IF YOU WANT to meet the future political leaders of the United States, go to Iraq. I am not referring to the generals, or even the colonels. I mean the junior officers and enlistees in their 20s and 30s. In the decades ahead, they will represent something uncommon in U.S. military history: war veterans with practical experience in democratic governance, learned under the most challenging of conditions.
For several weeks, I observed these young officers working behind the scenes to organize the election in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. They arranged for the sniffer dogs at the polling stations and security for the ballots right up to the moment Iraqi officials counted them. They arranged the outer ring of U.S. military security, with inner ones of Iraqi soldiers and police at each polling station, even as they were careful to give the Iraqis credit for what they, in fact, were doing. The massive logistical exercise of holding an election in a city of 2.1 million people was further complicated by the fact that the location of many polling stations changed at the last minute to prevent terrorist attacks.
Throughout Iraq, young Army and Marine captains have become veritable mayors of micro-regions, meeting with local sheiks, setting up waste-removal programs to employ young men, dealing with complaints about cuts in electricity and so on. They have learned to arbitrate tribal politics, to speak articulately and to sit through endless speeches without losing patience.
I watched Lt. John Turner of Indianapolis get up on his knees from a carpet while sipping tea with a former neighborhood mukhtar and plead softly: “Sir, I am willing to die for a country that is not my own. So will you resume your position as mukhtar? Brave men must stand forward. Iraq’s wealth is not oil but its civilization. Trust me by the projects I bring, not by my words.”
Turner, a D student in high school, got straightened out as an enlisted man in the Coast Guard before earning a degree from Purdue and becoming an Army officer. He is one of what Col. Michael Shields, commander of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Mosul, calls his “young soldier-statesmen.”
Regardless of whether you support or oppose the U.S. engagement in Iraq, you should be aware that that country has had a startling effect on a new generation of soldiers often from troubled backgrounds, whose infantry training has provided no framework for building democracy from scratch.
At a Thanksgiving evangelical service, one NCO told the young crowd to cheers: “The Pilgrims during the first winter in the New World suffered a 54% casualty rate from disease and cold. That’s a casualty rate that would render any of our units combat ineffective. But did the Pilgrims sail back to England? Did they give up? No. This country isn’t a quitter. It doesn’t withdraw.”
Not withdrawing means bringing stability and liberal values to a society in which people have been trained to be subjects, not citizens. Young commanders in Iraq are experiencing in the bluntest terms the intractable cultural and political realities of a world that the U.S. seeks to remake in its own image, even as their own life struggles -- as well as their religious faith, which is generally deeper than that of secular elites -- make them not only refuse to give up but to feel betrayed by those who would.
To label them conservative is to miss the point. Having ground-truthed the difficulty of implanting democracy in a place with no experience of it, Iraq has stripped them of any ideology they might have had. At the same time, they have become emotionally involved with building Iraqi democracy. They have developed a distrust of an American media that have not, in their eyes, recorded advances they feel they have made in reducing the level of combat or getting a nascent electoral system started. In a vast country of 23 million people, they rarely see the car bombings that kill a few dozen every day and are reported on the news at home. But they daily see the progress in front of their eyes.
What these officers represent is the frontier ethos of applied wisdom, the combination of pragmatism and idealism that allowed for 19th century westward expansion, the clearing of land and the building of towns. Military men, with their impatience with ideas that cannot be field tested, are a vibrant illustration of this ethos, especially as so many of them have grown up in rural America (and many I spoke to came from family farms). Now their deep engagement in civilian development matters -- in nation building -- has extended the meaning of the continental frontier overseas.
They are not imperialists, if by that we mean that they would support unilaterally invading a country again with a large number of troops. But they are absolutely committed to U.S. success in Iraq, no matter the cost to themselves. And as they trickle out of the service in coming years and rise to prominence in civilian life, the ability of the home front in these difficult days not to pity them, but to sustain them in their mission, could have enormous consequences for the future of American politics.