I had a chance to spend some time recently with American soldiers in Afghanistan, and it reminded me of the resiliency of U.S. forces, especially the Army, which has borne the heaviest load. The cost has been enormous, especially in lost and damaged lives. Despite that, few institutions in American life are in better shape today than the Army. Our politicians and business leaders should be so adept.
You meet officers and enlisted men who are on their third, fourth, even sixth deployments. They've been in the harshest surroundings imaginable, fighting on pitiless terrain and in an often hostile culture. But the soldiers who have made it through have learned and adjusted - and actually thrived on the challenges.
Let me share some images that stick in my mind from my visit to Afghanistan last week. This is not to wave the flag or make a political argument about the war, but simply to celebrate the troops who have done what their country's leaders asked of them.
First, imagine the baking-hot ground of the Baghlan River valley in the north. Sitting on an Oriental rug in a wooden shed is a member of a Special Forces team that has been dropped into this corrugated landscape to raise an Afghan Local Police force from the nearby tribes. Lean and tanned, with a wispy beard, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio - which must spook any Afghans who get to the movies. (The military asked that I not use his name or rank to protect his security.)
As hard as this assignment is, watching this commando sit with his Afghan police partner, you sense that he feels lucky to be living this extreme version of the soldier's life.
The Special Operations Forces are America's most potent warriors. They're all over the country doing the toughest jobs. Some are embedded with tribes. Others are in the "capture-or-kill" task forces that descend each night on Taliban fighters.
Seeing the value of these SOF troops, and the shortage of them, the Army has been turning regular infantry units into the equivalent of Green Berets. That's another sign of a once-rigid Army's evolution over the past decade into an organization that learns and changes.
Now, imagine that you are in Khost, in far east Afghanistan, deep in the stronghold of the Haqqani network, the deadly Taliban faction that was responsible for last week's bombing of Kabul's Hotel Inter-Continental. The U.S. soldiers there, as across the country, are spread among small forward operating bases and outposts to mentor the Afghans.
Try to picture these little Fort Apaches on this day: It is ferociously hot; the food is bad; the sanitation is often little more than a hole in the ground. For a feel of the battle "outside the wire," listen to Master Sgt. Stephen Light of the 870th Military Police Company. He's describing how he and two other American soldiers fought alongside Afghan police to take out four Taliban suicide bombers on May 22. It's a heroic tale, but told in the flat, unemotional voice of soldiers everywhere. What's intense is the look of mutual respect when Light's eyes meet those of the Afghan cops who fought alongside him.
Around the Fourth of July we think not just of soldiers but also their families. On this trip, I met several military women who had left young children back home during their yearlong deployments. Many moms have trouble leaving their little ones for 24 hours. Try 12 months. One woman said she had stopped making Skype calls to her 4- and 5-year-olds. It was just too hard.
A final image is of Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who will be leaving in a few days as deputy commander after two tours and 40 months in Afghanistan, more than three years of this brutal war. "General Rod," as the troops call him, is as loose and self-effacing a commander as you'll find, and he's beloved by his soldiers. He seems to know every district and valley in this country as if it were his backyard. He doesn't know whether the U.S. mission will succeed in Afghanistan - nor does anyone - but he's proud of what he has accomplished here.
David Ignatius' email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.