Contents | October 2001
In This Issue (Contributors)
More on politics and society from The Atlantic Monthly.
More on the Army from The Atlantic Monthly.
More on national defense from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"After the Wars: Yugoslavia and the World" (April 2000)
Three Atlantic correspondents—Charles Trueheart, Chuck Sudetic, and David Rieff—consider the aftermath of the upheavals in Yugoslavia.
"The Widening Gap Between the Military and Society" (July 1997)
The U.S. military is emerging as an increasingly autonomous political force whose values diverge more and more widely from those of the society it is supposed to protect. By Thomas E. Ricks
"The Great Society in Camouflage" (December 1996)
The culture of today's Army derives from a unique blend of liberal and conservative philosophies. Will it survive peacetime transformations intact? By Thomas E. Ricks
"Blood and Motherly Advice" (February 1997)
The American Forces Network offers homilies, sports events, and surprisingly graphic depictions of war. The author becomes a convert to the American military's earnest approach to television. By Gregg Easterbrook
"Colonel Dunlap's Coup" (January 1993)
"We made a terrible mistake when we allowed the armed forces to be diverted from its original purpose." By Thomas E. Ricks
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Intervention Question" (April 7, 2000)
Atlantic articles from 1967 to 1996—by George McGovern, Ronald Steel, Jonathan Clarke, John J. Mearsheimer, and Robert D. Kaplan—take up the issue of American interventionism.
Flashbacks: "The Military and the Nation" (August 5, 1999)
After Kosovo, the nature of warfare and the meaning of national interest will never be the same. Two recent articles—by Robert D. Kaplan and Thomas E. Ricks—look at how the U.S. military is both shaping and adapting to a world without borders.
Flashbacks: "Reinventing the Military" (December 12, 1996)
Explorations, both past and present, of the military's efforts to redefine itself in a rapidly changing world.
Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.
The U.S. Army
The Army's official home page. Offers news, general information about the Army and Army life, links to Army-base and -training Web sites, and more.
The Atlantic Monthly | October 2001
ne 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.
Peace is Hell
Every six months the Pentagon sends nearly 4,000 soldiers to Bosnia and brings nearly 4,000 soldiers home. To see how it's done is to understand why keeping peace has become harder than waging war—and why the Pax Americana has stretched the mighty American military to the limit
by William Langewiesche
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.
A Misplaced Patch of America
t 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.
Eagle Base is known as a "temporary camp," but the water is pure, the electricity is reliable, and the buildings are heated and cooled. Two thousand American soldiers live there, on six-month rotations. They are assisted by a giant American contractor named Brown & Root, which employs an equal number of local civilians to act as interpreters for the patrols and to perform almost all of the manual labor—cooking, cleaning, gardening, construction, vehicle maintenance—that is required to keep the camp running.
The soldiers live in surprising isolation. Those who go out on patrol are generally forbidden to sit in cafés, to shop in the local markets, or to socialize with the Bosnians. Two thirds of the soldiers never even go out on patrols, and live almost entirely restricted to the base, where they serve in "support" roles as guards and office workers, and seem to spend most of their leisure time eating and then trying to lose weight. Bosnia for them is a wooded campus that takes about twenty minutes to walk across. Although the environs of Eagle Base are safe, the installation is surrounded by an illuminated and guarded perimeter fence, seven miles around, with only three gates, all of which are strictly controlled. The confinement gets old. But when soldiers talk about tough duty in Bosnia, they usually mean General Order #1—a nearly total prohibition on alcohol for American troops. Beyond that it's hard to pretend that they're roughing it.
To someone unaccustomed to life in today's Army, Eagle Base is rather unexpectedly elaborate. It has a Burger King, a Baskin-Robbins, an Anthony's Pizza, a few cappuccino cafés (one with a terrace, called The Rendez-Vous), an alcohol-free bar called Triggers, two movie theaters, an Internet café, several large sports facilities (including all the exercise machines and weights an army could possibly use), a short shopping street of jewelry and trinket stores, a richly stocked post-exchange department store, a continuing-education center with courses accredited by the City Colleges of Chicago and the University of Maryland, two radio stations, one of which broadcasts the National Public Radio programs All Things Considered and Car Talk (among others), lots of satellite TV, and two large twenty-four-hour dining facilities with racks groaning under a wealth of food. It also has live entertainment, recently including Hootie & the Blowfish, Tonic, Kimberly Burns, a Christian rock band, Christie Brinkley, a touring group of aging Miss Americas still in good form, and various professional cheerleaders. Some of the GIs even complained to me about the excess of luxury. They tended to be especially skeptical of Brown & Root, which seemed to cater perhaps too eagerly to the Army's every desire. One of the soldiers in charge of Eagle Base said, "You mention, 'Gee, it'd be nice to keep out of the mud going up to the sandwich shop,' and next thing you know they've built a whole wooden walkway with railings and indirect lighting, and then they've gone in and landscaped the damned thing."
Eagle Base has five smaller outposts, which offer much the same view in compressed form. When soldiers feel the need for variation, they can ride a bus a mile down the road to a helicopter-and-logistics base called Comanche, which has a "western" theme, with a post office labeled PONY EXPRESS and a café made up to look like a ski lodge. Escorted day trips to Sarajevo and Tuzla are available, but not many soldiers seem to bother. Some of the young recruits have never been overseas before, and they seem mostly just relieved to be taken care of. They miss drinking beer but enjoy the hazardous-duty bonus and the tax-free pay. They talk about the money they're saving and the cars they'll buy when they get home. In the meantime, they inhabit a place that feels familiar, a strangely misplaced patch of the United States.
The Goliath Syndrome
he effort of building and sustaining such a place does not in itself daunt American logisticians. After all, the U.S. military is used to operating on a very big scale. If the Department of Defense were a company, it would be the largest by far in the United States: it wields an annual budget of $300 billion, and it provides jobs for 1.4 million active-duty soldiers, 1.3 million members of the National Guard and reserves, and 672,000 civilians who are directly on the payroll. It owns more than 40,000 properties worldwide, including 250 bases, and 39,000 square miles of land—about the size of Kentucky. It operates and maintains 250,000 ground vehicles, 15,000 aircraft, about 150 satellites, and more than 1,000 oceangoing vessels. It runs 225 high schools and elementary schools. It provides day care for 200,000 children. It fits 50,000 pairs of boots every month. It serves 41 million meals a year, and provides food allowances for many more.
If one purpose of all this is to wage wars, and preferably far away, an equally important purpose is to project power around the globe in peacetime. This is an ambition that often comes down to the simple expediency of sending in the troops. Even the smallest of such efforts requires an almost unfathomable depth of details—all the "eaches," as one Army officer kept telling me, that are involved in an actual deployment. Each soldier must be briefed, trained, equipped, and clothed, often specially; must be medically and legally prepared; must have his family taken care of or, if he is single, have his car and household goods stored; and must be told what to pack and what not to. Then he must have his equipment transported, the heavy stuff by ship; must himself be "lifted" to his destination; and must be fed and supplied for the duration of the mission. In theory this is simple. In practice it is immensely complicated.
During World War II the average soldier dragged along sixty pounds of supplies. By a half century later, during the relatively minor Gulf War, that weight had risen nearly sevenfold, to 400 pounds. For peacetime operations the load varies, but it is unlikely to be much lighter. The "tooth to tail" ratio of front-line troops to support personnel is currently 1:7—a fact of U.S. military operations that causes legitimate concern about inefficiency but also reflects the physical difficulty of projecting power overseas. No one knows better than the Pentagon that the world remains a very big place, and that it's expensive to police. The yearly cost of maintaining the U.S. military presence abroad is estimated to be $28.6 billion a year, of which $4.2 billion in the 2001 Pentagon budget is earmarked for ongoing "contingencies"—peacekeeping and enforcing the Iraqi no-fly zones. These are tricky numbers, presupposing a distinction between domestic and international expenditures that does not naturally exist in a military designed at every level to exert power around the globe. Aren't the nuclear missiles in Montana, the reserve ships in Virginia, and the Marine Corps training facilities on Parris Island all part of the Balkan equation? The accounting quickly becomes arbitrary.
Though the number of soldiers overseas has been reduced by two thirds since the end of the Cold War, the missions are more varied than ever before, and by any reasonable standard the force levels abroad remain large. The precise totals change by the day, but according to the most recently published information (for December, 2000), the United States currently has 263,072 members of the armed forces overseas; about half of them are stationed at the huge bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea, and more than 50,000 others (sailors and Marines) live on ships. The remaining forces are divided among 138 countries, and are involved in formal peacekeeping missions in five of those: Egypt (Sinai), Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and East Timor. These troops are not expected to eat the local food or sleep on bare ground. They are volunteers in a peacetime force, and they have to be given some semblance of an American life—to be provided with good tools to do their jobs, protected, housed, entertained, and afforded more than minimal comforts and supplies.
But for all the strain that peacekeeping is said to cause the military, the really striking thing is not how large the numbers are but how small. There are fewer than 4,000 American soldiers on the ground in Bosnia at any one time, and only about 6,000 in Kosovo. It's true that in both places the American share of the burden is carried now almost entirely by a single branch of the military, the U.S. Army. But the Army is a very big branch, more than a million soldiers strong, including its reserves. By rough calculation, if it maintains a force of 10,000 in the Balkans on the standard six-month rotations, its presence in the region amounts to merely 20,000 soldiers a year—less than a fiftieth of the Army's total strength. Double or triple that figure to include soldiers who are engaged in preparing for or supporting the mission from within the United States, and the scale remains relatively small. This is not to imply that the peacekeeping assignment has been easy, or that it could have been. Sending even 4,000 soldiers to a place like Bosnia—and then sustaining them there—is necessarily a big and difficult job. But still, it's surprising that missions on this scale could overburden the mighty U.S. military.
I went to Bosnia to try to understand. During my stay there most of the troops belonged to the Second Brigade of the mechanized 3rd Infantry Division, an armor-heavy combat force out of Fort Stewart, Georgia, that had assumed the Bosnia mission for two consecutive tours. At its full stateside complement the 3rd ID consists of something over 20,000 full-time soldiers and easily twice that number in dependent families and civilian employees. At its core it contains three "maneuver" brigades of 3,500 soldiers each, who fight primarily in M1-A1 tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers. There are thirty-three such maneuver brigades in the regular Army, and an additional forty-two in the Army National Guard—and together they constitute the military spine of the United States. The three within the 3rd ID are backed up by a powerful divisional artillery, a squadron of attack and transport helicopters, and masses of supply and support units. They are also supplemented by reservists and National Guardsmen and by a complex combination of soldiers attached from elsewhere in the armed forces. When it can all be brought to bear, as happened during the Gulf War, the 3rd ID turns out to be a fighting machine of impressive destructive power. But Bosnia was showing it in another light.
