Silent Night

An old friend asked me to join him for lunch the other day. Although we'd stayed in touch over the years we had not had the opportunity to sit down together for years so this was something not to be missed.  Because of my friend's tight schedule we met at his office and it was both strange and reassuring to walk up the steps of his place of business. It had begun to snow heavily and already young men were busy shoveling off the sidewalk and strewing salt afterwards.

My friend is Lieutenant General Dave Petraeus now commanding the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Having spent the last couple of years in Baghdad, Dave enjoyed the cool whiteness of his new surroundings. There are still soldiers everywhere in evidence but thankfully not a single gunshot or explosion, except for the evening gun, to mar the snowy silence.

Over sandwiches we chatted quietly about old friends and what they were up to these days and then slid easily into a discussion on our mutual passions of history and philosophy. Topics which would likely surprise a great many critics of the military whose entire knowledge of men and women in uniform comes from what they have gleaned from movies and television. The reality is infinitely deeper and more complex. By contrast few journalists or commentators (or politicians for that matter) can boast a PhD in International Relations from Princeton — an accomplishment which Dave simply shrugs off. A nation does not become the most prominent power on earth simply by projecting crew cuts and barked orders. Despite Hollywood's portrayals to the contrary it just doesn't happen.

It should be no surprise that given our mutual experiences and interests the talk should turn to observations on guerrilla warfare and insurgencies — past operations in Algeria and Malaya were of great mutual interest.  Of most interest to us was what we had learned from the past, what had changed, and what had to be learned anew the hard way.  What should be equally evident is that we would talk about something which is near and dear to both of us — the American soldier — and how he has more than risen to the most recent challenges.

Dave has recently been at the forefront of the projection of American power and influence, but his views are informed by a lifetime of study of the human condition. What is perhaps more inspiring is the fact that he very obviously loves the American soldier. He loves the inspiration and dedication which he has seen reflected in the faces and deeds of our young men and women in some of the most trying circumstances imaginable.  Far from home and family in hostile environments, fighting terrorists, heat, frustration, and loneliness and doing it all with passion and hope for the future.

The general spoke with a gleam in his eye and a note of pride in his voice of the efforts of young soldiers he worked with — and that is an interesting and revelatory phrase for although Dave commanded troops he always spoke of them more as colleagues than anything else.  He spoke of them as fellow laborers in the work of spreading civilization and democracy. For all of his work in leading combat troops in the first Gulf War and of training the new Iraqi Army and police forces today, he spoke most proudly of the energy and ingenuity of American troops as they lent their skills to such tasks as rebuilding mosques, hospitals, roads, medical clinics, schools, irrigation systems, and the university in Baghdad. These are not the typically imagined skills for soldiers but ones which not only do they embrace but which they perform with elan and incredible ability. Our soldiers display every day what Dave calls the four qualities which are the hallmarks of our soldiers; 'initiative, determination, innovation and courage.'

True, not the typically imagined skills required of soldiers, but very much the reality. And it is this uniquely American penchant for making life better, more equitable and rewarding which will ultimately spell victory in Iraq.  It is this ability to think 'outside of the box' (in current advertising shorthand) which may well prove the key to a renaissance of sorts —— both political and social —— in the entire region.  Where the terrorists and fanatics come to destroy and repress, American soldiers come to liberate, rebuild, and elevate. 

We look out the window to see the snow falling silently outside.  The world beyond the windows is turning white and cold and Christmas and Chanukah are fast approaching.  All over the world there are young Americans doing their utmost to protect and defend the values they hold dear.  At this time of year they would naturally prefer to be with their own families, with their wives or husbands, children or parents.  But they can't, they've got jobs to do.  Jobs that are likely the most important in recent history for they will help to shape the future of this planet. Have no fear, for the Americans on our front lines will do those jobs well.

You cannot have been a soldier at this time of year and not thought of those who have gone before us — those who gave their all for the things they held dear —— at Valley Forge, at Fredericksburg, at the Bulge, and at Chosin Reservoir and now in Iraq and Afghanistan and at small outposts worldwide. So this year when the Christmas tree is lit or the candles on the menorah are kindled, when the sun has set and we look forward to a silent night of peace and joy, please take a moment to say a quiet thank you to those brave men and women of our armed services.

Frederick J. Chiaventone, a novelist, screenwriter, and retired Army officer, taught International Security Affairs and counter—insurgency operations  at the US Army's Command and General Staff College.

