It seems we haven’t heard the voices of soldiers for a very long time. Not these voices, anyway: matter–of–fact, a little reserved, sometimes quiet, sometimes triumphant, from a twenty–year–old private on his first combat mission, from a major who has served around the world. They’re the voices of men who have just come back from battle. This spring, they could be heard on every evening’s news, along with shots of soldiers blasting missiles at enemies in the mountains, soldiers cheering the President, soldiers walking through a drab brown world (it seems to be war’s only color) and talking about what happened in the fighting.
Some of us know these voices only from the movies—John Wayne in The Longest Day, Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, speaking in their laconic way about taking fire, going over the ridge in the mud and the rain, remembering their wives back home. Or maybe we have heard them in the stories of relatives who served decades ago. My grandfather, who was in the Navy during World War II, used to say a few words now and then about his time on a ship in the Pacific. I have the little Bible he carried with him, with its inscription from his mother and father, its pasted–in photograph of my grandmother standing by the mailbox, and “The Star–Spangled Banner” on the page after the Lord’s Prayer. He never said much about those days, even when I pressed for more; what he did say had the same soft–spoken tone you can hear in the voices of the troops in Afghanistan.
Of course, the troops mostly give reporters the same line, casual and confident: “I’m just here to do my job.” That’s what they say because they have hard, dangerous things to do and don’t want to give away the game, and because they want to give the folks back home a good impression of the force that is defending them. If you’ve ever talked to soldiers, though, as I’ve lately had the privilege to, you know that the line is not only a line. They’re humble about what they do, but they’re proud of it, too. In the midst of boredom, fear, adrenaline, and exhaustion, “the job” is what holds it all together; it’s the mission, the training, the code, the men. There’s no need to talk it up.
In the 1980s and ’90s, when I grew up, actual soldiers—actual war—seemed very far away. In fact, I never thought too much about the military at all. Defense spending? Sure, that’s a good idea. Precision–guided weapons? Terrific. Respect for those who serve? Of course. But for many in my generation, that was the extent of our concern. World War II was an occasion for nostalgia. The Cold War was over. Vietnam, if not banished from memory, was conspicuously absent from public discussion. (Its veterans were all but invisible.) America was at peace. In a 2000 Gallup poll, only 4 percent of Americans mentioned international issues or foreign policy when asked what was the most important problem facing the country. With long–distance “surgical strike” capabilities, no immediate threats to our national interest, and, very importantly, no draft, we had the luxury of giving the military very little attention.
It was, in several respects, a false luxury. One reason it has been so long since we heard these voices is that it has been so long since the nation has had a clear, sustained mission overseas. To live in peacetime is a blessing, to be sure. But while we were going about our peacetime business in the Bush I and Clinton Adminis trations, American soldiers were everywhere. There were thirty–seven distinct deployments during that time—three times as many as there were from 1945 to 1989. After the quick–and–easy Gulf War, there were “interventions” in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, Sudan, Kosovo, places in which it was often unclear just what our mission was. Troops were sent in, troops were pulled out, and—except when there were casualties—most Americans were hardly affected.
We didn’t pay attention because, especially in the Clinton years, the implication of those half–hearted missions was that nothing was happening that really merited our attention. In some cases, many suspected that the real purpose of the mission was not to take out dangerous entities but to distract our attention from unsavory goings–on in the Oval Office. Our indiffer ence to the military was part and parcel of a foreign policy that used the military less than wisely (and that, not incidentally, “right–sized” the armed forces down to bare–bones levels after Desert Storm). Why pay too much heed to something to which the government seemed to give so little thought?
Now these soldiers, the best trained and best equipped in the world, have been called to do their job in a grave and urgent mission, by a President who seems to have some backbone, and Americans cannot but take notice. We have seen a lot of heroes in the past eight months—rescuers, leaders, survivors—and we’ve been riding a pop culture wave of tributes to military service in movies like Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers, which happened to come out just at the moment they were needed. Now, after suffering what we’ve suffered and rallying to war, we’re remembering what it is that soldiers do, who they are and what they mean.
