STUDYING WAR

By Ralph Peters, New York Times, September 24, 2006
Forwarded by BGen Brig Gen R. Clements USAF ret

When politicians get big things wrong, they still get reelected. When academics get big things wrong, they get tenure. When Special Forces officers get even the smallest thing wrong, people die.

That gives SF leaders seriousness you rarely encounter elsewhere - unless it's among others in uniform.

Once a year, I have the privilege of speaking to the SF and other special operations students at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. The questions from those officers are by far the toughest - the most intelligent and earnest - I hear anywhere.

Why? The rest of us just read. Those officers do the things we read about.

Fresh from combat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in one of the world's dark crevices, they don't argue for any party line or popular prejudice in the classroom. Their fighting's deadly, not a game of political one-upmanship. With candor and moral courage, they struggle to understand the world in which they work.

According to the media, that world's black and white. But special operators deal with reality, not cant or spin. Their world has countless shades of gray. It isn't a universe of perishable headlines, but one in which you struggle to read between an infinite number of lines.

The rest of us simplify things to get a grip on them. For these men (and women, too, in Psychological Operations and other special-ops fields), every minor complexity has to be faced. They serve and fight in environments where each gesture has nuance, where life can depend upon tone of voice, and where physical stamina is ultimately less important than strength of will.

Many will never receive public credit for the risks they've taken and the victories they've achieved to keep the rest of us safe and free. You won't always know precisely what their awards for valor represent. Their personnel files have gaps that measure operations so secret that senior officers can't access the reports. Often, their families know only that their soldier's gone, with no idea where he is and when - or if - he'll return.

Think about that. In this Internet age of instant communications, when troops in Iraq jump on-line at the end of a mission to assure the folks back home that they're OK, special operators disappear into a black hole for months.

On a military post, the other spouses might talk to their distant warrior regularly. The family of the special operator waits. And waits. Even the wives and kids have it tougher in special ops.

Each year, my feeling grows stronger that I should be listening to these soldiers, not lecturing to them. No matter how much experience we think we have of the world, it doesn't begin to rival that of special operators - or of regular soldiers and Marines, for that matter. They haven't just been to a war. They've been to wars. And each one knows he or she is going back.

The only thing you can do with officers like that is to try to help them gain a greater perspective on the ordeals they've recently left behind, to assemble their individual experiences into a coherent grasp of deeper issues, and to get at the purpose of their sacrifices in a way that goes beyond pabulum generalities.

Last week, in a classroom in a wretched building slated for demolition, we talked about Islam and its relation to other religions, about the power of culture, the reassertion of local identities and unorthodox strategies. We discussed the tactical lessons of recent wars and the life spans of civilizations.

One Major spoke cogently of the lessons he drew from interacting with Arab officers. Another stressed the criticality of education for women in breaking the chain of societal failure (and this guy was an aviator, a category of officer better known for fly-by targeting of the human female; tell Ms. Steinem we're making progress). A Navy SEAL raised the lessons medieval Europe offers for analyzing the Middle East today.

Not exactly The New Yorker's snitty view of military officers. There was no bluster or swagger, no trace of close-mindedness (for that, you have to go to a liberal arts faculty). No matter how controversial the discussion became, no one raised his or her voice.

The quality of their questions and observations was signally higher than those on any campus I've ever visited. It's the same story every year at Ft. Leavenworth. If the readers of this paper only could meet these magnificent Americans, you'd be immeasurably proud of them.

They have their concerns, of course. In off-line discussions, there was never a diminished sense of duty, but their optimism was more subdued than in previous years. Repeatedly, I encountered a sense that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's policies failed our military badly, undercutting our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The officers didn't complain. They just offered sober observations on what they'd been through, what they'd seen, and what we could do better. Each one was mentally prepared to go back into the fight.

And they will go back. Their time in Kansas is a brief respite, a chance to hold their families close for a few months, to study and think. They'll soon go out again to routinely do the impossible, to track down terrorists and train potential allies, to right at least a small portion of the world's wrongs and to redeem the damage done by unscrupulous foreign leaders, hate-mongering demagogues and, yes, irresponsible politicians here at home.

The bottom line? Some of the men and women I spoke to last week are going to die.

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Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of “Never Quit the Fight.”