This Christmastime, when the carolers are singing about peace and good will, I think about some of the soldiers I met in Iraq this year and of the decent Iraqis they are trying to help. This isn't a column about the big issues in the war but about the human beings who are trying to do their jobs, stay alive and come back home to the people they love.
I think about Sgt. Allen Maresh, a reservist from Dodge, Neb., who had just finished briefing his men about the roadside bombs and ambushes they might face as they took their convoy of supplies from Kuwait to Baghdad. A cold rain was falling, and Maresh was impatient to get going. I asked him one of those big-picture questions reporters like, but he waved me off.
"No matter what the belief is about whether the war is right or wrong, the soldier is never at fault," he said. "It's the politicians who make the decisions. We do what we're told." With that, Maresh and his convoy headed north into the war zone.
There are so many reservists and National Guard soldiers like Maresh in the Iraq theater. They never imagined that they would be fighting this kind of war, but they're doing it anyway -- not always cheerfully, but dutifully. Some, like an Army Reserve captain I met in Kuwait, have lost their spouses through divorce during the long months of separation. Others, like a reserve officer I met in Baghdad in July, had just started new businesses when they were called up, and worry that their careers will never get back on track.
When you ask these soldiers what they're fighting for, they don't give very complicated answers. Some mention Iraqis they've met and say they want to give them a chance to rebuild the country. Others talk about the "bad guys" who are attacking U.S. and Iraqi troops. A few are openly skeptical about the war. Among troops in Baghdad in July, bootleg copies of Michael Moore's antiwar film, "Fahrenheit 9/11," were making the rounds. But the most common sentiment you hear, which is probably the core motivation for soldiers in every war, is that they're fighting for their buddies so they'll all get through alive.
"I know the guys in my unit as well as anybody I've known in my life," Staff Sgt. Robert Cohee told me, describing his reserve unit from Nebraska, which has been convoying supplies to Baghdad since March. "You can't refuse a mission," he said. "You don't want to let your buddy down."
Some of these soldiers are already back for a second tour in Iraq. In July, in the baking heat of the Iraqi summer at a base outside Baghdad, I asked Lt. Col. Marcus de Oliveira why he had come back almost immediately after finishing his first tour. He's doing a crucial job, helping train the Iraqi National Guard, but that's not how he answered the question. "I got tired of watching it on television," he said. "The place for an infantry officer is in the fight."
When you see these soldiers looking supertough in their body armor and wraparound shades, it's easy to forget how young they are. But they're mostly kids in their late teens or early 20s. If there's one thing every enlisted man in Iraq seems to have, in addition to the sunglasses, it's a portable player to listen to tunes.
This rock-and-roll military sometimes astonishes you with its raw, raunchy American-ness. Just off the southern coast of Iraq, a Coast Guard cutter is pulling away from a larger ship after refueling. The 26-year-old captain waves goodbye, and you suddenly hear the rolling sound of "Sweet Child of Mine" by Guns N' Roses, played at full volume from the little ship's loudspeakers, filling the stillness of the Persian Gulf. It's the captain's "breakaway song." Most of the ships have one. Another young captain told me he always played "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC.
I think, finally, of Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. forces in Mosul. We talked less than three weeks ago in the same mess tent that was hit by a suicide bomber last Tuesday in the deadliest attack on Americans since the war began 21 months ago.
The troops in Mosul were chowing down all around us, taking a brief break from the stress of war. Americans need to be patient, Ham said. "Counterinsurgencies are long-term propositions." But Iraqi forces will gradually become stronger, Ham continued, and "my hope is that we will not have to maintain this level of force." In this holiday season, one can only add: Amen.