At the main gate to the U.S. military base outside Skopje, Army soldiers in full battle gear offer visitors a crisp salute and an even crisper shout of their squad's motto—"Strike To Kill."
The motto predates the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as do the abundant coils of barbed wire and cement barricades around the base, which is home to several hundred U.S. soldiers and has a basketball court, a cappuccino bar, a chapel, a gym, and a mobile Burger King. Security has been raised in other ways because Camp Able Sentry, like other U.S. military facilities, is now on Threatcon Delta, the highest level of alert. The biggest changes have little to do with security, though, and may not be apparent unless you happen to share a mess hall table with a pair of Special Forces soldiers, as I did today. Then you realize how much the world is changing.
"What needs to happen is that lives need to be put at risk," Capt. Thomas Thliveris told me. "What I mean by that is people in uniform are in uniform for a reason, and our national leadership should not be afraid, because of public reaction, to use us in the way we are trained to be used, and can be used."
It's always pleasant, as a journalist, to meet soldiers who speak their minds. In other times, members of the Special Forces might say only the sorts of things their commanders might wish them to say, or they might say nothing at all. But that was in another era, when a portion of Wall Street was not a smoldering mountain of rubble and corpses.
Capt. Donald Schurr spoke up.
"The first thing is that we accepted risk when we joined, but the political leadership has not had the courage to accept that soldiers will lose their lives. That needs to end. And the second thing is—you can apply any word you want—but let's use assassination. There is a presidential directive which prevents the U.S. government or its operatives from targeting anybody in particular. That's because we want to be the good guys, and we are the good guys; fair play and all that stuff. But there is a time when you must target those fellas. We have the capability to do that. But we haven't been able to do anything because we have our gloves on. That needs to change."
The wide-screen television in the mess hall was tuned to CNN. I heard the phrase "thousands of dead are feared." The television was filled with unnatural images that my brain has been reluctant to assimilate: planes disappearing into the glassy flanks of the World Trade towers, followed by fireballs at 100 stories. I hope I can get used to seeing these images, but I also hope I never get used to them.
The conversation had begun with Capt. Schurr—a tall, muscular soldier who doesn't need a Special Forces patch on his sleeve for you to know that he is not to be trifled with—recalling the scenes of men and women jumping from the burning towers. He said it made him emotional. He cried. When I asked what the emotion and tears meant, he said, slowly, "It … is …anger." Each word was delivered with the force of a punch.
"As the president said, this was an act off war," Capt. Thliveris noted. He glared at me, an Ali-versus-Frazier glare. "This may not be politically correct, but I don't want justice here." His glare did the impossible—it became more intense. "These people do not need to be brought to justice or apprehended. They need to be killed. That's what you do to your enemy in war—you destroy him. And this is a war."
This was one of those interviews in which it doesn't matter what the journalist asks. These men knew what they wanted to say and were going to say it no matter what. I noted that they are members of the Special Forces. Would they wish to be choppered into the mountains of Afghanistan?
"I want to be the first person out the door," Capt. Schurr shot back. "I'm ready to go. I think to a man every soldier is prepared to do that, and anxious to do that."
When I sat down at their table the men from the Special Forces told me they would need to leave after 10 minutes. The 10 minutes was up. They grabbed their assault rifles and donned their combat gear—helmets and flak jackets—and strode away, ready for war.
Published in MSN Slate. Author Peter Maass is the author of Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. Extracts of the book, as well as his magazine articles, are available at www.petermaass.com.