One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.
Joan of Arc
As this Memorial Day descends upon us, the tendency to forget the core of the day, and celebrate instead its release from the weekly grind is strong. In a democracy, however, in which the request to serve the nation and potentially give one’s limb or life for whatever dedicated purpose the nation’s leadership purports worth sacrificing for is a voluntary decision, the need to feel the day viscerally is critical to the nation’s existence. Each individual sacrifice is unredeemable loss. The important question is- is the national purpose worthy of the accumulated sacrifice? Without the belief that the nation’s goals are purposeful and just, can anyone expect to continue to maintain the level of profound dedication and quality of those who have served at the ramparts of this nation for over 200 years?
We live in dangerous times. But the determination by the nation’s leaders as to the need to confront dangers has been present since inception. Some times requiring sacrifice have been heroically worthy, others in retrospect, less than heroic, but to the individual asked to sacrifice, the belief in and love for comrades, brought dignity to the sacrifice, no matter how difficult it was to recognize the logic of the action. The military of the United States has been asked to sacrifice almost continuously from the nation’s birth to the present day:
- American revolutionary War 1775-1783 25,000
- Northwest Indian War 1785-1795 1056
- U.S. European Quasi-War 798-1800 514
- War of 1812 1812-1815 20,000
- 1st Seminole War 1817-1818 36
- Black Hawk War 1832 305
- 2nd Seminole War 1835-1842 1,535
- Mexican-American War 1846-1848 13,283
- 3rd Seminole War 1855-1858 26
- American Civil War 1861-1865 625,000
- Indian Wars 1865-1898 920
- Great Sioux War 1875-1877 314
- Spanish-American War 1898 2,446
- Phillippine Insurrection 1898 -1913 4,196
- Boxer Rebellion 1900-1901 131
- Mexican Revolution 1914-1919 35
- Haiti Occupation 1915-1934 148
- World War I 1917-1918 116,516
- American Campaign/ Russia 1918-1920 752
- Nicaragua Occupation 1927-1933 48
- World War II 1941-1945 405,399
- Korean War 1950-1953 36,516
- Vietnam War 1955-1975 58,209
- El Salvador Civil War 1980-1982 37
- Lebanon/Beirut 1982-1984 266
- Grenada 1983 19
- Panama 1989 40
- Persian Gulf War Desert Storm 1990-1991 258
- Kurdish Defense 1991-1996 19
- Somalia Intervention 1992-1995 43
- Bosnia 1995-2004 12
- NATO Campaign Yugoslavia 1999 20
- Afghanistan 2001-2015 2,356
- Iraq 2003-2013 4,489
- Cold War 1948 – present Undocumented
- CIA Wars 1943- present Undocumented attrib./ militaryfactory.com
Over 1.2 million Americans have died in action since the nation’s inception. Millions more have been injured and maimed, their lives changed forever. To the individual serving his or her country, the purposeful sacrifice was no less heroic in the questionable principles or merits of the actions of the Great Sioux War or Philippine Insurrection as it would be in the visible threat and evil in World War II. Ultimately a country is judged by both the priniciples underlying an action and in the ultimate success of that action. To the families left behind, the loss is assuaged faintly ,but perceptively, if the loss was not “in vain” or “for a good cause.” To note that the individual did their job to the ultimate, but the nation’s leadership failed theirs, adds only pain to the already tremendous burden accompanying sacrifice. More and more, it seems the nation’s leaders are struggling to indicate the value principles of actions, and to see them through to the completion of the goals, assuring the sacrifices required might be worthy of their request.
A prime example of the detachment of leadership from the need to understand what the sacrifices have engendered are the brutal and now thrown away sacrifices of Fallujah. The harrowing photo above captures one small but seminal event in the horrific Second Battle of Fallujah fought by US Marine and Army forces against Al Qaeda in November,2004. The progressive crumbling and mismanagement of the supposed American “victory” over the Iraq army of Saddam Hussein in 2003 became clear in the Anbar Province city of Fallujah. The peace was ruptured and a challenge to the American assumptions regarding Iraq was placed, with the Al Qaeda calling card of 4 burnt and hung American contractor corpses on a Fallujah bridge for all to see. The First Battle of Fallujah in April, 2004, by the Marine Corps rousted out the initial Al Qaeda forces only to turn over the local policing of the city to a Sunni division of the ‘new’ Iraqi army, the Fallujah Brigade, led by a former Baathist general Latif. Ignorant of the long standing hostility of the Sunni locals to the now Shia overloads in Baghdad, the Fallujah Brigade ‘defended” the city by allowing thousands of Al Qaeda insurgents to nest and take over the city under the leadership of Musab Al Zarqawi, a vicious terrorist warlord whose goal was the expulsion of Americans and the slaughter of the Shia and Kurd Iraqi segments of Iraq. The city became a place of horror to the subjugated, full of fascist Chechians, Somalis, and Syrians imposing their will and looking forward to Armageddon with the Americans. The need to destroy the new fortress of the growing Al Qaeda threat led to the second battle of Fallujah.
The Second Battle of Fallujah is considered some of the most difficult and violent urban warfare American troops have faced. The six months in between American intervention had been used by Al Qaeda to turn Fallujah into a deathtrap. The narrow alleyways of the ancient city were full of explosive devices. The stair wells of buildings were bricked to create dead ends were American troops could be slaughtered by hidden machine guns. The Al Qaeda troops were allowed drugs to stimulate aggression and super human strength to buttress their courage and sense of sacrifice. The battle was fought door to door, alley to alley, hand to hand in a gruesome dance to the death. The brave forces that faced the killing machine in Fallujah, lost 107 dead and 613 wounded to take back in brutal combat what they had given away just six months before. The two month action has been felt to rival the battle for Hue in Vietnam or the Pacific campaigns of World War II in ferocity. The Second Battle of Fallujah is a story of sacrifice – the picture above relates the purest form, a soldier under direct fire risking all and coming back for his wounded comrade, only to fall himself under the same torrent of enemy fire.
And what is it all for, such sacrifice? Fallujah, now stabilized in 2004 through such heroics, required more sacrifice in a Third Battle of Fallujah in 2007 with the Surge, before finally achieving with the rest of Iraq a measured and sustainable peace. But peace did come, and the sacrifices by so many could at least be measured in victory – until it was thrown away by American political leadership in 2011. Eager to prove the politics of American presence in the Middle East wrong, the Obama administration was willing to withdraw Americans and the risk the hard won gains of Fallujah and so many other Iraqi conflict sites for their own political satisfaction. The result is almost complete nullification of the 4,489 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq, and the tens of thousands more scarred forever by their efforts.
Memorial Day is for remembrance. It is for taking a moment to demand that sacrifice not be asked of individuals when the national leadership is not up to securing those sacrifices for the long term. Those mighty warriors of Fallujah and so many other battlefields around the world had some measure of confidence that the nation shared their beliefs and would stand by their sacrifice to the end. As Joan of Ark said, to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate worse than dying. That’s true for nations as well as individuals. A nation without the strength of its belief in its guiding principle, is already as dead as the brave people it asked to sacrifice for it. The walking dead political class of Washington better take notice.
On this Memorial Day, a special thank you for all that have given so much and selflessly served their country, in particular my own father, who served his country in both the army and navy, denying only the skies above the contributions of his courage and patriotism.