US soldiers recapture a peak in public esteem

Since Sept. 11, the firefighters and police officers of New York have been lauded by symphonies and sports teams, mayors and movie stars, as lights of courage on one of the most harrowing days in American history.

Now, as the war scenes shift overseas, it is the men and women of America's armed forces that are increasingly seen as modern-day heroes.

The script is not unfamiliar. In times of war, the nation has almost always rallied around its troops. But on this Veterans Day weekend, the immense outpouring of praise for US soldiers points to a unique confluence of cultural change and combat objectives that have led Americans to embrace the military as strongly as ever before.

The persistence of good feelings will depend on a variety of factors, ranging from operational success to the terrorists' response. But most experts agree that, in the years since Vietnam, Americans' feelings toward their military - and their troops in particular - have gradually but fundamentally softened, making a return to the spite that characterized the Vietnam era almost unthinkable.

In fact, this war comes at a time when baby boomers and Generation Xers have been turning to books about those who fought in "The Greatest Generation" as well as films like "Saving Private Ryan" for glimpses of greatness and sacrifice. Now, with the historic resonances of an attack on our soil by forces with evil intent, Americans once again see soldiers as guardians of a just cause.

"Maybe from time to time we need heroes ... and often they're from the military," says Clifton Bryant, a military sociologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

In the past few months, requests for enrollment on Defense Department websites and by e-mail and telephone have doubled. Some recruiting offices from Nashville, Tenn., to San Francisco have also reported an improvement in the number and quality of people signing up for duty.

"What we're tending to get more of ... now are people who have gone to college and already have a career, but they also want to serve," says Sgt. First Class Bajun Mavalwalla of the California Army National Guard here. "It's an attractive notion for a lot of folks here: Even if the money is not here, they're doing an important job that takes a lot of brains."

Yet perhaps the most obvious sign of support for US troops - besides storefront cut-out flags and lapel pins - is opinion polls. A Gallup Poll conducted early this month shows 86 percent support for military action - a number that has remained virtually unchanged for two months.

To Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a distinguished veteran of the Vietnam War who later led an antiwar movement, the reason for that support is obvious. "This is a war we have to fight," he says. "[It's] about issues that touch us deeply."

Unlike any other war in a half century, this war is being fought with the knowledge that the enemy can effectively attack the American people. That makes US soldiers more than an expeditionary force seeking an abstract goal halfway around the world. They are directly fighting to shield their nation from harm.

"This is a level of support we haven't seen before, because our homeland was invaded," says Morten Ender, a sociologist at the US Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. "This isn't peacekeeping or helping a sovereign nation. [The armed forces] are seen as our protector."

That lofty status, however, could become a liability. If the military is seen as the savior from terrorism - and the less-visible efforts involving diplomacy, counterintelligence, and a financial crackdown are discounted - then the military could take the brunt of the blame for failures.

"If the public comes to the perception that the military is not doing so well, opinion could sour," says Albert Pierce, an ethicist at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. "The military failures would be more dramatic."

Over the years, public opinion about the armed forces has fluctuated widely and quickly. In 1939, when soldiers were often thought of as unemployable grunts, one picture in Life magazine showed a shop in Louisiana with the sign: "No dogs or soldiers allowed." Two years later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, "We were singing songs about them," says Dr. Bryant.

Today, though, many observers suggest that opinion swings won't be so severe. For one, in the military of the 21st century, the grunts are dwindling. When ships could be run by simply shoveling coal into a hot hole, military requirements were relatively low. Now, with nuclear engines and sophisticated computing equipment, military men and women cut a more professional profile.

"The standards are tremendously higher today," says Sergeant Mavalwalla, who notes that the California National Guard is mostly recruiting linguists and specialized programmers. "Wars are waged differently today. We don't give a guy a rifle and say, 'Go take that hill.' If we want that hill, we bring in B-52s ... and then it's ours."

Perhaps more important is Vietnam's effect on the American consciousness. Within a decade after the war, tales of Vietnam veterans shunned by society had become a part of the culture. The result was a subtle but important shift in how Americans saw their soldiers, driven by guilt for what happened to those returning from Vietnam.

"In the Gulf War, people for the first time distinguished between the soldiers and the mission," says Dr. Ender of the US Military Academy.

For that reason, he and others believe, public support for the military may never again dip to Vietnam levels. "If you look at the parades that occurred after the Gulf War, they weren't celebrating victory over the evil empire or lower gas prices, they were celebrating the people," says Jim Martin, a sociologist at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. "The focus is more on the individual as a human being."

Patrik Jonsson contributed to this story from Fayetteville, N.C.

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