When he returned from Baghdad to Hinesville, Ga., last February, Army Pvt. Eric Mapes had an immediate goal: to get back to Iraq as fast as he could.
The lanky Chicagoan found in Iraq the ultimate adventure – part gritty war, part dusty romance of counterterrorism patrols that hunted insurgents across Baghdad. By contrast, he sees Hinesville, the military town outside the gates of Fort Stewart, as offering little but a Wal-Mart, seedy apartment buildings, and the detritus of a broken courtship.
"For a lot of these guys, they can't have steady girlfriends, they can't settle down, so there's nothing left for them in the US," says Private Mapes. "A lot of them – including me for a time – would rather be in Iraq."
As Mapes's Third Infantry Division redeploys this month – the first Army unit to pull three tours in Iraq – the war's wear on soldiers poses a challenge for the Pentagon and, in all probability, President Bush. The president's purported plan to boost US troop levels in Iraq, set to be unveiled this week, would require longer stays in Iraq and shorter rotations at home, raising concerns among experts and some Army brass that the new demands will push America's foot soldiers past the limits of physical and mental endurance.
"War is coming to be a constant. These [soldiers] are expatriates spending more time there than they are back here, and they're facing this experience without people back here really understanding very well what that means," says Tom Palaima, a classics professor at the University of Texas-Austin who specializes in the experience of war through history.
The soldiers of the Third Infantry Division have continuously found the thick of the action. In the 19-day charge into Iraq, they stormed Baghdad. In the division's second tour, which lasted 14 months, it tried to keep the peace in the run-up to elections in December 2005. Now the Third is headed into the mouth of the dragon again: Anbar Province, one of the most deadly corners of Iraq for US troops.
The division's troubleshooting duties have taken their toll: more than 300 deaths, or about 10 percent of total US troop losses, since the war began in March 2003.
Of the Army's 650,000 soldiers who have been to Iraq so far, about 170,000 have served more than one tour, according to the Army. The incidence of post-battle stress goes up by over 50 percent for the second tour, Army surveys show. Moreover, battlefield dangers are ubiquitous: 76 percent of soldiers know someone who has been killed or seriously injured, and 55 percent have experienced a nearby explosion of an improvised bomb.
Outgoing Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker told Congress on Dec. 15 that the existing deployment policy is untenable in the long term unless the Army can add a massive number of soldiers or get access to more reservists to relieve active-duty troops.
"These units continue to hit the mark when it comes to their effectiveness, their cohesion, the willingness of their leaders to stay the course," says retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, an international relations professor at Boston University and the author of "The New American Militarism."
"Yet I would take seriously the expressed concerns by [Schoomaker] that a continuation of this tempo will break the Army," adds Mr. Bacevich. "He's sending up a flare that says, 'This is serious,' and his concern is very serious."
The core of the concern is the physical and mental health of the ranks, says retired Army Col. Bob Killebrew, a military analyst. He classifies soldiers into three types – those who love war, those who don't like fighting but enjoy the rest of military experience, and those who treat it as a serious profession with a duty to both country and the Army as an institution.
It's that third group, made up mostly of noncommissioned officers (NCOs), that is the most crucial to watch, says Mr. Killebrew.
"If the sergeants start leaving, then it's like the canary in the coal mine," he says. "But the NCO ranks are holding very, very firm and getting better all the time, though they're probably overtaxed."
Pvt. Jordan Brasseur, a 19-year-old from the cold reaches of Newport, Vt., leaves Tuesday for his first trip to Iraq. In an interview before going, he said the enthusiasm of the officers in his Third Division unit has rubbed off.
"All the guys have been telling me what a great time it is," said the tank mechanic. "I feel like the training has been really excellent and that I'm ready to go."
That bravado is evident in Hinesville. Around base, when they're not practicing on the Red Cloud Alpha tank range, soldiers drive beefy new trucks and souped-up Asian cars, many purchased using combat bonuses. Even the bumper stickers have attitude: "US 2, Iraq 0," one reads. Another one, on a truck plastered with Army slogans, reads: "2 MUCH 4 U."
Yet all is not well in Hinesville, says Mapes, the private from Chicago. Behind the busy preparation, he describes a simmering despair, with morale dipping as soldiers see an ambivalent US public. There's also the old training equipment – which a soldier in the field takes as a sure sign of faltering public support. Mapes says the prevalence of billboards that warn of the dangers of drunken driving or of riding motorcycles too fast is the Army's acknowledgment that some problems exist.
A Military Times survey of soldiers, released Dec. 30, found that almost four years of war has hardly dented Army morale – but that fewer soldiers support Mr. Bush's course in Iraq and that a growing number believe the US public is no longer behind the military.
One difficulty for the Army is that some veterans appear to have trouble adjusting to public attitudes outside their base towns, say war experts. Part of that can be attributed to the challenge, described by soldiers throughout history, of describing their wartime experiences to civilians. In the field, battlefield realities quickly trump ideology – but the former are difficult for nonveterans to understand, says poet Charles Patterson, a Vietnam vet and author of "The Petrified Heart."
"You aren't fighting for any kind of ideology," says Mr. Patterson. "You're fighting solely to keep everybody alive. All this [stuff] about whether it's right or wrong [that] we're there doesn't matter at all" to the wartime soldier.
In that way, overzealousness to return to the front can be a warning sign. It reminds Mr. Palaima, the classics professor, of an account written by Xenophon, a writer-soldier of ancient Greece, who described one comrade as looking happy "[only] when there was the prospect of fighting, basically exhibiting all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress," says Palaima.
Xenophon might also have been describing Mapes. After two combat tours, he begged the Army to return him to Iraq – an insistence his superiors found disquieting.
After counterterrorism patrols that netted him 10 medals, dozens of firefights, and at least three close calls with mortars and snipers, Mapes says he has received counseling for post-traumatic stress and has decided to leave the Army at the end of his contract. He will not be going for a third time to Iraq, and plans to return to Chicago to work for his dad.
He says he feels disillusioned with the war, betrayed by Bush and the military leadership, and resentful of the physical and emotional effect the fighting has had on him, including sleepless nights and a "jumpy" demeanor.
"I consider myself a realist, and I did learn something from the experience," Mapes says. "But I've come to realize I need a new chapter in my life."