When the war in Iraq started to deteriorate in 2005, critics of the U.S.-led invasion began to suggest that, by involving the military in an unwinnable war, President Bush had ensured that our fallen soldiers would die in vain.
Now, as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an offshoot of Al Qaeda, has taken over parts of Iraq and may soon lay siege to Baghdad, and with President Obama pledging not to send U.S. troops back to Iraq, the dying in vain crowd is back.
It has been revived by those who blame Obama’s weak foreign policy for eroding the hard-fought gains our soldiers won in Iraq. But the “our soldiers died in vain” narrative requires a simplistic understanding of the meaning of military sacrifice.
A recent Salon op-ed illustrates this mistaken mindset.
“What under the sun are the families of the 4,000 fallen Americans saying to themselves as everything their sons, daughters, siblings and spouses gave their lives for, or thought they risked their lives for, comes to absolutely nothing? The grandest illusions cannot hold in the face of the headlines now.”
Absolutely nothing? Our military’s engagement overseas has helped keep America safe for nearly thirteen years. That’s a remarkable feat — one that was nearly unthinkable in the months and years following 9/11, when most experts feared another large-scale attack was imminent.
Our brave men and women in uniform have brought us nearly thirteen years in which to start families and raise children, worship God, live in freedom, and otherwise go about our lives, without experiencing another horrible attack on our homeland. It’s no wonder that when Fox News commissioned a poll in 2013 asking citizens whether they would be willing to give up some personal freedom in order to reduce the threat of terrorism, more said no than yes.
Opinion polls suggest that most Americans believe the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been worth the cost. I certainly understand that sentiment. But that’s not the same thing as saying that those who gave their lives did so in vain.
That’s because those who serve in our military serve a higher purpose than whatever is at stake in the immediate battle. It is a principle that does not depend on public opinion polls, on partisan politics, or even on whether we ultimately triumph or fail in any given war.
As former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen once put it, “Regardless of the terms of the treaty, the surrender, the withdrawal, the defeat or the victory, no American who sheds blood to preserve that which his ancestors fought to establish can ever be said to have made that sacrifice without meaning.” He continued:
“We should remember that what qualifies a life well-lived and honorably lost is not merely victory on the battlefield but the nobility of the struggle itself – the courage to take up arms in pursuit of something large.”
This is not mere sentiment. It is the very essence of what it means to be a soldier. The question we should be asking ourselves — especially those of us who haven’t served — is not whether our soldiers died or toiled in vain but, rather, whether we are worthy of their sacrifice.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether the cost in blood and treasure was worth it. The war has produced much suffering, for Americans as well as Iraqis. And watching the ongoing unraveling of Iraq is disappointing to all those who care about peace, freedom, and democracy. But to say that those who toiled fighting tyranny and protecting the country did so for nothing is wrong.
It does an injustice not only to the brave men and women who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also to those who have been injured, physically or mentally, by answering the call of duty.
For all those who, as Lincoln put it, “gave the last full measure of devotion,” death or injury in battle for a righteous cause is never in vain.
Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.