By Alan W. Dowd
Tom Brokaw called the Americans who waged and won World War II “the greatest generation.” Even though most of them have passed away and those who survive are in their 70s and 80s, we still live in their shadow—and it may always be that way. “They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled,” Brokaw concluded after a visit to Normandy. “They succeeded on every front. They won the war; they saved the world.”
Of course, they weren’t finished in 1945. Never forget that the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed while one of their own sat in the Oval Office. Unlike their elders, they would not leave their unfinished business to another generation. Their greatness is beyond dispute. Indeed, they are the benchmark for the rest of us who stumble about in their shadow; but perhaps their greatness has more to do with the country that produced them and the cause they pursued than with a mythical Golden Age.
Scripture often speaks of the remnant of Israel, which God has preserved to guide and minister to the nations. Micah writes, “The remnant of Jacob will be in the midst of many peoples like dew from the Lord, like showers on the grass.” Isaiah conveys the promise that “a remnant of the house of Judah will take root below and bear fruit above.” In the same way, perhaps there is a remnant in America—a special breed of Americans who emerge from the shadows to defend us when the times demand it, a class bound not by race or upbringing or geography or socioeconomics or the coincidence of birth, but by those uncommon values and purest of motives: duty and honor, courage and bravery, selflessness and sacrifice, a desire to lead and guide the nations. In a word, perhaps the World War II generation was but one embodiment of America’s warrior remnant.
High Stakes, Narrow Margins
If the motivation and accomplishments of today’s armed forces are any indication, the warrior remnant has reemerged. Protectors of Kosovo, Kuwait and Korea, guardians of the U.S. homeland, defenders of faraway places with unpronounceable names, liberators of Iraq and Afghanistan, the vanguard of a global offensive against terror, this generation of American warriors is casting its own shadow. As military historian Victor Davis Hanson observes, “In the past decade, our youth have shown signs of being the best fighting cohort of Americans since World War II.”
Unlike their fathers who fought in Vietnam, unlike their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who fought in World War II, they are all volunteers. Their motives range from the banal and pragmatic (paying for college, acquiring high-tech training) to the idealistic (protecting the innocent and defenseless, liberating the captives) to the patriotic (avenging September 11, keeping America free). They are smarter, stronger, and of course more lethal than their fathers and grandfathers—and they are more cosmopolitan, more thoughtful, more open to differences than most of the people they defend. “It is far easier to be a liberal in the supposedly authoritarian military than to be a moderate or conservative on a college campus,” according to Hanson. “Students are more likely to be segregated by race in the lounges and cafeterias of ‘progressive’ universities than they are in the mess halls of aircraft carriers.”
The odds they face may not be as long as they were in 1941—after all, 21st-century America is an economic-military-political power without peer—yet the stakes are just as high. Then, as now, the enemy’s goal is nothing less than the rollback of civilization. Then, as now, civilization depends not on French treatises, Italian frescos or Austrian concertos for its preservation, but on warriors. John Keegan argues in his History of Warfare that "All civilizations owe their origins to the warrior." But more than that, all civilizations owe their continued existence to the warrior.
Not only are the stakes high, but the margin for error—compressed as it is by the low pain threshold of the American people and the unblinking eye of the global media—is narrower than ever before. Some 5,000 Allied troops were killed in a matter of hours taking back Normandy; thousands more died in air and naval operations in support of the D-Day invasion. In intent and execution, the assaults on Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the very opposite of the “smart bomb” attacks that characterize America’s 21st-century air force. Today’s America would simply not tolerate U.S. losses of the magnitude sustained at Omaha Beach, and the omnipresent media of today would not allow us to tolerate the sort of single-minded, ferocious commitment to victory that spawned Dresden and Hiroshima.
In Iraq, for example, US troops were not allowed to fire back at enemy snipers hiding in mosques. Iraqi warplanes and tanks parked near holy sites were off-limits to US bombers. Marines and soldiers were ordered to give approaching Iraqi civilians the benefit of the doubt and hold their fire, even after a series of suicide bombings and ambushes. In Afghanistan, at great risk to their crews, US cargo planes were delivering food and water to starving civilians even as US bombers conducted an air war against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
When US soldiers were ordered to guard the Mosque of Ali in Najaf, a mob of angry Iraqis, under the impression that the GIs were going to storm the holy site, blocked the Americans. “These soldiers had just fought an all-night battle,” recalls Time war correspondent Jim Lacey. “They were exhausted, tense and prepared to crush any riot with violence of their own.” But instead of retreating or opening fire, their commanding officer, Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, told them to point their guns into the ground, take a knee and grin. That’s right—grin. Hughes’ quick thinking defused the situation and opened the way to dialogue. Within minutes, American troops and Iraqi civilians were shaking hands. Lacey marvels at “an army of men who could fight with ruthless savagery all night and then respond so easily to an order to ‘smile’ while under impending threat.”
But America’s warriors don’t just smile after a battle—they smile during battle. As Winston Churchill observed during World War II, the American soldier is the only man who can laugh and fight at the same time. In Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden’s gripping account of America’s noble attempt to rebuild Somalia in 1993, we are reminded that Churchill’s assessment still applies:
Treating their wounded comrades splayed around a crippled helicopter, one of the Army Rangers noticed that bullet holes were tearing through the tail section of the chopper. “They hate the cans,” he shouted. “Stay away from the cans!” The troops all began to laugh. In the heat of battle, the soldier was quoting Steve Martin’s dim-witted character from the movie The Jerk, who uttered those lines as a deranged gunman fired at him but missed, hitting instead a row of oil cans.
