heard here:
'Warrior intellectuals' in US military
US troops 'have become iconic figures'
Inside the 'military-industrial complex'