Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.

In future months and years, pundits, analysts and historians will spend a lot of their time hashing out if and where George Bush and his generals went wrong in Iraq. But this time around, no one will be able to bash the American grunt. Our combat soldiers – infantry, tanker, cav trooper, engineer, military police and cannon-cocker – are the best I’ve eyeballed since 1939, when, as a 9-year-old shoeshine boy at a small Army base in Santa Monica, Calif., I first became obsessed with soldiers and Marines and started trying to join up and go “over there” with my new older buddies who were dressed in battle green.

The men in the Army and Marine frontline platoons and companies today are motivated, bright as hell, well-trained, well-led and well-disciplined, and they know their kill-or-be-killed trade cold. Our grunts in Iraq have such heavy responsibilities laid on them – holding back angry Iraqi crowds, deciding whether or not to shoot – yet handle potentially explosive situations with max professionalism and cool. In my day, captains made those kinds of decisions, not Pfc. Snuffy Smith.

Mike Plummer, who’s skippered rifle units from platoon to division in war and peace during a distinguished 35-year career, says: “American soldiers around the world are serving as peacekeepers, security, nation-building and then going on combat operations … doing multiple tasks never envisioned a few years ago and pulling them off. No question they are mentally, physically and skillwise equal to their best predecessors.”

Just think about the dangerous missions our kids undertake in Iraq. How any minute a roadside mine could explode and rip their bodies to shreds, or a sniper could shoot from the cover of a crowd of noncombatants, making it impossible to return fire. Nothing plays on the nerves like the possibility of death or cruel wounds that are a gunshot away in a frontless war. But our kids just breathe deep, do the steely stare, hold their positions and take their lumps as they follow politically correct, highly restrictive Rules of Engagement that would test even a conscientious objector.

I have a photo of 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Jason Murray on my desk. His face and body bear scar upon scar, he’s been blinded, and most of his front teeth have been blown out. He was wounded so badly last March that he was evacuated with a body bag at his side ready for immediate occupancy. Yet there he sits in a perfectly pressed uniform that would please even his boot-camp drill instructor: military creases, brass shined to a high gloss, wearing his ribbons and medals – sporting a big, proud grin.

Because of demanding recruitment standards, first-class initial combat training at tough bases such as Columbus, Ga., or San Diego and high unit-training standards that produce the finest ordinary combat soldier I have ever seen wearing boots, Marine and Army combat-arms outfits today are filled with such spirited warriors. And I don’t think we’ve ever had brighter, better-educated people assigned to our combat platoons – unlike days past, when guys with the high-powered brains were stashed back in the rear with the gear and cheer, and grunt duty fell mainly to those less blessed or less connected.

Another major factor that makes our line troops so good is the high-quality sergeants who ramrod the young ‘uns in boot training and later in their regular units. Both the Marines and Army have done a superior job with their noncommissioned-officer educational system, producing bright, highly motivated sergeants who know how to lead and are loaded with battle savvy from good training and years of combat duty under their pistol belts.

A young officer in Iraq who praises his salty platoon sergeant as a combination of Rambo and God says of the men in his rifle platoon: “They are the best I’ve ever met. Real selfless heroes who risk their lives for each other daily. They are the type of men you make movies about, the type of men you want to grow into and to become.”

Whatever verdict history renders regarding the U.S. invasion of Iraq, let it show that our nation has been served by more than a few good men. We should never allow their sacrifices to be diluted or diminished.

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