Thanksgiving has just passed, and the first American troops to deploy for the Iraq War are nearing their one-year anniversary overseas. That makes it a good time to remember some families in this country to whom the rest of us owe a great deal. Take, for example, the family of Sean Shields, the young American I photographed in combat for the cover of my new book Boots on the Ground: A Month with the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq. Lieutenant Shields, currently stationed near Baghdad, is the third generation of his clan to serve in the U.S. Army airborne.
Sean's grandfather was one of the men who created the stellar reputation of the 82nd Airborne Division in the first place--parachuting into the critical battles of Normandy and Nijmegen during World War II, and fighting with distinction at the Battle of the Bulge. In his nighttime jump into Normandy (no nightvision goggles in those days), the elder Shields' parachute hooked on the steeple of a stone church; he slammed into the side of the building and was knocked out cold. When he came to, he cut himself free from his parachute harness, fell heavily to the ground, and in the pitch black promptly stumbled into a foxhole of German soldiers, losing his rifle in the process. So his introduction to Normandy began with a knife fight, which he won.
Sean's father served in Gulf War I, eventually retiring as a colonel. Now Sean is an Army Ranger doing his part of the dirty work in Iraq. He has shaken off two roadside bombings of his humvee within a month, and soldiers on without complaint. There are many such families in this country with a multigenerational tradition of military service.
There are also lots of families who are oblivious to this tradition. In his recent book Keeping Faith, Frank Schaefer describes how, after he'd sent other children to New York University and Georgetown, his affluent Boston neighbors expressed disappointment at his son's decision to become a Marine. "He's so bright and talented and could do anything!" blurted one man. "What a waste!" A similar view is betrayed by New York Times reporter Chris Hedges when he describes today's soldiers as "poor kids from Mississippi or Alabama or Texas who could not get a decent job or health insurance and joined the Army because it was all we offered them." Or even more harshly by Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi, who told some war protestors not long ago that they were "'A' students, who think for themselves," in contrast to the "'C' students with their stupid fingers on the trigger."
Are such impressions accurate? From my experiences observing and writing about American soldiers--most recently as an embedded reporter during last spring's Iraq war--my answer is an emphatic "no." Such representations of America's fighting men and women, I suggest, are misunderstandings of scandalous proportion.
Read the entire article on the American Enterprise Institute website.