EDITOR’S NOTE: This appears in the May 19, 2003, issue of National Review.
Since returning from Iraq a short time ago I have been answering a lot of questions about the war from friends, family, and strangers. When they ask me how it was over there I find myself glossing over the fighting, the heat, the sandstorms, and the flies (these last could have taught the Iraqi army a thing or two about staying power). Instead, I talk about the soldiers I met, and how they reflected the best of America. A lot of people are going to tell the story of how this war was fought; I would rather say something about the men who won the war.
War came early for the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne when an otherwise quiet night in the Kuwaiti desert was shattered by thunderous close-quarters grenade blasts. Sgt. Hasan Akbar, a U.S. soldier, had thrown grenades into an officers’ tent, killing two and wounding a dozen others. Adding to the immediate confusion was the piercing scream of SCUD alarms, which kicked in the second Akbar’s grenade exploded. For a moment, it was a scene of near panic and total chaos.
Just minutes after the explosions, a perimeter was established around the area of the attack, medics were treating the wounded, and calls for evacuation vehicles and helicopters were already being sent out. Remarkably, the very people who should have been organizing all of this were the ones lying on the stretchers, seriously wounded. It fell to junior officers and untested sergeants to take charge and lead. Without hesitation everyone stepped up and unfalteringly did just that. I stood in amazement as two captains (Townlee Hendrick and Tony Jones) directed the evacuation of the wounded, established a hasty defense, and helped to organize a search for the culprit. They did all this despite bleeding heavily from their wounds. For over six hours, these two men ran things while refusing to be evacuated until they were sure all of the men in their command were safe.
Two days later Capt. Jones left the hospital and hitchhiked back to the unit: He had heard a rumor that it was about to move into Iraq and he wanted to be there. As Jones — dressed only in boots, a hospital gown, and a flak vest — limped toward headquarters, Col. Hodges, the 1st Brigade’s commander, announced, “I see that Captain Jones has returned to us in full martial splendor.” The colonel later said that he was tempted to send Jones to the unit surgeon for further evaluation, but that he didn’t feel he had the right to tell another man not to fight: Hodges himself had elected to leave two grenade fragments in his arm so that he could return to his command as quickly as possible.
The war had not even begun and already I was aware that I had fallen in with a special breed of men. Over the next four weeks, nothing I saw would alter this impression. A military historian once told me that soldiers could forgive their officers any fault save cowardice. After the grenade attack I knew these men were not cowards, but I had yet to learn that the brigade’s leaders had made a cult of bravery. A few examples will suffice.
While out on what he called “battlefield circulation,” Col. Hodges was surveying suspected enemy positions with one of his battalion commanders (Lt. Col. Chris Hughes) when a soldier yelled “Incoming” to alert everyone that mortar shells were headed our way. A few soldiers moved closer to a wall, but Hodges and Hughes never budged and only briefly glanced up when the rounds hit a few hundred yards away. As Hodges completed his review and prepared to leave, another young soldier asked him when they would get to kill whoever was firing the mortar. Hodges smiled and said, “Don’t be in a hurry to kill him. They might replace that guy with someone who can shoot.”
The next day, a convoy Col. Hodges was traveling in was ambushed by several Iraqi paramilitary soldiers. A ferocious firefight ensued, but Hodges never left the side of his vehicle. Puffing on a cigar as he directed the action, Hodges remained constantly exposed to fire. When two Kiowa helicopters swooped in to pulverize the enemy strongpoint with rocket fire, he turned to some journalists watching the action and quipped, “That’s your tax dollars at work.”
Bravery inspires men, but brains and quick thinking win wars. In one particularly tense moment, a company of U.S. soldiers was preparing to guard the Mosque of Ali — one of the most sacred Muslim sites — when agitators in what had been a friendly crowd started shouting that they were going to storm the mosque. In an instant, the Iraqis began to chant and a riot seemed imminent. A couple of nervous soldiers slid their weapons into fire mode, and I thought we were only moments away from a slaughter. These soldiers had just fought an all-night battle. They were exhausted, tense, and prepared to crush any riot with violence of their own. But they were also professionals, and so, when their battalion commander, Chris Hughes, ordered them to take a knee, point their weapons to the ground, and start smiling, that is exactly what they did. Calm returned. By placing his men in the most non-threatening posture possible, Hughes had sapped the crowd of its aggression. Quick thinking and iron discipline had reversed an ugly situation and averted disaster.
Since then, I have often wondered how we created 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. Historian Stephen Ambrose said of the American soldier: “When soldiers from any other army, even our allies, entered a town, the people hid in the cellars. When Americans came in, even into German towns, it meant smiles, chocolate bars and C-rations.” Ours has always been an army like no other, because our soldiers reflect a society unlike any other. They are pitiless when confronted by armed enemy fighters and yet full of compassion for civilians and even defeated enemies.
American soldiers immediately began saving Iraqi lives at the conclusion of any fight. Medics later said that the Iraqi wounded they treated were astounded by our compassion. They expected they would be left to suffer or die. I witnessed Iraqi paramilitary troops using women and children as human shields, turning grade schools into fortresses, and defiling their own holy sites. Time and again, I saw Americans taking unnecessary risks to clear buildings without firing or using grenades, because it might injure civilians. I stood in awe as 19-year-olds refused to return enemy fire because it was coming from a mosque.
It was American soldiers who handed over food to hungry Iraqis, who gave their own medical supplies to Iraqi doctors, and who brought water to the thirsty. It was American soldiers who went door-to-door in a slum because a girl was rumored to have been injured in the fighting; when they found her, they called in a helicopter to take her to an Army hospital. It was American soldiers who wept when a three-year-old was carried out of the rubble where she had been killed by Iraqi mortar fire. It was American soldiers who cleaned up houses they had been fighting over and later occupied — they wanted the places to look at least somewhat tidy when the residents returned.
It was these same soldiers who stormed to Baghdad in only a couple of weeks, accepted the surrender of three Iraqi Army divisions, massacred any Republican Guard unit that stood and fought, and disposed of a dictator and a regime with ruthless efficiency. There is no other army — and there are no other soldiers — in the world capable of such merciless fighting and possessed of such compassion for their fellow man. No society except America could have produced them.
Before I end this I want to point out one other quality of the American soldier: his sense of justice. After a grueling fight, a company of infantrymen was resting and opening their first mail delivery of the war. One of the young soldiers had received a care package and was sharing the home-baked cookies with his friends. A photographer with a heavy French accent asked if he could have one. The soldier looked him over and said there would be no cookies for Frenchmen. The photographer then protested that he was half Italian. Without missing a beat, the soldier broke a cookie in half and gave it to him. It was a perfect moment and a perfect reflection of the American soldier.
— Jim Lacey, a New York-based writer, was a war correspondent for Time magazine embedded with the 101st Airborne Division during Operation Iraqi Freedom.