The Magazine

The 9/11 Generation

Better than the Boomers.

Jul 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 43 • By DEAN BARNETT
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Yet when asked about his time in Iraq, Moseley speaks with evident pride. He says the fact that he took the brunt of the IED's blow means he did his job. None of the men serving under him was seriously injured. When asked how he would feel about being characterized as a victim, Sergeant Moseley bristles. "I'm not a victim," he says. "It's insulting. That's what we signed up for. I knew what I was doing."

Tom Cotton is another soldier who knew what he was doing. When 9/11 occurred, Cotton was in his third year at Harvard Law School. Like most Americans, he was "shocked, saddened, and angered." Like many on that day, he made a promise to serve his country.

And Cotton meant it. After fulfilling the commitments he had already made, including clerking for a federal judge and going to work for a large Washington law firm, Cotton enlisted in the Army. He jokes that doing so came with a healthy six-figure pay cut.

Cotton enlisted for one reason: He wanted to lead men into combat. His recruiter suggested that he use the talents he had spent seven years developing at Harvard and join the JAG Corps, the Armed Forces' law firm. Cotton rejected that idea. He instead began 15 months of training that culminated with his deployment to Iraq as a 2nd lieutenant platoon leader with the 101st Airborne in Baghdad.

The platoon he led was composed of men who had already been in Baghdad for five months. Cotton knew that a new platoon leader normally undergoes a period of testing from his men. Because his platoon was patrolling "outside the wire" every day, there was no time for Cotton and his men to have such a spell. He credits what turned out to be a smooth transition to his platoon's noncommissioned officers, saying, "The troops really belong to the NCOs." After six months, Cotton and his platoon redeployed stateside.

While in Iraq, Cotton's platoon was awarded two Purple Hearts, but suffered no killed in action. His larger unit, however, did suffer a KIA. When I asked Cotton for his feelings about that soldier's death, the pain in his voice was evident. After searching for words, he described it as "sad, frustrating, angry--very hard, very hard on the entire company."

He then added some thoughts. "As painful as it was, the death didn't hurt morale," he said. "That's something that would have surprised me before I joined the Army. Everyone in the Infantry has volunteered twice--once for the Army, once for the Infantry. These are all grown men who all made the decision to face the enemy on his turf. The least you can do is respect them and what they're doing."

Now serving in the Army in Virginia, still enjoying his six-figure pay cut, Tom Cotton says he is "infinitely happy" that he joined the Army and fought in Iraq. "If I hadn't done it," he says, "I would have regretted it the rest of my life."

Regardless of their backgrounds, the soldiers I spoke with had a similar matter-of-fact style. Not only did all of them bristle at the notion of being labeled victims, they bristled at the idea of being labeled heroes. To a man, they were doing what they saw as their duty. Their self-assessments lacked the sense of superiority that politicians of a certain age who once served in the military often display. The soldiers I spoke with also refused to make disparaging comparisons between themselves and their generational cohorts who have taken a different path.

But that doesn't mean the soldiers were unaware of the importance of their undertaking. About a month ago, I attended the commissioning of a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. The day before his commissioning, he had graduated from Harvard. He didn't come from a military family, and it wasn't financial hardship that drove him into the Armed Forces. Don't tell John Kerry, but he studied hard in college. After his commissioning, this freshly minted United States Marine returned to his Harvard dorm room to clean it out.

As he entered the dorm in his full dress uniform, some of his classmates gave him a spontaneous round of applause. A campus police officer took him aside to shake his hand. His father observed, "It was like something out of a movie."

A few weeks after his commissioning, the lieutenant sent me an email that read in part:

I remember when I was down at Quantico two summers ago for the first half of Officer Candidates School. The second to last day I was down there--"Family Day," incidentally--was the 7/7 bombings. The staff pulled us over and told us the news and then said that's basically why they're so hard on us down there: We're at war and will be for a long time, and the mothers of recruits at MCRD and at Parris Island right now are going to be depending on us one day to get their sons and daughters home alive.