"People, not chess pieces"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably nothing brought home to me the reality of this sacrifice like my conversation, more than four years after 9/11, in a Panera Bread restaurant outside Washington D.C., with Jenifer Bryant, the 25-year-old widow of Todd Bryant. We talked for quite a while, my recorder running, starting right at the beginning: What was Todd like? How did you meet? When were you married? She told me about the mutual friend who linked them up, and how they were engaged by March of Todd’s senior year at West Point. She told me about his resilient sense of humor, and his passion for the California fast food chain, “In-N-Out.” And then, about two hours into Jen’s story, we reached the part where, in the middle of her workday as a high school teacher, she was notified of Todd’s death.

“One of my students was in there [the principal’s office]. ... [A]nd then I just looked to my right, and there’s four or five officers standing, wearing their Class As. And one of them was one of the generals at Fort Riley.”

As I look at the transcript now, I relive the guilt, and the horror, and the wanting to know. Jen started to cry. I remember wondering if other people in the restaurant would conclude we were a couple. What a jerk, they might think. Breaking up with his girlfriend in a Panera Bread.

“I just hit my knees and I started saying, No, no, no. Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me. And I remember General Kearney, like, kneeling down beside me. And he took my hand. He just kept holding my hand. And I screamed. I kept saying, No! No! No!”

Why does the military subculture sacrifice so much, and the rest of us so little? Seven years into the war on terror, what can “We the People” be doing to truly “support the troops”?

Since I had the personal email addresses of many young Army officers as a result of writing In a Time of War, I thought I’d ask them. About two dozen wrote back. The voices I heard were polite, deferential, and careful—but also hurting.

“I can tell you how America should NOT support the troops,” wrote one West Pointer, an Iraq veteran who did not give me permission to use her name. “Those stupid yellow magnetic bumper stickers. ‘God Bless Our Troops’ signs.”

She went on to talk about being in an airport restaurant in her Army captain’s uniform on the way home from Iraq. A young man in civilian clothes stepped forward and paid for her meal.

“Then I found out it was an E-3 [an Army private first class], who was there picking up his buddy. He just said, ‘I remember my first day back. I know how it is ma'am. Have a good one.’ Made me want to cry. Again.”

“I can provide you an emphatic answer,” wrote Captain Mike Erwin, a veteran of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who will be heading back soon to Afghanistan as a Special Forces officer. He wanted civilians to support charities for wounded soldiers. “Last year, I ran the NYC Marathon and raised $22,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project. This year, on Nov 22, I am running the JFK 50 Miler to continue my mission of raising money and awareness for this great organization that helps soldiers get reintegrated into life after suffering a significant injury. … If you can incorporate the website into the [article], that would be much more significant.

(Okay, Mike: http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/MikeErwin.)

I think I can boil much of what soldiers like these have told me into three categories.

First, they want civilians to find their own ways to serve and sacrifice. They recognize that we don’t need 10 million men and women in the U.S. military, but they do think we need millions of Americans eager to serve their country in other ways. We don’t normally go around saying “Thank you for your service” to our teachers and nurses and inventors, but that’s part of the kind of service they’re talking about.

And sacrifice. “If we didn't need oil anymore,” one captain wrote, “then we wouldn't have to fight wars to secure it. We could just stop caring about places like Iraq - kind of like we do with lots of other countries around the world (especially the ones in Africa). So, if I could ask folks to make a real sacrifice for the troops, I would ask them to use less energy. Buy a more fuel efficient car. Put more insulation in their house. Turn lights off. Live closer to where they work so they won't have to commute so far. Use mass transit even though it's inconvenient.”

“What can we do to support the troops?” a two-tour veteran officer emailed me. “Give them a nation that is worthy of protection. We, the Army, are giving you, the public, space and time to make America the type of nation that is worthy of defense.”

And they want Americans to exercise their rights. Todd Bryant used to love this quote, generally attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Even the officers I heard from who had strong political leanings one way or the other, above all wanted their fellow Americans to cast informed votes, question their government, speak their minds and vote their informed consciences. At the same time, I heard, “our sacrifice should never be politicized. We are not Republicans or Democrats; we are men and women, sons and daughters, fathers, and mothers. Protest the war if you would like, but support us, the troops, for we may not know you but we will risk our lives to defend you.”

Finally, and most important, the officers I talked with said that if civilians want to “support the troops,” they need to start by paying attention to the troops.

We’ve seen what happens when as a society, we don’t pay attention. A year and a half ago we were all embarrassed when we learned how some of our wounded warriors were being treated at Walter Reed; before that, we weren’t paying attention. A few years before that, we sent soldiers into harm’s way without the proper equipment they needed—armored humvees, and modern body armor, and later, next-generation mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles.

How did we stand by, allowing our soldiers to invade Iraq without the planning—the doctrine, the strategy the tactics, the “lessons learned”—that they needed to succeed?

Our soldiers get that if we had been paying attention, we wouldn’t have stood for it.

“Pretend you have a son or a daughter in our shoes,” one captain insisted. “We are people, not chess pieces.”

Seven years ago, Americans wanted to contribute—to serve and help their fellow citizens. The soldiers I’ve talked to recognize that the message our civilians received in response was basically: Thanks, but no thanks.

Instead, we were told:

Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.

I encourage you all to go shopping more.

That kind of attitude costs our nation—costs its very soul. In a month, we will elect a new president, and a new government. Whether John McCain or Barack Obama wins the election, he will be leading an America in its eighth year of war. If I heard them correctly, our soldiers hope that the new president will lead a new national conversation about service and sacrifice.

For when we ask our young men and women to join the military and serve overseas—and to risk and sometimes give their lives in the process— we make a commitment. We tell them that we’ve got their backs. And if we don’t follow through on our end of the deal when they go abroad, we suggest that we think they are fools. And what’s even worse, if we send them to fight, and then simply quit paying attention, we break their hearts.