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November 19, 2004
The amazing, perhaps historic, battle of Fallujah has come and gone, and the biggest soldier story to come out of it is the alleged Marine shooting. There must have been hundreds of acts of bravery and valor in Fallujah. Where will history record their stories?
Maybe it's just a function of an age in which TV fears that attention spans die faster than caddis flies, and surfing the Web means ingesting information like a participant in a hot dog eating contest. By contrast, Michael Ware of Time magazine has a terrific account this week of one platoon led by Staff Sergeant David Bellavia ("We're not going to die!"), fighting its way through the snipers and booby traps of Fallujah: "A young sergeant went down, shrapnel or a bullet fragment lodging in his cheek. After checking himself, he went back to returning fire." Amid mostly glimpses this week of telegenic bullet flight paths and soldiers backed against walls, I wanted more stories like this. More information about who these guys are and what they were doing and how they were doing it. The commanders in Iraq praise them profusely, and by now maybe that's all these young U.S. soldiers need -- praise from peers.
But the American people, many of them, have been desperate for some vehicle that would let them actively lend support to the troops, or their families back in the States. The Bush administration, for reasons that are not clear, has never created such an instrument. Had they done it, a force would have existed to rebalance the hyperventilated Abu Ghraib story. The White House seems to have concluded that the American people would support a big, tough war almost literally as an act of faith. And they did, but just barely. Neglect of the homefront almost cost George Bush the election.
The election's one, ironic nod to the nature of the troops in Iraq was the controversy over the draft. Michael Moore traveled to 60 college campuses saying Mr. Bush's opposition to restarting the draft was an "absolute lie." Shortly after, a senior saluted the jolly Hollywood misanthrope and wrote a column for Newsweek denouncing the draft. "We have no concept of a lottery," she wrote, "that determines who lives and who dies." But not to worry, dear. The military brass, to the last man and woman, doesn't want you. Not ever.
The draft ended in 1973. What has happened to the all-volunteer military in the three decades since ensures that no draft will return this side of Armageddon.
Post-Vietnam, the military raised the performance bar -- for acquired skill sets, new-recruit intelligence and not least, self-discipline. The thing one noticed most when watching the embedded reporters' interviews last year on the way into Iraq was the self-composed confidence reflected throughout the ranks. And this in young men just out of high school or college.
It was no accident. Consider drugs. In 1980, the percentage of illicit drug use in the whole military was nearly 28%. Two years later, mandatory and random testing -- under threat of dismissal -- sent the number straight down, to nearly 3% in 1998.
Today recruits take the Armed Forces Qualification Test. It measures arithmetic reasoning, mathematics knowledge, word skills and paragraph comprehension. The current benchmark is the performance levels of recruits who served in Operation Desert Storm in 1990. The military requires that recruits meet what it calls "rigorous moral character standards."
After his August report on Abu Ghraib and U.S. military detention practices, former Defense Secretary Jim Schlesinger told a writer for this page: "The behavior of our troops is so much better than it was in World War II." And more. Unit cohesion, mutual trust in battle, personal integrity and esprit all are at the highest levels in the nation's history, right now, in Iraq. Indeed, the U.S. armed services may be the one truly functional major institution in American life.
Some fear the creation in the U.S. of a military caste, disassociated from the rest of society, or worry about the loss of civic virtue. The bridge across, I suspect, is narrower than many suspect. A 2002 Harvard Institute of Politics survey of college students found that if their number came up in a new draft, 25% would eagerly serve and 28% would serve with reservations. The draft itself is quite irrelevant today. But contrary to the last election's confusing signals about the attitudes of the young, most of them, it seems, are willing to "do something" to protect their country, if asked. It is their elders' job to find a way to ask. The military writer Andrew Bacevich has summed up our current situation nicely: "To the question 'Who will serve?' the nation's answer has now become: 'Those who want to serve.'"
At a ceremony on Nov. 13 at Camp Taji, Iraq -- with Fallujah raging elsewhere -- Army Maj. Gen. Pete Chiarelli presented 19 Purple Hearts for wounds in the battle of Najaf, the big battle before Fallujah. Gen. Chiarelli remarked that George Washington created the Purple Heart in 1782, for what Gen. Washington himself described as "unusual gallantry . . . extraordinary fidelity and essential service."
Essential service. After 20 months of it in Iraq and two hard weeks of it in Fallujah, "service" -- an old idea in a world too busy to take much notice -- is a word worthy of at least some contemplation.
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