Taking Lincoln’s name in vain: Why Admiral Mullen was wrong to write that all soldiers’ deaths are meaningful

Taking Lincoln’s name in vain: Why Admiral Mullen was wrong to write that all soldiers’ deaths are meaningful

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense combat culture columnist

"That these dead shall not have died in vain." So went the closing lines of Abraham Lincoln’s renowned Gettysburg Address and the opening of Admiral Mike Mullen’s op-ed in the Washington Post the other day arguing that no servicemember, either in time of war or peace, ever dies in vain. "How could it be," he asks, "that in a democracy — a free society — men and women may risk their lives to defend that freedom and lose those lives in vain?" He never entertains any theories, immediately denying his own proposition. "It cannot be so."

For a man who so presciently observed that America’s debt posed its greatest national security threat, this obtuse, absolutist argument signifies an egregiously myopic perspective on the meaning of death in warfare to the leaders and the led. Mullen uses the image of bereaved family members he’s spoken with to prop up his thesis that the fundamental nature of a soldier’s service defines that of their death. He even quotes Walt Whitman that a soldier "has yielded up his young life at the very outset" in service to his nation.

In other words, a meaningful and honorable death in uniform is assured as soon as you raise your right hand, like some clause in your cell phone contract. He reinforces this argument with platitudes about the tragic nature of all war and the non sequitur comparison to Civil War soldiers dying from lack of modern medical care. Just because they expired of simple infection doesn’t mean their deaths were less purposeful, he says. In this he is correct, but only because how a person dies has nothing to do with why a person dies.

It would be altogether convenient for any commander to lead with this mindset, and this is why Mullen’s argument does such disservice to military leadership. To say that every servicemember dies "because they were fighting for freedom" is a wholesale dismissal of a commander’s obligation to the care and welfare of his or her subordinates. Mullen glosses over the layers of faulty strategy, failed systems, and poor decisions that highlight culpability at the highest levels of military leadership in cases such as Wanat and veteran suicide. For him, it is simpler to lump them together with all the other deaths and assess them in aggregate and from a distance. "In war, as in any other facet of life, there are losses more difficult to reconcile — those caused by accident, faulty judgment, treachery or carelessness. There are losses wholly preventable, even as there are losses wholly necessary. Neither is to be pitied. Neither lacks honor. There is no ‘good’ death in war."

Again, half-truths are Mullen’s allies. No one would argue that an unpreventable death is better than a preventable one. But Mullen’s rhetorical sleight of hand here decouples the sense of loss from the sense of duty. Just because a person died honorably and we all feel sad doesn’t remove the fact that they didn’t have to die and some of us are to blame. It was this philosophy that shielded General McChrystal from accusations of falsifying records in order to keep Pat Tillman’s name from being dragged through the mud. There are dozens more such cases. This is why Mullen’s ideas are anathema to leadership. The more honorable a soldier’s death, the more easily we can absolve commanders of responsibility. The result is a leadership structure that regards the spilling of blood about as well as it accounts the expenditure of the country’s treasure.

Mullen thus closes by taking his rationale to its ultimate, strategic conclusion. "Let us take comfort in the knowledge that, whatever the outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan, the precious blood these young people shed for that future shall not — cannot — have been shed in vain." This is nothing short of obscene. For years, congressmen, senators, and generals have argued that "we must finish the job" in order to ensure those servicemembers did not die in vain. Lincoln himself made the same appeal to the crowd gathered at Gettysburg. But Mullen plows ahead in what seems complete ignorance of Lincoln’s intent. He hastens us to believe that, regardless of the result, dying in vain was never possible. The Lord’s truth is marching on, even if Johnny never comes marching home. Glory, hallelujah.

Mullen proposes that so long as the casus belli is draped in the same red, white, and blue as the soldiers’ coffins, then its valor is as secure as their own. The last decade has proven the contrary. In either case, looking underneath offers a mortifying encounter with the realities of war. The hubris and poor strategic thinking of our military and political leaders in the Iraqi invasion is well documented. The speed at which strategic commanders have changed objectives and measures of success in Afghanistan is matched only by how quickly we seem to fail to meet them. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, agents of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and even civilians have died in our wars. Some of them have died by the enemy’s hand, some by their comrade’s, some by their own, and others by that of fate.

But they have all died in campaigns that, however virtuous, were mismanaged to the point of failing to achieve their ultimate objectives. It is disturbing enough that the highest ranks in contemporary military leadership have created an atmosphere that allows commanders to write off billions of dollars wasted on weapons systems and war efforts without fear of accountability. The emergence of a culture that can avoid deep reflection of its culpability in spent lives based on pretenses of virtue, and then go so far as to codify it as Mullen has done, is truly horrifying.  

Jim Gourley is an author, journalist, and former military intelligence officer.