Policy decisions can’t tarnish a soldier’s ultimate sacrifice. This act of faith for American ideals is what matters and should be revered, whatever the war and no matter the outcome.
By Kathy Roth-Douquet
Died in vain?
President Bush wants to stay the course in Iraq so that those who have died there will not have died "in vain." Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan urges us to pull out immediately to prevent more Americans from dying in vain.
Bush and Sheehan have both got it wrong.
Too many partisans in the battle for Iraq policy have used soldiers' deaths as a football in a bid to score points. It's cruel (imagine being a family member and being told the death of your loved one was in vain), but even more, it's just wrong. Those who argue that a soldier's death has meaning only if the politics are "right" misunderstand military service in America.
"We think of Kristian (Menchaca) as a hero," says Sylvia Grice of her cousin, 23, one of the soldiers kidnapped, tortured and killed by insurgents last June in Iraq. "He didn't have to do this. He believed in what he was doing." The terrible death's meaning, in other words, came from the soldier's commitment. It is his commitment that gives his life meaning, and even his country's possible errors staying in too long, leaving too early can't take that meaning from him.
The phrase "died in vain" comes to us from our great moralist president, Abraham Lincoln. In Gettysburg's graveyard, Lincoln urged the gathered to fight on for the survival of the United States so that those interred in that ground would not have died in vain. He did not argue that a soldier who loses his battle or his war has died in vain. Instead, he noted that America itself its ideas and ideals is what gives the soldier's life meaning.
Behind the sacrifices
So where does the meaning of military sacrifice come from?
Military service in America flows from our Constitution as a covenant among free people. The parties to this sacred contract are, on one hand, a group of citizens who assent to bear arms for their country for a time, and on the other, the rest of us, the civilians whose task it is to decide whether to send our compatriots into peril. Those bearing arms promise to bring their loyalty, skill and honor to the task; the civilians, for their part, promise to weigh the fate of those soldiers with seriousness and care, and provide the support necessary to those who go.
The meaning in the lives of those who bear arms resides in their loyalty to the democracy that sends them, and the skill and honor they bring to their task. If the civilians who send them falter in their decision-making, it dishonors those who steer and not those who serve.
So let's apply this to the war in Iraq. What if the war is a mistake, or we pull out too early? Are the deaths then for naught?
From the standpoint of a soldier or Marine, or in my case, a Marine's wife, the answer to these questions must be no. Why? Because despite any partisan's passion for the rightness of a position, none of us will know how right or wrong we really are until long after the last shot is fired. So we make decisions the way one does in a self-governing society of 300 million cantankerous souls: imperfectly, inelegantly, with unnecessary suffering.
Whether we are led by Democratic presidents or Republican ones great men such as Franklin D. Roosevelt or middling men such as Warren G. Harding there will be mistakes, judged differently at different times in history and perhaps never resolved utterly in consensus. Even in the "good war," there were bad engagements, bad decisions, unnecessary, sad, tragic deaths.
Service, then, is even more ennobling because it represents an act of faith in an unwieldy system a representative democracy of human beings. The weakness of our system lends poignancy to the decision to serve: Those who go into harm's way recognize that our society is in many ways deeply flawed, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it's the best one available yet.
Bad policy can't tar a soldier
Philosopher Nancy Sherman says the military resolves this tension by adopting a version of the ancient Stoic philosophy, which holds that one may be judged only by the rightness or wrongness of one's own acts, not by the acts of others. A soldier who does his portion morally and well cannot be tarred by the brush of a leader's bad policy. This does not mean that some individuals' willingness to serve translates into a blank check for irresponsible policy if anything it requires us to constantly scrutinize our policy and commit to do better.
In complicated times like these, it's important to remember that self-government is perishable it can be killed not only by enemies outside the gate, but also by indifference and alienation within. The decision to serve is a decision to be part of our country and, ideally, to make the part one touches the best possible. This is what has value, so that even in the tragic cases of friendly fire, or accidental deaths or deaths in battles later lost, those who die did not die in vain. They died in service to an ideal Lincoln's ideal that the government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the face of this earth.
There is nothing vain about that.Kathy Roth-Douquet is the co-author, with Frank Schaeffer, of AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service and How It Hurts Our Country. She lives on a military base in North Carolina.