A Generation of Warfighters — from Kabul to Kurdistan
“We will never win in Afghanistan … it gives us a place to go and be warriors.”
Former Special Forces Major Jim Gant said those words about a decade ago, while assessing the state of that war. A couple years prior, Gant had written an influential policy paper entitled “One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan.” General David Petraeus called him a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia. Gant earned a reputation in that war for being a master counterinsurgent or going native, depending on who you ask. So this American Spartan (the title of Gant’s 2014 memoir — written by his wife, Ann Scott Tyson) didn’t arrive at his conclusion of the war’s long-term viability without some hard-earned knowledge.
Yet the war goes on. In Afghanistan and beyond. The slow drift of the forever wars (nearing 20 years now, if you can believe it — old enough to buy its own beer) has seen our foreign policy go from the Powell Doctrine, to invasions without exit strategies, to occupations of various phases and fronts. We’ve brought the fight to the enemy from Baghdad to Niger, bombed terrorists from the Hindu Kush to the deserts of Syria. We’ve partnered with Kurds and Pashtuns, Sunni chieftains and Shi’a clerics. Young American servicemembers have died for the Global War on Terror, far from home, in a wide array of violent ways — sometimes believing in the cause, sometimes not.
Twenty years of war. Twenty years of bloodshed. Twenty years is a long-ass time, and also the length of a whole military career. That’s a lot of toil and deploying, even for professional warfighters, and it got me thinking: How are the veterans from early in this war similar to those now enlisting? How are they different? Have the expectations in the ranks changed at all, and how do those expectations differ from those who served pre-9/11 and those who joined up in the immediate aftermath of those attacks?
So I asked a few of them.
- Will, 37, U.S. Army, major:
- I started ROTC the week before September 11 …mostly to pay for school. I wanted to be a pilot, too. I don’t think I’d given much thought to making [the military] a career, I was just 18, you know? Then the towers fell and everything changed.
- Dion, 52, U.S. Army, sergeant first class (retired):
- I’m so old I fought in Desert Storm (laughs)! How was it different back then? There wasn’t much “Support the Troops,” not until we came back from the Gulf and had a victory parade. Going into the military was something a lot of folks looked down on. Now, it’s one of the most trusted professions. I didn’t really notice that when I was in, but now that I’m retired, I see it every day.
- Terri, 24, U.S. Marines, lieutenant:
- I was little when 9/11 happened, so the wars have been there most of my life, just kind of [set] in the backdrop. I wouldn’t say [deploying to combat] is why I became a Marine, but now that I am a Marine, it’s something I feel compelled to do … it’s something I want to do now.
- Ryan, 50, former U.S. Navy, petty officer 2nd class:
- I left [the Navy] in 2000. People talk a lot about 9/11 being the big dividing line, and I get that, but people forget the USS Cole was bombed the year before. Terrorism was already happening.
The Warfighters Continue
Will: I worked as a recruiting officer in New York a few years back, so I saw new recruits coming in. They changed a bit, but for the most part it was the same: They wanted to serve their country. Wanted college money, wanted to learn a trade. Now, their relationship to the wars? Yeah, that’s different. I talked to a young private last week, born in 2002. This is their normal.
Terri: Do I think my generation is different than the older ones? Huh. I don’t know. There’s the technology. I guess we’re like “digital natives,” as my dad would say. For Marines a couple years older, combat deployments were guaranteed. Now that’s less common. So maybe that’s a difference?
Ryan: Can’t speak for the other services, but I don’t think much has changed for sailors and the Navy. The mission set is the same: security and deterrence through sustained forward presence. Which is a lot of smart words to say: Be the biggest shark in the ocean — always.
Dion: I definitely noticed changes [in the personality types of soldiers] over my career. When I first came in, you were expected to do the job when ordered — no questions, no explanation needed, especially in combat arms. By the time I had my own platoon, though, explaining missions and objectives was part of the job. In some ways, that was good, made for smarter, more inquisitive soldiers. In other ways … I mean, it’s the green machine. Sometimes you just gotta crack skulls because your sergeant told you to.
Will: Only us old-timers now remember an America at peace. But that’s a lot of why I decided to stay in, make it a career. Same with a lot of people around our age, officer and enlisted. There’s always going to be an enemy. There’s always going to be a fight, somewhere. That sounds bad, I know, but that’s the reality. Best to keep it away from our shores as best we can, so our families can live in peace.
Terri: One of the great things about joining the Marines, about becoming a Marine, is the tradition. They drill it into you at OCS [Officer Candidates School] to the point that it becomes this real, tangible thing you’re aware of honoring and frightened of measuring up to …so for all the changes in generations and stuff, I think it’s the maintaining of excellence that’s most important. Times change, warfare changes, but the meaning of Semper Fidelis [Always Faithful] never does. That’s really cool.
Matt Gallagher is a U.S. Army veteran and the author of three books, including the novel “Empire City” available at Amazon.