It is not an uncommon question in this combat zone. Historians will tell you that wars throughout the ages, whatever their outcome, tend to wreck armies and wear out soldiers. Troops hasten to add that the belief that they are making a difference in their jobs helps mitigate the immense strain of being a soldier today. "I would argue that you haven't seen an army like this since the demise of the Roman legion—such a small number of forces able to influence the world," says Clinton Ancker III, a retired Army colonel and director of the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate. When the 3rd Brigade Combat Team arrived in Baqubah, there was widespread corruption and heartbreaking violence against civilians. During the tour of Del Valle, Whitten, and Jones's brigade, they drove out terrorists and saw some life return to the markets, children to soccer fields. It is the sort of impact that makes a military career attractive, they say.
But the desire to make a difference can lead to even greater frustration when troops return after previous tours in Iraq to find what they consider to be little change or even backsliding during a counterinsurgency campaign in which the very definition of victory is still a lively topic of debate. That frustration can be compounded, too. Ancker argues that soldiers are under "a lot more stress" now than they were in Vietnam. "The atmosphere is more physically demanding. And in Vietnam, we were guaranteed at least a year between deployments," he says. When soldiers are injured—physically and psychologically—they are at the mercy of a deeply overburdened system that they cannot always count on to take care of them.
Camaraderie. The military has drawn lessons from past wars, notably Vietnam, reorganizing the Army into brigade combat teams in part to encourage unit cohesion and camaraderie. This has promoted the sort of psychological bonding that gives troops a sense of support in the face of the enormous demands, says Jeffrey LaFace, the division chief of the Army's Combined Armed Center.
That camaraderie is clear on forward operating bases throughout Baghdad, where troops organize flag football matches and barbecues and decompress in coffee shops and Internet cafes with fellow soldiers and marines who have become close friends over the years. "Soldiers go in as units, with the same group of guys that they have known since they were privates in Kosovo and Bosnia," says LaFace. These "adopted families," he adds, help to stem "some of the weirdness that we had coming out of Vietnam." That weirdness included soldiers who shot officers when they didn't want to do a mission and riots in U.S. military prisons overcrowded with deserters.
It is another notable legacy of the troubled Vietnam-era Army that many of today's volunteer soldiers have little desire to see the nation return to the draft. "It's the only thing that would make me get out of the Army," says Capt. Scott Hubbard, who recently returned from a tour in Iraq. The last thing you want to do, he adds, is fight next to someone who doesn't want to be next to you.
Despite the strains, the retention rate for troops in Iraq remains high, commanders point out. Their concern, though, is whether it will stay that way. "The entire Army leadership—and rightfully—we get a little nervous," says Peter Chiarelli, the military assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and until 2006 the widely admired No. 2 commander in Iraq. "All of us are extremely concerned that we could cross a line without even knowing it."
Some commanders in Iraq worry that they are flirting with those lines now as demands on soldiers show little sign of letting up. There is growing evidence that post-traumatic stress is taking a toll: The number of troops who tried to commit suicide or injure themselves increased from 350 in 2002 to 2,100 last year. So, too, can the simple fear and fatigue that accompany daily patrols. One active duty commander recalls a unit that had gone months without a serious casualty, only to have a soldier hit by a sniper weeks before the unit was scheduled to head home. The commander was approached by an officer carrying a spreadsheet that charted out the number of times company commanders had gone out on patrol or operations over a two-week period. "I had cases where I had officers who by their job nature should be going out all the time, who'd only gone out two or three times," he says. "It was probably related directly to losing soldiers, personal fear, and the fact that you're only a month or two out from going home," he continues. "I asked them, 'Have you considered the effect this has had on your soldiers?' I remember what a leadership challenge it was, and I imagine that a lot of similar things are occurring in other battalions."