*Note: This essay was published at War on the Rocks on October 12, 2015. It can also be found online here.
Navy Lieutenant Mike Murphy.
Petty Officer Second Class Matt Axelson.
Petty Officer Second Class Danny Dietz.
These Navy SEALs died in 2005 as part of Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan. Their sacrifices were meaningful, same as those of any soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine that dies on the fields of unfriendly strife.
These three hallowed men mattered to the battle’s lone survivor, Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell — mattered so much that an interviewer’s suggestion the SEALs deaths were “senseless” prompted Luttrell’s seething response: “[Are you] 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?” Shortly thereafter, Army veteran Jim Gourley penned a provocative essay answering Luttrell’s rhetorical question: “Yes Marcus. Your friends died in vain.”
The phrase in vain flies off the page like a bloody shirt up a giant flagpole. Gourley’s core logic is that if the war, battle, or military judgment was wrong, then the soldier’s death was in vain. As far as courage is concerned, he notes, “however honorably a soldier acquits himself, he can die in vain.” His targets are chickenhawk leaders and apathetic America, a “country that abandoned its civic duty.” And Gourley finds, “the sooner we acknowledge [these conclusions], the more lives we might save.”
But when Gourley advises readers to be wary of “confus[ing] valor with vanity,” he takes the argument far beyond counting costs to denying value. We should scrutinize vanity here, the vanity of declaring, so publicly, the actions and lives of three valorously decorated Navy SEALs were “to no avail” or “without success” (as the dictionary defines in vain). If this seems wrong, seems off — that’s because it is.
In vain is verbal carpet-bombing and always results in collateral damage to a soldier’s reputation. While afflicting the comfortable, in vain also afflicts the afflicted. Gourley’s argument may have meant well, but, then again, the road to Baghdad was also paved with good intentions. Words impact memory, particularly those attaching to soldier’s wartime performance. Think of the difference in the way society collectively remembers the “Good War” fought by the “Greatest Generation” versus that “quagmire” fought by a bunch of unthinking, “body-count” obsessed soldiers. In vain’s stain is as effectively imprecise as napalm.
It is time to strike this use of in vain, on behalf of those who gave “the last full measure of devotion” and for those yet to give their last full measure of devotion. Logic, history, and experience guide us to reject in vain: The impossibility of future knowledge, a mistaken focus on narrow costs as opposed to broader value, and, perhaps most importantly, specific pronouncements on the value of a soldier’s life should not be open for public commentary.
The strategic value of a single sacrifice cannot be known for many years, even decades.
Gourley’s essay confidently, even certainly, declares these three SEALs died in vain, all while fully acknowledging the results were not in yet, writing that the “strategic outlook” is “not optimistic” and “current events forebode a harsh future for Afghanistan.” I disagree and find the war there was worth it, yet even if one were to accept Gourley’s assessment, history counsels modesty in that failure is not durable and strategic outcomes shift.
Consider the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which held the Union line at a critical moment on the second day at the Battle of Gettysburg. Knowing they were outnumbered 4 to 1, the First Minnesota advanced, sustaining over 82 percent casualties, the highest percentage in all the bloody Civil War, in order to buy roughly fifteen minutes for a larger unit’s arrival. Their heavy tactical costs, while tragic, enabled a crucial operational success. The unit included the brothers Patrick and Isaac Taylor. Isaac, a teacher, was killed in the battle and Patrick buried him, sobbing uncontrollably into July Fourth.
In the years after the war, Isaac’s sacrifice appeared vindicated. But, over time, an Emancipation proclaimed went unclaimed, and the end of Reconstruction ushered in a period of “home rule” that kept the American South in a de facto state of slavery until the 1960s. Was Isaac’s sacrifice made in vain from 1877 until the Civil Rights Act of 1964? And now, should it be reappraised?
Would we consider the soldiers lost in 1991’s Gulf War to have been in vain as the Islamic State currently controls much of Iraq? Or were those lost in the Cold War lost in vain now that Putin is on the march and the Doomsday Clock is closer to midnight than it has been since 1984?
Strategic landscapes change, sometimes rapidly, over time. We cannot know with precision what will come, or precisely what caused the move. It is simply too early to pass judgment on an ongoing conflict; wars are chaotic and chaotic describes Afghanistan. How can we say a life was lost in vain if the outcome is this much in doubt?
The specific value of one soldier’s sacrifice will not be known to those either distant from the war or distant from the soldier.
Gourley conflates costs with value, focusing solely on whether he thinks America is winning or not. This single unit of measure, a personal dampened thumb in the wind, forgets and fails to recognize any value in a soldier’s sacrifice. As the adage often attributed to Einstein reminds us, “not everything that counts can be counted.” Just because value is beyond sight doesn’t mean it does not exist. There are multiple objectives in war — tactical, operational, moral, and even personal — to which a soldier can contribute value.
As the First Minnesota demonstrates, military operations provide different value at different levels. Even the moral. During Operation Red Wings, while attempting to remain concealed from enemy Taliban, the four SEALs came upon two Afghan men and a 14-year-old boy with a herd of goats. As Harvard’s Michael Sandel recounts, “the goatherds appeared to be unarmed civilians,” yet, “letting them go would run the risk that they would inform the Taliban.” Without any rope to tie the Afghans, “the only choice was to kill them or let them go free.” Led by Lieutenant Murphy, the SEALs chose the harder right over the easier wrong and let the non-hostile non-combatants go. They upheld our American values. They followed our rules of engagement. They did what would be deemed honorable by even those as distant as the ancient 300 Spartans, whose tombstone reads: “here, obedient to [Spartan] laws, we lie.”
These old Greeks would also understand the personal. Soldiers fight for one another. When asked why he performed so many feats of heroism, Audie Murphy replied, “They were trying to kill my friends.” We ought to remember a soldier’s death may have meaning to his or her comrades, which we cannot possibly comprehend or understand from our comfortable distance.
Without accounting for these conditions — tactical, operational, moral, and personal — how can we declare a military death is to no avail, without success, or in vain?
Judgments about the value of an individual sacrifice are sacrosanct, to be protected, and limited only to those closest to the deceased.
In vain is political commentary that harms what should be sacred and spiritual. This we must respect, this space, typically the high ground claimed by religion, which is an appropriate venue for weighing a person’s life and death. For example, the Talmud teaches that whoever saves one life, saves the world entire. Danny Dietz and Matt Axelson saved Marcus Luttrell’s life. Was their sacrifice in vain?
A life is not measured in years, or objectives, but in, as Jackie Robinson’s gravestone reads, “the impact it has on other lives.” Mike Murphy posthumously earned the Medal of Honor, in addition to a seemingly unending list of tributes, and continues to inspire millions. Was the life he lived and the death he died — in vain?
If one wants to cast blame on leaders, or apathy, that is understandable and even necessary as the core of a functioning democracy. Citizens and taxpayers should have their say. Yet, as we cannot and will not know the value of a soldier’s sacrifice, surely there are other ways to make those arguments, there must be, because, as Abraham Lincoln said on another occasion marking the solemn soldierly march into the afterlife, their sacrifice is “far above our poor power to add or detract.” We owe them reverence and care with our words; in essence, their noble deaths have elevated them beyond the pigpen of politics. That is why these dead shall not — shall never — have died in vain.
Author’s Note: I selected the blanket term “soldier” to cover all manner of armed service to simplify the essay, unify the concept, and with an eye on length. With more space, in another format, I would have expanded this terminology.