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Monday, January 26, 2004
Giving Thanks for America's Warrior Class
By Karl Zinsmeister
Thanksgiving has just passed, and the first American troops to deploy for the Iraq War are nearing their one-year anniversary overseas. That makes it a good time to remember some families in this country to whom the rest of us owe a great deal. Take, for example, the family of Sean Shields, the young American I photographed in combat for the cover of my new book Boots on the Ground: A Month with the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq. Lieutenant Shields, currently stationed near Baghdad, is the third generation of his clan to serve in the U.S. Army airborne.
Sean's grandfather was one of the men who created the stellar reputation of the 82nd Airborne Division in the first place--parachuting into the critical battles of Normandy and Nijmegen during World War II, and fighting with distinction at the Battle of the Bulge. In his nighttime jump into Normandy (no nightvision goggles in those days), the elder Shields' parachute hooked on the steeple of a stone church; he slammed into the side of the building and was knocked out cold. When he came to, he cut himself free from his parachute harness, fell heavily to the ground, and in the pitch black promptly stumbled into a foxhole of German soldiers, losing his rifle in the process. So his introduction to Normandy began with a knife fight, which he won.
Sean's father served in Gulf War I, eventually retiring as a colonel. Now Sean is an Army Ranger doing his part of the dirty work in Iraq. He has shaken off two roadside bombings of his humvee within a month, and soldiers on without complaint. There are many such families in this country with a multigenerational tradition of military service.
There are also lots of families who are oblivious to this tradition. In his recent book Keeping Faith, Frank Schaefer describes how, after he'd sent other children to New York University and Georgetown, his affluent Boston neighbors expressed disappointment at his son's decision to become a Marine. "He's so bright and talented and could do anything!" blurted one man. "What a waste!" A similar view is betrayed by New York Times reporter Chris Hedges when he describes today's soldiers as "poor kids from Mississippi or Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance and joined the Army because it was all we offered them." Or even more harshly by Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi, who told some war protestors not long ago that they were "'A' students, who think for themselves," in contrast to the "'C' students with their stupid fingers on the trigger."
Are such impressions accurate? From my experiences observing and writing about American soldiers--most recently as an embedded reporter during last spring's Iraq war--my answer is an emphatic "no." Such representations of America's fighting men and women, I suggest, are misunderstandings of scandalous proportion.
Many Americans do not fully appreciate what a wide and talented range of people currently serve in our military. There are suburbanites, hillbillies, kids from concrete canyons, and farm boys in our fighting forces. I met graduates of tony schools like Wesleyan and Cornell in Iraq, not only in the officers corps, but right in the ranks. I met disciplined immigrants from Colombia, Russia, Panama, and other places. Our battlefield computers, helicopters, and radars are kept humming by flocks of mechanical whizzes and high-tech aces.
I know of a man who was most of the way through a Ph.D. at Fordham University when, looking for a more active and patriotic career, he decided he'd like to start jumping out of perfectly good airplanes with the 82nd Airborne. He came in not as an officer but as a private. When I met him four years later, he was a highly competent sergeant. I know of the son of an engineer and a nursing supervisor who had glided through his school's gifted-student program after being accelerated a grade above his age group, then landed a good job as an open-heart-surgery technician. But then the September 11 attacks convinced him his country needed him for more important work. He is now a medic in the 82nd Airborne, hoping for an eventual career as an Army doctor.
I shared a tent with a soldier who, after suddenly breaking into fluent Spanish, explained that he had picked up his language facility while serving as a missionary in South America for three years before joining the Army. This mature and worldly individual was just a rank-and-file paratrooper.
Another entry-level soldier from California I got to know was, if I had to guess, probably not a stellar book learner. But after just a few minutes of conversation I could tell he had a quick native intelligence, and he was a classic American autodidact. He had trained himself in German, thinking it might aid his aspiration to enter the Special Forces, and was now studying battlefield medicine on his own time. Envisioning some sort of advanced first aid, I discovered to my surprise that in the latest week he had taught himself how to do emergency tracheotomies.
A military translator I met had recently finished learning one of the world's hardest languages--Mandarin--when the Army, noting his obvious linguistic facility, told him they needed Arabic speakers. So he went right back to school to learn one of the planet's other hardest languages. This man's intellectual skills would make him a success in any number of fields, but he has chosen to serve his country as a well armed multilingual sergeant. "Don't ask," he replied wearily when I asked him what language he dreams in.
A few years ago, I interviewed General John Abizaid, now America's top military officer in the Middle East. He had entered West Point in 1969, and noted that at that time the academy had to accept every minimally qualified applicant just to fill his class. Today, by contrast, there are scores of young Americans competing for each open slot; entry into our military academies is now as prized as admission to an Ivy League school. That, it seems to me, is a nice indicator of how support for the military has rebounded in this country since our Vietnam-era lows--and it hints at the high quality of the individuals who are now flowing into our armed forces at all levels.
Our soldiers aren't all saints and scholars, but they are a good cross section of our country, and the base of our military pyramid is full of impressive individuals. There are also many unusually talented men and women at the middle and top of the command structure. The commanders of our troops in Iraq today are instructive examples.
