We met a week later for Tex-Mex in San Antonio. One hour became two, and two hours became four, as we put the world to rights.
I had left the Army in 2004. He had gone on to lead a brigade in the worst part of Baghdad during the surge of 2007. His brigade had suffered very heavy casualties. At one point, he told me, following a particularly brutal ambush in which four soldiers had been captured and executed by the enemy, he saw a young noncommissioned officer begin to roughly handle an Iraqi onlooker. In the same moment, though, his sergeant major quickly intervened, pulling the younger soldier away.
My friend didn’t give the moment another thought because the system had worked; something had almost happened, but a leader had intervened before it did. “People ask me how, in that year, we avoided any issues with units or individuals committing atrocities,” he told me. “It’s not a hard question. It was the officers and the noncommissioned officers. They held the line.”
The nation places special faith and trust in the officers and noncommissioned officers it sends into battle. Very young Americans, mostly men, but increasing numbers of women as well, are given life-and-death authority over not only the men and women they lead but also over anyone they come into contact with. I was 23 years of age, not even two years removed from a college classroom, when I was first thrown into combat and told, more or less, to kill the right people and to make sure my men did the same.
The crazy thing is that I felt very well prepared to do just that. The Army had spent years training me for that moment, and it had spent tens of thousands of dollars before that on my university and professional military education.
You hear this a lot from officers: I knew what I was getting into, and I was well prepared for what came next.
Thousands of us, then, some of us now in our 40s and 50s, have led tactical combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been one of the most isolated occupying armies in history—mostly separated, linguistically and physically, from the men and women whose countries we occupied. Thus the fact that we have done so, over a period spanning an incredible 18 years, with so few incidents of war crimes or other abuses, is remarkable and likely unprecedented in the history of war.
This is also why the very few men and women convicted of committing war crimes—such as the officer pardoned by the president last week—are viewed with such disdain by their peers. You could be forgiven for thinking that “shitbird” is the actual doctrinal term applied to such men and women, such is the frequency with which it is used to describe those who violated their ethical codes and, in cases, the law.
But large parts of the country, and especially large parts of the more reactionary elements in society, do not understand that. Fed a steady diet of 24 and action movies, they think professional military units play out like their personal fantasies: men of righteous violence, forever straining against rules and prohibitions foisted upon them by less noble, more liberal, weaker politicians who can’t understand what it takes to win.