The U.S. Army now begins its 10th continuous year in combat, the first time in its history the United States has excused the vast majority of its citizens from service and engaged in a major, decade-long conflict instead with an Army manned entirely by professional warriors.
This is an Army that, under the pressure of combat, has turned inward, leaving civilian America behind, reduced to the role of a well-wishing but impatient spectator. A decade of fighting has hardened soldiers in ways that civilians can't share. America respects its warriors, but from a distance.
"They don't know what we do,'' said Col. Dan Williams, who commands an Army aviation brigade in Afghanistan.
The consequences of this unique milestone in American history are many -- the rise of a new warrior class, the declining number of Americans in public life with the sobering experience of war, the fading ideal of public service as a civic responsibility.
But above all, I think, is a perilous shrinking of common ground, the shared values and knowledge and beliefs that have shaped the way Americans think about war. Without it, how will soldiers and civilians ever see this war and its outcome in the same way? Are those faded "Support the Troops'' magnets enough to guide us through what is likely to be the murky and unsatisfactory conclusions and aftermaths of this era's conflicts?
I saw the problem clearly when I got home from my most recent reporting trip in Afghanistan, where I was embedded with soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Brigade. Many of them were on their second or third combat deployment, a few on their fourth or fifth. Almost without exception they were excited about what they were doing, proud of the progress they could see, confident in their piece of the mission.
'I Don't Have Anything Else to Talk About'
At home, I found few people could understand the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many say it's just too complicated, and are convinced that America is losing. In polls
, two-thirds now say they oppose the war. As these polls were being taken in July, I was in Kabul, where Army Lt. Col. Michael J. Loos, on his fourth deployment, told me: "I know we are making effective progress. I see it every day. This may be the most important thing I've ever done in the military.''
It's even becoming more difficult for soldier and civilian to converse. Army Capt. Stefan Hutnik, a company commander in Afghanistan, recalls being home from a combat tour and being told by his wife, as they were headed out to a family dinner, please don't talk about the Army or the war.
"But,'' he said sadly, "I don't have anything else to talk about.''
My experience, gathered in 30 years of covering the Army as an embedded correspondent in peace and war, suggests that it's already late to fill the gap between today's soldiers and civilians. It might have been easier a decade ago, when the Army was a sleepy garrison force sent abroad on occasional forays as peacekeepers. What most soldiers knew of combat was learned at the Army's grueling (but safe) training centers at Fort Irwin, near Death Valley, Calif., and at Fort Polk's sweltering pine woods and swamps in Louisiana.
'We Know War Now'
All that changed on Sept. 11, 2001.
"They came and said, 'Get in uniform. Grab your weapons and your ruck[sacks]. No showers. Move!' We went straight from the gym to the airfield.'' That's how Derek Sheffer of the 10th Mountain Division went to war 10 years ago. When I met the lanky staff sergeant in Afghanistan weeks later, his uniform was filthy, and he'd still had no shower.
Now, more than half a million (665,663, in the Army's latest count) active-duty soldiers have deployed for a year of combat at least once; 292,800 active-duty soldiers have deployed twice or more.
"Before 2001 we were largely a garrison-based army,'' said Gen. George Casey, Army chief of staff. "We lived to train. I grew up training to fight a war I never fought.'' Since 9/11, Casey has spent 32 months in Iraq, as have many others. "We know war, now,'' he said.
The change has been startling -- and unique in American history. Unlike the draftees of the Civil War or even the Greatest Generation of World War II, these soldiers do not become farmers or businessmen or schoolteachers when their tour is over. They reenlist. They are proud, lean and hard. If they have families, their wives and children are battered but tough. The soldiers of this generation are arguably the best fighters in the world.
Few civilians can grasp the searing experiences of multiple combat tours. How could civilians comprehend the skill, the stress and the pride of a platoon sergeant who keeps his men alive under fire for a year and brings them home safe?
For their part, soldiers whose daily lives depend on self-discipline and sacrifice disdain what they perceive as the loose values, sloppy discipline and quick-buck self-centeredness of civilian society. And each combat deployment drives the two further apart.
The rhythms of soldiers' lives are not the familiar ones marked by five-day workweeks, children's birthdays and school vacations, but by repeated 12-month combat tours separated by short months at home, sequestered on sprawling military bases fenced off to outsiders. For many troops, the concept of a "normal'' civilian-like life has faded away.
By 2007, Sgt. 1st
Class Michael Pore of Findlay, Ohio, had been deployed three times, and was finding he was more comfortable in combat than at home. "As soon as you get back it's a countdown until you go again,'' he said, explaining why he had no civilian friends, no steady girl and no home of his own. "It's just too hard to let down.'' Fewer soldiers are married
than a decade ago, as a consequence both of a high divorce rate and soldiers like Pore deciding he couldn't put a wife and child through the wrenching experience of multiple deployments. "I'm scared to even think about a family now,'' he said.
Until he got married recently, Capt. Dan Gregory, who commands an infantry company in Afghanistan, found it easiest to "hot bunk'' between year-long deployments, using whatever bed was empty in an apartment he shared with other deploying officers. His real home, he said, is the company operations center, whether at Fort Drum or deployed in combat. "I live my life in 12-month increments,'' he told me.
