Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Honoring the Dead: Iraq

Yesterday, in speaking about the engineers who were killed and injured at Scaled Composites, I wrote that you cannot honor the dead by destroying that which they thought it was worth risking their lives to build. Instead, you honor the dead by completing the projects that they risked their lives to complete.

This sounds suspiciously like an argument that the Bush Administration is using to support “staying the course” in Iraq. They argue that to leave Iraq is to dishonor the sacrifice of those who have already been killed and injured there – to cause them to have sacrificed in vein.

I have seen presidential candidates and pundits struggle with this conflict – trying to figure out how to say that the war was a foolish mistake that we should end, while at the same time preserving the honor of the American forces who fought there.

Yet, if one understands the argument – if one understands the concept of honoring the dead - this is not that difficult.

Hill 514

Imagine, if you will, a military scene where a regimental commander, Captain Herb Shrub, has decided to capture Hill 514. He has convinced himself that taking Hill 514 is key to winning the war. However, being an incompetent commander, he has failed to perform proper reconnaissance.

In fact, he has looked at the intelligence reports that have come in, dismissed those he does not like, and selected only those that confirm his own belief that he can take Hill 514. So, he sets his junior officers to the task – dismissing those who question his assertions about how easy it will be to take Hill 514.

If Captain Shrub lacked the authority to dismiss or reassign his critics, then he publicly called them traitors and enemy sympathizers – people who obviously wanted the enemy to continue to occupy Hill 514 and to prevent our side from winning the war. When, in fact, those critics were just as interested in winning the war as Captain Shrub. Their only crime was in disagreeing with Captain Shrub on the feasibility of taking Hill 514.

Then, Captain Shrub sends his soldiers to take the hill.

Only (substantially due to Shrub’s intelligence failures) the battle for Hill 514 goes worse than expected. The enemy holding Hill 514 use defensive tactics that Captain Shrub did not imagine. Even though Shrub’s units were able to plant the regimental flag on the summit of the hill, the battle continued, with Shrub’s forces taking significant losses. To hold the hill, Captain Shrub needs to keep pouring men into the battle.

Now, let us put the Bush Administration’s argument for staying the course in Iraq into this context. In justifying his actions, we see Captain Shrub telling his superiors that if those who do not support his efforts to take Hill 514 are saying that all of the soldiers serving under him died and suffered in vein. He tells us that the only way to honor and respect those who have already sacrificed is to continue the attack and to take Hill 514.

Here, we see just how easy it is to answer such a nonsense argument. There is not a single soldier, living or dead, who had committed his life to taking Hill 514. That is to say, if you had asked any soldier on the day of his induction why he had joined the military, it is laughable to assume that any of them answered, “So that I can take Hill 514 from the enemy, sir!”

Instead, their best answers would have been to protect the people that they loved back home and the rest of their fellow citizens. This would mean not only protecting the lives of those people, but protecting the institutions that contributed to the quality of their lives – their freedom from oppression and other forms of dogma and tyranny. Many active military personnel will say that they fight for the sake of the person standing next to them, that the idea of abandoning their fellow soldier on the field of the battle is unthinkable.

So, how do we honor the dead and the injured in this case?

We do not honor them by taking Hill 514. Hill 514 is not important – at least, not in its own right. We honor them by accomplishing the goals that they thought was worth their lives and well-being. We honor them by keeping their loved ones safe and by protecting and defending the institutions that contribute to the quality of their lives. We honor them by taking care of the soldiers that they would have been standing next to in the field of battle, if they had still lived.

We do not honor them by taking actions that threaten the security of their loved ones and fellow citizens back home, or by destroying the institutions that have, for so many years, contributed to the quality of their lives – their freedom from oppression, dogma, and tyranny. We do not honor them by putting their buddies in harm’s way in ways that do not protect these people and institutions. In fact, we do the opposite. We do not honor them by taking Hill 514. We honor them by winning the war. If taking Hill 514 helps win the war, then we take the hill. If not, then the best way to respect the sacrifice of those who died there is to do that which will win the war.

In particular, we have to worry about Captain Shrub’s insistence in devoting more and more resources to the capture of Hill 514, while the enemy is allowed to regroup and reorganize in a village not far away. If the way we honor those who have sacrificed their lives by securing those things that they felt were important enough to risk their lives, then perhaps we cannot honor them by pouring more effort into Hill 514.

A Scaled Composites Analogy

I can illustrate this same objection to the Bush Administration’s way of arguing for staying the course in Iraq by applying their form of reasoning to the tragedy at Scaled Composites. If Burt Rutan at Scaled Composites were to take up the Bush Administration’s way of thinking, we can soon expect to hear Rutan saying that, now that three engineers have died and three who were injured testing a particular engine, that Scaled Composites will dishonor what those men were trying to accomplish if they should choose some other engine for their rocket. We would hear him say, “To honor the sacrifice of these six engineers, our rocket must use the very type of engine they were testing when this tragedy struck. To use any other type of engine would be to dishonor their sacrifice.”

Yet, nobody expects him to say anything so foolish.

Actually what the Bush Administration seems to be doing is worse than this. The Bush Administration is shamelessly exploiting the deaths of these soldiers. Bush is taking these deaths and cutting them away from the things that those soldiers thought was worth dying for, and attaching their deaths to Bush’s own pet project. This is precisely what the Hill 514 story illustrates. There, Captain Shrub takes his fallen soldiers and discards what was important to those soldiers (winning the war), and replaces their goals with his own (taking Hill 514).

A better analogy on the Scaled Composites version of the argument would have the company that provided the engine telling Scaled Composites, “Now you must use our engine, or you dishonor the sacrifice that your six engineers made.” This is what the Bush Administration is trying to pull when they tell us, “Now you must support my plan, or you dishonor the sacrifice that 30,000 dead and injured soldiers have already made.”

[And why do we only talk about the sacrifices of those who were killed and wounded. What about the sacrifice of those who put their lives on hold, or who lose the opportunity to watch their children grow and to participate in their development? These harms deserve no less consideration, and no less respect, than the harms of injuries and death. Ignoring these harms does such a disservice to the measure of the sacrifice that these people make.]

The Candidate’s Stand

So, the next time a candidate gets asked a question that relates withdrawing from Iraq with honoring the troops, I would recommend an answer like the following:

We honor our troops, and the sacrifices that they make, by better securing the things that they fought to protect. We honor them by doing what we can to secure their loved ones at home, the institutions that protect the quality of their lives, and the buddies who they would still be standing beside in the field of battle if they were here to stand. We do not honor those troops by putting their loved ones at greater risk, destroying the institutions that protect us from tyranny and injustice, and allowing their buddies to be shamelessly exploited and used. The question we need to be asking is, “Are we doing what we need to be doing to secure the things that these soldiers thought was worth dying for?” Because if we are not, then we are dishonoring their sacrifice.

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