The problem was partly just personality. These were soldiers who liked to blow things up. It's what they had enlisted to do, what they had been trained to do—and what they could not even pretend to do in Bosnia. The helicopter crews were restricted from flying low, mounting their door guns, or hovering in a menacing way. The few dozen tanks and Bradleys to which the ground troops had access were not their regular ones from Georgia but orphans that remained in Bosnia for each new rotation to use. The vehicles were confined to motor pools and let out only for short maintenance runs. The peacekeeping patrols drove around not in tracked vehicles equipped with cannons but in armored Humvees with 50-caliber machine guns mounted in turrets on the roofs. The armored Humvees may have been intimidating to the local population, but to the soldiers they did not seem particularly impressive. The soldiers did not feel vulnerable in their Humvees so much as awkward and out of place. They were like football players invited to play croquet.
The division was simply not used to operating on such a small and delicate scale. The 3rd ID's stateside strength of 20,000 was equal to the combined strength of the entire thirty-three-nation coalition keeping the peace in Bosnia. That coalition—known as SFOR (pronounced S-for), for "stabilization force," and based in Sarajevo—was NATO-led and operated under a complicated system of parallel commands. Although the United States provided the biggest contingent, the U.S. Army actually had direct responsibility for only the northeastern third of the country—and even there it was supplemented by substantial units of Scandinavian, Polish, Turkish, and Russian troops, all working under the direction of Eagle Base. For the 3rd ID this meant that only a fifth of its soldiers were needed in Bosnia at any one time. The rest remained at Fort Stewart, where, even as units prepared for peacekeeping runs, or reorganized following completed ones, the majority of the soldiers continued to train for what everyone agreed was the division's primary purpose: fighting high-intensity battles against conventional foes, presumably in defense of the nation.
That was hardly what the Bosnian job was about. It was a small police action during which very few of the division's war-fighting skills would be called upon. Even so, the core of the division's headquarters staff (including the top two of its three generals and several of its most effective colonels) had been sent off to Eagle Base, where it had the equivalent of a mere brigade to command. This surfeit of high-ranking officers reflected a top-heaviness that existed throughout the SFOR coalition, starting in Sarajevo, where the headquarters for an entire corps had been set up to command the equivalent of a mere division. The formal explanation for such a structure was that it allowed for a rapid buildup of forces should the need suddenly arise. The informal explanation was that it resulted from international one-upmanship within the coalition, a sort of rank-ratcheting that goes on among the various militaries. Either way, experience had shown that with so many egos involved, the United States needed to bring in its generals to get things done.
For the generals themselves, the experience was therefore somewhat hollow. That wouldn't necessarily matter, but the staff tended to fill the void with foam, involving top officers in unimportant details—the mess-hall menu, for instance, or incidents of aggressive driving on the local roads, or some petty fistfight between street thugs in a village far away. At Eagle Base, where even a broken-down Humvee could show up in the daily "battle update briefing," the information got as tedious as hell. The major general (two-star) in command of the 3rd ID, a diminutive, soft-spoken man named Walter "Skip" Sharp, who had been sent to Bosnia for a full year, implied to me that the division as a whole was having a hard time staying on track during the Bosnian deployment.
Its problem was not only with this Bosnia mission but also with an upcoming tour in Kosovo—two assignments that between them now threatened to undermine the war-readiness of the entire 3rd ID, at least by the Army's conventional standards. Sharp's job was not to argue with those standards but to try to meet them. They involved items as mundane as adequate tank-gunnery scores—normally just a matter of practice, but difficult to achieve when a third of the tankers were occupied pulling guard duty and driving Humvees in the Balkans, or getting ready to. The peacekeepers were learning some war-fighting skills—how to operate in nearly autonomous small units, for instance, or to work in an international coalition—but the Army was not equipped to evaluate them. Whether these untested, unmeasurable skills would be of use in future wars was something for academics to think about—as, indeed, was the nature of those future wars, and perhaps the definition of readiness.
Meanwhile, Skip Sharp was an officer on the front lines of American policy. He accepted the mission in Bosnia not as an exception but as part of the historical duty of the U.S. Army. The truth is that the military has long been given jobs like this—rescues, restorations, the suppression of brush fires in faraway places. And though the definition of altruism has evolved, and the thresholds for intervention have apparently been raised by the Bush Administration, as long as the United States remains a great power with an interest in global stability, the military will continue to get similar jobs. Sharp had commanded peacekeepers before, in Haiti in 1994, and he understood the symbolic and operational importance of his presence on Bosnian soil. Peacekeeping is an extension of politics by similar means. Sharp was not a natural politician but an organization man, and like the Army itself, he was willing to work within an agenda set by others.
That didn't make his job any easier. Even the divisional artillery, which had stayed behind in Georgia but had been saddled with training the peacekeepers, was having trouble meeting its normal war-fighting requirements. Sharp held videoconferences with his subordinates back at Fort Stewart and managed occasionally to take a quick trip home; but he felt the distance, and he must have known that the entire division was losing ground. He never said this to me, but it was obvious that many of the officers in both Georgia and Bosnia, although they had not exactly lost perspective on the peacekeeping mission, had been unable to respond to it in a reasonable and measured way. Faced with what they considered to be a strange and ambiguous mission, they tended to overreact collectively—in training the troops and then maintaining them on the ground. Significantly, as individuals the officers knew they were overreacting but felt powerless to stop. Rather than peacekeeping itself, it was this institutional effect that seemed to be something new.
The Just-Plain Army
arlier, in Georgia, I had watched a unit of the 3rd ID leave Fort Stewart, bound for Bosnia and Eagle Base—a planeload of 280 soldiers constituting the final group to head out on the division's first Balkan rotation, at the close of a long and arduous preparation. They assembled in a brown-brick gymnasium on a bright morning, wearing their helmets, flak vests, and combat uniforms, and carrying a variety of weapons. They had magnetic SFOR identity cards and bar-coded labels on their duffel bags. A few of them had families outside, and wandered off to say good-bye, but most just milled around and waited. A line of seven white school buses pulled into the parking lot to haul them away. The divisional band eventually showed up with its instruments. The mood was noticeably low-key, but the 3rd ID is like that anyway. It's the just-plain Army, the real thing, and it doesn't strut.
Fort Stewart doesn't strut either, in part because it's so ugly. Soldiers call it Camp Swampy, without affection. It is the largest Army base east of the Mississippi, a 436-square-mile expanse of discarded forest, cut by tank tracks, roads, and firing ranges. It is flat, featureless, and relentlessly hot for much of the year. An unhappy little town called Hinesville presses up hard against the main gate with pawnshops, car lots, and fast-food joints, displaying billboards of the "God Bless Our Boys" variety while mercilessly inflating the apartment rents of the many soldiers who live off the base.
Fort Stewart, by comparison, is a decent place. Its main post is a town unto itself, stretching through a maze of streets for several miles beyond the gate, with a mixture of classic white-painted wooden buildings from World War II and unadorned modern structures built of brick. Beyond the core district of headquarters buildings and dining facilities it contains housing for 14,000 people, ranging from dormitory-style barracks for single enlisted men to expansive ranch-style houses for the senior officers and their families. It has a child-care center, two kindergartens, two elementary schools, a mosque, five Christian chapels (one used for Jewish services), a hospital, two medical clinics, two dental clinics, a veterinary clinic, a kennel, a stable, a bank, a credit union, a U.S. post office, a library, three theaters, a slew of fast-food restaurants, a department store, a car wash, an auto-repair garage, several gas stations, seven convenience stores, a liquor store, a clothing store, two dry cleaners, two barbershops, two bowling alleys (one with a lounge), a museum, a golf course, four swimming pools, many gymnasiums and weight rooms, a tennis center, a recreational pond with plumbed camping sites, an outdoor recreational-equipment rental center, an arts-and-crafts shop, an officers' club, a club for enlisted soldiers, a teen club, and a rod-and-gun club, with associated skeet, rifle, and archery ranges.
All this is dwarfed by Fort Stewart's business end—vast motor pools strung along the roads, where the equipment that makes the 3rd ID "mechanized" stands in seemingly endless rows. The motor pools contain hundreds upon hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles, earthmovers, cranes, self-propelled artillery pieces, and trucks and Humvees of a bewildering variety, including large numbers of heavy-duty "recovery" vehicles for towing the machines home when they break down—which they routinely do, all over the place. Most of the equipment is painted desert tan, because of the 3rd ID's regular responsibility for protecting the oil fields of the Persian Gulf—an appropriate role for such machines, in poetic as well as tactical terms. This is the industrial side of America's military complex, the extension of politics through sheer mechanical weight. A tank commander said to me, "We're not talking guerrilla warfare here. We can go as deep as we want so long as we've got the fuel. But we leave havoc behind—just absolute chaos. When we go through, it changes the face of the earth." Another tanker I spoke to was maybe less thoughtful. He said, "You put this fuckin' tank on a street corner somewhere, and the United States owns it. I guaran-fuckin-tee it." He was probably right. But, of course, the United States does not want to own Bosnia. In fact, it would like to disown it. And even he could not ignore that his tank would have been of little use there.
The soldiers at Fort Stewart seemed strange to me at first—the way they hurried around the post in their overshined bulb-toed combat boots, dressed in camouflage, repeating unit mottoes ("Rock of the Marne!" or "Heart of the Rock!") as sidewalk greetings, and affecting impractical little "soft caps," which they removed indoors to reveal their radical, disfiguring haircuts. The men wore those haircuts—shaved high up the sides but with a growth left on top—like badges, indicating their commitment to the soldiering life. The women were not allowed to do the same, but they kept their hair tied up tight, wore no jewelry or makeup, and worked hard at fitting in. Both sexes talked gruffly about needing to lean forward in the foxhole, meaning "to anticipate," and to break contact, meaning "to leave." I guessed it was a gang thing. These were people who had traded their independence for the dictates of a group, who perhaps had sought ritual, and who now seemed to inhabit a narrow culture so marginalized, despite the patriotism surrounding it, that their plainness had become a sort of vanity in itself.
There may have been some truth to those first impressions. But as I grew accustomed to Fort Stewart, I came to appreciate the culture in quite another way, not merely for its Spartan virtue but also for its spirit of inclusion—a progressive and practical response to the enormous diversity in the ranks. That diversity exists to a degree rarely found elsewhere in the United States. Beyond a glaring lack of volunteers from America's upper classes, the soldiers of the 3rd ID came from all corners of the country and from many walks of life, with 20,000 reasons for having joined the Army and as many reactions to the experience now. They had signed away their independence but not their individuality, their knowledge of civilian life, or the complexity of their thoughts. Their plainness in that light was not a vanity after all but a necessary extension of the soldier's uniform—a manifestation of the unusual egalitarianism that seems to exist within the Army.
