Can an American Soldier Ever Die in Vain?

What Shakespeare, Lincoln, and 
"Lone Survivor" teach us about the danger 
of refusing to confront futility in war.

Photographs by Erin Trieb
Photographs by Erin Trieb
Photographs by Erin Trieb

I first read Shakespeare's Richard II in college, where I also watched my first war: Operation Desert Storm. The play depicts a battle between the language of power and the violent thing itself. Violence wins. A king armed only with the poetic symbols of authority is murdered; a usurper, backed by a flesh-and-blood army of thousands is crowned. King Richard, who is fond of swearing by his scepter, is defeated by his cousin Bolingbroke, who knows how to swing a sword.

I first read Shakespeare’s Richard II in college, where I also watched my first war: Operation Desert Storm. The play depicts a battle between the language of power and the violent thing itself. Violence wins. A king armed only with the poetic symbols of authority is murdered; a usurper, backed by a flesh-and-blood army of thousands is crowned. King Richard, who is fond of swearing by his scepter, is defeated by his cousin Bolingbroke, who knows how to swing a sword.

The Gulf War was about power too: stunning, swift, and (technologically) “smart” — all of it telecast live. The efficiency of this 100-hour ground war (“the largest logistical move in history,” according to the general who directed the effort) seemed to catch out even its protesters, who initially rallied under the slogan “No Blood for Oil,” yet soon dispersed. Once the war was over, a sense of invincibility eclipsed a reckoning with the inevitable, enduring costs of unleashing force: continued war in the air over a no-fly zone, ongoing internal violence in Iraq, crippling sanctions, and the lingering illness of many U.S. veterans — all obscured in the afterglow of American might.

That American might, a prelude to the shock and awe that would again rain down on Iraq in 2003, also helped obscure in national memory the politically unavailing devastation of the Vietnam War. In 1975, the ignominious fall of Saigon left Americans with a graphic symbol of what happens when violence becomes unhinged from strategic outcomes. The event offered the United States a potent symbol of futility, a disillusioning end to what until 2010 was the longest war in U.S. history. Perhaps it also made Americans nostalgic for a world in which sacrifice led to victory and in which victory looked sufficiently different from defeat. The Gulf War, less than two decades later, restored a seeming, longed-for clarity.

I’ve just finished reading Richard II yet again, this time with students of my own: first-year cadets (plebes) at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where the preparation of future Army officers carries on as the embers of recent wars slowly smolder out and where the grand political drama of American exceptionalism is enacted daily in the hopes and fears of 18-year-olds learning how to articulate their earnest commitment to national service. My students not infrequently describe themselves as members of the post-9/11 generation, a label that signals their solidarity in uniform even as it distinguishes them from their civilian peers and even as the nature of their future occupation grows increasingly mysterious, albeit no less vital, absent the certainty once offered in the form of deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan.

One day in class, a plebe paused at a moment in the play when a conspirator who fears that he has gone too far in open criticism of Richard — “Most degenerate king!” — suddenly begins to speak in code, couching further observations about the kingdom’s criminal mismanagement and the prospect of armed insurrection in the extended metaphor of a ship sailing into a “fearful tempest.” A second conspirator, picking up the hint, likewise laments the impending shipwreck until a third assures his cryptic friends that they can speak freely about the army massing across the English Channel under Bolingbroke’s command.

“What’s he talking about?” my observant student asked when he encountered the bit about the storm-tossed ship. It wasn’t a passage I had planned to spend much time analyzing, but it turned out to be the perfect illustration of a point absolutely essential to the enterprise of understanding Shakespeare: namely, that the images and metaphors he uses, difficult and oblique though they might seem, are inseparable from his meaning.

The passage also has broader resonance, for whenever people describe violence with abstraction or indirection, in Shakespeare’s time or our own, there’s a reason. The conspirators’ motives are particular, but their language offers a fine example of the stratagems people employ when they are trying to talk around ugly and dangerous things.

