America's idealists are on the ground in IraqWASHINGTON - Soldiers in all wars are called upon to be heroes, but America's men and women in Iraq are called upon to define a new sort of heroism. First, they must endure the insanity of war, fighting off Fedayeen ambushes, withstanding the suicide bombings and mortars, kicking down doors and searching homes.
But a day or an hour or a few minutes later, they are called upon to enter an opposite moral universe. They are asked to pass out textbooks, improvise sewer systems and help with budgets. Some sit in on town council meetings to help keep the discussion on track. Some act like foundation program officers, giving seed money to promising local initiatives. Trained as trigger-pullers, many are also asked to be consultants and aldermen.
Can anybody think of another time in history when a comparable group of young people was asked to be at once so brave, fierce and relentless, while also being so sympathetic, creative and forbearing?
When you read the dispatches from Iraq, or the online diaries many soldiers keep, or the e-mail they send home, you quickly sense how hard it is to commute between these two universes. Yet their most important achievements seem to occur on the border between chaos and normalcy.
When order threatens to break down, the soldiers, aviators and Marines jump in and coach the Iraqis on the customs and habits of democracy. They try to weave that fabric of civic trust that can't be written into law, but without which freedom becomes anarchy.
For example, in a New Yorker article, George Packer describes an incident in the life of Captain John Prior. He was inside a gas station when a commotion erupted outside. A mob of people was furiously accusing a man of butting in line and stealing gasoline. Prior established that the man was merely a government inspector checking the quality of the fuel. Frazzled and exhausted, Prior took the chance to teach the mob a broader lesson: "The problem is that you people accuse each other without proof! That's the problem!"
Another soldier, who keeps a Weblog, collects toys and passes them out to Iraqi children. He brought a pile of toys to an orphanage, but the paid staff at the place rushed the pile to grab the toys for themselves - "like sharks in a feeding frenzy," he writes. He has learned that if he stations himself with an M-16 over the toys, things go smoothly.
Another soldier writes of his dismay at seeing Iraqi parents give their kids toy guns as presents after Ramadan. He wonders, Haven't they had enough death? Don't they realize how dangerous it is for a kid to wander the street with a piece of plastic that looks like an AK-47?
When you read the diaries and the postings of the soldiers in Iraq, you see how exhausted they are. You see that their feelings about the Iraqis are as contradictory as the Iraqis' feelings about them. You see their frustration and yearning to go home.
But despite all this, their epic bouts of complaining are interrupted by bursts of idealism. Most of them seem to feel, deep down, some elemental respect for the Iraqis and sympathy for what they have endured. Far more than the population at home, the soldiers in the middle of the conflict believe in their mission and are confident they will succeed.
When you read their writings you see what thorough democrats they are. They are appalled at the thought of dominating Iraq. They want to see the Iraqis independent and governing themselves. If some president did want to create an empire, he couldn't do it with these people. Their faith in freedom governs their actions.
Most of all, you see what a challenging set of tasks they have been given, and how short-staffed they are. And yet you sense that in this war, as in so many others, the improvising skill of the soldiers on the ground will make up for the cosmic screw-ups of the people up the chain of command.
If anybody is wondering: Where are the young idealists? Where are the people willing to devote themselves to causes larger than themselves? They are in uniform in Iraq, straddling the divide between insanity and order.