It's not that the hierarchy has been blurred, or that, as one officer in Bosnia complained to me, "the force has to sit around now holding hands, singing Kum-ba-yah." But there is within the Army an unmistakable sense that the playing field has been leveled. It was not by chance that at Fort Stewart the tensions among races and ethnicities had almost entirely melted away, and that women, too, were gaining acceptance as integrated members of the fighting force.
In any case, of the 280 soldiers assembled for departure that morning in the gym, I have no idea how many were black, Hispanic, or white. It was hard enough to tell which ones were women, or where the officers were. They all wore the same cumbersome combat gear ("battle rattle," they call it, for the noise it makes when they move), and they stood mixed together with their heads half buried in their Kevlar helmets, watching the time pass slowly until the check-in was completed. The officer in charge was Colonel Louis "Bill" Weber, age forty-seven, a rugged, good-humored Texan whose background included front-line fighting in the Gulf War along with peacekeeping stints in Lebanon and Haiti, and who now, as commander of the division's Second Brigade, was set to assume direct operational responsibility for most of the American soldiers in Bosnia. Weber was a star. He had a spontaneous smile and a folksy, self-deprecating charm that contrasted with the seriousness of his focus and the obvious strength of his mind. The ordinary soldiers under his command seemed almost universally to adore him. Later, on a rainy night in Bosnia, a sergeant said to me, "I don't like officers, and never have. Most of them are full of shit. But Weber? I'd take a bullet for him." I asked him to explain. He may have been a little embarrassed by his declaration. He said he meant that with Weber on his side, and some good weaponry, he couldn't imagine losing a fight.
But there was a more complex connection now, in the absence of war, and it had less to do with Weber's battlefield skills than with his personality. When he asked his soldiers about their families, he seemed to care. He often remembered previous conversations; apparently he had an easy time attaching lives to all those faces. On the day of departure, in the Fort Stewart gym, he moved through the crowd seeking contact, lingering, and enjoying the company of the troops. Banter came easily to him—about baseball, basketball, deer hunting, Army paperwork, the glories of Texas, and the misery of just about everywhere else. Oklahoma deserved particular scorn, because of the University of Oklahoma's football rivalry with his alma mater, Texas A&M. He liked to pretend that being an A&M "Aggie" was the most important thing in his life. In his light Texas drawl he liked to say, "Now, I'm just a simple guy ...," though everyone could see that he was not.
The division's chaplain came to the front of the gym and said a thirty-second prayer. There was a bit of saluting, and the troops began to file out. On the far side of the parking lot the band struck up a rendition of "God Bless the U.S.A.," which in the context felt a little forced. It was another hot morning in Georgia. There was no fuss. The soldiers climbed onto the buses and sat down. The buses would take them on the short ride north to Fort Stewart's Hunter Army Airfield, in Savannah, where they would wait for their flight, the first of two that would carry them not to war but to Eagle Base. It was true that they would be away for six months, and that for many with families the separation would be difficult. Dissatisfaction with the frequency of such separations—as much for field training in the United States as for deployments overseas—has become a serious cause of attrition among the Army's troops, more than half of whom are married. Nonetheless, I noticed that by the time they got on the buses, these soldiers seemed to have come to terms with the idea of departure, and they did not look particularly glum.
I wandered over to Weber just as a young captain reported to him that the buses were about to pull out. Weber acknowledged the report with a discernibly ironic use of the brigade's motto: "Send me!" The captain flashed a grin and disappeared. Weber had a family of his own to leave—a graceful, energetic wife who was an officer in the Army Reserve, and two young children for whom six months would seem like an eternity. I suggested to him that he might want to change the brigade's motto. He smiled ruefully and said he'd thought of that too.
A Giant Deployment Machine
t wouldn't have done any good anyway, because beyond its routine duties of hosting the 3rd ID, sending off the forces is what Fort Stewart is all about. Its operators advertise it as "the Army's premier power projection platform." It has vast warehouses full of ready-to-ship supplies; a new and highly mechanized container yard with a brigade's worth of 530 containers and 250 chassis; a huge new twenty-four-hour rail marshaling yard for loading wheeled and tracked vehicles; an elaborate ammunition dump and loading point; a refurbished railroad with seventeen miles of track, three locomotives, and 200 cars; a military airport with all the requisite facilities; and special access to the loading docks at the nearby deepwater ports of Savannah and Jacksonville. It can tap the labor of thousands of people, both military and civilian, to make the send-offs work—to ship out, if required, the entire 3rd ID with all its tanks and equipment to anywhere in the world. It cannot guarantee that the staging areas on the receiving end can absorb such deliveries, since few places have facilities to match its own, but that's part of the larger problem of asymmetry, the Goliath syndrome that besets the U.S. military in general, and it has not diminished the garrison's purpose or design.
The principal destinations for troops deploying from Fort Stewart this year alone include Bosnia, Kosovo, Egypt, Kuwait, and the Army training grounds in Louisiana and California—and all but the Middle East assignments involve multiple rotations. The garrison is almost constantly sending the various units out or bringing them back at the end of their tours. The efforts are coordinated by a grandly named Deployment Control Headquarters, which turns out to be a young major and a couple of sergeants toiling behind old desks to keep the many schedules from colliding.
The process of deployment is opaque even for the participants. Most of the necessary preparations are done at the level of individual companies and platoons, as small parts of a complex, interwoven process that appears to be half magical every time it comes together. Managing that process is a mind-boggling exercise in details. Colonel William Betson, the commander of Fort Stewart's garrison, mentioned, for instance, the difficulty he had in getting the deployment trains to run on time. He was plagued not by hurricanes or wars but by stupid little things like the tools required to chain down the loads. He said, "Invariably, someone will forget a widget." And there are plenty of widgets to forget, because there is so much equipment to chain down. Combat units drag along a lot of supplies, and they also consist of a lot of people, each, of course, with an independent mind. Consider the joy of departing on a family vacation, and take it to the nth power.
There are reformers today, as there usually have been, who believe that tomorrow's Army can be light and quick, but if they are pragmatic, they define those words in relative terms; a new, pared-down armored vehicle, for instance, with wheels instead of tracks, might weigh merely thirty tons as compared to the current thirty-five. The truth is that the Army is incapable of doing anything lightly, and it suffers from heaviness even in the process by which it tries to slim down. Though it is smarter than people believe, and it is surprisingly self-aware, it has been tied to its massiveness as surely as to its war-fighting conventions.
In any case, Fort Stewart has to deal with the heaviness of the equipment it is given. For example, when the Pentagon calls for companies of M1-A1 tanks from the 3rd ID, and diverts a ship to Savannah to pick them up, the issue arises of how to get the tanks from the motor pools to the port. Ignoring the need to arrange for all the other vehicles, fuel, and supplies that have to accompany such a deployment, the job might not in itself seem difficult to accomplish, since tanks by definition are mobile. The port lies just forty miles north, up Interstate 95 and across a familiar corner of the city, and the $1.6 million M1-A1s—each powered by a 1,500-horsepower turbine, and capable of doing perhaps 60 mph—are by design perfectly able to get there on their own.
But, of course, that's not how it works, because the tanks' enormous tracks, though cushioned by rubber pads, would bust up the Georgia public roads to an extent that could be justified only by the sudden outbreak of war. Trucking the tanks to the port is similarly impractical: each tank weighs 140,000 pounds combat-loaded; combined with the 90,000 pounds of a tank-hauling truck, that amounts to a total highway load of 230,000 pounds—80,000 pounds heavier than the maximum highway load allowed by the State of Georgia under a special we're-doing-you-a-favor waiver for military shipments. In other words, forget it.
The only answer is the train. The tanks emerge from the motor pools and rumble in columns along the post's reinforced roads, eventually arriving at the marshaling yard, where, presumably, the employees of the Fort Stewart railroad have already assembled strings of flatcars on the two dedicated rail spurs that run between elevated concrete loading docks. The marshaling yard is surrounded by a chain-link fence. It contains a small building staffed by civilians, chief among them the garrison's unit-movement coordinator, Rita Johanson, graying after twenty years on the job, without whose ceaseless efforts, it is said, Fort Stewart's deployments would grind to a halt.
When tanks arrive to be shipped off, they creep docilely along the marshaling-yard fence and stop at the gate, with their turbines and hydraulics screaming and their heavily garbed crews looking down from the open hatches. Working with clipboards and long lists on a folding table, the gatekeepers send soldiers forward to slap adhesive bar-coded shipping labels on the armored flanks, as if even packages like these might get lost. The gatekeepers then allow the tanks to continue cautiously into a paved fifteen-acre staging area one at a time, each preceded by a "ground guide"—a single trusting soldier walking ahead with his back turned to the machine behind him. In the staging area the tanks get in line and then shut down and wait—often for hours. When its turn comes, each tank starts up again and, blowing a hurricane of hot exhaust, rolls slowly toward the tail of the train. The loading is tricky. It proceeds circus-style, with the tanks moving up the string in a single file from the last flatcar forward, or in a similar way after a pivoting turn from two side-entry points farther up the train. The tanks easily bridge the gaps between the flatcars, without resorting to ramps. But because the inside span of the tank tracks is only a few inches narrower than the flatcars are wide, steering is critical—a matter of suspending the outside of the tracks six inches over the edge on either side. This is managed with hand signals from ground guides, who now turn around to face their tanks and, having climbed onto the flatcars, must walk backward without tripping on chains and shackles or falling off the ends. I heard an old sergeant named Willie Landers say to a squad, "If that happens, you becomes the meat in the irrronn sandwich." You can still find people who sing like that in the Army, but not many. Most will just tell you flatly to watch your ass, and drive on. There is an ambulance standing by. Willie Landers said that soldiers can get hurt just by looking at these machines.
The process is unavoidably linear. It takes ten hours to load, secure, and inspect a full string of fifty tanks, assuming that the chaining crew is competent and that everything goes right, which it never does. The tankers have an acute appreciation for their equipment's weight; they say that no matter how carefully they've checked a tank before leaving the motor pool, it can break down during the delay in the staging area, because the M1-A1 is so heavy that it crushes itself by standing still. Unfortunately, it also seems to crush itself by moving. In the worst case, the breakdown occurs while the tank is proceeding up the train, with a line of other tanks on the roll behind it. Then it's Murphy's Law on the scale of the U.S. Army. If the assembled mechanics can't quickly get the tank running, it has to be gotten out of the way. Since the route forward is typically blocked by other tanks that have been chained down, there are only two solutions available. The first is to back an entire line of M1-A1s off the train (a procedure requiring two ground guides for each tank—one behind who signals to one in front who signals to the driver, who can see only forward) in order finally to tow the culprit backward down the emptied flatcars. The second solution is to clear the loading docks and come in from the side with a heavy recovery crane, built onto a tank chassis, which can be maneuvered to pluck the offending machine directly from the train. The decision between them is made according to relative degrees of a big delay.
