Politics & Policy

The Paratrooper’s Burden

Ready for battle.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This was filed hours before the action began on March 19.

KUWAIT — Some teenage paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne’s 325 Regiment, currently stationed at Camp Champion in the Kuwait desert, got a taste today of life and death decision making.

#ad#Platoon by platoon, they are run through full-dress scenarios very like those they may face in real life within days. In one, a squad simulates a helicopter drop into a hot zone where a friendly humvee had just been attacked. Their mission is to secure a perimeter and then evacuate the wounded American soldiers.

All is proceeding well until a mob of “Iraqis” — actually some other soldiers from the same company, wearing desert fatigues but no body armor or helmets — swarm out of an alley between some nearby tents. The role players menace the U.S. soldiers, shouting taunts, and throwing a few rocks.

Suddenly one Iraqi in the middle of the pack unslings a rifle that had been hidden behind his shoulder, and attempts to fire. An alert infantryman drops him with a single round (in this case, a shouted “bang”). Unfortunately, the rest of the crowd doesn’t flee when the shot rings out, reacting instead with rage. “You killed my brother,” shout several of the hostiles, rushing the kneeling perimeter guards.

Chaos breaks out. Additional shots are fired. “You want more? Who wants more?” yells one adrenaline-filled shooter at his enemies. In the end, four aggressive but unarmed civilians lay on the ground, dead.

At the end, all Charlie Company troopers gather around the experienced Rangers and special-forces officers leading the exercise. “You’re f***ing going to jail,” one Sergeant interjects, forcefully pointing at the rescue squad. “You have to escalate force gradually. First you shout. They you show your weapon. Then you shove. Only then do you shoot. You’ve got dead civilians without any lethal weapons on them. You’ve got a mess.”

“There are going to be tragedies,” emphasizes another Sergeant. “But we’ve got to avoid atrocities.”

The soldiers of the 82nd Airborne are highly disciplined, much more so than the National Guardists and regular Army soldiers I’ve observed in adjoining camps. But even in their ranks, this is an emphatically democratic fighting force. Immediately after the Sergeants speak, a spirited (yet civil) group argument breaks out over whether the squad had any alternative.

“We’re in a place where the enemy has just attacked a friendly vehicle and shot two of our guys. Now they’re swarming us, and not halting when we tell them to stop, even with us hollering ‘awgfu’ (some of the phonetic Arabic soldiers in Kuwait are being taught). I’m sorry, but they’re gonna get popped. And we’re gonna be able to bring all of our guys home alive,” the squad leader says with heat.

“First Sergeant,” explains one private who pulled his trigger, “the guy touched my rifle. Which cost $500,” he adds with a broad smile, no doubt parroting information loudly driven into his skull by some drill instructor.

“That’s different. Under the Rules of Engagement your rifle is one of your ‘sensitive items’ and if someone grabs it you’re justified in shooting.”

The company breaks into smaller groups to further chew over the lessons of the morning’s training, and the emphatic debates continue. Most of the infantrymen and squad leaders argue they must err on the side of keeping their men safe. “We’re not just waxing people. That’s wrong. But listen up: the rules have changed since September 11,” a lieutenant suggests. “There are people out there willing to commit suicide. We can’t let them near us.”

One of the trainers tries to slow the train of sentiment. “Imagine you’re at home, and soldiers shoot civilians. What are you gonna think then? Cops have to work through this all the time.”

An immediate answer zips back: “Sir, civilians shouldn’t be messing around with armed soldiers in an area where we got casualties.”

These lightning-fast decisions would be tough for even Solomon to deliberate all the way through. For teenaged men facing possible death in a hostile country, the choices are hellishly tough. In a scenario run immediately after the one I’ve just described, four GIs get shot because some non-uniformed Iraqi attackers weren’t taken out quickly enough.

Invasion and occupation of Iraq is going to involve lots of raw military/civilian interaction. Defense intelligence shows that Saddam is secreting fighters and dangerous targets thick in the midst of innocent civilians even as we write. Sorting out the two populations is going to be hellish at times, and second-guessers in Europe and America will pounce on every hard case.

The encouraging news is, the men of the 82nd Airborne, and lots of other American fighters, are wrestling hard with these devilish choices. In sharp specifics, amidst rippling informed argument, they are trying to think their way through the snap decisions that can make the difference between justice and tragedy in wartime. Let’s hope Americans back home appreciate the difficulty of their burden.

Karl Zinsmeister, editor in chief of The American Enterprise, is embedded with the 82nd Airborne for the duration of hostilities in Iraq.

  Karl Zinsmeister is the editor in chief of Philanthropy magazine. He formerly advised Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President George W. Bush on domestic policy.

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