Gentle in Victory
The changing image of the American Soldier.


The story of the human race is war,” said Winston Churchill, “…long before history began, murderous strife was universal and unending.” Churchill may be right, but the good news out of Iraq is not only that America won, but that war is far less bloody than in the past and that many Americans once again consider their soldiers heroes.

In 1862 at the Battle of Antietam, 23,000 men were killed or wounded in one day. Before the British generals called off the Battle of the Somme in 1916, over 400,000 of their country’s soldiers had been slaughtered. During the 1945 fire bombing in Tokyo, 100,000 Japanese civilians were incinerated. Tombs to Iranian soldiers killed by Saddam Hussein blanket the city of Tehran. In the war with Iraq, just over 125 allied soldiers have been killed, and critics cannot claim large-scale civilian deaths.

It is painful to read in newspapers the biographies of young Americans who have been cut down in their prime, excruciating to watch burned children in hospitals, awful to imagine the thousands of Iraqi soldiers who lost their lives defending a cruel dictator. But this war — the most closely watched and carefully reported war in human history-has not been the catastrophe some predicted.

The reduction in carnage has been the result of smart bombs and computers, of America’s genius at research and applied technology, of its knack for planning and administration and of an American idealism rooted in its history.

America has not been an aggressive, imperialistic power, like prewar Japan, Nazi Germany, or the former Soviet Union. As John Keegan, preeminent military historian, points out in Fields of Battle, Americans are good at war but they do not enjoy it. We are much happier competing in science and sports, creating a higher standard of living for a greater number of citizens, improving health care, and working to make our society more just.

We are not in Iraq for empire or oil or because President Bush was trigger-happy or his generals wanted to try out their new toys. In the wake of September 11, the president, his Cabinet, and Congress agreed they could not allow Saddam Hussein to break treaties, accumulate deadly weapons, and encourage terrorists. We went to Iraq reluctantly and only after vigorous debate.

America typically has made heroes out of reluctant warriors. The colonists praised George Washington when he defeated the British but were relieved when he gave up his sword at the end of the Revolutionary War. For its hero in World War I, Americans chose Alvin York for his bravery in battle but admired him even more when they learned that he had been a pacifist. The ethos of the reluctant warrior was fortified after the catastrophe of World War I, the errors of Vietnam, and the ensuing movement towards realism in an information-rich world that has removed romance from war.

During the long and widely protested Vietnam War, many Americans did not distinguish between the troops and the cause. For the soldiers returning home, there were no ticker tape parades, no heroes’ welcome. With the memories of My Lai and Kent State barely fading came the scandals reported in the media throughout the 1990s: cheating at Annapolis, sexism at the Citadel, Tailhook, brutal initiation rites at Parris Island. It would take nearly 30 years after Vietnam and this new war in Iraq for the image of the American soldier to recover.

The United States military has been engaged in an audacious venture: to train soldiers who are willing to kill but who do not like it. In a recent television interview, William J. Lennox, the superintendent of West Point, noted that he requires all plebes to read the antiwar poems of Wilfred Owen, adding that only soldiers who know the horrors of war should wage it.

Our military and civilian leaders have articulated this theme repeatedly, emphasizing that America will exercise its overwhelming power judiciously, respect civilians, and preserve infrastructure. We have seen the results in surgical strikes directed against only the Iraqi leadership, in humanitarian assistance for the Iraqi people, in medics treating wounded civilians — and, most importantly, in troops who are brave, disciplined, and polite, who perform their unpleasant but necessary jobs, and who repeatedly tell embedded reporters they are anxious to get back home to their families.

When Russian soldiers entered Berlin in 1945, they raped German women. The Japanese pillaged Nanking in 1937. After burning Atlanta, General Sherman said, “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it.” What has been amazing about this war is not only the brilliance of the American military campaign but the absence of cruelty and the quiet heroism of American soldiers.

In Prayers for Private Devotions in War-Time, a booklet first published by Harvard’s Memorial Church during the Second World War and republished during this war, is a prayer titled “For Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen.” It begins with this petition: “Grant that our soldiers may be brave in battle, high-hearted in hardship, dauntless in defeat, and gentle in victory.”

Peter H. Gibbon is the author of A Call to Heroism: Renewing America’s Vision of Greatness. He is a research associate at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.