An old friend asked me to join him for lunch the other day. Although we'd stayed in touch over the years we had not had the opportunity to sit down together for years so this was something not to be missed.  Because of my friend's tight schedule we met at his office and it was both strange and reassuring to walk up the steps of his place of business. It had begun to snow heavily and already young men were busy shoveling off the sidewalk and strewing salt afterwards.

My friend is Lieutenant General Dave Petraeus now commanding the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Having spent the last couple of years in Baghdad, Dave enjoyed the cool whiteness of his new surroundings. There are still soldiers everywhere in evidence but thankfully not a single gunshot or explosion, except for the evening gun, to mar the snowy silence.

Over sandwiches we chatted quietly about old friends and what they were up to these days and then slid easily into a discussion on our mutual passions of history and philosophy. Topics which would likely surprise a great many critics of the military whose entire knowledge of men and women in uniform comes from what they have gleaned from movies and television. The reality is infinitely deeper and more complex. By contrast few journalists or commentators (or politicians for that matter) can boast a PhD in International Relations from Princeton — an accomplishment which Dave simply shrugs off. A nation does not become the most prominent power on earth simply by projecting crew cuts and barked orders. Despite Hollywood's portrayals to the contrary it just doesn't happen.

It should be no surprise that given our mutual experiences and interests the talk should turn to observations on guerrilla warfare and insurgencies — past operations in Algeria and Malaya were of great mutual interest.  Of most interest to us was what we had learned from the past, what had changed, and what had to be learned anew the hard way.  What should be equally evident is that we would talk about something which is near and dear to both of us — the American soldier — and how he has more than risen to the most recent challenges.

Dave has recently been at the forefront of the projection of American power and influence, but his views are informed by a lifetime of study of the human condition. What is perhaps more inspiring is the fact that he very obviously loves the American soldier. He loves the inspiration and dedication which he has seen reflected in the faces and deeds of our young men and women in some of the most trying circumstances imaginable.  Far from home and family in hostile environments, fighting terrorists, heat, frustration, and loneliness and doing it all with passion and hope for the future.

The general spoke with a gleam in his eye and a note of pride in his voice of the efforts of young soldiers he worked with — and that is an interesting and revelatory phrase for although Dave commanded troops he always spoke of them more as colleagues than anything else.  He spoke of them as fellow laborers in the work of spreading civilization and democracy. For all of his work in leading combat troops in the first Gulf War and of training the new Iraqi Army and police forces today, he spoke most proudly of the energy and ingenuity of American troops as they lent their skills to such tasks as rebuilding mosques, hospitals, roads, medical clinics, schools, irrigation systems, and the university in Baghdad. These are not the typically imagined skills for soldiers but ones which not only do they embrace but which they perform with elan and incredible ability. Our soldiers display every day what Dave calls the four qualities which are the hallmarks of our soldiers; 'initiative, determination, innovation and courage.'

True, not the typically imagined skills required of soldiers, but very much the reality. And it is this uniquely American penchant for making life better, more equitable and rewarding which will ultimately spell victory in Iraq.  It is this ability to think 'outside of the box' (in current advertising shorthand) which may well prove the key to a renaissance of sorts —— both political and social —— in the entire region.  Where the terrorists and fanatics come to destroy and repress, American soldiers come to liberate, rebuild, and elevate. 

We look out the window to see the snow falling silently outside.  The world beyond the windows is turning white and cold and Christmas and Chanukah are fast approaching.  All over the world there are young Americans doing their utmost to protect and defend the values they hold dear.  At this time of year they would naturally prefer to be with their own families, with their wives or husbands, children or parents.  But they can't, they've got jobs to do.  Jobs that are likely the most important in recent history for they will help to shape the future of this planet. Have no fear, for the Americans on our front lines will do those jobs well.

You cannot have been a soldier at this time of year and not thought of those who have gone before us — those who gave their all for the things they held dear —— at Valley Forge, at Fredericksburg, at the Bulge, and at Chosin Reservoir and now in Iraq and Afghanistan and at small outposts worldwide. So this year when the Christmas tree is lit or the candles on the menorah are kindled, when the sun has set and we look forward to a silent night of peace and joy, please take a moment to say a quiet thank you to those brave men and women of our armed services.

Frederick J. Chiaventone, a novelist, screenwriter, and retired Army officer, taught International Security Affairs and counter—insurgency operations  at the US Army's Command and General Staff College.