Person of The Year 2003: The American Soldier



    The American Soldier

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    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 naivete 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.

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