Sunday, September 25, 2005

Dying in Vain

It is a morally bankrupt leader who says, "Do not criticize me and call my orders foolish, because doing so insults the soldiers who execute my foolish orders to the best of their ability." The soldiers aren't being insulted, only the leader who wastes their lives by handing out foolish orders.

The soldier and his commander lives within the confines of a moral contract.

Soldiers have a duty to follow orders (unless the orders are obviously immoral). There is no time to explain the “big plan” to each of them and get them to approve of the overall strategy, and there will always be some who will not approve even if they did know. Therefore, the military has a chain of command. In that chain, the soldier has a duty to obey (except when commanded to do something that is clearly immoral).

In return, the commander has an obligation to use the soldier’s obedience to right and proper ends. Before he puts the soldier at risk of losing life or limb, the commander has an obligation to ensure that the soldier will not suffer that loss in vain. Even when he commands the soldier to kill, he has an obligation to make sure that the soldier kills for a good reason. The soldier has little choice (except under the most extraordinary circumstances) but to assume that this is the case.

This chain of command and obligation goes up to the top to the Commander in Chief.

So, what does it mean to say that the soldier suffers or dies in vain?

The typical describes a situation where an individual goes through a great deal of effort or suffers a huge cost in order to achieve some important end and dues not succeed. The failure means that the effort produced no benefit -- no good result. "It was all in vain."

There are always some risks associated with this type of heroic struggle. There is always a chance of failure. The person going through the effort or suffering the loss cannot guarantee a good outcome. Every once in a while soldiers do die or suffer in vain, just as they die or suffer in an accident. Sometimes, this happens in spite of the best intentions of everybody involved.

Sometimes, somebody is responsible.

Vain Sacrifice 1

One way in which a sacrifice can be in vain is if the goal that one sought to reach was not available. A special team is sent behind enemy lines to destroy an enemy outpost. After days of struggle and sacrifice they reach their destination, and there is no outpost. The survivors groan in frustration, “It was all for nothing.”

We were told that America was sending soldiers into Iraq to secure weapons of mass destruction. We were told that we needed to take these weapons out of the hands of those who would threaten their neighbors, threaten our allies (such as Israel), or threaten us. If Iraq could not threaten us directly, they would turn these weapons over to others (terrorists) who would use them against us. With this invasion, the suffering and loss of life was worthwhile because it would buy us safety from these weapons.

After all of the suffering and death, we found out that there were no weapons. There never were any weapons. It was all for nothing. It was all in vain.

As I said above, sometimes soldiers are given orders to accomplish things that have no value. When this happens, those who ordered the maneuver have made a mistake. It may be an innocent mistake, but it was still a mistake.

One way to judge an innocent mistake from one that was not so innocent is by whether others, looking at the same evidence, would have made the same mistake. In this case, we have reason to believe that this is not the case. The Bush Administration had an opportunity to made its best case to our allies in secret and to the United Nations in public. Others did not find the case convincing. Therefore, the mistake was not innocent. It was foolish. Which means that the soldiers died in vain.

Vain Sacrifice 2

Perhaps one of the most tragic ways in which somebody can suffer and die in vain is when he struggles to achieve one goal, but ends up making things worse. For example, imagine a case where a father struggles to save the life of one of his children and gets all of his children killed in the attempt. He had a worthy objective, but his efforts were all for nothing. They were all for worse than nothing.

Our leaders told us that they were sending soldiers into Iraq as a part of the war on terror. The objective was to deprive terrorists of potential supplies, recruits, and training areas.

It now looks as if the attack on Iraq has recruited tends of thousands of new terrorists, given them ample room to train in Iraq, and equipped them with the weapons of a fallen army that could not be adequately secured. The vast majority of the people attacking our soldiers in Iraq are not terrorists who would have otherwise come to the United States, they are Iraqi citizens who would have otherwise stayed home and ignored us.

In addition, our actions in Iraq have provided the terrorists with another direct benefit. Resources -- men, material, intelligence-gathering capability -- that could have gone to fighting the original terrorists trying to strike us here in America have been diverted from that war, making life a little easier for those terrorists.

We are fighting people we would not have otherwise needed to fight, using our intelligence resources against people we could have otherwise ignored, and generally facing a worse situation than we would have otherwise faced, while the terrorists we would have otherwise been fighting are facing an enemy spread thinner to cover our new commitments.

There is no worse example of suffering and dying in vain than to sacrifice to make a situation better, and making it worse. In this sense, there is reason to believe that those who have fought and died in Iraq have already fought and died in vain. A campaign that we were told was a part of the war against terror is turning out to be a costly diversion of resources that benefit, rather than harm, the terrorists.

Criticism and Responsibility

A leader, too much of a moral coward to face responsibility for his mistakes, will often try to hide behind his troops. "Those who criticize me and say my orders were foolish are criticizing the troops who are executing those orders to the best of their ability. To support the troops, you must say that I am a genius who can make no mistakes -- who cannot possibly have given them a foolish order to execute."

Every soldier knows, or should know, that this is not true. Every soldier knows, or should know, that, if he is given a foolish order, but he seeks to execute it to the best of his ability, that he has done his part and can be proud of it. Every soldier knows, or should know, that somebody who criticizes a commander's foolish order does not criticize the troops. Every soldier knows that the only way to criticize the troops is to say that they did not execute those orders, however foolish, to the best of their ability.

What can we say about the moral character of the leader who denies this? What can we say of the moral character of a leader who gets up on stage and says, "Anybody who dares say that my orders were foolish is insulting the soldiers," as a way of silencing his critics?

He is a moral coward who is not brave enough to stand on his own two feet and accept responsibility for his actions. The soldiers that he commands deserve leaders who are better than this.


In these two things, at least, it appears that our soldiers have, in fact, suffered and died in vain. They did not secure weapons of mass destruction because there were none to secure. They did not win an important battle against terrorism because the battle itself created a country full of terrorists that otherwise would have continued living their lives in Iraq without attacking Americans. In the mean time, we have taken resources away from the battle against the real terrorists to fight this new body of terrorists that this Administration’s action created.

In light of this, some of our soldiers have fought, suffered, and died in vain. The people responsible for this are those who planned and ordered the invasion. There is nothing that the rest of us can do at this point to change this unpleasant fact. Some people may not want to admit it, but name-calling and anger against those who speak the truth will not prevent it from being true.

The soldier and the commander have a special moral relationship. The soldier has a duty to obey (except when the order is obviously immoral), and the commander has a duty to make sure that, in obeying, the soldier is suffering or dying for that which is worth the sacrifice.

If the soldier ends up suffering or dying for nothing, but he still executes his orders to the best of his ability, then nothing can be said against the soldier. Critizing the order is not the same as criticizing the soldier.

The vast majority of America's soldiers have executed their orders to the best of their ability, and deserves our praise and commendation for this.

Yet, it is still the case that their leaders have commanded them to take actions where they suffer and die in vain.

This is not the soldiers' fault. It is the fault of those who gave the soldiers their orders.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Too many times this action is accomplished by innocent soldiers trying to make the world a better place to live in for everyone that lives in it. The soldiers that are in Iraq at this point should not be doing the things that they are asked to do, but like you said the soldiers must complete the tasks they are asked to do by their commander.