Dispatch October 2008

"People, not chess pieces"

The author of a new book about the West Point class of 2002 looks into what kind of support our troops really want from us, and why so many of us have become accustomed to sacrificing so little

Compared to the forever-etched-in-our-minds date of 9/11, October 7 passes with barely a whisper. But the war we’ve been involved in for seven years wasn’t truly a war until America struck back, and it wasn’t until October 7, 2001, when American planes dropped bombs on Afghanistan, that the U.S. military took the first steps in the long march of war.

We were a coiled spring of a country back then. A cartoon making the rounds portrayed a firefighter in the wreckage of the World Trade Center handing an American flag to a U.S. Army soldier. “I’ll take it from here,” the soldiers says. In Los Angeles, where I lived at the time, it seemed American flags suddenly appeared everywhere, flapping from the rear windows of giant SUVs on the Santa Monica Freeway. The nation that President George W. Bush addressed on Oct. 7, 2001 as the bombs started falling was one whose initial shock had begun to give way to anger and resolve.

Bush quoted a letter from a fourth-grader, the daughter of a soldier : “‘As much as I don't want my Dad to fight,’” Bush read, “‘I'm willing to give him to you.’

“This is a precious gift,” the president continued. “The greatest she could give. … Since September 11, an entire generation of young Americans has gained new understanding of the value of freedom, and its cost in duty and in sacrifice.”

Bush may as well have been president of a completely different country then. Seven years on, that girl would now be the age of the newest privates in today’s army. She and her peers are beginning their young adulthood in a country for which hundreds of thousands of soldiers are fighting abroad. And despite all the talk back in 2001 about duty and sacrifice, only a small subset of Americans have been asked to give much at all. Last April, the New York Times estimated that 1.3 million Americans had served in Iraq; factor in another six months and account for Afghanistan, and perhaps one-and-a-half million men and women have served in our wars since 2001. But this is a country of 300 million, which means that the burden has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the few.

I’ve found myself wondering lately how it happened that our national impulse in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 to serve and sacrifice was so thoroughly thwarted, and what, if anything, we can, or should, do about it. To some extent, we civilians have simply done what our leaders asked us to do – which is nothing at all. I think back to my first Army Reserve drill the weekend after 9/11, as my fellow weekend warriors’ hands eagerly shot up in formation like kindergarteners every time our colonel asked for volunteers—to do what, exactly? Put your name on a list. Be ready. Wait.

“Americans are asking, 'What is expected of us?’” Bush said ten days after the attacks. His answer? “Live your lives and hug your children. ... I ask you to be calm and resolute. ... I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here.”

Five days after the opening volley in Afghanistan, he said it more explicitly: “Our government will fight terrorism across the seas and we'll fight it here at home. And the American people need to fight terrorism as well by going to work, going to ball games, getting on airplanes, singing with joy and strength.”

That was the crux; Americans should stay out of the way, go about their business, and let the government respond.

From 2003 to 2005, I spent about eighteen months called up as an Army JAG officer, first at Fort Drum, N.Y., and later in northern Virginia. Near the end, with my “demobilization” looming, I heard from a friend about what sounded like a pretty cool job: research assistant to reporter Bob Woodward. As part of my application, I wrote Woodward a memo critiquing his 2004 book, Plan of Attack. As I worked on it, I grew especially intrigued by Woodward’s account of Bush’s address to the class of 2002 at West Point. According to Woodward, Bush’s chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson (now a Washington Post columnist), had considered this “the most important speech he’d ever worked on” – so important, in fact, that whereas usually he was content to simply watch on television when Bush delivered his speeches, Gerson decided to be there in person for this one.

“The war on terror will not be won on the defensive,” Bush told the graduating cadets and their families, brushing aside the foreign policy of containment that every president had followed since the start of the Cold War. “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.”

I thought about those words as I wrote my application. My brother had participated in the Iraq invasion as a Marine, I was still on active duty, and many of my good friends were now combat veterans. I wondered what it had been like for the graduating cadets sitting there on the field in front of Bush that day: Congratulations on graduating. By the way, you’re going to war. A few Google searches later, I’d learned about one member of the class of 2002 who had gone on to be awarded the Silver Star after a battle in Sadr City, another who had been court-martialed for mistreating prisoners, and several others who had been killed in action. The first to die was a 23-year-old lieutenant from California named Todd Bryant. In a footnote to the Woodward memo, I wrote that I wondered what had happened to them all.

I was fortunate enough to get the job, and soon began working for Woodward, helping him to research his next book. As I did so, an idea began to take shape for a book of my own. Nights and weekends, I began tracking down members of the West Point class of 2002, interviewing them and their friends and families about their experiences. As I worked on this project, which would ultimately become a book titled In a Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point’s Class of 2002, I ended up conducting more than 600 interviews, with some people sitting down with me a dozen or more times, providing me with their war journals, their emails and letters home, their official Army records. I went to Iraq myself as a reporter in early 2007, and put my life in the hands of young men, some not more than a year or two older than the girl whose letter Bush quoted in his October 7, 2001 speech.

I learned about people like Drew Sloan—an infantry officer grievously wounded in Afghanistan who turned down a medical discharge so he could go to Iraq. And Will Tucker, who was set to leave the Army after two intense combat tours, only to be stop-lossed and sent back to Iraq a third time, for fifteen months, as part of the surge. And I mourned when another 2002 grad was killed in Iraq, not long after he’d sent an email saying he’d be willing to talk with me.

Some said they had gone to West Point for their parents, or because it was a way to get a college education for free. But it seemed clear that there was a more profound element to their service than that. Drew Sloan walked into a field in Afghanistan to pick up an IED, because if he hadn’t done it one of his soldiers would have had to. The president of the 2002 class, Joe DaSilva, took over an infantry platoon in Kuwait in March 2003, just days before the invasion, telling his soldiers when the order to mobilize came: “I don’t know what awaits us on the other side of that berm. But I’ll tell you this: If I have to give my life for any of you, I will do it in a heartbeat.” What motivates the best officers, I discovered, is love—for their country and for their soldiers—and a willingness to lay down their own lives for both.

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