In 2014, we are contemplating the end of the costly, inconclusive wars in which the United States has been embroiled for a dozen years; Iraq and Afghanistan have proved interminable and inconvenient — embarrassing to all save perhaps their most fervent original designers. Debates about force and the language through which it is described — issues of violent means and elusive ends — are as pressing now as they have ever been. Yet we seem unable to talk about them frankly or to recognize, as my student did, when and why people resort to linguistic subterfuge.

The language most often used today to talk about war is suffused with a sentimentality that seems to belong more properly to some faraway age. It isn’t Shakespearean metaphor, yet it is a code of distortion, misdirection, and concealment. This may strike readers as a strange assertion to make about an era frequently celebrated for its knowingness and ironic detachment. Yet even after the revolutions in modern consciousness ostensibly occasioned by conflict in the 20th century, a pernicious American sentimentality about nation and war has triumphed, typified by demonstrative expressions of, and appeals to, a kind of emotion that short-circuits reason.

It is a language of the heart that works to insulate us from the decisions we have made and paradoxically distances us from those whose military service we seek to recognize. We see it in the empty profusion of yellow ribbons and lapel-pin flags. We hear it in the organized celebrations of American heroes and patriotic values: celebrity public service announcements, beer commercials about military homecomings, the more jingoistic variants of country music, and the National Football League’s “Salute to Service” campaign. All these observances noisily claim to honor and celebrate, in the words of the NFL, “the service and sacrifice of our nation’s troops.” We have become exhibitionists of sentiment: The more public and theatrical our emotional displays, the better we seem to feel.

* * *

Yet sentimentality does more than shape the way we commemorate wars. It has real-world implications because it informs all those cultural and sociological attitudes in the shadow of which wartime and postwar policies are made, and because it prevents a more productive and enduring sympathy that, in cooperation with reason, might guide our actions and help us become more acute readers of war’s many ambiguities.

Our predicament calls to mind the 18th-century debate over the danger of confusing the exercise of pity with sympathetic action. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, differentiated true compassion from the emotion we might feel at the theater: “a sterile pity which feeds on a few tears” and never produces “the slightest act of humanity.” British writer and philanthropist Hannah More warned against “mistaking sentiment,” which she defined as “the virtue of ideas,” for principle, “the virtue of action.
” Scottish novelist Henry Mackenzie, meanwhile, observed that “refined sentimentalists … are contented with talking of virtues which they never practice” and “pay in words what they owe in actions.”

Today’s sentimentality about war suffuses political rhetoric, irrespective of party; Republicans and Democrats are equally adept at its tunings. President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address offers one recent example. The address concluded with an appeal to American ideals “and the burdens we bear to advance them.” “No one,” the president insisted, “knows this better than those who serve in uniform.” And then Obama called attention to Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger grievously wounded in Kandahar, Afghanistan, who was seated in the gallery next to the first lady.

The president was careful to note that he first met Remsburg on Omaha Beach during the 65th-anniversary celebration of D-Day. This allusion to an uncontroversial war set the stage for the speech’s emotional peroration, in which Remsburg became a symbol of something almost entirely disconnected from his own costly service:

My fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged. But for more than 200 years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress — to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.

Everyone rose in unison, and some members of Congress wept as Obama extolled the sergeant’s sacrifice. In this, antagonistic leaders could evince a solidarity they had not shown since they united in sending Remsburg to war in the first place. Submerged in the celebration of a “new generation of heroes” were all those nagging questions about the use of force that ought to have dominated debate in the first place. Lawmakers seemed to be seeking absolution for their earlier uncritical enthusiasm by joining together in a tearful expression of feeling.

That’s the slipperiness of sentimentality.

Celebration of the humanity of the individual — calling attention to what is true about Remsburg’s suffering, endurance, and commitment — is a vital national act. But once a soldier becomes a symbol, an abstraction available for political ends, we deny him or her the humanity we strive to celebrate. Sentimentality distances and fetishizes its object; it is the natural ally of jingoism. So long as we indulge it, we remain incapable of debating the merits of war without being charged with diminishing those who fought it.

