Person of The Year 2003: The American Soldier

THE AMERICAN SOLDIER

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JAMES NACHTWEY/VII FOR TIME

The American Soldier

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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.

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.

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