When the train finally rolls, its speed is restricted to 10 mph at Fort Stewart. If it leaves during the morning rush hour, it causes traffic jams at the road crossings—after which the garrison phones light up with complaints from soldiers made late for work. They might be more forgiving in times of war, but this is peace. Fifteen miles to the east the CSX railroad takes over and hurries the train to the port, as much to clear it off the commercial rails as to provide the Army with good service. At the port the soldiers occupy a modest patch of pavement and try to stay out of the way. The port is extremely busy, with its mountains of commercial containers and its aggressive, superefficient longshoremen who don't appreciate the Army's presence, with its slow-walking ground guides and its oddly shaped, overweight, bulletproof equipment.
4,000 Soldiers, a Million Details
hen the 3rd ID got the final word, in the spring of 2000, that it was headed for Bosnia in the fall, it began immediately to prepare. The framework for the deployment was clear. Bosnia was to be a plug-in mission, with well-established camps maintained by Brown & Root and supported logistically by the military's European Command, in Heidelberg, Germany. The Bosnia operation already had its own pool of tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers, its own trucks, vans, buses, and utility vehicles, and its own fleet of armored Humvees. The division would have to ship over some helicopters, which are not normally shared within the Army, but by the standards of Fort Stewart this would be a light deployment. That did not mean it was simple.
Within the framework of the mission the individual units decided what they would need to bring along. Since the soldiers were not carrying packs on their backs, the unit commanders tended to make sure they wouldn't get caught short before considering what they could perhaps live without. This is, of course, exactly the wrong way to plan for a family vacation, but it is what Rita Johanson and the other transportation experts were used to. After several months of preparation Johanson and a team flew in June to Eagle Base for a two-day "flow conference," during which they appraised the facilities for their capacity to handle the upcoming population surge that would be imposed by the inflow of Bill Weber's Second Brigade during the two-week "relief in place," an apprenticeship period during which the outgoing troops would teach the replacements the essentials of their appointed rounds. Johanson saw nothing of Bosnia beyond the base. Her strongest personal impression was of the lack of privacy in the women's shower room, about which she could laugh. She returned directly to Fort Stewart, and by midsummer she had secured space on a ship for the bulk of the supplies, had wrangled up enough Air Force cargo planes for the light equipment, and had arranged for a staggered sequence of twenty-five wide-bodied charter flights timed to deliver the troops to Eagle Base at a moderate rate that wouldn't overwhelm the airport, the mess halls, or the barracks.
The supplies were moved by truck convoys to the Port of Savannah. A hundred soldiers also moved there for a week to handle the final packing. When assembled at the port, the main load included 175 military containers (at an average weight of 25,000 pounds each); thirty-eight shrink-wrapped helicopters (with detached rotors); a handful of extra trucks, trailers, and Humvees; and an additional 305 miscellaneous items too big to containerize. If that seems like a lot, consider that in 1999, when the 3rd ID returned from a training exercise in Egypt, along with its expected load it found itself with 100 containers that didn't even belong to it, including a half dozen or so packed with putrid steaks. In any case, the ship that now came in for the Bosnia mission made even the docks of Savannah look small: it was an Italian roll-on roll-off vessel, an 800-foot beauty, and within two days it had swallowed the supplies into a portion of its hold. On August 23, with a few soldiers aboard to watch over the equipment, it slipped down the Savannah River beyond the city, past wild coastal marshes where from a distance a few fishermen might have seen the immense superstructure sliding by above the reeds, and then on beyond the old Confederate fort at Tybee Island and into the open ocean. Two weeks later, in early September, the ship docked in the port of Rijeka, on the Croatian coast, where it disgorged the supplies, which were loaded again onto trains and taken on a long ride east and south into Bosnia, to a supply depot at a railhead near Tuzla. By then the rest of the deployment was getting under way. The Air Force had encountered some problems with its cargo planes, particularly the C-141s, which kept breaking down and diverting to Fort Dix, New Jersey. But the commercial charter flights had started off well and were moving the troops on schedule.
For the deploying units themselves a parallel process of internal preparations had largely come to an end. At the most basic level that process involved the preparation of each individual soldier and the verification of a bewildering array of details. Take as a starting point just the problem of a soldier's clothing. Troops arrive at Fort Stewart equipped with nothing more than their field uniforms, which they are expected to buy with money from a clothing allowance. Beyond that it is up to the garrison to provide them with a full complement of gear. This is done in a dim wooden warehouse called the Central Issue Facility, staffed by longtime civilian employees (sometimes third generation) who speak with the accents of deepest Georgia and move slowly in the heat. The civilians stand at stations in a central stocking area, behind a long wooden countertop. The soldiers shuffle from station to station, pushing battered shopping carts, which they stuff with equipment on the basis of computer-generated menus specific to one of thirty-five specialties—mounted infantry, dismounted infantry, tanker, aviator, cook, and so on. The goods they receive remain the property of the government, and have to be inventoried and signed for at the end of the counter. At the minimum they include, in order of the stations, two cloth barracks bags, two waterproof bags, one extender belt, one equipment belt, two wool blankets, two plastic canteens, one entrenching-tool holster, one first-aid case, two canteen covers, one canteen cup, one pair of leather gloves, one Kevlar helmet (with separate chinstrap, sweatband, and liner), one entrenching tool, one sleeping mat, one shelter half, one duffel bag, one modular sleeping bag, one Gore-Tex sleeping-bag cover, one mosquito net, one camouflaged field pack, one shoulder strap (right), one shoulder strap (left), one tactical-load-bearing vest, one poncho, one helmet cover, one black beret, one parka liner, one pair of vinyl overshoes, one light undershirt, one rain parka, one pair of rain pants, one wool sweater, one cold-weather cap, one (chemical) protective suit, one pair of (chemical) protective gloves, one flak vest, one Gore-Tex parka, one pair of Gore-Tex overpants, two sets of poly-propylene long underwear, one pair of glove shells, two pairs of glove inserts, one neck gaiter, two heavy-pile undershirts, and one balaclava. Later, elsewhere, the soldiers receive their weapons and gas masks. But here already, at the end of the countertop, the shopping carts overflow with around $2,000 worth of stuff per soldier, some of which later gets lost and almost all of which eventually wears out.
Which returns us to the realities of the Bosnia deployment. For each soldier heading overseas the equipment menu had to be checked again and the inevitable gaps filled in. This meant going back to the Central Issue Facility and negotiating with the staff there, particularly with a civilian supervisor named Mr. Nelson, who in defense of the division's supplies had long ago adopted the role of a sheriff. One of his co-workers said to me, "Mr. Nelson, he's the bad guy down here. The soldiers, they're always moaning and crying and pleading, you know, 'Please, Mr. Nelson! I need that!' Or when stuff is missing, 'You didn't give it to me two years ago!' And Mr. Nelson is supposed to say, 'Oh, I remember you! Sure, I'll just mark it off in my property book!'" In practice Mr. Nelson could sometimes be persuaded to do just that, but it took time. And then once the deploying soldiers had accounted for their basic issue, they had to go next door, to a separate warehouse, to collect a special "Bosnia issue" of at least thirteen additional items, including a fiberglass mine probe, a second duffel, and "intermediate cold weather boots," which tended to run a half-size small and had to be tried on.
All such details were spelled out in a set of formal "soldier readiness checks," which covered hundreds of items and had to be completed for each man or woman heading overseas. Beyond the clothing, soldier readiness involved personnel and pay arrangements, wills, financial papers, contact numbers, family housing, storage, physical-fitness standards, ID cards, dog tags (two, around neck), Geneva Convention cards, small-weapons qualifications, and a variety of medical issues, including hearing aids, prescriptions, eyeglasses, pregnancy tests, inoculations, blood and urine tests, HIV tests, and "dental readiness checks." (Another large set of must-dos was associated with "family-readiness groups," unit-based self-help groups created by the Army in response to family morale problems.) It helped that the regular-Army soldiers were already supposed to be deployable, and that they went through similar checks as part of the standard unit procedures, but many of them had to be checked again now, with this specific departure in mind. The burden imposed by the use of National Guard troops was higher still. For example, among the two companies mobilized for the initial Bosnia rotation, more than a fifth of the soldiers had to have the wax cleaned out of their ears before they could have their hearing tested (turning a fifteen-minute check into an all-morning delay), and large numbers of them were found upon arrival at the dentist's office to have nondeployable teeth.
I heard about those teeth from many of the top officers in the 3rd ID, perhaps because the second Bosnia rotation was going to include a majority from the National Guard. There is no doubt that fixing their teeth would be a good thing to do. Still, up close one begins to wonder about the way the Army judges its ability to send its troops overseas—whether to perform peacekeeping or to fight wars. Much of that information remains classified, and goes far beyond the soldier-readiness checks. But it is obvious that elements of unreality have crept into play, and that in a sustained fight the present standards would have to change. At the same time, it would be unrealistic to expect the changes to take place now, in a context of peace. And in such a context dental readiness becomes a big deal if for no other reason than that toothaches are a real sort of pain.
Bosnia is a similar thing. The Balkans deployment became an obsession for the entire 3rd ID, and given the relatively small number of troops heading out on it, the reaction was unusual. Indeed, the Balkans mission turned out to be the most disruptive event in the 3rd ID's recent history—and the only mission that had ever caused it to question its ability to fight wars. If this seems difficult to believe, consider that however serious the intent, every other mission in most soldiers' memories had been a simulation or a game—and that even the Gulf War had turned out to be, as one of the veterans said to me, hardly more than a training exercise with consequences. Since the war the 3rd ID had been in the United States preparing, for the most part, to fight an enemy that did not quite exist, a necessary but fictitious opposing force created by the Army itself. Then came the mission to Bosnia, which was low-grade by military standards, but for the first time in years also something real. In that light alone the focus on it by the division's career officers became understandable. They were professional soldiers being called on to do a job, and every one I met seemed to care about doing it right. At the same time, they were hardly looking forward to the assignment: it was to be a police action on foreign soil, with no victories to win and no objective in sight beyond an uncertain peace (a "safe and secure environment") in which the imported ideal of a democratic multi-ethnic state was somehow supposed to take root. To add to the officers' concerns, although some of them had already served in the Balkans with other divisions, this would be the first peacekeeping effort for the 3rd ID, and it would require all of the subtlety, patience, and personal wariness that operating in international coalitions and ambiguous civilian environments entails. Somehow this would have to be communicated to even the simplest soldier carrying a gun.