Just a few weeks prior to Obama’s address, the fall of Fallujah had prompted comparisons to Vietnam. The battle for the Iraqi city in 2004 held great significance for those who won it, and the raising of a black insurgent flag — like the hoisting of a pirate’s skull-and-crossbones on a ship or of enemy colors above a desert fort in a 1930s Hollywood movie — seemed another emblem of futility. Some of the Marines who watched it unfurl began to wonder whether the lives of their fellow Marines, as one veteran put it in the New York Times, “were sacrificed for nothing.”

“It was irresponsible,” another said, “to send us over there with no plan and now to just give it all away.”

This is not what Americans expect to find at the end of their war stories. Indeed, if sentimentality tends to elicit the emotions without binding the will, an equally dangerous consequence of an overreliance on the heart is the compulsion to transform even the most ambiguous tragedies into inspirational “good-news” stories.

* * *

Without a strong head to resist the temptations of sentimentality, a writer might find herself facing the predicament of Ivy Spang, the hapless protagonist of Edith Wharton’s 1919 “Writing a War Story.” When war breaks out, Spang forgets her ambitions to be a poet and goes to Paris to work in an Anglo-American hospital. There she is asked “to contribute a rattling war story” to a morale-boosting monthly being prepared for circulation among the wounded. “A good rousing story, Miss Spang,” exhorts the editor, “a dash of sentiment, of course, but nothing to depress or discourage.… A tragedy with a happy ending — that’s about the idea.” After several false starts, Spang serendipitously discovers a true war story, originally transcribed from a soldier’s unvarnished account by her former governess, who had also worked for a time in a military hospital.

The published story’s first impartial reader, a soldier and novelist who happens to be among the war-wounded patients at the hospital in Paris where Spang works, admonishes its author: “You’ve got hold of an awfully good subject … but you’ve rather mauled it, haven’t you?” In adding “a dash of sentiment,” Spang had ruined the material she had been given. She had acquiesced to an editor’s demand to shape the story of war into a sentimental absurdity by giving it a happy ending.

The kind of war story we crave today is much the same as Spang’s: We search for a redemptive ending to every tragedy. After more than 12 years of engagement, grasping wherever and however we can at a cleansing goodness that might close the book on two wars that launched so many more questions than they answered, we find no solace in the inconclusive, and we remain uneasy contemplating our own capacity for a violence that has not served a climactic, universally agreed-upon end.

Witness, for example, the recent media coverage surrounding the opening of the film Lone Survivor, based on the book by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. In a January interview, CNN’s Jake Tapper suggested that there was an air of “hopelessness” about the film — that the deaths of Luttrell’s comrades in Afghanistan during an operation gone wr
ong “seemed senseless.” Luttrell responded angrily, wondering what film Tapper had seen: “We spend our whole lives training to defend this country, and then we were sent over there by this country, so you’re telling me that because we were over there doing what we were told by our country that it was senseless and my guys, what, they died for nothing?”

Cable, Twitter, and the blogosphere exploded with vitriol against Tapper for his failure to appreciate a true American hero. Only a few columnists subsequently weighed in about the need for a debate over whether Americans have in fact died for some enduring change in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dying for something gives shape to a life, salvaging it from the oblivion of destruction and shifting focus away from the merits of the cause. Calling a death “senseless,” as Tapper proposed, on a mission gone wrong condemns that life to the relentless circularity of betrayal and doubt. Suggesting that a death in battle was in vain — “Lives were wasted” in Fallujah, a former Marine told the Times, “and now everyone back home sees that” — also starkly exposes what the World War I poet Wilfred Owen described as the “old Lie” about the unadulterated sweetness of dying for one’s country.

The imposition of happy endings on war’s tragedies may momentarily assuage the heart. And who could fail to understand the intensity of Luttrell’s desire to seek a balm for grief, guilt, and the constellation of emotions besieging the lone survivor of a battle? Yet the perpetuation of the “old Lie” also insults the head. Writer and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien’s injunction, in which the echo of Owen can be heard, is pertinent: “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it.”

