From 1972 to 1984 on active duty and in the Army Reserve, I was a Cold War soldier. My Mission, with a capital M, was to “Defend America against the Soviet Union and her Warsaw Pact allies.”
In the military and in every organization, there is a “Big M” Mission that the whole organization works toward and a “small m” mission for individuals and units. During the Cold War my Big M mission was clear. It began with a verb: Defend. The enemy was defined: Soviet forces and their allies.
Because the Big M was so well defined, the “Small m” mission was equally clear: I trained my tank crew to fight the invading forces of the Soviet Union. When I was stationed in Germany, we trained to fight at Fulda, our alert area. When I was in a reserve unit in the U.S., we had pre-positioned tanks in Baumholder, Germany.
During all the time I served in the Cold War, I knew the mission of the entire U.S. military and the mission of my tank. While on active duty, that tank was Bravo 13, Company B, 1st Battalion, 70th Armor. Also, the rules of engagement were clear if and when the war started—Kill Soviets until we win.
In 1984, I left the clearly defined world of the Cold War Army and became a civilian. Twenty-three years later, in 2007, I re-enlisted. I jumped into the murky water of our wars in the Middle East. I could not tell you now, nor could I tell you in 2009 when I deployed to Iraq what the Big M mission of the U.S. Army was in that ill-fated war, or it is now in the War in Afghanistan.
We defeated Saddam Hussein’s Army three weeks after the war started in 2003. What were we doing after that? “Winning hearts and minds” is the phrase I remember most clearly. Judging by the looks I got from the Iraqis I met in the local market or working on our base, we did not win a lot of hearts and minds.
Even when the Big M mission is murky, the Small m mission can be clear. I worked hard every day I was in Iraq, whether it was in the motor pool or on the flight line or in an office or flying across southern Iraq in a Blackhawk helicopter. But I never had the clarity of purpose that I had as a Cold War tank commander.
And in retrospect, I see my Cold War service as being more clear, more real than my service during the IraqWar.
When I finally leave the Army either in May of this year or next year, I will look back on my service in the Cold War as having an edge of reality that my service in Iraq never will. It is also easy to make the case that we won the Cold War. By making the Soviets spend hard currency on huge military, the regime went bankrupt. We won the Cold War without actually firing a shot. In Iraq, we fired a lot of shots, and a lot of people died, and everybody lost.