On Memorial Day: Questions of Sacrifice

August 9th, 2010 - by admin

Gar Smith / Commenetary – 2010-08-09 11:00:02


(May 31, 2010) — On May 28, the Pentagon announced the death of Mullah Fazullah — a Taliban religious leader from Pakistan’s Swat Valley who headed a powerful militia and even hosted his own FM radio show — Radio Mullah, was reportedly killed during a five-day battle in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. Fazullah headed the Terik-e-Nafaze-Shariat-e-Mohammadi militia.

The news media frequently carries reports about the latest death of an “Al Qaeda commander” or “Taliban leader” in Iraq or Afghanistan. In mid-April, for example, Gen. Ray Odierno, announced that a joint-US/Iraqi assault had killed “Al-Qaeda’s top two commanders in Iraq.” (The were blown up in a nighttime rocket attack on a so-called “safe house.”) But Fazullah’s death, if confirmed, would stand out because he was the commander of a large militia that had seized control of the Swat Valley in 2007. He also was a religious celebrity with a media empire. He was, in essence, a combination of General David Petraeus and Rev. Jerry Falwell.

That got me thinking: when was the last time a US general or religious leader died heroically in combat? Despite all those choruses of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” Rev. Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Pat Robertson never placed themselves at risk of personally feeling the sting of the Lord’s “terrible swift sword.” In the US, no celebrity preacher has ever served in the military — not even as an Army chaplain.

So how do US generals compare on the Mullah Fazullah scale of “devotion to duty”? We know from long and tragic experience that most soldiers who “give the last, full measure of devotion” are privates, specialists, sergeants, and lieutenants — with an occasional major and colonel added to the list of “the fallen.”

There was a time when it was not uncommon for top commanders to lose their lives leading fellow soldiers into the heat of battle. Heroic paintings sometimes immortalized these sacrifices on canvass. (Benjamin West’s 1771 canvas of “The Death of General Wolfe” comes to mind.)

The last American general popularly known to have actually died in combat was Gen. George Armstrong Custer who went to his reward at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. (Commemorated by Edgar Samuel Paxson in his 1899 rendering of “Custer’s Last Stand.”) Ironically, Gen. Custer was in the much the same position as Generals Petraeus and McChrystal — fighting a war of occupation in what was, essentially, a foreign land, against an indigenous resistance fighting to defeat an invading army of white men. (The Lakota and Northern Cheyenne — portrayed by the government as dangerous savages who threatened America’s national security — were the Al Qaeda and Taliban of their time.)

General Edward Canby was killed in the Modoc Indian War in 1873. Major General John Sedgwick was killed during the Civil War in 1864. General Leslie McNair died at Normandy in 1944 but he was killed by “friendly fire” in the form of a misguided Allied bombing attack. Of the 1100 Army generals who served in WWII, only 11 were killed in action or died from combat-sustained wounds.

To find a more recent example of a US general dying in a war-zone, you have to go back to the Vietnam era when General Keith Ware’s helicopter was shot out of the sky. Gen. John A. B. Dillard was also killed in Vietnam when his chopper was brought down by ground fire. But these weren’t a case of being killed in classic on-the-ground combat — it was more like a couple of drive-by shootings.

In April of this year, two officers — one a colonel; the other a major — were killed in Iraq. Stephen Scott was described as the ninth colonel to have been killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. (That’s nine colonels out of 4,024 US soldiers killed in Iraq.) Neither officer was killed in action, however. Both Col. Scott and Major Stuart Wolfer were killed by an insurgent rocket while working out in a gym deep inside the fortified Green Zone. Col. Scott was working out on a treadmill when he was killed.

To date, the highest ranking US officer to die in Iraq has been Col. Ted S. Westhusing, but this was not a combat death — he committed suicide. Westhusing, a decorated West Point graduate who was approaching the end of his tour of duty, had written a letter home expressing his frustration with “the distrust, lying and killing by the contractors and also by the Iraqi police” and said he was fed up with the war and the Army. Members of Westhusing’s family have suggested he may have been murdered, but the army has officially ruled the death a suicide.

The highest ranking female officer to die in combat was Maj. Megan McClung, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Ramadi, Iraq, in March 2003. And, on May 18, 2010, one Canadian and three American officers — one full colonel and two lieutenant colonels — were killed when a Taliban suicide bomber gave his “last full measure of devotion” in an attack on a NATO facility in Kabul, Afghanistan.