There was another issue, too. Having watched the political reaction to recent problems during the Kosovo peacekeeping mission, when a chain of command was punished after a few soldiers beat some civilians and one raped and murdered an Albanian girl, commanders at every level of the division were convinced that there would be little tolerance for mistakes made on the ground in Bosnia. Despite occasional assurances from the Pentagon and Congress, if for any reason something did go wrong in Bosnia, a U.S. soldier or a Bosnian civilian getting killed, the political system would again require the reflexive sacrifice of hard-won careers. The resulting defensiveness goes a long way toward explaining the 3rd ID's disproportionate reaction to the Bosnian mission, and it was typical for the officer corps today—a form of the career fear that permeates the ranks and pervades almost all Army operations.
Colonel Betson, the Fort Stewart garrison commander, brought up the Kosovo incident with me in order to explain the scope of the training for Bosnia. He said, "I don't know what the issue was there, but I do know that we work very hard to train our soldiers here before we send them anywhere. They have to go through individual training, platoon training, and company training, and it's all set before they leave. We do our best to make sure we don't put a young kid into a situation he's not mature enough to handle." What he didn't mention is that the troops in Kosovo had gone through similar training, and that in its investigation the Army, before wrecking the careers of the chain of commanders, had seized on the fact that the troops had missed a final mission-rehearsal exercise—as if that would have made a difference.
So when the orders came down for Bosnia, the 3rd ID knew immediately not only that it needed to train for the mission but also that it needed to establish a clear record of having done so. Moreover, the structure and much of the content of the training had been defined by higher authorities in the Army, and the established training regimens were large to start with. So simple organizational dynamics were also at play: the division could add to the training that had been done in the past but not easily subtract. If the thinkers at the division's headquarters could have examined the peacekeeping mission as an isolated problem, ignoring Army mandates and the politics of recrimination, they might have come up with a quieter, less burdensome response. Other nations certainly have. But in the United States in peacetime, when it came to preparing for Bosnia, proportionality was never much of a choice.
A Misplaced Patch of Bosnia
he purpose of the training was to accustom soldiers to working in a potentially hostile but civilian environment. It began with a one-week course of "individual replacement training," divided evenly between the classroom and the field and designed to provide a basic orientation to Bosnia from a standardized Army point of view. Out of curiosity I went through it myself, across the state from Fort Stewart at Fort Benning, with a group of stragglers who had not been present at the initial training. The week started inauspiciously with a driver's-ed class oriented toward Germany, which offered such helpful advice as "You must be 100 percent alert at all times" and the equally useful "When driving on the autobahn, if you take the wrong exit, backing up is prohibited and can be dangerous." But things then improved somewhat, with classroom instruction on such wide-ranging topics as gas masks, espionage, venereal disease, Bosnian history, convoy operations, the laws of land warfare, the general rules of engagement, fratricide, and terrorism—about which the advice was "Never underestimate the threat." A lot of this was taught Army-style—for instance, one instructor would frequently bellow, "Are we trackin'?" and soldiers would answer raggedly, "Trackin' like a VCR!"
The class was divided into squads. As the course progressed, they moved outside to the remote training grounds of Fort Benning, for weapons qualification on the M-16 or the standard 9mm pistol, and for practice in a variety of skills that the Army believed should constitute basic knowledge for every soldier in Bosnia: how to search a car, search a man, search a woman, walk a booby-trapped trail, evacuate a wounded soldier, recognize incoming mortar rounds, react as a squad to sniper fire, probe backward out of a minefield, and conduct an interview with CNN. During most of these exercises the soldiers wore full battle dress and carried heavy toy M-16s known as "rubber ducks"—which, unlike the real weapons, could not clog up during the frequent rolls in the red Georgia dirt.
On the last day the squads walked on patrol through the pine woods, down training "lanes" that had been rigged with surprise events, including an encounter with genuine civilians, hired from outside to play the role of refugees. The squad I was with encountered the refugees about a half mile into the course, and we dropped into protective crouches, holding our rubber ducks at the ready. The refugees were three impoverished-looking women wearing ragged dresses and shawls, one with a plastic baby swaddled in a blanket; they had an encampment nearby with a tea kettle on a fire in front of an old tent. They started making gestures toward their mouths and crying, "MRE! MRE! MRE!" (for rations, or "meals ready to eat") and "GI! GI!" The squad leader, a sergeant, was negotiating with them politely through his "interpreter," explaining that he had no food to give away, when suddenly one of our squad members, a big loud man who had joked earlier about shooting women and children, declared an alert. He shouted, "Watch out for that baby! I don't think it's a baby! Yellow! Yellow! Yellow!" and then "Red! Red! Red!" with which the entire squad had to go rolling again in the dirt. The other squad members were really annoyed with him afterward, and they let him know it: he was taking the game too far. But it's not surprising that he was on edge. Over the past hour alone we had been attacked by a sniper, had thrown smoke grenades and retreated, had advanced again and been mortared, and, while detouring around a roadblock, had lost our medic to a booby trap when he stepped off the trail. After one week in individual replacement training the message from the Army was that Bosnia at any moment could hurt you.
To the credit of the 3rd ID, that message was tempered at the higher levels of training. The divisional artillery was asked to put aside its guns and set up the platoon- and company-level exercises, a huge task that by the late spring of 2000 had led to a complete "Bosnian" overlay of Fort Stewart, including an American patrol camp at the northwest corner of the base, where the soldiers would stay and mount guard during the training, and a network of designated roads and villages where they would run their practice patrols on foot and in Humvees.
The most active villages were fully dedicated training sites in the remote reaches of the Fort Stewart woods, some consisting of plywood shacks constructed especially for this job, and one in particular—a pre-existing urban-warfare site of cinder-block structures—that seemed as well built as some of the surviving hamlets in the war-ravaged regions of Bosnia. They called it Lopare, and hung it with Cyrillic signs. It had a two-story municipal building with a phone and a steel desk, an Orthodox church with a little steeple, a school serving as a weapons-storage site, a semi-functional café and store where soldiers could buy soft drinks and candy bars, a nice new graveyard, assorted other structures, and—my favorite—a clinic labeled MéDECINS SANS FRONTIèRES, where eventually an Army medic got to play the role of a hostile French doctor pretending not to speak English. Adding to the authenticity, the artillery units hauled in thirty junked cars and scattered them around, going so far as to leave some beside the public roads that cut across the base—until the state highway department (them again) objected, forcing the instructors to emerge into Georgia and drag the wrecks out of sight, deeper into their new little world.
This was to be a war game unlike any other, with no territory to conquer and no enemy to fight. The division signed on forty "observer-controllers"—experienced soldiers, many of whom had served in Bosnia or Kosovo, whose duty now would be to monitor the platoons and at the end of each day to lead the highly participatory discussions known as after-action reviews. To populate the training ground, the instructors recruited 330 ordinary soldiers from throughout the 3rd ID and assigned them roles as Bosnians—a few played policemen, military officers, and city officials, and a lot played civilians. They called these people COBs, for "civilians on the battlefield"—a strange choice of words, given that the training was supposed to convince the troops of exactly the opposite: that Bosnia was not a battlefield. The instructors also referred to the daily schedule as "the battle rhythm" and to themselves, on the radio, as the "battle kings." But so what? Most people seemed to understand the essence of the training anyway. One of the officers said to me, "What we try to teach people is how to think, as opposed to what to think. Because you just can't. It's too complex. And that's the nature of the operational environment our Army is engaged in all over the world." He meant the environment for what the military now calls OOTW, or "operations other than war."
When the Fort Stewart role players took the job, they knew it would keep them away from their normal duties for more than a year, through preparations for both Bosnia rotations, and then again for Kosovo. At the start they attended a three-day "COB Academy," where they were given a smattering of Bosnian politics and had their roles defined. The key players were assigned names and biographies, and told to immerse themselves in their new allegiances and beliefs. The rest of them were asked to act as undisciplined civilians would—behavior that required no special instruction.
The first platoons started cycling through the week-long sessions in late April. The soldiers were presented with typical peacekeeping problems—negotiating with a mayor or inspecting a weapons-storage site or protecting a group of refugees returning home—which then were allowed to play out. The idea was to avoid the scripting that afflicts much infantry training and to let the story lines develop in unexpected ways, as they might in a civilian setting. Throughout the months that followed the instructors struggled against their own tendency to fill gaps with action and watched carefully for a related syndrome among the "civilians" that they called "COB creep." Usually they succeeded in keeping the scenarios within reason.
Every week was like a new soap opera: the characters all knew each other, and acted accordingly. If, for instance, a squad of soldiers tried to bully the officials in one village, striding into the mayor's office and making demands, "Bosnians" in all the other villages soon heard about it, and gave all the soldiers a hard time for the duration of the training session. A major named Jack Pritchard, who was directing the show day to day, told me that he was trying to teach levels of non-intervention. The trick for getting through the course, as the soldiers soon began telling one another, was largely just to stay calm. Some of them took it too far and became downright saintly. But tempers sometimes did flare, and with shouting matches built into the proceedings, real fights occasionally broke out between soldiers and civilians. I saw a few of them myself during some of the later training. The observer-controllers would step in and diffuse the tension, but then they would step back out and let the stories continue.
During the first training rotation the worst case occurred when a "demonstrator" threw an apple. A soldier, thinking the apple was a grenade, raised his M-16 (loaded with blanks) and fired. The demonstrator was a quick thinker—he fell down and died. The soldier was a little slower—he never could explain what he had hoped to achieve by shooting the man once the apple had been thrown. The trainers decided to let it run, and the entire company had trouble getting the civilians to cooperate for the rest of the week. During the second rotation the worst case became known as the Massacre on Lane Four. A National Guard lieutenant lost his temper and began to shoot civilians, and when his soldiers tried to stop him, he shot them too. The observer-controller who intervened told me about it quietly soon afterward. He was worried because he had found no formal way to isolate or identify the man, given that the lieutenant had apologized during the self-critique segment of the after-action review, and that an inviolable part of this training is the freedom to make errors. Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine that the lieutenant wasn't quietly offered a desk job.
