“When we meet the enemy we will kill him. We will show him no mercy.” So said Gen. George S. Patton, preparing his troops for the invasion of Sicily in World War II. In a later war, cigar-chomping Gen. Curtis LeMay, a man cut from similarly barbed khaki, threatened to bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age. (For anyone tempted to doubt LeMay’s sincerity, Tokyo offered silent reproach; LeMay’s relentless firebombing in 1945 reduced much of the city to cinders.)
War is surely brutal in Iraq and Afghanistan today, as it was in Europe and Indochina in the 20th century. But the tone, and the terms of engagement, seems altogether different. The counterinsurgency approach championed by Gen. David Petraeus emphasizes patience, negotiation, and the slow, steady accumulation of civic and political capital. It relies on a language of construction, not destruction; of cooperation rather than subjugation. As David Brooks wrote recently, officers focus on building communities and suppress the urge to “kill bad guys.” By many accounts, Americans operating in the two countries are wearing their multiple hats and helmets with surprising skill. A first wave of Iraq and Afghanistan vets has already returned home and run for public office, with some winning seats in Congress and state legislatures. More will surely follow. Having searched for common ground among scheming sheiks and suspicious village elders, will they be able to straddle the divide between their blue and red compatriots? Or will compromise and the art of the deal be lost in translation once our military pols go native, adopting new talking points in the language of a new tribe?