Morale was reported to be very high in the tough battles in the Shah–i–Kot Valley back in March, even after eight U.S. soldiers were killed in action. Some of the troops, returning from Operation Ana conda, spoke to reporters in no uncertain terms about the thrill of defeating the enemy. Apparently, this made a few people uneasy. In a March 11 letter to the New York Times, a woman from Decatur, Georgia, wrote: “I am saddened to read that the troops returning from the most recent fighting in Afghanistan were ‘jubilant.’ . . . It is incendiary to gloat over our victories. Let us recognize the gravity of war with sobered reflection.”
It’s a lovely thought, but I don’t imagine too many Americans begrudged our troops their jubilation. It meant, first of all, that they were still alive (no small potatoes), and also that they knew they’d accomplished their mission—namely, to render hundreds of al–Qaeda and Taliban fighters incapable of endangering Ameri cans at home or abroad ever again. To tsk–tsk them for their exhilaration and their pride in a job well done—a job, one might add, that involved putting their lives on the line in defense of ours—is the height of arrogance.
There is always the temptation to romanticize those who fight, to cover over war’s brutality (and the brutal things it can do to soldiers) with a reassuring veneer of Heroic Service. The sentiment of the woman from Decatur is another sort of flight from reality. Of course, we who do not fight need some distance from the on–the–ground facts of war; we find it difficult to face, which is why, at least for most of us, we’re not in uni form ourselves.
But it’s not a bad thing to lose one’s starry–eyed notions of what it means to be a soldier, or one’s obliviousness to what they do, or one’s presumption that they ought to behave like sensitive new–age men when they’re out on the battlefield. Watching young Americans risking their lives on the evening news reminds us that, whether we like it or not, we need these people who are trained to do battle—that the world in which we live is a stark and perilous one; that our ene mies are real and their conquest a good; and that some of our fellow citizens have volunteered to take them on. These, it seems to me, are the proper objects of our sobered reflection.
Some say that, in wartime, things become very simple: good guys and bad guys, heroes and cowards, victory and defeat. Of course, war is not simple at all: there are moral ambiguities, hairsbreadth choices, ever–changing strategies and situations, the unutterable realities of violence and death. But what’s drawing so many people to the voices of these soldiers—and to the recent films that have done such justice to military life—is, I think, a certain sort of purity they can hear there, a certain cast of mind they may not have appreciated before in those who fight, at least not by way of the evening news.
It is a paradox of military service that the training that prepares people to fight and kill is at its core a training in the virtues. The code they swear to uphold uses words like loyalty, duty, respect, service, honor, integrity, courage; one need not be a romantic to see that they know the meaning of those words. Those are the principles that can keep a man alive in the middle of enemy fire, principles in which he is trained every day. Soldiers really do know fear and shame and sacrifice; they really do learn to master their will in the face of great danger, to keep calm in the midst of uncertainty, to act in an instant, knowing that their brothers’ lives are on the line. It is a life in which not only physical and mental strength but virtue too is taken to its limits, in which you know exactly who you are.
The words of the code, said General Douglas MacArthur in a 1962 address to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, “make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid.” Those who live this life don’t talk about it much. There’s nothing about it that Bobo proprieties can touch. There’s nothing sentimental, but there is something noble. We have not gained by forgetting it.
That this war must be fought is not cause for rejoicing. As MacArthur said, “a soldier above all other people prays for peace.” But Charles Kraut hammer is right to call this “a war of necessity,” in which defeat is not an option. The luxury of forgetting about the military, which we have enjoyed for twenty years, encouraged us to imagine that the world was different than it is, that courage and duty and honor didn’t have much purchase on us, that there wasn’t much left for which to risk our lives. Watching our troops in action now—hearing them jubilant when victorious and stern when in danger, seeing them go down into caves and back for their brothers—clears the mind of many fictions. Since this war began, we have had occasion to ask just what we are defending, who we are, why it is we fight. Those who do the fighting are themselves an answer to those questions.