The Fort Stewart exercises for the first Bosnian rotation wrapped up halfway through July. In the "capstone" event, which was repeated several times, a sequence of companies went into downtown Hinesville during a simulated Bosnian election, protected a group of "Muslims," and confronted an unruly mob. Each time the town went about its normal business—which, frankly, isn't much. Cars drove by, and those people who didn't already know asked what was going on. One man asked if martial law had been declared—as if there might have been a coup d'état. The spectacle made the evening news in Savannah at least once. Several days after the last of the exercises the soldiers flew to the training center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, for a final full-scale mission rehearsal, which was more of the same. A month afterward they flew overseas.
watched as the last group of 280 soldiers, bused in from the Fort Stewart gym, stood around in their combat gear inside a cavernous departure hall at Hunter Army Airfield. Rita Johanson was on the job with her clipboards and lists and her staff of twenty "movement control specialists," otherwise known as "pushers." She predicted a departure on time. An Omni Air DC-10 stood outside on the tarmac, swallowing hundreds of green duffels into its hold. Colonel Bill Weber walked around checking up on his people. General Skip Sharp, who was leaving with this group, arrived by helicopter. His immediate subordinates showed up to say good-bye. The soldiers filed into a ready room, where a sergeant bellowed the required hijack briefing, which amounted to "Do not hijack the airplane, because it is against government regulations." Sharp stood in front of his troops in his helmet and uniform, looking a little shy. He said, "Is everybody ready?" and I don't think he was being funny. People had been telling me that it's a new kind of Army—that you can't just order men to take the hill anymore but have to explain why. Kum-ba-yah. But when I asked a soldier if he knew whether they would fly directly to Bosnia or stop first in Germany overnight, he looked at me as if I was stupid and said, "It's like this, see: just get on the plane." I thought, if only leaving were so easy.
The Army's Real Morale Problem
drove to Bosnia from Croatia in a Budget rental car, and looked around for several days before seeking out the Army. Early one evening, while exploring the quiet countryside southeast of Tuzla, I took a wrong turn and came unexpectedly upon an immense chain-link fence stretching into the twilight ahead. The fence was topped with concertina wire, harshly lit, and backed by watchtowers every few hundred yards. Inside I could see low wooden buildings and shipping containers stacked high.
The profile was unmistakable. I parked the car and strolled over to a locked gate to ask where, exactly, I was. The soldier who came down to investigate seemed surprised by my presence, but he was willing to talk through the fence. He said this was Comanche, the helicopter-and-logistics base—the one with the western theme. Eagle Base lay merely a mile away, but he had no idea how to direct me there by the public roads. He said he himself stayed clear of it. I asked him why. He said, "Too much brass. It's wound way too tight." We continued to talk for a while. He was not enjoying Bosnia. He was surprised that it was possible to drive around in a rental car. He asked about Tuzla and said, "They don't let us out of here—not hardly ever at all." He looked so miserable that I felt guilty when I drove off free into the night.
The truth is that all the U.S. bases in Bosnia, including Comanche, were wound way too tight. Take as an example the rule that the soldiers carry their weapons at all times. This was presumably meant as a precaution against outside aggression, but there was no conceivable need for it, and apparently no other armies in Bosnia enforced it on their camps. Still, the Army had a very hard time loosening up. A requirement that the troops wear combat helmets while in camp had only recently been relaxed, and that was considered to be a courageous decision.
But the guard at Comanche was right that Eagle Base was the tensest of them all—a place so tight that the air itself seemed sometimes to hum with anxiety. I kept trying to understand why. One soldier blamed it on a training culture run amok. He was a sergeant in the combat engineers. He said, "We've gotten to the point when you go into the field, or do anything, you've got to have some kind of observer-controller. I don't need an observer-controller to do this job here—just leave me alone." A captain I spoke to blamed it on the information culture. He was the acting "mayor" of the base, and he had dark circles under his eyes. He said that once the systems for providing information were put into place, they demanded to be fed, which led to micromanagement, which in turn increased the hunger for information—a snowballing effect. That, he said, was why he was about to quit the Army. I suggested that the same process exists in civilian organizations, and he answered that in the Army it is harder to resist. Colonel Bill Weber grimaced when I mentioned the process to him. He knew all about it, and called it "feeding the beast." He also pointed out that during a peacekeeping mission, with so little action on the ground, the beast just naturally went looking for scraps.
But that still didn't fully explain the tension. Then, one night around dinnertime, a couple of kids were seen running into the woods next to an equipment yard on the base, and the perimeter guards discovered a "breach in the wire" nearby. The reaction was astonishing to observe. The entire garrison snapped to an alert: the headquarters compound was locked down, hundreds of soldiers were called out to patrol the grounds, and checkpoints were thrown up at the crossroads inside the base. The military dogs were brought out to help. Two helicopters with infrared scopes and other night-vision devices began to clatter overhead, scouring the grounds for the intruders—who would presumably draw attention to themselves by acting in some furtive way. The search went on for hours, but the intruders were never found. I sat outside my quarters on a well-built Brown & Root deck and watched the action late into the night. The soldiers who came by seemed to be going through the motions of a search, rather than really looking. Afterward a guard I had met before came and sat with me. He said it had been known from the start that the intruders had escaped right away. Indeed, it was known who they were—the sons of a neighboring farmer—and they had broken in before. I asked him why the base had bothered with such an alert. He said, "CYA. Cover your ass. Because you've got no reason not to."
That was it, of course—the key to the inner life of Eagle Base, and the explanation for its tension. It was the same sort of career fear that had shaped the response to the mission from the start. Later I discovered that these break-ins were such a regular thing that for some of the local boys they were considered an initiation. If the Army had simply patched the fence and talked to the parents, the game might have been less fun. But this way, with just a pair of wire cutters and a bit of nerve, a couple of kids could get the entire base to light up. It was like a childish form of asymmetric warfare: the Americans knew they were being toyed with but could not keep themselves from overreacting.
The operative phrase was "force protection"—the military's way of saying "self-defense," and without question the most significant term in the Army's lexicon today. The term has been around for only about ten years but has taken on the weight of a sacred incantation. Its power lies in a dual evocation of safety. On the surface it signifies the physical safety of troops—and who in peacetime can argue with that? Beneath the surface it signifies the safety of people's careers should any of those troops be wounded or killed—and in the context of American politics what else could one expect? Bill Weber was one of the rare officers willing to take it on in public. He said, "Now, I'm just a simple guy, but it doesn't seem to me like we're here to protect ourselves first. I always thought the mission was the number-one thing. But I'll tell you what: if you as a commander take casualties for any reason, the first question that gets asked is 'What level of force protection did you have?'" If you were a commander on Eagle Base, you could answer that you required even your clerks to carry guns, and that although the intruders who kept busting through the wire were just kids, you never let down your defenses.
The Army was perfectly capable of judging the realities of Bosnia, of accepting changes, of drawing down troop levels, of closing and consolidating bases, and, if ordered someday, of withdrawing entirely from the Balkans—but it could not ease off on itself. More than money, more than housing, more even than time away from families, it was this artificial anxiety that was responsible for the much publicized morale problems within the ranks. And the creed of force protection stood at the center of it. The creed was strongest at Eagle Base, because of the headquarters there, but it shaped life on the satellite bases, too, and spread to encompass the patrols. Consider just the requirement that each patrol include at least two armored Humvees, each with at least four soldiers wearing heavy Kevlar helmets and carrying loaded M-16s, and also with at least one belt-fed machine gun, typically top-mounted and manned by a combat-ready warrior in goggles and full body armor. These guys would come rolling through the peaceful, vaguely Austrian-looking landscapes around Tuzla, or walking heavily armed through the equally peaceful towns, as if they had taken a wrong turn somewhere, or completely misunderstood the realities on the ground. Only along the Drina River, with its hostile population and its war-wrecked countryside, did they not look hopelessly out of place.
None of the other coalition troops went around that way—not even in the notoriously tough territory near Mostar. They lived on nearly open bases, which in many cases they were free to leave when off duty. They wore soft hats or no hats at all, mixed easily with the population, drank the local liquor, and kept their guns out of sight. It's true that they made less attractive targets than the Americans. But it's also true that a sniper can easily kill a man no matter what he's wearing. If there was any risk here at all, it was that the force-protection measures were making Americans still better targets, because they were making the GIs seem afraid.
The nature of that fear was easy to misinterpret. In Macedonia, I met an expatriate American woman who had worked twenty years abroad for the United Nations and was now stationed in Pristina, Kosovo, to build a new welfare system from scratch. She was a Texan, like Weber, but had severed the connection; she spoke English with an unusually clipped international accent and not the slightest trace of a drawl. Along the way she had picked up the habit of underestimating American soldiers, whom she disdained for their provincialism and their habit of repeating jokes from late-night TV. She said they embarrassed her constantly at meetings in Pristina. We talked about force protection, and she said, Oh, God, that embarrassed her too. She called it an American fear of the world. She equated it with the fear of bacteria, and said it was as American as wrapped bread. She said it was as American as tamper-resistant packaging. I thought she was wrong. Force protection is indeed about fear, but not of the world so much as of the political climate in America, which is a climate of peace. At the coalition headquarters in Sarajevo I met a British officer who had given this some thought. Speaking of the U.S. Army, he said, "The problem is, how much does getting on with one's life rely not so much on succeeding but on avoiding failure?"
Weber had similar thoughts. He was concerned about the soldiers' isolation, the effect on their morale, and the slow drift toward institutional incapacitation. For the sake of the troops as well as of the mission, he wanted to do the unthinkable—to find a way to reduce the force-protection measures, to stow the weapons while in the camps, to let the soldiers drink an occasional beer, and to allow even the patrols to stand down. Skip Sharp apparently agreed, though he was careful with what he said to me. But it was not just a matter of issuing orders or dictating the terms: standing down required a change in mind-set both above and within the Bosnia mission, and this was proving impossible to achieve. Weber kept trying anyway. He told me about meetings he had held with the patrol commanders.
"I'll say, 'I want to know what kind of conditions would have to exist for us to stand down in Bosnia.'
"'Well, it's very dangerous over here.'
"'Okay. Measure that.'
"I'll say, 'All through SFOR we haven't been attacked once!'
"Of course, it's not always like that. I'll say, 'What would happen if I pull you out of Kevlar?'
"And most of the guys will say, 'Nothing—it would be useful.'
"But one company commander—and now you can see us living our own propaganda—one commander says, 'I don't think it's a good idea.'
"'But why? Is there a threat?'
"'Well then, why?'
"'Hey, sir, this is our field uniform, and we're in the field. It's what we wear to do our job.'
"'But your job is peacekeeping! You're supposed to be talking to people!'"