In a climate in which the pressures to sentimentalize are so strong and in which victory and defeat are so difficult to measure, it seems a moral imperative to discover another way to read and write about a war in order to avoid falling into this hazard.

Futility might be found at tactical, operational, or strategic levels. During wars, especially long wars, replete with confusion and fluidity, with fleeting, costly gains and losses, archetypal moments such as the raising of a flag — over Iwo Jima or Fallujah — offer a discrete tableau amid an otherwise indecipherable jumble. It isn’t easy to determine whether a war is futile. Perhaps it never has been. Are all lost wars futile? Are all victories worth their price? Might Pyrrhic victories be described as futile too?

Wait long enough, of course, and many of history’s victories are reversed.

* * *

As a postwar malaise seems to settle like silt all around me in 2014, everything I’ve been reading — from Shakespeare to Lincoln, from Studs Terkel’s The Good War to David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green to Tobias Wolff’s Vietnam memoir In Pharaoh’s Army — feels crowded with the ghosts of 20th-, 19th-, 18th-, even 14th-century wars that have been commemorated, misremembered, and forgotten. This literature is shot through with evidence of the dangers of sentimentalizing war and refusing to accept responsibility for the damage it does regardless of the justness of the cause.

This monitory chorus includes the contributors to Terkel’s oral history, such as an army nurse who recalls the shocked look on the faces of well-to-do Pasadena matrons in 1946 at the sight of disfigured soldiers from the local hospital being taken for walks on the city streets: “It’s like the war hadn’t come to Pasadena until we came there.” Or the Marine E.B. Sledge, author of the World War II memoir With the Old Breed, who describes his war as a “matter of simple survival” and “totally savage.” “We were in it to get it over with,” Sledge recounted to Terkel, evincing none of the need for redemption so obviously felt by Luttrell. “Wasted lives on a muddy slope.… What in the hell was glorious about it?”

Mitchell’s bildungsroman, meanwhile, charts a year in the life of Jason Taylor, a keenly intelligent and imaginative 13-year-old boy in England whose adolescent crises take place against the backdrop of the 1982 Falklands War. Jason reads the Daily Mail, while his older sister reads the Guardian. In the headlines from these papers, we find contrasting strains of language: “The Daily Mail‘s full of how Great British guts and Great British leadership won the war,” while the Guardian‘s “got all sorts of stuff not in the Daily Mail,” including stories about woefully untrained Argentine conscripts and their general ignorance about the islands they were sent to secure. Jason, who keeps a scrapbook about the war, believes, “People’ll remember everything about the Falklands till the end of the world.” Soon, however, Jason, his village, and the nation move on, while the Daily Mail
turns its attention to “whether Cliff Richard the singer’s having sex with Sue Barker the tennis player, or whether they’re just friends.” All that will endure, Jason’s sister tells him, are the land mines.

Among the American writers who wrestle with but never feel the need to diminish the truth about war’s impact, Wolff stands out. In Pharaoh’s Army offers a portrait of My Tho, a Vietnamese provincial town that the recently departed “French had made … so they could imagine themselves in France” and that the U.S. Army declared off-limits to most of its personnel. “I was glad the American troops were kept out,” Wolff explains. “Without even meaning to they would have turned the people into prostitutes, pimps, pedicab drivers, and thieves, and the town itself into a nest of burger stands and laundries. Within months it would have been unrecognizable; such was the power of American dollars and American appetites.”

Yet the most forceful of all the writers I’ve been spending time with is Abraham Lincoln, who refused in his second inaugural to absolve anyone — North or South — of responsibility for the “mighty scourge” of the Civil War. Even earlier than that, in 1838, Lincoln knew that “passion has helped us, but can do so no more.” In an address to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, he insisted that passion “will in future be our enemy. Reason — cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason — must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.”

