AGE OF HEROES – IN MEMORIAM
By Rolf Mowatt-Larssen
Belfer Center Senior Fellow
I recently saw a great flick entitled “Age of Heroes.” It is about the early days of the British SAS in World War II. A team of 8 commandos was airlifted covertly into Norway on a top secret mission to steal vital Nazi technology. It’s a hard driving, gut wrenching movie. I got goose bumps, just like I did when I watched classic war movies like “300 Spartans” or “Cross of Iron.” It reminded me why I went to West Point and dedicated my life to serving my country–with no regrets. “Age of Heroes” is a vivid reflection of the stuff heroes are made of — their courage, toughness, concern for their comrades, and a willingness to die, if need be, for a higher cause. In World War II, the threat was so real, so clear, so existential. War is a great evil, but unfortunately, sometimes it is unavoidable.
I am reflecting on the nature of heroism at the moment, because I am sickened by the latest loss of life in Afghanistan – 30 SEALs and special forces troops killed when their helicopter was struck by a rocket propelled grenade. We may sincerely believe that invading Afghanistan and Iraq was necessary to safeguard our fundamental liberties, but I doubt that to be true. The wisdom of this war doesn’t diminish the heroism of our troops, or the courage of all those who are serving on the front lines, but it does make me question whether their sacrifice is worth it.
4,421 killed in Iraq theater
1,721 killed in Afghanistan
It is disturbing that so little attention is being paid to these numbers – particularly the number of troops who have been wounded, many gravely. Tell me: where can you find the “honor roll” of WIA on a regular basis in the mainstream media? There are about eight soldiers wounded for every KIA. Far from representing a mouthpiece for the so-called liberal anti-war crowd, the media has been almost silent on informing the public as to the cost of war, whether it be measured in human terms or its impact on the American economy. And for all the divisive politics between the Republicans and Democrats, who can’t agree on anything, isn’t it ironic that neither party contests the wisdom of these wars?
The fateful post-Vietnam decision to build an all-volunteer Army posed unforeseen consequences for American society. It has become too easy to wage war. Citizens live normal lives while a small warrior class does our fighting for us. As a consequence, a sense of collective guilt is welling up within American society. To assuage our conscience, we glorify war, we exalt its virtues, and we purge our guilt through a cult of hero-worship. In a perverse twist, we embrace war, rather than question it. It is all too easy to confuse the virtues of individual character attributes that routinely surface in war — traits such as selflessness, bravery, and tenacity – as being virtues of war itself.
It is also worrisome that in this age of conformity, dissent has become a dirty word. War is a taboo subject in our society. It isn’t politically correct to question the decision to send our men and women to Afghanistan and Iraq, lest it be excoriated as “not supporting the troops.” There seems to be no serious dissent in America, which reminds me of John F. Kennedy’s words of warning (May, 1963 at Amherst College):
“The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”
Protests ended the Vietnam war because people did not want to be drafted to fight a war that they didn’t believe in. They didn’t want to die for nothing. Citizens understood better than the politicians that Vietnam posed no real threat to the United States, and to make matters worse, we couldn’t win the war anyway. That’s what a draft Army will do for you – war becomes personal. War is everyone’s business. Everyone has a stake in the decisions that politicians make.
We need to return to such an ethic, in which every citizen bears an equal burden of defending the nation, of building a just society, and safeguarding its future.
We should also seek guidance from those with the most direct experience in the horror and carnage of war.
Total war advocate and war hawk General William Tecumseh Sherman said in a letter dated May, 1865:
“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands, and fathers … it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”
The old war horse had clearly had enough years later, when he uttered his most enduring line at a graduation for cadets at a military academy:
“I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!“