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The War on Terror and the New Breed of Hero

Wednesday, 06 October 2004 12:00 AM

So concludes Andrew Exum in the epilogue of his new book “This Man's Army: A Soldier's Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism” (Gotham Books), which recounts his journey from boyhood in Tennessee, to ROTC at the University of Pennsylvania, to basic officer training, to Ranger School, to the Tenth Mountain Division at Ft. Drum, NY -- and into the crucible of the new war on terrorism as an infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan.

Along the way, we meet his band of brothers: Montoya, McCauley, Junk, Vasquez, Flash, Wakefield, Uncle Jesse – and a host of other young men who have volunteered to go in harm’s way.

In many ways Exum bold and crisp narrative reminds we older vets of other books about other wars: the fear, boredom, mischief and the battle gore are all there – being digested by young men who in a faraway other life once drank beer, ate pizza and chased girls.

But underlying all that seeps chillingly from this remarkable tale is the inexorable feeling that somehow this latest global conflict is something original, more sinister – perhaps even more evil -- than other wars in the nation’s past.

Embedded are journalists looking over the shoulders of combat troops trying to flush the enemy. The cold, punishing altitude of Afghanistan’s highlands leaves us as breathless as the troops carrying their heavy rucksacks. The enemy is hardy, ruthless and fanatic -- happy to torture an American captive before administering the coup-de-grace. At stake – nothing less than freedom and civilization as we know it.

In one inexorable way, however, the terrain seems all too familiar --

Warrior Exum, fresh back from Operation Anaconda in the “Wild West” of Afghanistan, walks a mall at home feeling like “a stranger in my own country.”

“Be nice to me. I’ve just returned from Afghanistan,” he mentally reprimands the indifferent hoards, wondering why the kid at the movie ticket office lets the blooded warrior wait as he gabs on the phone.

Capt. Exum is out of the Army now, ironically a victim of an athletic injury that cripples his knee. Bitterly, he describes watching as his new Ranger unit ships out for the beginnings of ground operations in Iraq. His unit would go on to play a roll in the storied rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch.

An “old man” at 25, he already wonders if there will be anything left in life to compare with leading his men in combat operations at the tip of the spear:

“My greatest fear at the age of twenty-five is that my best years are already behind me. I fear that I will never find an opportunity to do so much, to be a part of something so significant as what we did in the aftermath of September 11, when a few thousand men and even some women traveled halfway across the world to avenge the deaths of their countrymen and set things right in a country we had let foster terrorists who now threaten our freedom.”

The reader, however, may not feel so pessimistic for Exum’s future. His tale of the new breed of American warrior in the war on terrorism is the stuff that will stand the test of time.

Exum has memorialized for the folks on the home front what it’s like to leave the relative security of the main base, cram aboard an all too vulnerable chopper, and fly out to meet the enemy in the Aha-e-Kot Valley. The reader shares his revulsion when he kills an al-Qaeda fighter with a bust of fire to his chest.

The author’s journey to his ultimate trial by fire in Afghanistan takes about half of the book but is no less intriguing than the actual combat sequences. It’s a comfort to know how rigorous is the training – especially for the infantry platoon commander who will be entrusted with the very lives of his charges.

We follow Exum through the extraordinary rigors of Ranger school where thirst, hunger and exhaustion are the order of the day. Endless pull-ups, push-ups and slogging forced marches wear every ounce of fat from the bones. And in the end it not just survival of the program but how you lead under such exigent circumstances that determines graduation and the awarding of the sacred talisman of the Ranger patch.

The reader shares the often crushing boredom of the staging areas in Kuwait where Exum’s unit first arrives overseas. Chaffing to get in on the real action, his superior lobbies to get his unit into operations in Afghanistan.

Once operating out of Bagram, Afghanistan, Exum is all praise for his gallant charges, but gives us the whole picture – warts and all. Some can’t measure up to the strain. Troops fall out from dehydration and laboring to breathe at the high altitude. There is even the inevitable malingerer or two.

But these are the rare exceptions and not the rule. Exum marvels at the ability of his men to know instinctively what to do. Valor is commonplace.

This may be a compelling read during this fractious election season. At home, America fights a political civil war. But Americans remain united behind their warriors on the front lines of the war on terror. As Exum tells, written by a man who was there, our warriors are proud to be there.

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So concludes Andrew Exum in the epilogue of his new book "This Man's Army: A Soldier's Story from the Front Lines of the War on Terrorism" (Gotham Books), which recounts his journey from boyhood in Tennessee, to ROTC at the University of Pennsylvania, to basic officer...
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2004-00-06
Wednesday, 06 October 2004 12:00 AM
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