Of course it is the Civil War that spawned the ne plus ultra of sentimental American war stories in the “Lost Cause” apologia, a spirited cultivation of the idea that the industrialized North unleashed the uncivilized warfare of the modern age against an opponent that was fighting according to the dictates of old chivalry. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation gave sensational visual representation to this Southern narrative of the war. In the ultimate perversion of affection, the archly sentimental film engineers viewers’ sympathies toward the Southern slaveholders whose principles they simultaneously deplore. Its juxtaposition of villains and victims tempts hearts to triumph over heads; that is the corrupt source of its corrupting power.

In an interview on the occasion of its rerelease in 1930, when asked whether his film was “true,” Griffith replied:

Yes, I think it’s true.… A story of people that were fighting desperately against great odds, great sacrifices. Suffering. Death. It was a great struggle, a great story.… Did you read about Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg? Pitiful thing. There were boys, like in many a battle. When the fathers dropped the guns, these nothing but children picked them up and went on fighting, and they fought to the bitter end. It’s easy enough to tell that kind of a story.

It is much harder to tell another kind of story, an unsentimental story. It is much harder to speak of war in a pellucid, forthright mode. Doing so has become alien even to our own wised-up age, entrenched as war has become in absolutism and what remains a misguided faith in the cleansing, redemptive power of violence. It is a faith expressed in then-President George W. Bush’s remarks on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, when he described the Iraq war as embodying “the highest calling of history” and the assembled sailors as bearing the message of the prophet Isaiah “wherever” they went: “To the captives, ‘come out’ — and to those in darkness, ‘be free.'”

* * *

“I’m confused,” one of the plebes confessed when we reached the third act of Richard II and he discovered his sympathies shifting from the apparently victimized Bolingbroke to the irresponsible and duplicitous King Richard. It is Richard who knows before everyone, including Bolingbroke himself, that his cousin cannot stop — the momentum of war will not let him — until he has secured the crown for himself. “Up, cousin, up,” King Richard tells Bolingbroke, who has kneeled before him. “Your heart is up, I know, / Thus high at least [pointing to his crown], although your knee be low.”

To the surprise of my student, it is Richard, the king of dreamy poetry, who now displays by far the keenest, most unsentimental understanding of the actual dynamics of force. As philosopher Simone Weil once noted, force blinds those, like Bolingbroke, who imagine they can control it. In the collision between symbolic and practical might, the latter wins, and King Richard intuits that all will suffer for it.

England’s civil wars gave Shakespeare fodder for eight plays. When next he shows us Bolingbroke, now the title character of Henry IV, Part I, the energetic usurper is changed utterly: He rules a kingdom full of trenches, a land soaked with the blood “of civil butchery.” King Henry is cut by the double “edge of war” that he first unleashed.

When Fallujah fell in January, some heard echoes of Khe Sanh in Vietnam, won at great human cost and then evacuated in 1968. Five years later, in 1973, Frederick Weyand, commanding general of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, announced the deactivation of MACV: “Our mission has been accomplished. I depart with a strong feeling of pride in what we have achieved and in what our achievement represents.” Weyand’s rear-guard rhetorical action, reported in American newspapers, sounds cynical given what we now know to be the outcome of the Vietnam War — until, that is, you have had the opportunity to listen to enough officers, whose earnestness you do not doubt, when they come home from Afghanistan. They are heavy with the death of fellow soldi
ers and simultaneously fighting a sense of futility with an insistence about the meaningful progress they have seen. How many courageous and honorable friends, either on their way to Afghanistan or relieved at their good fortune in coming home, have told me with a gallows-humor grin that no one wants to be the last American to die there?

Now, as the United States emerges from Afghanistan and Iraq, is the time to think about these wars — indeed, all wars — with our heads. The language we use to talk about matters of power and violence can influence the future use of American force. To the degree that we allow the undeniable suffering and sacrifice somehow to redeem all causes — that we allow our guilt to obscure the realities of devastating, indecisive wars — we increase the likelihood of finding ourselves in a similar predicament again.

In focusing on a moment of linguistic indirection in Richard II, my student found the key to unlocking an entire play. Reading closely in this way isn’t a skill we tend to take very seriously — until we find that we cannot live without it.

Elizabeth Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and author of Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of West Point, the Department of the Army, or the U.S. Department of Defense.

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