How the War In Iraq Is Changing the American Soldier

Wars leave a lasting mark on soldiers, they tend to change the culture of the armies that fight them.

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Now Command Sgt. Maj. Eddie Del Valle.

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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."

Changes, challenges. Today, troops discuss such leadership challenges at countless outposts in Iraq and at the premier centers of military learning. These chats are not always pretty. Some note, for example, that Congress has fewer military veterans than in the past and, perhaps as a result, shows too much deference to the military leaders who testify on Capitol Hill. "Congress doesn't ask the tough questions they should be asking, because they're afraid that they're going to be accused of not supporting the troops," says one captain on patrol in East Baghdad. His buddy agrees. "Debates in Congress don't hurt our feelings. That's what we're here for, freedom of speech."

There is little doubt within the military itself, particularly among more junior officers, that this freedom of speech includes a growing willingness to question the decisions of commanders leading the war. That is driven in large part by the experience they are getting in the field: In today's military, the average captain has spent more time in combat than most World War II veterans—and more than some senior officers now in the military.

Indeed, military leaders acknowledge this change. "We've got to listen to the young folks—they have lived this conflict in a different way—and make sure their lessons are incorporated into this Army," Chiarelli says. "In order to do that, you've got to be willing to accept a dialogue in which many of the things that old guys like me thought are challenged."

Those challenges include new ways of thinking about how decisions are made. The Army has recently launched its own "Red Team University" to train officers to be, in essence, the opposite of yes men. Graduates of this program are then placed in brigades to question the assumptions behind decisions in hopes of averting tactical and strategic missteps. And though many argue that soldiers' grumbling about their commanders' decision is a tradition as old as the Army itself, Richard Kohn, a war historian at the University of North Carolina, believes one thing is clear: "I think that coming out of the war, you're going to have a much more candid military."

Informed support. That candor, too, must include presenting a realistic picture of the war effort to the American public, say the students at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Not doing so in advance of the Iraq war was a mistake, they add—one that should not be repeated. "We should now consider whether we can ever successfully go to war for an extended period of time without the informed support of the American people," writes Chiarelli in a recent article for the journal Military Review.

But garnering that informed consent presents a dilemma: How does a military defined by its can-do culture paint a more realistic portrait of war? It might begin, troops say, with managing expectations—of the American people and of the soldiers themselves. "We expected to come in and throw another 3-pointer and everyone stand up and cheer," says Hubbard. "There was a lot of emotion, a lot of rhetoric, all the country music songs getting everybody fired up," he adds. "I think a lot of folks screaming for war—on both sides, political, civilians, military—just don't understand what it takes."