Brigadier General Martin Dempsey, who leads the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad, has earned, in addition to his military achievements, three separate Master's degrees. Major General David Petraeus, whose leadership of the 101st Airborne has temporarily made him the prince of northern Iraq, is well equipped for that task thanks to, among other credentials, a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton (which he earned two years faster than most doctoral candidates). The commander of our third full division in Iraq, Major General Raymond Odierno of the 4th Infantry Division, has a Master's in nuclear engineering, and is known equally for his brilliance and for his fighting prowess.
These smart, competent soldiers and officers are essential to America's new style of fighting--which can be likened to chess, compared to the "checkers" style of combat (much slower, less mobile, more ponderous) that was practiced as recently as the first Gulf War. Far more than in the past, today's servicemen must think and adapt on the fly. The speed of maneuver and pace of battle are dramatically faster, and complex equipment and tactics must be mastered.
Our military units are substituting superior technology, communications, mobility, and intelligence for the sheer mass of force they once relied on. Of course, this formula works only if there are bright, flexible, self-reliant people behind the wheels of the vehicles, at the eyepieces of the scopes, and on the triggers of the weapons. Those smart, tough decision-makers, much more than the advanced technologies themselves, are the key to the superiority of today's American military.
Independent thinking by line soldiers is not only tolerated in our armed forces at present, it is required by the new freelancing style of warfare. Outsiders who envision our fighting forces as authoritarian institutions would be quite surprised to learn how much less they rely on top-down order-giving than on small unit problem-solving. Our military is highly meritocratic, and obstacles are generally surmounted after open, democratic-style contention among competing views. I witnessed many spirited debates--both among officers in the command tents and between privates and sergeants at the base of the military pyramid--over the best ways to achieve important objectives. The general modus operandi is competition: "May the smartest idea and biggest biceps win."
While they are extremely disciplined, our elite military outfits exhibit little intimidation or "yes man" syndrome. In the Kuwait camps before we plunged into combat in Iraq, I was amused to walk into a bathroom one night and find the 82nd's brigade commander--a man with life and death authority over about 3,000 men--scrubbing his dirty socks and underwear in a bucket, just like any good private.
So America's soldiers are skilled enough to fly missiles into designated windows, negotiate subtly with local leaders, and squeeze off one-mile sniper shots (actual Iraq War events I describe in my book). They have the openness and democratic habits to serve as good representatives of our free society. And they are also admirable on a third front: for their moral idealism.
Hollywood war stories like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down promulgate the notion that contemporary soldiers fight not for cause and country but simply for the survival of themselves and their buddies. I can report that that is emphatically untrue. America's soldiers are quite conscious of the titanic clash of moral universes that lies behind today's U.S. venture into the Middle East. Most of them are not only aware of the historical importance of this fight, but quite proud of their role in it, and broadly motivated by high principles extending far beyond self preservation.
Gregory Kolodciejczky was a New York City fireman. When the Twin Towers went down, 14 men from his stationhouse were killed, and Kolodciejczky decided to help make sure the events of that day would never be replayed in his country. So at age 32 he chucked everything and started a new career as a paratrooper. He believes that by fighting in Iraq he is honoring the memory of his dead friends, and helping protect Americans from future acts of terror.
I know numerous soldiers who put aside wellpaying jobs, family life, graduate school, and comfortable careers after concluding, in the wake of September 11, that their country needed their military service. U.S. fighters in Iraq placed NYPD stickers on their trucks, drew pictures of the World Trade Center on bombs, and named one of our staging grounds in the Kuwaiti desert Camp 93--in honor of Flight 93, where 9/11 passengers fought back against their hijackers. The evening before the 82nd Airborne's nastiest battle this spring, one soldier duct-taped an "I Love NY"T-shirt to the wall of the building where the assault was being planned, just to remind himself what he was doing in that distant and forsaken country.
Lieutenant Rob Gillespie strongly personifies the principled nature of many American fighters. He grew up on Long Island in a household of self-described "do-gooders and Village Voice subscribers." During his first year at the University of Southern California the earnest Gillespie was considering joining the Peace Corps when, thanks to USC's ROTC program, he began running into soldiers just back from the Balkans. He asked them what they had been doing with their lives.
The answer was that they had been stopping genocide, rape, and religious persecution of thousands of civilians.
In the course of these conversations Gillespie realized that if he really wanted to help the oppressed and miserable of our planet, he could do more as a member of the U.S. armed forces than in any other occupation. He transferred to West Point, and is now an up-and-coming cavalry officer.
Families of some of the soldiers I've reported on have shared their letters home with me, and many of these reflect the American idealism of those men and women. Lieutenant John Gibson of the 82nd's 325th Regiment wrote his mom and dad on his birthday this summer to report that "we are homesick and want to see our families and loved ones, but not at the expense of an incomplete mission. I know that a completely free and democratic Iraq may not be in place by the time that I leave, but it will be significantly under way before I am redeployed. I see things here, on a daily basis, that hurt the human heart. I see poverty, crime, terrorism, murder, and stupidity. However, I see hope in the eyes of many Iraqis, hope for a chance to govern themselves. I think they are on the cusp of a new adventure, a chance for an entire country to start over again."
