“Yes, Marcus. They died in vain.” Thus begins Jim Ghourley’s column in Foreign Policy. In an exchange between Jake Tapper and Marcus Luttrell over the movie Lone Survivor, Luttrell rhetorically asked Tapper: “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?” Ghourley answers with an emphatic yes.
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 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.
The date on the Foreign Policy column is January 15, 2014. But in spirit is closer to January 15, 1939 when it dawned upon altogether too many that the vast losses of the Great War merely bought a chance to fight an even bigger war. Great must have been the temptation to cynically scrawl over the Menin Gate. “Yes. They died in vain.”
There is a similar sense today of a collapsing house of cards. Disaster is the new normal. One of the greatest hurts the Obama administration has inflicted on the national psyche is a profound demoralization; an acceptance of hopelessness. People are no longer looking for good news any more than they’re hoping for jobs. Many have stopped fighting the tide of woe and fully expect more to follow, with nothing whatsoever to be done about it. An administration premised on Hope has taught us to give up hoping.
News that health insurance premiums are rising is met indifference. Reports that insurers are being downrated by Moodys’ are greeted with a shrug. Reports that Obama is out of money already and wants the debt limit raised by February surprise no one. Tidings that Minnesota has joined Maryland and Oregon in the ranks of state health exchanges that want to shut down and begin all over again elicits no surprise. So what’s new?
If anything, we are shocked that anything still works. So when Fareek Zakaria interviews the Iranian negotiators and finds no resemblance between the nuclear deal described by President Obama and the Iranians there is hardly a ripple of astonishment. An Iranian nuclear bomb? Tell me you didn’t expect it?
In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani forcefully asserted that Iran would not destroy its nuclear centrifuges “under any circumstances”…
Reacting to Rouhani’s position, Zakaria told CNN that the Iranian President’s comments struck him as a “train wreck”.
“This strikes me as a train wreck. This strikes me as a huge obstacle because the Iranian conception of what the deal is going to look like and the American conception now look like they are miles apart,” Zakaria said.
By now we expect Obama to lie; lie for the sake of lying; misrepresent for the heck of it, even when the truth can safely be admitted in candor; to spit in the soup for no reason that even he can think of.
And nobody’s mad at Obama. For they know the truth. It isn’t Obama that is frightening since he’s just being himself. It is the circumstance that 50% of the electorate wanted him — and may want him still — that is absolutely terrifying. That is the source of the despair. We gaze into the mirror and lose hope.
Jim Ghourley puts the epitaph in the wrong place. “They died in vain” is less apt upon their tombstones than “they lived in vain” is on the lintels of our homes. For to all appearances, Marcus Luttrell’s men are not half so dead as we are. They live in some way still. In saga if not as a blockbuster movie. But what can we say for ourselves? That we live after death on some voting roll? That we resisted until the first stern admonition from Candy Crowley or Chris Matthews?
Surely the question of whether anyone dies in vain is one that only the living can answer. And to be sure some have forged ahead in spite of everything. After months of agonizing over the decline of its alliance with Obama administration, Israeli pundits are realizing that oil exploration is their best friend. “In Israel the idea of a truly independent Jewish state seems to be catching on,” one friend writing to me said. And that is paralleled by America’s prodigious advances in fracking; in the advances that take place daily.
Even while Obama has been busy generating debacles some of the rest of the world has been performing miracles. The most effective retort has not been despair but the flank attack; to ignore Washington and make things work on our own. And perhaps that is the way of things; for the green shoot has outpaced the termite from the beginning of the world and the candle, though it wavers, never goes out without someone re-lighting it again.
If disaster has a silver lining it is the realization that the Obama cavalry is not racing to rescue just over the horizon. Any chance of getting out of this bind is strictly from initiative. Get going. There’s nobody here but us.
John Buchan, who was part of the generation whose universe was shaken by the Great War remarked upon the tremendous healing power of life. He talked about how “the world must remain an oyster for youth to open. If not, youth will cease to be young, and that will be the end of everything.” We try and try again, if not in one way then another.
Barack Obama may not have believed in the Afghan mission. But they being young men, as some of us were or are, were not wholly dependent on official reasons for existence. For the young sometimes do things for private reasons: out of an independent sense of honor, for comradeship, and in the name of a loyalty that transcends bureaucracy. Buchan remembers that we live, not at some distant functionary’s behest, but fundamentally for ourselves:
I have known men like Hugh Dawnay and Francis Grenfell who would have ridden on a lost cause over the edge of the world. But our Oxford group was not of that kind; each of us would have rejoiced to ride over the world’s edge, but it would have been not for a cause but for the fun of the riding.
An event, Buchan would write, is never “at the moment fully comprehended … time hurries it from us, but also keeps it in store”; and only later do we see it for what it is. It is less than completely true to say the Red Wings died for a mission order. To a certain extent they advanced to their own private drummer and died for each other without counting it a loss. Maybe the right question to pose is “do we live in vain?” That remains an open question. We know the administration had not the least iota of faith in the men of the Lone Survivor mission. But by their actions we know that they still had faith in us.
What we do with that bequest; well there’s the rub. The present is all the past has to show for itself. The ball’s in our court and the answer is for us to make.
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