The fighting person of the year

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Jan 01, 2004 12:00 AM

War is hell, as William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, and postwar peace can be far from heaven, too. The noblest intentions go awry on the battlefield. The idealism that starts the fight does not always filter down to those who must do the fighting.

"Mopping up" was always an inelegant phrase to describe getting rid of the remnants of resistance scattered across the battlefield. We're not mopping up in Iraq so much as searching every nook and cranny for hidden dustups. Housekeeping terms never capture the terror that lurks around corners and settles in crannies and caves.

It's hard to find precise heroic words to describe young men and women who are far away from home fighting to bring a better world to a population of people who aren't exactly sure what freedom means (or even whether they want it). George Bush persuaded most of us that this war would make it safer for the world by ridding Iraq of a villainous dictator.

But we don't have superheroes, and the men and women in uniform hold no magic powers. The cowardly Saddam emerged from a hole in the ground, like a worm in a spadeful of earth, but the brave men who lifted the camouflage over his hiding place didn't know what they would find. They displayed courage made of flesh, blood and accelerated heartbeats.

Such is the stuff of the composite Person of the Year 2003 displayed on the cover of Time magazine - three American soldiers, emblematic of heroism and resplendent in khaki and camouflage, looking straight into the camera.

Neither we nor the camera can fathom the forbidding knowledge behind their eyes. We look at their faces and realize how ignorant we are of what they have endured. We can only imagine how different these young men are from the boys who not so long ago were raw recruits. We can read about the loss of their friends and the distrust they confront from those they have gone to Iraq to liberate, but we get no more than a glimpse of their sadness, frustration and pride.

"The fight for peace demands different skills of the soldiers: not just courage but constancy; not just strength but subtlety," Time observes. "Liberty can't be fired like a bullet into the hard ground. It requires among other things, time and trust. ... A force intensely trained for its mission finds itself improvising at every turn, required to exercise exquisite judgment in extreme circumstances."

We have no mythology to inspire our soldiers, to draw the highest values of character for the mission. Family and faith buttress purpose, but the stories, songs and anecdotes of today's soldiers are disjointed pieces of live action, to be eventually gathered into history and myth by a future Homer, Herodotus and Thucydides.

It's hard to imagine how our future writers will give life to the dead and find patterns and poetry in the chaos of wars of the 21st century. Battles along the Tigris and the Euphrates will be but dots on a map of the long march of history, from inside the walls of Troy to the killing field at Chancellorsville, the beaches of Normandy, the barren ground at the Chosin Reservoir, the highlands of Khe San.

Time describes a young man whose platoon leader lay mortally wounded in his arms, a bloody hole where his eye had been, as dead as the Cyclops slain by Ulysses. Soldiers talk of the sons left behind with the poignancy displayed by Hector in the last hours before he is dispatched to meet his destiny against Achilles.

These men in Iraq observe their own "wine-dark sea," their own "rosy-colored dawn," fused with "black waves of hell," among warriors "fierce as fire" as screams of the dying blend with cries of triumph. Time and distance are required to find the meaning of it all.

Students of St. Johns College, assigned to study the great books of Western civilization, read the Iliad and the Odyssey in their freshman year. Christopher Nelson, president of the school in Annapolis, tells the incoming class that they will learn to question the meaning of life as they read about ancient heroes.

He translates a Greek word for "spiritedness" - "the principle that animates life, the soul, the heart, the spirit." The word encompasses a range of character traits, including courage, indignation, anger, righteousness and pride. It is a word, he says, that moves men and women from "thought to action."

Many of the volunteer soldiers in Iraq enlisted to get the free college education that will give them a head start in life. They're getting a head start, all right. They'll have a lot to think about later. So will we.