Iraq conflict leaves officers weary and humbled
In the summer of 2006, Maj. Walt Cooper was convinced that his Special Forces team's work was only contributing to the violence spiraling out of control in Baghdad.
Cooper and his soldiers were training a police battalion that took orders from a radical Shiite militia. "We know that the guys we train are some of the same dudes who are putting bullets in the back of people's heads or going to work on them with power drills," he wrote in a July 2006 e-mail home.
As the months passed, his cynicism and anger grew. "This place is now rotten to the core," he concluded.
A year later Cooper was back in Iraq, working with 150-man police unit. His second tour, which coincided with a surge of about 30,000 American soldiers, almost felt like a different war. Violence dropped. Markets opened. Something resembling stability seemed to take hold. Cooper remembers his battle-scarred Iraqi police partner from that period as a brother in arms.
The 33-year-old Green Beret is part of a generation of Army officers whose careers have been defined by the chaos and contradictions of one of America's longest and costliest wars. These soldiers have watched close friends die, weathered separations from family, and struggled to explain to grieving parents why their loved ones didn't make it home.
When the U.S. and Iraqi brass gather in Baghdad on Monday to mark the official end of U.S. combat operations, these officers will largely be absent. Some are in Afghanistan. A few remain in Iraq, where the war will grind on even with the diminished American presence. Others are in graduate school, trying to start personal lives before their return to combat.
How these soldiers make sense of their last seven years of war will profoundly affect how America wields military power over the next quarter-century.
So far, the lessons they are taking from their Iraq experience are ones of humility and caution that surpass the post-Vietnam War period. In Vietnam, a generation of officers blamed their defeat on a fickle American public and civilian leaders who placed limits on their use of firepower. Today's Iraq veterans are more apt to acknowledge that the limitations are their own.
They are slow to call Iraq a victory. "We had military successes, but the Iraqis will decide whether it is a long-term success or not," said Maj. Joseph Da Silva, who logged three tours.
And they are intimately aware of the human costs. "To realize how random and crazy all this is sparks that hint of panic," Capt. Casey Thoreen wrote in 2009 after a roadside bomb killed two of his men.
Among them, Cooper, Da Silva and Thoreen have spent nine years deployed - seven in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. They have worked as staff officers and commanded in some of the war zone's most remote and austere outposts.
"If Iraq is to teach us anything, it must be that a new idea cannot be beat into a society," Cooper wrote in an e-mail in 2006. Today the onetime Rhodes scholar is finishing a doctorate at Harvard and teaching at West Point. For him and others of his generation, it is the dark days of the war, more than the successes of 2007, that dominate their memories of Iraq.