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."