By Nancy Gibbs
They swept across Iraq and conquered it in 21 days. They stand guard on streets pot-holed with skepticism and rancor. They caught Saddam Hussein. They are the face of America, its might and good will, in a region unused to democracy. The U.S. G.I. is TIME's Person of the Year
Modern history has a way of being modest with its gifts and blunt with its reckonings. Good news comes like a breeze you feel but don't notice; the markets are up, the air is cleaner, we're beating heart disease. It is the bad news that comes with a blast or a crash, to stop us in midsentence to stare at the TV
, and shudder.
Maybe that's why we are startled by gratitude in the season of peace. To have pulled Saddam Hussein from his hole in the ground brings the possibility of pulling an entire country out of the dark. In an exhausting year when we've been witness to battles well beyond the battlefields—in the streets, in our homes, with our allies—to share good news felt like breaking a long fast, all the better since it came by surprise. And who delivered this gift, against all odds and risks? The same citizens who share the duty of living with, and dying for, a country's most fateful decisions.
Scholars can debate whether the Bush Doctrine is the most muscular expression of national interest in a half-century; the generals may ponder whether warmaking or peacekeeping is the more fearsome assignment; civilians will remember a winter wrapped in yellow ribbons and duct tape. But in a year when it felt at times as if we had nothing in common anymore, we were united in this hope: that our men and women at arms might soon come safely home, because their job was done. They are the bright, sharp instrument of a blunt policy, and success or failure in a war unlike any in history ultimately rests with them.
For uncommon skills and service, for the choices each one of them has made and the ones still ahead, for the challenge of defending not only our freedoms but those barely stirring half a world away, the American soldier is TIME's Person of the Year. TIME followed a single platoon from the army's 1st armored Division, to watch its life on the line and glimpse what the world's largest army can do while all the expectations for it are changing. There is no such thing as a typical platoon, but every one has a story to tell, about the costs of war and the price of peace and what you learn getting from one to the next.
It is worth remembering that our pilots and sailors and soldiers are, for starters, all volunteers, in contrast to most nations, which conscript those who serve in their armed forces. Ours are serving in 146 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The 1.4 million men and women on active duty make up the most diverse military in our history, and yet it is not exactly a mirror of the country it defends. It is better educated than the general population and overweighted with working-class kids and minorities. About 40% of the troops are Southern, 60% are white, 22% are black, and a disproportionate number come from empty states like Montana and Wyoming.
When they arrive at the recruiter's door, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told TIME, "they have purple hair and an earring, and they've never walked with another person in step in their life. And suddenly they get this training, in a matter of weeks, and they become part of a unit, a team. They're all sizes and shapes, and they're different ages, and they're different races, and you cannot help when you work with them but come away feeling that that is really a special thing that this country has."
The unstated promise is that soldiers are sent to war only as a last resort, to defend their country from harm. But while the threat posed by Saddam was chief among the stated justifications, George W. Bush's war was always about more than the weapons that have yet to be found. The son of the President who had trouble with the Vision Thing offered a vision so broad it bent the horizon: this was nothing less than a "battle for the future of the Muslim world," an expression of American idealism in all its arrogant generosity. Once again, we thought we could liberate a country just by walking in the door. The President could move this immense fighting machine halfway around the world, and call old allies cowards who don't stand for anything, for leaving it to us to rescue a captive country.
If diplomacy normally involves the disguising of discord, Bush's policy meant inflaming it: nato and the U.N. were divided; so was our own government, as State, the Pentagon and the CIA
grappled in a three-way tug-of-war. One Marine, training in Kuwait's northern desert and waiting for war to begin, wondered whether protesters would spit on him when he came home. But for all the dissension, no one was blaming the soldiers: antiwar demonstrators argued they were fighting to defend our troops against an ill-conceived mission based on distorted intelligence. Even Howard Dean, whose antiwar campaign ambushed the Democratic Party, criticized Bush for asking too much of the nation's soldiers and reserves and diverting attention from more imminent threats.
It may be that idealism requires naiveté to survive, because no war ever goes as planned, and peace can be just as confounding. The same soldiers who swept across 350 miles in 21 days, to be greeted by flowers and candy and cheers as the statues fell, soon found themselves being shot at by the people they had come to save. As it turned out, the Iraqi civil servants who were supposed to keep the lights on after Saddam was gone instead stayed home when there was no one to give them orders. The sudden collapse of the Iraqi army was such an indignity to the Iraqi people that in a way it made the Americans' job harder: You can rebuild a bridge, but how do you restore national pride at the same time, or impose order on a country that seems hard-wired to resist it?
The campaign of shock and awe was always aimed at mind and heart: many Iraqis viewed America as magically powerful, which raised their hopes and, in some cases, broke their will to resist. One U.S. soldier, when raiding a house in search of weapons, would aim his cheap key-ring flashlight at the scalp of a suspect, then scan from head to toe before flashing the light onto his wristwatch and humming softly. The Iraqi, perhaps convinced that his thoughts and secrets had been electronically captured in a Casio, would often confess. Of course, there are no magic bullets, and it isn't what the soldiers carry that determines whether they win the day; it's who they are and who they have become.
The fight for peace demands different skills of the soldiers: not just courage but constancy; not just strength but subtlety. Liberty can't be fired like a bullet into the hard ground. It requires, among other things, time and trust, and a nation scarred by tyranny and divided by tribe and faith is not going to turn into Athens overnight. A force intensely trained for its mission finds itself improvising at every turn, required to exercise exquisite judgment in extreme circumstances: Do you shoot the 8-year-old when he picks up the grenade launcher? How do you win the hearts and minds of residents in a town you've had to wrap in barbed wire? How do you teach about freedom through the bars of a cage?
It is a fantastically romantic notion, that thousands of young men and women could descend on a broken place and make it better, not decades from now but right away, hook up the high school Internet lab, send the Army engineers to repair the soccer field, teach the town council about Robert's Rules and all the while watch your back. They debate how much to tell their loved ones back home, who listen to each news report of victories won and lives lost with the acute attention that dread demands. They complain less about the danger than the uncertainty: they are told they're going home in two weeks, and then two months later they have not moved.
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When the Pentagon announced that instead of six months abroad the troops would be spending a year, it began rotating them home for a two-week leave to rest and recharge. Some turned the offer down; they said it would be too hard to go back when the 14 days were up. Some went home to meet their babies for the first time. They flush the toilet over and over, just because they can, celebrate a year's worth of birthdays in 14 days, meet the new neighbors, savor rain. Troops come home to a Heroes' Parade; towns don't call it a Victory Parade, because they know it's not over yet.
It now falls to the Iraqis themselves to decide what they are willing and able to do with the chance they have been given, and the rest of the world to decide how to help. Freedom's consequences, intended and otherwise, will determine whether the world is safer for having been forcibly rearranged, and how long it will be before the soldiers can come marching home for good.
[Edited 2003-12-21 16:46:58]
"We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope." - Martin Luther King, Jr.