'Nobody Knows Our Pain More Than Each Other'
What binds soldiers to this austere life, and separates them from civilians, is the intensity of combat and the love that glows among soldiers dependent on each other for life. Army Pfc. Robert Bartlett, an Army scout-sniper, was riding in a Humvee near Baghdad when an IED exploded, ripping away his left eye along with bone and tissue from his cheek, nose, lip and jaw. The blast collapsed a lung, perforated internal organs, fractured facial bone and burned away flesh from his face and hands. The soldier beside him was killed instantly. The turret gunner above Bartlett collapsed on his own shredded and charred legs.
A bear of a man, Bartlett was dragged out of the kill zone, dead. Frantic medics slit his throat to insert a breathing tube, massaged his chest, punched in an IV. His heart fluttered and began pumping weakly. He and the gunner were medevacked away to years of surgery and rehabilitation.
Looking back on that horror four years later, Bartlett told me his Army experience was so rewarding, so important, that he'd do it all over again. "It was, hands down, the best thing I have ever done in my life,'' he said. Today he is devoted to helping other veterans live full lives. "It's important that we look after one another,'' he said. "Nobody knows our pain more than each other.''
"War does change you, I believe in a better way, a noble way,'' said Col. Williams, the helicopter brigade commander whose daughter is an Army second lieutenant and whose wife is a retired officer. "A decade of combat has made us very hard. It has made us an incredibly strong Army. I believe we do have a warrior class in this country.''
"We look at life differently," he said. "For a lot of soldiers, there are two kinds of people: those who serve, and those who expect to be served, and those who serve are pretty noble.''
In his cramped plywood office at the edge of an airstrip near Mazar-e-Sharif, he paused while reflecting on his experiences in combat and back home at Fort Hood, Tex. "I believe there is a tremendous amount of guilt in civilian society for not having participated in this war,'' he said. "This is not a criticism. People thank us for our service, but it rings hollow. There's an awkwardness there that has increased over time.''
The rate of desertions, even in the thick of two hot wars, has been essentially unchanged. In fiscal year 2000, the Army recorded 3,687 deserters from its active-duty strength of 482,000 soldiers. In fiscal year 2008, it recorded 3,600 deserters from a force of 543,000 troops. The Army is more than meeting its recruiting goals
Many soldiers, of course, enlist in the Army for economic reasons. "I couldn't find a job in two years of looking,'' Pvt. Michael Freeman, a 19-year-old from Sacramento, Calif., told me during a break from basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. "There are no jobs at home. I had to make my own path in life and this'' -- he nodded toward the manicured parade grounds and formations of drilling recruits – "this is it.''
That's not new. But the war has accelerated a significant change in the Army, annealing it into a profession rather than just a peacetime job. "I am proud to be in the profession of arms,'' Sgt. Robert Wright told me as he waited for an airlift to Afghanistan. "When I came in I looked at it like a job, but now? I love saying the NCO Creed
. It speaks for us, it's the standard we live by, what binds us as brothers and sisters in arms that you just can't get anywhere else.''
'In a Combat Zone . . . Every Decision Has Consequences'
The Army, like the other services, has always demanded that its youngest take on heavier and heavier responsibilities. In his or her second year, a new soldier is likely to be in charge of a small fire team; inside of four years a soldier may be leading a dozen men in combat.
Soldiers thrive on that kind of responsibility. Lt. Col. Kevin Petit, who has served multiple combat tours, spoke of watching a scene in the film "The Hurt Locker,'' where the soldier comes home from dismantling IEDs in Iraq and at the supermarket with his wife is stunned by a gigantic display of cereal. To me, this spoke of America's consumer appetite. To Petit, though, it carried a different meaning: "See, it didn't matter what cereal he chose -- Froot Loops or Rice Krispies -- no difference! No consequences to what he decided. But in a combat zone, everything, every decision, has consequences, some enormous. That's thrilling! That's why we keep going back!''
None of this was foreseen in 1968 when presidential candidate Richard Nixon, desperate for a foothold against the rising tide of anti-war anger sweeping the country, proposed doing away with the draft. The Pentagon was horrified; so was much of Congress. Their fear: Who would volunteer in wartime?
When Nixon finally made good on his idea in 1974, the Pentagon was certain the all-volunteer Army was a good idea -- for peacetime. But a draft would be needed in case of "mobilization for war,'' insisted Gen. David C. Jones, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a memo cited by Beth Bailey in her history of the volunteer Army, "America's Army.''
But the all-volunteer Army has performed so well that civilian manpower has become superfluous. Today, demands for a return to the draft are taken seriously only by a few. Among them is the New York Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, who is making his fifth attempt to restore the military draft. The reason, he said this summer, is America's "total indifference to the suffering and loss of life'' of soldiers. "So few families have a stake in the war,'' he said, "which is being fought by other people's children.'' Previous attempts failed in 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2007.
At a remote outpost in Afghanistan, I listened one evening to a 37-year-old enlisted soldier on guard duty. He talked softly about a misspent youth, about finding his true "family'' in the Army. He said he was proud to have learned to survive and excel in this environment. He said he would without hesitation take a bullet to save a buddy and that any of them would do the same for him. He said "love'' was not too strong a word to use to describe the responsibility and gratitude he felt in this relationship to his squad and platoon.
But he said he also felt as if, having found a home in the Army, he had given up a place in the civilian world, that the distance of the civilian world from his precarious existence out in the dangerous Afghan wasteland was simply too far to ever travel.
"A lot of us are here because society has no further use for us,'' he said. "The Army has become home for a lot of restless souls who can never really go back.''