Why—and how—do America’s warriors fight like this? It’s not because they are oblivious to the pain and suffering of war; it’s not because they enjoy combat; and it’s certainly not because they are bloodthirsty. It’s simply because they are born and raised in an optimistic land, too optimistic for the postmodern peoples and technocratic states of Western Europe. After all, the American people are so optimistic that they believe something good can from the Iraq War (which is itself a reflection of the confidence they have in their warrior remnant). They thought the same during the Cold War, when Kennedy envisioned a world “where the strong are just and the weak secure,” when Reagan looked ahead to a day when the West would “transcend communism.” They thought the same during the world wars, when their sons died by the tens of thousands and their leaders tried to construct organizations that would end war itself. They thought the same during their civil war, when Lincoln whispered about “a new birth of freedom,” and during their revolution, when an immigrant from Britain reminded them that they had the “power to begin the world over again.”
From Laughter to Tears
This optimism can breed creativity and boldness that borders on the unbelievable: In Afghanistan, US Special Forces, equipped with Global Positioning System devices to navigate unknown lands and lasers to guide missiles onto faraway targets, rode into battle on horseback. Throwing safety and caution into the desert wind, US field commanders changed carefully scripted missions literally on the fly and used intercontinental bombers and submarine-launched cruise missiles to hit targets of opportunity in Iraq, like a sniper uses his rifle.
Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the restraint and agility of the modern American military is the fact that it can wage and win a war (or two) despite its self-imposed handicaps. Can you imagine half of Doolittle’s squadron dropping K-rations on Tokyo while the other half dropped incendiaries, the Eighth Air Force steering clear of dams or divisions located near Germany’s ancient monasteries and cathedrals, MacArthur ordering his occupation troops to lower their guns and smile when Japanese villagers started to get agitated?
To be sure, the world is very different than the one my grandfathers fought to save in the 1940s—and that’s precisely the point. The US military of today is held to a different standard than both its enemies and its forebears. Some say the battlefield is uneven because of America’s overwhelming technological edge—and they are right—but it is also uneven in a way that puts US forces at a disadvantage: The American people demand near-perfection from their armed forces; the enemy knows this and thus wages war according to a far different set of standards than the US military. And that makes the modern American warrior’s missions more dangerous, his achievements more impressive.
For example, the enemy began this war by targeting civilians and using civilian airliners as guided missiles. US military forces—many of them teenagers and twenty-somethings—are trained to avoid civilian casualties at all costs, even if it means risking their own lives. When American “smart bombs” miss their targets, whether in Belgrade, Kabul or Baghdad, the Pentagon launches an investigation; air campaigns are halted; pilots are prosecuted.
The Taliban and Iraqi Information Ministry used CNN and al-Jazeera to spew unchallenged, unfiltered propaganda about indiscriminate bombing and mass civilian casualties. Pentagon officials, on the other hand, faced a phalanx of professional critics and armchair experts every day, who challenged the motives and results of virtually every decision.
Cribbing his battle plan from bin Laden’s al Qaeda and Arafat’s al Aqsa Martyrs, Saddam Hussein marched noncombatants in front of tanks, used school buses and pregnant women as time bombs, converted holy sites into missile sites, and executed prisoners of war. Conversely, US troops, as Lacey and an army of embedded media reported, “wept when a three-year-old was carried out of the rubble where she had been killed by Iraqi mortar fire,” gave their own food to hungry Iraqis, provided medical care to suicidal Iraqi soldiers, and even “cleaned up houses they had been fighting over.”
According to Keegan, “soldiers are not as other men”—and American soldiers are obviously not as other soldiers.
In Keegan’s view, the world of the warrior “exists in parallel with the everyday world but does not belong to it.” Thus, the warrior has different values, different skills, a different calling than the people he defends. Consider, as evidence, a simple comparison between the world of a 19-year-old recruit and the world of a 19-year-old college freshman:
One lives in a barracks crammed with 100 or 200 men, the hull of a ship, the belly of a tank. The other lives in an air-conditioned dorm room, a two-person suite or perhaps an apartment. One marches to work at 5 or 6 am, spends day and night learning how to defend a nation, and worries about being deployed to Bosnia, Bagram, Baghdad or some other war zone. The other meanders to classes of his choosing, spends his evenings and days doing what he pleases, and worries about snagging tickets to a concert or regurgitating just enough to pass the next test. If he does any marching, it is to protest this policy or that. One has the time and privilege to debate the morality of war. The other has neither the time nor right to debate or protest much of anything. One lives in what Michael Barone has called “Soft America,” where expectations are low and standards are lower; the other in “Hard America,” where expectations are high and the stakes are life and death.
In other words, ours is something less than a warrior culture—something, happily, altogether different than Sparta or Rome or the martial societies of the last century.
Hollywood’s howls notwithstanding, we don’t goosestep into battle or romanticize the horrors of war. At times, we have been more likely to spit on our returning soldiers than throw parades for them. Yet when America calls, the remnant is reawakened to lead and liberate, to serve and sacrifice, and in words a president borrowed from a prophet, “to say to the captives come out; and to those in darkness, be free.”
This tradition of heroism and honor prompted Reagan to ask, “Where did we find such men?” Of course, he knew the answer before he finished the question: “We found them where we’ve always found them—on Main Street, on our farms, in shops and stores, in offices, oil stations and factories. They are simply the product of the freest society man has ever known.”