Some of the patrols did talk to the Bosnians. Some of the patrols did not. Some of the patrols had been restricted by their immediate commanders from doing any such thing. But Weber kept leaving Eagle Base anyway to show them what he had in mind. In the open country, with his interpreter by his side, he stopped to talk to farmers and their wives about the weather, or elections, or whatever came up. He went into stores and bought candy for the kids. He sat in cafés, ate sausages, and drank the local teas. He took off his helmet and waded into crowds at the marketplaces, like a big, confident country boy from Texas, a man with a bad haircut and an irrepressible grin, greeting the vendors and asking after their business. The soldiers he was leading followed along in quiet amusement and took off their helmets too, if only this one time. The Bosnians never knew quite what to make of Weber's affability, and could not have understood that much of it was a conversation internal to the United States—one man's reply to the dogma of force protection, and his argument for engagement and flexibility.
The Force of Diplomacy
ut openness and affability could not always provide solutions in Bosnia—as Weber well knew. He was advocating a mental process, a way of thinking about the mission, rather than the specific style or the particular military method that would result. One of Weber's co-workers at the headquarters on Eagle Base was a State Department diplomat who was considering the very same concepts of engagement and flexibility, but taking them in a different direction—toward the idea that in certain troubled areas where ethnic hatreds were again on the rise, the Army needed to strengthen its presence and to stand more firmly than it was naturally inclined to do.
The diplomat's name was William Bach. At age fifty-seven he was a slim, blond, bookish man who had spent eleven years in Vietnam—eight during the fighting in the south and another three more recently in Hanoi. Now he was assigned to Eagle Base as the Army's political adviser. He was focused on finding the right balance between force and force protection in Bosnia. He told me that the Army was legitimately concerned about getting sucked in, and that the worry stemmed not from vague visions of "another Vietnam" but from the precise memory of the American intervention in Somalia, where in October of 1993 eighteen peacekeepers had been killed. Bach never once expressed support for the original U.S. decision to intervene in Bosnia, but he believed that there could be immediate practical reasons for stiffening the Army's resolve there. He told me that the soldiers sometimes went too far in their avoidance of risk, insisting on an attitude of rigid impartiality that, rather than dampening political emotions, seemed in places to incite ethnic hardliners and encourage their obstructionism. In his quiet way he said, "The military instinctively tries to avoid conflict, whereas I and some of the other international representatives take a more robust approach. We make the point that the diplomatic solution often requires additional security."
On a cold, rainy morning Bach invited me along to see what his work entailed. A minority Muslim leader from the Bosnian Serb territory in the extreme east of the country, along the Drina River, had asked for a meeting in a café just outside the Eagle Base gate. The leader's name was Refik Begic. He held a mandated Muslim position in the municipal government of Bratunac, the same grim town I had visited with the Army lieutenant on his "radio show" patrol. Bratunac was known as a particularly vicious place—an ethnically cleansed Serb community that served as the base for the famously murderous attack on neighboring Srebrenica, the once Muslim enclave that fell to Serb forces in 1995. With the encouragement of the international forces, some of the Muslims were now trying to return to their homes. The Serbs were resisting. Begic had asked for the meeting today to inform the Army of the worsening situation.
Bach and I, along with a civilian Serbo-Croatian interpreter, walked up the main street of Eagle Base and through the pedestrian gate. The café stood a short distance away, past the last of the concertina wire, the braced-steel "dragon's teeth," and the staggered concrete barricades erected against car-bomb attacks. Out beside the public road, by a bus stop, the Army had installed a sandbagged pit into which the locals were invited to surrender their grenades and land mines—which they sometimes did. Across the road stood a few restaurants and bars, forced to survive on civilian traffic while waiting for a golden future when American soldiers would at last be allowed out to spend their pay. Those places were sleeping in the morning as Bach and I walked by, and only our café was open.
The café was empty on the inside, a dim grotto with vacant tables, smoky still lifes, and lace window curtains that filtered the daylight. Begic arrived a few minutes late. He was a lanky, gaunt, clean-shaven man, wearing a double-breasted blazer and a gunmetal shirt and tie. He had been a teacher in Bratunac, and during the war had been captured by the Serbs and detained at his own school. He had been exchanged for Serbian prisoners, had gone off to fight for his side, and had lost part of one foot in battle. Now he walked with a limp, and his forehead bore a vertical scar. Bach sat him down, called for coffee all around, and asked Begic for news from Bratunac.
Begic lit a cigarette. He said, "Strange things have started to happen. Many incidents." He waited, frowning, for the interpreter to speak, and continued, "For instance, the failed attempt to enter Bljecevo."
"What was that?" Bach asked, as if he hadn't quite heard.
"Last week," Begic said. "When the girl lost her foot on a land mine."
Bach said, "I remember." The girl was eighteen. She was among a group of Muslim refugees attempting to return to a ruined hamlet near Bratunac.
The Bratunac that Begic went on to describe was a place dominated by Serb hardliners and defiant war criminals, where Muslim property titles were being systematically destroyed at the city hall and a new "patriotic club" of ultra-nationalists had risen to power within the municipal council. In the past week alone, aside from the explosion of the land mine, a Muslim woman had been assaulted on a Bratunac street, and a refugee's house had been burned to the ground. Begic wanted a strengthening of the U.S. position, and thereby a strengthening of his own.
The conversation was a dance. Bach promised nothing. He mentioned a report on suspected war criminals in Bosnia published by a human-rights organization called the International Crisis Group. In the pages devoted to Bratunac the report had named a number of local officials, including the mayor. Had Begic read the report? Were there other names that should have been in it? That was the sort of thing Bach had in mind. Begic did not have to worry about the standards of proof, because this was not a court proceeding, and the United States had no authority to arrest unindicted officials. What Bach meant was that even hearsay would be useful here—the kind of inside knowledge that would allow the Army to anticipate events on the ground. I had the feeling that Begic had not expected to go this far today. But quietly now, as if merely to help Bach with his notes, he began to name names.
After the meeting Bach expressed some nuanced doubts about the process of "returns," the current means of re-integration of wartime refugees that has become the focus of international ambitions for Bosnia. He said that maybe someday he would express that thought at the Department of State. In the meantime, however, he just wanted to keep the Army from becoming complacent along the Drina River. American soldiers passed through Bratunac every day, and maintained a twenty-four-hour presence in Srebrenica, and they were reporting back through the regular channels that life was calm along the Drina. They said that the gunfire heard on many nights was "celebratory" (for births, weddings, and drunken get-togethers), and not meant to terrorize the Muslims. They interpreted the land mine in Bljecevo as just another remnant of war—and it was tough luck for the girl. In public many Serbs were saying these things too, though too slyly. Bach didn't think that the soldiers overidentified with the Serbs, but he wondered if they had been lulled by the absence of battle, or were wishing the shadows away. He thought he needed to see for himself.
The Remnants of War
And so, two days after the meeting in the café, Bach and I strapped into the back of a Blackhawk helicop ter, and with a sway and a shudder lifted off, eastbound for the Drina River. It was a bright morning made hazy by the smoke from wood-burning stoves. We cruised fast across a patchwork of small farms and scattered houses, consolidated here and there into villages with minarets, and came eventually to the land of the Bosnian Serbs, a ghost country of low hills and valleys with overgrown fields and houses that were roofless or burned or lying in rubble.
The Drina appeared ahead, a gloomy river turning loosely between close, forested hills. We flew upriver and landed at an old playing field along the short road from Bratunac to Srebrenica, where an Army Land Cruiser was waiting for us. We were joined by a graying, bearded Englishman named Oliver Burch, a regional head of the Office of the High Representative, an agency set up to oversee the Bosnian peace. Burch had been in the country now for nearly a decade, and was said to be the toughest and most effective of the expatriates at work along the Drina River. He had been in Bljecevo when the girl lost her foot, and had been one of the first to arrive on the scene. Bach had asked him to come along today to take us back over that ground. Refik Begic had motored out from town in his rattletrap Yugo, and he led us past an abandoned battery factory, used as a collection point during the collapse of Srebrenica, and then onto a dirt road and up a narrow valley that with its gray, leafless trees resembled an Appalachian hollow on an early-winter day.
That was Bljecevo. A group of Serb refugees lived at the base of the valley in a settlement of cinder-block huts and prefabricated shelters along the road. The ruins of the Muslim houses stood farther up the valley, among steeply sloping pastures. The houses had been abandoned intact during the last hours of Srebrenica's fall, and had been destroyed in the days afterward. Five years later young trees had taken root in the rubble, and weeds were growing on the broken stumps of the walls. It was to reclaim those remains that a group of the original inhabitants, a busload in all, had tried the week before to come home. The attempt had lasted only a few hours, including the time it took to retreat after the detonation of the mine. The returnees later insisted that they would not give up. But they had been badly frightened, and were nowhere to be seen today.
The dangers in Bljecevo remained unclear. The old front lines, which snaked through the surrounding hills only about a half mile away, had been mined and rocketed by both sides during the fighting. In contrast, the valley had been a farmed and peaceful enclave right up until the end—and therefore was uncontested land of the sort that might normally have remained clean in a war. But this was Bosnia, where mines had been indiscriminately strewn about, and where perhaps a million of the devices, many unmapped, remained hidden in the ground. As is typical in a peacekeeping operation, U.S. soldiers were not directly engaged in the slow, risky work of identifying and clearing those mines, and they were supposed to confine their patrols to routes that had been "proofed," however that could be defined. On Eagle Base the Army had set up a regional Mine Action Center, an office charged with working through the confusion on such matters; but all it could report with certainty about the Bljecevo valley was that it contained no known minefields. The regular U.S. patrols had understood that as a warning and had stayed clear. Oliver Burch mentioned that the local Serbs seemed unafraid to graze their sheep in the pastures, but he himself remained wary.
Where the dirt road narrowed and grew rough, he suggested that we proceed on foot, and with care. Bach checked that the crippled Begic could endure a walk, and we set off up the road, strung out along a pair of dried-mud tire tracks that offered the best assurance of safe passage. We gathered at the site where the girl had been maimed. It was a collapsed, roofless shell of a stone house much like the others, an old place built within a few feet of the road. The mine had been buried in the pathway to the ruins of the front door. It had blasted a shallow crater in the yard.
Bach studied the scene. Burch said, "Right. So what happened. The girl arrived with her family. She had a bag of sandwiches and a bottle of water. She stepped off the road, and it hit her here. It took her foot right off. She got blown clear across the road—all the way to there. When we found her, she was standing on one foot, supported by her father. Screaming, obviously." It took an hour to evacuate the girl, because of concern about other land mines.
