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On Point

The New Greatest Generation


by Austin Bay
September 28, 2004

A new greatest generation is emerging -- in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in the other, less-publicized battlegrounds of the War on Terror.

Focused on the U.S. political cycle, America's press elites are missing the extraordinary story of the 19-through-35 year olds who are winning this war. The detailed history of this new cohort of American and Free World leaders -- the people who will shape the 21st century -- is being written by themselves, chiefly on the Internet, via email or web logs.

This is a battle-honed bunch with exceptional talent and motivation, young people with a mature balance of idealism and realism, youthful cool and professional competence. I saw this cool and competence on every patrol and convoy I made this past summer in Iraq. I had the privilege of working with these "kids," inevitably chastising myself for referring to such able young adults as kids. Their comeback was always "It's OK, sir. We know colonels are old."

Sam, a U.S. Army private first class from Milwaukee, is an example of young soldiers who are both "boots and geeks" -- troops who can handle digital technology and rifles. The non-classified laptop is on the blink? Sam taps out a half-dozen commands, and the machine functions smoothly. Need to run the eight kilometers of iffy freeway between Baghdad International Airport and downtown? Sam pulls up in an SUV, his M-16 propped so that he can drive and shoot. Sam goes through the pre-trip procedures calmly, carefully. If we "meet trouble" and can't drive through the ambush -- and Sam is very good at high-speed swerves, I'm talking NASCAR level -- he'll take the best firing position available and try to suppress the attackers. Cool? He does this every day.

I know Sam has several gripes with "the system" -- every real soldier earns the right to gripe. But in four months, I never saw a gripe deter this young man from doing his job right.

Then there's James. He's a captain in the Australian Army (note, I said "Free World leaders"). He's 27, with a law degree but more importantly, on-the-ground experience. His has a special talent for seeing the "big picture" -- strategic assessment. Every night the analytic group he organized would meet in Al Faw Palace to discuss the day's events, with particular emphasis on economic and political issues affecting Iraqi governance.

James' "Chess Club" consisted of lieutenants, captains, majors and a handful of young enlisted troops, with a couple of old fogies allowed to kibitz. From the discussion, James would produce four or five concise PowerPoint slides. He usually finished his chore around 2 a.m., when he emailed the slides worldwide. By 9 a.m. the next morning, there's James, back in the office, with a huge cup of coffee, starting the process again.

James' "product" actually attracted a large readership. One day we got a complaint (from headquarters, Supreme Allied Commander Europe) that "the interesting slides SACEUR likes to see" hadn't arrived in email.

Australia, James said one morning, was America's most reliable military ally in the 20th century, and those shared values extend into the 21st century. "This fight is about freedom, sir," James said. "Though it is an extremely complex fight, with economic development and governance lines of operation pursued simultaneously with the security (warfighting) operation."

"Yes," I said. "And it's going to be men and women like you, James, who will fight it for at least the next decade."

He replied with a sober nod.

As a senior officer told me the day before I left Baghdad: "You've gotten to see what I see, Austin. These young people are so smart."

"Where do they come from?" I asked him.

"I don't know. Many were in the service before 9-11, but a lot of the young enlisted people, they've come in since then."

"Maybe it's the pressure, circumstances," I said. "You know, terrible challenges, the old saw of rising to the occasion?"

We both looked at each other. No doubt that is the case -- but the challenges these young people meet day in and day out are so dangerous and daunting.

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