Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Yes, Marcus. They did die in vain.

The most popular post on Best Defense in 2014.


This post, the most viewed on Best Defense in 2014, was originally published on Jan. 15.

This post, the most viewed on Best Defense in 2014, was originally published on Jan. 15.

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense bureau of the military and American culture

“We spend our whole lives training to defend this country, and then we were sent over there by this country, and you’re telling me because we were over there doing what we were told by our country that it was senseless and my guys died for nothing?”

That was how former Navy SEAL and Lone Survivor author Marcus Luttrell responded to CNN’s Jake Tapper during an interview about the new movie based on his book, about an ill-fated mission in Afghanistan in which 19 of his fellow Navy SEALs and other special operations personnel were killed by enemy forces. There has been much furor in the national press over the exchange since it aired. The majority of commentators have rallied to Luttrell’s side, affirming that his comrades did not die in vain. Their arguments focus on honoring the fallen, their dedication to their country and their courage in combat. But we confuse valor with vanity at great peril to the living and the future of our wars. We need a more honest answer, however painful it may be to hear.

Yes, Marcus. Your friends died in vain. They went selflessly. They fought bravely. They sacrificed nobly. They lived in the best traditions of duty, honor, and country — hallowed words which dictate what every American can and ought to be. But they died in vain for the exact reason that they went where their country sent them and did what their country told them to do. America failed you because it failed its obligation to those principles. It gives me no pleasure to write these words, because it applies as much to the friends I lost as it does to yours. But it needs to be said, because the sooner we acknowledge it as a country, the more lives we might save.

As I write this, America is two weeks into its 13th and presumably last year of war in Afghanistan. Already, two servicemembers have been reported killed there. The strategic outlook after our withdrawal is not optimistic. Indeed, current events forebode a harsh future for Afghanistan. We are only two years removed from our withdrawal from Iraq and the al Qaeda flag flies over the city of Fallujah, in which more than 120 American servicemembers died. The ultimate failure of American military might to secure Fallujah does nothing to diminish the honorable nature of their service. But likewise, all their gallantry cannot change the fact that they died for an unfulfilled cause. The honor is theirs alone. The disgrace belongs to America.

It’s the disgrace of a country that abandoned its civic duty to execute due diligence in weighing the decisions of whether and how to go to war, and then later to hold accountable those that spent precious blood and vast treasure for meager gains. All the while, we convinced ourselves that we were supporting our fighting forces simply by saying that we were. We even made bumper stickers to prove it, never considering what it said about us to wear our hearts next to our exhaust pipes.

The sentiment of upholding the bravery of the fallen to hide the shame of our culpability has been echoed more eloquently but no less cowardice by our national leaders. In his first campaign, our own Commander in Chief was immediately cowed by the reaction to his suggestion that we were spending lives fruitlessly in our wars:

“I was actually upset with myself when I said that, because I never use that term [referring to “lives wasted in combat”]. It is not at all what I intended to say, and I would absolutely apologize if any [military families] felt that in some ways it had diminished the enormous courage and sacrifice that they’d shown.”

When asked if American troops in Iraq were dying in vain in 2005, Gen. George Casey answered thusly: “No, I don’t worry about that. Not yet — we’re not there yet.”

But he excused himself from proposing a time in the future when that might hold true. And just last year Adm. Mike Mullen expressed the idea in the most definitive of terms: “How could it be that in a democracy — a free society — men and women may risk their lives to defend that freedom and lose those lives in vain? It cannot be so.”

That was a bastardization of the Gettysburg address. His thesis ran contrary to Lincoln’s original remarks. In Lincoln’s view, the fallen “consecrated [the field of battle] far above our poor power to add or detract,” but the domain of their honor went no further than the burial ground. The president stated explicitly that the cause for which they died could only be made worthy by the citizens who survived them. “It is rather for us here to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that these dead shall not have died in vain…”

The proposition of soldiers dying in vain was a very real concern leading to the eventual end of that war, as Robert E. Lee wrote in his General Order No. 9, announcing his surrender:

“But feeling that valour and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen.”

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower expressed the same ethic in June 1944 when he pre-scripted his announcement of D-Day’s possible unfortunate outcome: “The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

Throughout history, our nation’s greatest leaders have understood on a deeply personal level that however honorably a soldier acquits himself, he can die in vain, and that it is the responsibility of the leaders and citizenry to see to it that they don’t. Our country has lost its sense of that responsibility to a horrifying extent. Our generals have lost the capability to succeed and the integrity to admit failure. Our society has lost the courage and energy to hold them accountable. Over the last decade, our top leaders have wasted the lives of our sons, daughters, and comrades with their incompetence and hubris. After each failure, our citizens have failed to hold them accountable, instead underwriting new failed strategies as quickly as their predecessors with our apathy and sense of detachment. And then we use the tired paeans of “never forget” and “honor the fallen” to distract ourselves from our guilt in the affair. When we blithely declare that they did not die in vain, we deface their honor by using it to wipe the blood from our hands.

We have lost our collective ability to win a war as well as the strength of character to accept defeat. And in the end, it is those who represent the epitome of that character we lack that pay the price. Can there be a death any more in vain than one that secures for us freedoms that we hold in such low regard as to not even use them on behalf of those that protect us? If there is, I cannot think of one.

It is my greatest hope that Luttrell’s response opens a national dialogue on this subject, and that people finally embrace the true, terrible nature of our self-inflicted losses. Let us as a nation finally feel the guilt we ought to for failing our civic duty. And let that be what we remember before we send the next servicemember to battle. For surely, there will be a next war. When it comes, let us be a nation of people who are as faithful to our principles and considerate of our obligations as those who fight for us. Let us be worthy of their sacrifice. That is the only way to prevent them from dying in vain.

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

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.