But the concern now was the history of this particular mine. There was always the possibility that the American soldiers were right—that this was some long-dormant device, buried during the war by one side or the other and then forgotten. Burch said, "If it was not, if it was a new mine, it means we have a serious anti-return movement now, and that's very bad news." Before making that assumption, he wanted to explore every possibility. He suggested that perhaps the house had been mined by its Muslim owners before they fled—a trick he called a tradition.
Begic had followed what Burch was saying. He broke in, and through the interpreter said, "I spoke with the father after the incident. Openly and very confidentially. I asked him whether he was the one who had laid the mine. He swore by his children that he had not done it."
Burch acted unimpressed, but he seemed to be working toward the same conclusion. Referring to the collapse of Srebrenica, in 1995, he said, "It's true that these were the last people to hear of the surrender. They didn't know for twelve hours. I would have thought that in the general panic, with people going off to the battery factory to surrender ..." He continued, "I would be surprised if people here would have had the time to start laying traps."
Bach nodded. He asked, "What would have happened to the house after the owners left in '95? You think a mine was placed and blown?"
It was Begic who answered: "What was done usually was to rob it first and then burn it down."
Bach said, "So the Serbs came here, looted the house, burned it, and then maybe blew the walls. It sure looks that way, doesn't it? But then when they finished, would they have wanted to put a mine down there? I'm wondering if that could have happened in '95."
In the end Burch admitted that he didn't think so. He had started this visit, he later told me, wanting Bach to consider the extent of the unknowns. But when he took himself back to the time of the war, he found it hard to believe that any Serbs in their moment of victory could have imagined that their enemies would dare to return, or that they would have seen reasons to set traps in the ruins. On the other hand, there were certainly reasons now, with the attempted return of Muslims. It seemed evident after talking it through, if there had been any doubt, that the mine had been recently laid, and possibly with official collusion. We walked back down the road. When we got to the vehicles, Refik Begic climbed into his Yugo and sped off toward Bratunac. The rest of us followed more slowly in the Land Cruiser.
Begic was having a good day. He set up a meeting at noon in his office, at which his wartime opponent, the Serb nationalist mayor Miodrag Josipovic, had to sit across the table from Bach for nearly an hour. The mayor had a handlebar moustache and a wide, brutal face, which was wreathed in cigarette smoke. Bach said, "You realize that American economic projects depend to a large extent on the success of the returnees." The mayor was unimpressed. So Bach brought up the new report on war criminals, without mentioning that the mayor was one of those named. Bach said, "What about bringing those people to justice?" That got the mayor's attention. He pounded on the table and threatened to leave. He talked about the war criminals on the Muslim side. Bach heard him out, and then asked Oliver Burch, as if he didn't know, "Was the mayor on that list?" And Burch answered, "Yeah ..." And Refik Begic, a mournful expression on his face, made it obvious that he was enjoying the show.
It hardly mattered what was said there anyway. On one side of the table, Bach represented the U.S. Army, and by his mere presence delivered a warning about the limits to Serb power. From the Pentagon down an enormous effort had gone into making such warnings credible. On the other side, after five years on the receiving end of peacekeeping, the mayor had a sense of the formal constraints on the American troops and of their fear of getting involved. He was wary of Bach, but also defiant and surprisingly sure of his ground. He talked about the lack of patience in the United States for the Balkans now. He seemed to think that as long as the attacks remained deniable, the U.S. Army would be unable to respond. I thought he was underestimating Bach, who clearly by now had confirmed his original view that the American presence along the Drina would have to be strengthened.
Out on Patrol
olonel Bill Weber was keeping a close eye on the situation as well. After returning from one of his forays into the countryside, he said to me, "The switch between being a combat soldier and a peacekeeper is easy at this point. But if people were being injured, it would be very difficult. It would be a fine line." I asked him if he had seen something specific to cause him concern. He said he had not; but largely as a result of Bach's efforts, he had the Drina River in mind. Because of the land mine in Bljecevo, the process of Muslim returns had come nearly to a stop. Now an election was approaching, during which thousands of refugees would be bused back to their original homes to vote. They would stay just long enough to mark their ballots. But with the mood darkening along the Drina, the consensus at American headquarters was that the Army would have to appear in force to keep things calm.
Skip Sharp, with the advice of Weber, Bach, and a few others, decided to position most of the Srebrenica company—sixty out of a hundred soldiers—in the area for four days full time, and to position two additional companies downriver, beyond Bratunac. The commanders sent out an Army lawyer with contracts and cash to lease campsites just out of sight, on the outskirts of the towns. They planned to run a heavy schedule of patrols for two days prior to the election, and during the voting to lock those patrols into fixed and visible positions within quick driving range of each polling station. Beyond that, if Bach remained worried about the mood among the Serbs, they would have to see. There was always a possibility that the moderates would win the election, though the chances seemed slim.
I went to Srebrenica to stay with the troops. Their camp stood on a hilltop above the town. The soldiers had gone there expecting to rough it for a few days, but no sooner had they arrived than a Brown & Root convoy had pulled up, and, to their amazement, a crew of Bosnian civilians had emerged to set up two heated tents with electric lights and cots, a line of portable toilets, and a big collection of white-plastic chairs. Rather than feeling grateful, the soldiers were a little annoyed. In their disgust many of them chose to sleep outside, crammed into their vehicles or stretched out in sleeping bags on the cold ground.
The days and nights passed as uneventfully as intended—endless hours spent on patrols, huddled freezing in the open-turreted Humvees, chewing on rations, and then locked down during the election for fifteen long hours at a ruined gas station, near the turnoff for Bljecevo. It was miserable, and I enjoyed it. The soldiers did too, though they expressed those thoughts in different ways. One man said, "An Army tour is like being on a cruise ship. There's the all-you-can-eat buffet, the twenty-four-hour gym, and our next stop is ... Srebrenica, whose specialty is hospitality! On your left, a mass grave! On your right, a whorehouse!"
During the lockdown I sat in a Humvee with a lieutenant from Atlanta in the right seat, a machine gunner from Massachusetts in the turret, and a soft-talking guy from backwoods Kentucky behind the wheel. There wasn't much to do. We watched the road, talked, and ate some MREs. I asked the lieutenant about the training back in Georgia. He laughed and said, "Stani ili pucam!"—Serbo-Croatian for "Stop or I'll shoot!" We were monitoring traffic, waiting for the Muslim election buses to pass. It was raining. A convoy of cars had rolled by with a Serbian flag hung from one of the windows. Now a bicyclist passed. The lieutenant radioed in a report: "Man traveling northbound on Huffy. Banana seat. Circa 1985." He looked at me and said, "No detail is too small." The radio came back: "Okay. Roger. Got it."
The machine gunner was reading Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes. He had gone through three years of college, and he wanted to return and become a playwright. He had scored 128 out of a possible 130 on the Army entrance exam, and somehow had ended up in the infantry. He said, "Can you believe I worked in a bookstore for most of my high school?"
The driver said, "I believe that."
The gunner said, "I used to read Utne Reader, Atlantic Monthly, and Mountain Biking U.K."
The driver said, "You meet totally different people when you come in the Army."
The gunner said, "I took a semester break ..."
That was three years before. The lieutenant had left a promising job at about the same time. His mother had cried because he was wrecking his life. Now he said, "It's just something you have to do, you know?"
The driver said, "No you don't." He chuckled. He said, "If you look at it now, would you do it again? Leave that same job?"
"Yeah. I would."
"Really? You was makin' nice money."
"When am I going to be this age again? What am I going to tell my grandchildren—that I sat in an office all day?"
"More like sat in your mansion."
The gunner leaned down from the turret. "Instead you're sitting in Humvees."
The lieutenant said, "Yeah, there I was ... knee deep in the shit! My grandkids will say, 'Were you in the shit?' and I'll say, 'Yeah, I was in the shit!'"
The gunner said, "There I was."
And the driver said, as if to himself, "I'll be tellin' all kind of stories."
he long day finally came to a close. The election passed with hardly a glitch, and the ballots went off to Sarajevo to be counted. In the morning the American force faded away, leaving only the regular patrols to roam the Drina River. I roamed with them for a few days. Out of sight of the company commander, the soldiers did their own natural standing down, removing their helmets and flak vests, sitting in the cafés of Srebrenica, and relaxing among the peasants in the shattered mountain villages. They were not fighting World War II, but what they were doing was real—and effective. It's true that they occupied positions of privilege at the end of a huge effort to put them on patrol. But they needed less of that effort than the Army supposed.
When the election results were announced, the news was ominous: radical Serbs had won by overwhelming margins all along the Drina River. With the political climate continuing to deteriorate, William Bach maintained the pressure for a stronger American presence in Bratunac, and the 3rd ID built a new small base right on the outskirts of town. The message got through to all sides, and after the winter snows melted, the process of Muslim returns began again, perhaps a little faster than before. There was no further violence. Largely because of the American efforts, the precarious peace was maintained.
The 3rd ID, however, paid a heavy price for its success. Last February, as the first and second rotations prepared to swap places, Skip Sharp was forced to downgrade the entire division to the Army's second-lowest rating for wartime readiness, effectively removing it from its traditional role: standing by to defend the nation. The downgrade is a temporary setback, likely to be overcome sometime in 2002, when the final peacekeeping mission in Kosovo is scheduled to end and the division will at last have time to retrain, and presumably to regain its armored battlefield skills. Meanwhile, for the professional warriors of the 3rd ID—these guys who like to blow things up—the downgrade is of course an unpleasant condition to endure, and no less painful for being self-imposed. For some of them, it is proof enough that America is already dangerously overextended.
Still, in more-immediate operational terms it is possible to think about the division's mission in Bosnia not merely as a tribulation to be endured but also as a useful experience with the sort of ambiguous military involvements—the operations other than war—that the United States will probably continue to face. Of the many competent young officers I met in the field, one said, "I grew up with a whole vision of Ronald Reagan, our military, the resurgence of American power in the world. That's kind of what drew me to the military. Then the wall came down, and now it's like, 'Who's the enemy?' So it's been different. But it's not like everybody on patrol hates what he's doing. It's amazing how much people change after they get to Bosnia. It doesn't take that long to understand we're not here to kill."
Of course there was the other side, too—the soldiers who resented the changes, and remained locked into an almost wistful view of simple dangers. For them the peacekeeping mission was a more troublesome deal. Late one night on Eagle Base a guard I was accompanying on his perimeter rounds began to shout into the darkness, "Enemies, come on! Come on!" He was really just joking around, making a show of his frustration. But in some ways he was like the Army as a whole. He was standing behind a fence, peering into the night, well fed and safe, and good at his job. He was big, and strong, and heavily armed. But after nearly a decade of peace he was unsettled by the lack of front lines.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 2001; Peace is Hell; Volume 288, No. 3; 51-80.