Walter Rausch, a machine gunner in the 101st Airborne who hails from my own home town in upstate New York, encapsulates a similar spirit and idealism in a letter to his parents: "We take so much for granted. My dearest beloved family, don't waste a single second. We have been blessed to be raised in ways that are true and just. These people have known nothing but oppression, tyranny, and poverty. We have more things than some of these Iraqi children could possibly imagine. And I am thankful that the children's innocence was preserved during most of this conflict."
Private Melville Johnson of the 82nd Airborne reflected on his time in combat this way: "In the city of Samawah my battalion engaged in the hottest firefight the division has been in since Vietnam. Every paratrooper who fought in that battle fought bravely and honorably. The day after the battle, we took positions in the streets among the blown-out buildings. One by one the people returned. The adults set commerce in motion. The laughter and splashing of children playing in the Euphrates was a great relief to hear. Every day I was blessed with kind words of gratitude.
"I feel Iraq has real potential for the future--with the help of the U.S. military, humanitarian agencies, and the installation of a just, fair, and compassionate government. I feel tremendously for the American families that lost a loved one. I also feel for the families of the enemy. At night, before I rest, I think of the enemy we killed. I remember the way their bodies lay in unnatural states, positions God never intended them to take. I hope these images will soon fade.
"Would I willingly, happily, and completely fight this war again? Yes. I would do it all over again with just as much, or more, determination."
Any honest observer will be struck by the way American soldiers wrap ferocity and decency in the very same uniform. They are skilled, aggressive, and deadly in a fight. But they don't nurse grudges; they forgive easily; they are gracious, charitable, and humane to opponents. My conclusion from watching them in mortal combat is that these men are the worst people imaginable to have as military enemies, and the very best to surrender to.
Some people have a hard time believing that our soldiers who endure tough physical conditions and unpredictable attacks in Iraq's danger zones are keeping their morale and fighting spirit up. They assume our servicemen must feel discouraged and taken advantage of. What such people forget is that there are some men whose reflex is to run into danger, rather than away from it. Those are the men who become police officers and firemen. Those are the men who become soldiers. They know their work is perilous, and they don't want to be hurt, but if their own personal safety were their main concern, they would be chefs or graduate students, not GIs. Chasing down bad guys provides these soldiers with a deep sense of satisfaction that is often lost on outside observers.
The American patriot Thomas Paine once said, "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, so that my children may have peace." This is a creed that many soldiers hold to quite literally. To a man, the deployed GIs I am in touch with tell me they don't want any waffling or hesitation about finishing the job in Iraq. Some of these men were there in 1991; they want a more conclusive victory this time so they won't need to come back again. They say it is much less important that the Iraq war be over soon than that it be successful, and they know that will take time.
The sister of an 82nd soldier read me one of his letters this week in which he commented with great satisfaction on the lack of terrorist attacks in the U.S. itself over the last two years. That, he said, is exactly what our armed services are for--to deflect the pain of fighting from our homeland, transfer it to the enemy's backyard, and ultimately put an end to it. Easy for us to say from our armchairs; quite a noble sentiment from a man currently in the midst of the battle in the Sunni triangle.
Most American fighting men subscribe to the view put into words by John Stuart Mill: "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."
Amidst the sour soap opera surrounding Jessica Lynch, I hope Americans will remember that there are many U.S. soldiers who really did display self-sacrificial heroism in recent months. Just among the 82nd Airborne there are men like Andrew Joseph, a 26-year-old paratrooper who died trying to rescue other soldiers from a canal amidst a mortar attack. Or Medic Alan Babin, who left a covered position and exposed himself on the battlefield to come to the aid of another soldier. He was shot critically in the abdomen and is now fighting his way back from the loss of several organs, four full-body arrests, and 20 operations.
The astonishing thing when you interview these soldiers who have been wounded in action is how many of them volunteer the same thoughts: They don't regret the fight. There was somebody else who was even more selfless or brave. And (almost universally) how anxious they are to return to their units.
Where does this sturdiness come from? I can do no better than quote retired Army officer Tom Tinsley, who wrote to me in November: "The magic I found in the Army was repeated again and again. Colonels teaching Captains. Sergeants teaching Privates and Specialists.
Handing down the tribal wisdom to the following generation. I have been in corporate life for seven years now, and have found nothing like it outside the Army. Leaders unselfishly preparing the next generation, who will in turn pass it on to those who will succeed them."
It's easy for critics on both the left and right to convince themselves that the United States is a decadent society, that our young people have all gone soft, that we will never have another generation like the men who climbed the cliffs at Normandy on D-Day. That judgment, I'm here to report, is utterly and completely wrong. We have soldiers in uniform today whom Americans can trust with any responsibility, any difficulty, any mortal challenge.
And at the end of this strenuous year, we give thanks for them.
Karl Zinsmeister is TAE's editor in chief.
Published in Warriors, Messiahs, Governors, and Generals January/February 2004
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