One day last fall in Bosnia, I met a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, a peacekeeper there, who said he worried about America's role in the world. He was a big, blond Californian, nearly thirty years old, who had risen through the enlisted ranks before qualifying for his commission. Now he was leading a U.S. infantry patrol through a sullen town named Bratunac, on a slow walk at dusk toward the central square. He could have driven there, but had parked his armored Humvees in an outlying neighborhood and proceeded on foot, because contact with the townspeople was said to be an important part of the job. In practice, though, the contact was limited by orders that required GIs to remain armed, helmeted, and clothed in their camouflaged combat gear. During the walk to the central square the only Bosnians who got close were a few audacious children asking for gum and candy, which the soldiers were forbidden to hand out. This was how it normally went, the lieutenant said. Most of the adults ignored the Americans, and some gave them hostile stares; many believed, erroneously, that the United States had become a force of occupation. Later in the evening the lieutenant was due to appear on a radio talk show during which he was supposed to encourage people to turn in their hoarded weapons—promoting a civic ideal that hardly anyone could believe in. He had been given a script that required him to report on a few recently surrendered guns, as if this truly indicated progress toward a better future.
The lieutenant was a willing soldier, but somewhat disillusioned. He had been trained as an infantryman to close with the enemy and fight, and instead now found himself doing the work of a street-corner diplomat. It was not just that he felt individually unsuited to the role; he said that the entire brigade, 3,500 strong, had lost its war-fighting ability and would require six months of retraining upon returning home. I was a bit skeptical about that claim, which is often made, but I also knew that it was not entirely without merit. These soldiers had already spent six months in specialized training before coming to Bosnia, during which they had been encouraged to unlearn the standard kill-or-die mentality, and had been allowed to neglect their traditional military skills. The most perishable of those skills did not consist of shooting guns but, rather, involved the complex organizational interactions necessary to coordinate large groups of embattled fighters. In Bosnia the soldiers had indeed been forced to set much of that aside. Still, the claim that great damage was being done was not quite convincing. I asked, "How can a unit forget those skills so quickly?" The lieutenant shrugged. There was the problem of turnover, which in the U.S. military is high. There was also the inherent intricacy of battlefield scenarios, specifically those played out in the war games by which the Army evaluates its abilities. The lieutenant asked, "Why does an orchestra have to practice?" What he was practicing here in Bratunac was mostly just how to police other troubled towns—a safe enough job for him, but one that he saw as dangerously open-ended for the United States.
His soldiers may have shared those views, but they were less inclined to talk. It had started to rain, as usual. They walked through the streets with their weapons slung muzzle-down and their expressions closed off in a manner I recognized from the faces of other front-line peacekeepers—not battle-hardened or numb but stoic and stubbornly unexpectant. The Balkans mission was right or wrong depending on one's political bent, but in military terms it was mostly just unheroic. Today the assignment was to drive to this town, walk through this town, let the lieutenant talk on the radio, and eventually drive away. It was hardly worth comment beyond the standard "Okay. Roger. Got it." A peacekeeper's job was to wait out the hours. If he followed orders and stuck strictly to the task at hand, he could enjoy the implicit respect for privacy and the solitude that quietly grace American military life. If he dressed correctly, he could stay warm and dry.
But the lieutenant was a worrier. He brought up the subject of empires, Roman, Spanish, British. He recognized an important difference between those dead empires and this new Pax Americana. The old empires were direct exercises in territorial domination, cultural subjugation, and the extraction of wealth. In contrast, the American reason for being in a place like Bosnia, though perhaps based on calculations of national self-interest, is to a large degree altruistic. The United States goes in, enforces the peace, helps to fix things up, and leaves—or that's the intention, even if, case by case, things have never quite worked out that way. With his ground-level view of the process, the lieutenant was uncertain that these interventions could be sustained in the long run. He told me he had heard that one way to kill a tiger is to distract it from so many different sides that it tries to run in every direction at once.
It wasn't surprising that the image had stuck in his mind. He was patrolling the streets of an obscure little town at a time when the fighting force he represented—the U.S. military—was the most powerful in the world, prepared to wage even simultaneous wars, yet was also worried about the burden of low-risk assignments like this one. Since 1989 the United States has engaged in only two significant fights: the Gulf War and the air action against Serbia, both of which turned out to be almost too easy. The Pentagon complains that the number of its overseas "deployments" has tripled in recent years, neglecting to mention that many of the missions are minuscule, and consist of sending off just a few instructors or engineers. If they're camped in a hotel for long enough, it counts. Still, the worry about overextension is real, and it reflects one of the stranger ideas of our time—that for the American military the apparently trivial problem of peacekeeping has recently proved to be more difficult even than waging war.
It is not immediately clear how this could be. In the Bosnia peacekeeping operation, where after six years the cumulative effects on the military have been the greatest, there have been no deaths by hostile fire, and the soldiers have settled into a surprisingly comfortable routine. The American headquarters there is called Eagle Base. It is housed at a former Yugoslavian air base that sprawls across a farmed plateau among low, forested hills near the failed industrial city of Tuzla, several hours' drive north of the capital, Sarajevo. It has a long runway, a few remaining fortified MiG hangars, and about forty usable Communist-era buildings made of reinforced concrete. After so many years under the American flag, it also now has a collection of large steel-framed buildings, a pristine airport terminal, a full-time fire department with shiny red fire engines brought over from the United States, and hundreds of new wood-framed structures, all painted the same chocolate-brown.