A search for Generals-Killed-in-Combat on the Pentagon’s official Web site begins with a Memorial Day message from Secretary Gates and two stories on the ritual placing of flags at cemeteries at Arlington and Syracuse. Although there were links to “Memorial Day History” and “Arlington National Cemetery,” you might be surprised to find that are were no links to any “Casualty List” acknowledging the names of the soldiers that the Pentagon and the White House were urging us all to “remember.”

Instead, the Memorial Day posting spotlights a story describing how “Girl Scouts Learn Price of Freedom” by planting 2,000 American flags at a military cemetery under the tutelage of the American Legion. The accompanying photo shows three typically overweight American teen girls teaming up to push a single flag into the sod. (More details were available by clicking on a link to the “Family Matters Blog.”)

The DoD’s Memorial Day Web pages are replete with photos clusters of small American flags and civilians and soldiers seeding cemeteries with these toy-sized banners of the national flag. But these images raise a troubling question: are these flags simply being planted to shift attention from the headstones? Politics have a long history of “hiding behind the flag.” Since these dead soldiers are being praised for “defending the flag,” it would seem to be more appropriate to place Old Glory behind the tombstones, covered by the shadow of sacrificed lives.

While the Pentagon’s Memorial Day presentation lacked any clearly apparent or detailed recognition of “the fallen,” the Pentagon does provide a Daily Casualty Report but the information is sketchy, at best, and often fails to offer an exact cause of death, explaining that the incident is “under investigation.”

The Pentagon’s Memorial Day Web page featured several stories about how the nation was preparing to “pay tribute to fallen servicemembers.” The first story reported how “America’s senior military officer,” US Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, interrupted his busy schedule and “took time out… to stress the importance of their sacrifice and pledge his ongoing support for their families.” Speaking to hundreds of families of dead soldiers at the Military Survivor Seminar prior to the opening of the “Good Grief Camp” (a therapy camp for the children of slain soldiers) in Crystal City, Virginia, Mullen claimed our country was “blessed” by being the “best country that’s ever been, because of the service of those who raised their right hand and went off to do their nation’s bidding.”

Mullen assured the suffering survivors that the Pentagon would “never forget the sacrifice that your loved ones have made” and promised “to have your needs met: to be supported for the rest of your lives.”

Meanwhile, little mention is made on Memorial Day of the wars’ other survivors — the veterans who returned to their homes with disfigured and incapacitated by grevious wounds. It is estimated that 320,000 returned combat soldiers now suffer brain injuries. (Apparently the exact number of seriously wounded soldiers remains unknown. According to the UnknownNews Web site, “this data is not publicly tracked.”) And veterans are killing themselves at a rate of 18 suicides a day. While these deaths are clearly war-related, the names of these casualties are not entered in the roll-call of official “war heroes.” The “ultimate sacrifice” that these soldiers experience following their discharge earns them no special mention on the walls of the Pentagon or the stones of Arlington. These “fallen servicemembers” will not be officially honored or remembered on this Memorial Day.

Throughout the Pentagon’s Memorial Day postings, the rhetoric of sacrifice was rife with the usual euphemism. The uniformed victims of war are always “heroes” (even though many of them died screaming in pain and begging God to let them live). They are always “fallen soldiers” (which suggests mere misstep followed by a clean, almost balletic death — even though they may have been blown to bits or burned beyond recognition). They always “gave their lives” (when the fact is, there lives were taken from them. Suicide bombers “give their lives” but soldiers hope to return alive to their families back home.)

AntiWar.com offers a list of “Casualties in Iraq” and “Casualties in Afghanistan” presented under the rubric of “The Human Cost of Occupation.” AntiWar.com also offers estimates on the number of military contractors, academics, journalists, and civilians that have been killed in these two wars. These other victims of war — the “Civilian Fallen” — also need to be remembered on Memorial Day. The Washington Post publishes “Faces of the Fallen,” an online list of the dead with photos. Other casualty lists are available from icausalties.org, BBC News, and the US Central Command. While not offering an easily accessible aggregate listing of all the uniformed men and women killed “in the line of duty,” the Pentagon does post Daily DOD Casualty Releases.