So much in the 21st-century world is no longer remarkable. Yet, the photo of President Obama and his security team sitting in the White House Situation Room watching live satellite images of SEALs carrying out the raid on Osama Bin Laden's lair on the other side of the world was astonishing to some of us.
American military forces can now field what might've been mere sci-fi imagination a few years ago—unmanned drones hovering over their targets, with TV images before their "pilots" sitting in control rooms thousands of miles away, firing deadly laser-guided missiles; soldiers packed with telecommunications gadgets who can be linked to the White House.
Will future wars be fought with unmanned, remotely controlled, high-tech weaponry?
Some operations can only be pulled off with—as they say—"boots on the ground."
Airborne troops, SEALs, special ops ground forces, steel-nerved helicopter pilots—human warriors will always be needed to attack targets at gunpoint in circumstances that require daring, split-second decisions and bravery. Even dogs with special skills come into play.
I have an admitted bias about foot soldiers. I was stationed twice in the 1950s at Fort Benning, Ga., the Infantry School and Airborne School (before and after 13 months in the Korean War with the First Cavalry Division).
The Fort Benning I remember, however, was the Stone Age Army compared to what enlisted men and officers are taught now and the high-tech weaponry, ground vehicles and tactics they use in combat.
What never changes, however, is this gruesome reality: Ground troops facing enemy forces suffer the highest casualties and the worst, disabling wounds.
I was moved by what outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said during a recent "60 Minutes" interview. When he heard that wounded U.S. troops in Afghanistan could expect to be airlifted to a medical center within two hours, he demanded that that be cut to an hour or less—the "golden hour" that emergency medicine considers important for saving the severely wounded.
Soldiers of World War II and Korea had no such guarantee. Faster evacuation of wounded began in the Vietnam War.
Still, war is an awful business. Even with the best that medicine can provide up front and the best weapons troops have to protect themselves, death and wounds are inevitable and ghastly.
Those enthralled by images of unmanned weapons fighting in Afghanistan and misled about war being safer need to be reminded that "grunts" and "dogfaces" and "jarheads" who're crawling through dust and mud and facing death are those who fight and win wars at the highest costs.