Respectful Insolence

Memorial Day

Here in the U.S, it’s Memorial Day, the day that we set aside to pay tribute to our men and women in uniform who have put their lives on the line to defend our nation in its wars. On this day, I’d like to present a few links and thoughts:

  1. Here’s my post about Memorial Day from last year.
  2. Memorial Day 1942. Shorpy is my favorite picture blog. it regularly features amazing historical pictures from the first half of the 20th century.
  3. The last full measure: 1863.
  4. From the History News Network, here is a list of posts about the origin of Memorial Day.
  5. Tom DePastino argues that we ought to apologize to the veterans of the war in Iraq, invoking Lt. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott, Jr.’s speech, in which he apologized to the soldiers who stormed Anzio Beach for his mistakes.
  6. Believe it or not, the last death due to wounds suffered during World War II occurred only one month ago.
  7. “Dying in Vain”: Homeric “Argument of Minerva”: An Ethical Point of War
  8. I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose. We Were Both Doing Our Duty.
  9. A reminder that protests against bombing are not a new thing.
  10. Here’s an estimate of how many Americans have died in wars. (The war in Iraq is not included.) And don’t forget that there are still an estimated 88,000 missing unaccounted for from our previous wars.
  11. A grim reminder that nearly 1,000 American soldiers have died since Memorial Day 2006.

Of all these links, perhaps the story of Lt. General Truscott, combined with the grim story stating that nearly 1,000 American soldiers have died since Memorial Day last year. Compare Lt. General Truscott’s words to those of President Bush and our military leaders today:

The general had swallowed carbolic acid as a child, which gave his voice a gravelly baritone that, said Mauldin, “made other strong men quail.” Unlike Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., a publicity hound whose trips to the front were elaborately staged photo-ops, Truscott shared in the dangers of combat, often going over maps on the hood of his jeep with company commanders as enemy fire whizzed around him. “He could have eaten a ham like Patton for breakfast any morning,” said Mauldin, “and picked his teeth with the man’s pearl-handed pistols.”

Mauldin’s account of Gen. Truscott’s speech at Nettuno is the best record we have of that day. He recalled the general taking the stand and then turning his back on the audience in order to address the buried corpses arrayed behind him. “It was the most moving gesture I ever saw,” Mauldin said.

In his heavy rasp, Truscott told the dead men that he was sorry for what he had done. He said that leaders all tell themselves that deaths in war aren’t their fault, that such carnage is inevitable. Deep down, though, if they’re honest with themselves, he said, commanders and politicians know it’s not true. Truscott admitted he had made mistakes, perhaps many.

Then he asked the dead to forgive him. He was requesting the impossible, he knew, but he needed to ask anyway.

Finally, Truscott debunked the idea that there was glory in dying for one’s country. He saw nothing glorious about men in their teens and twenties getting killed, he said. He then promised the men buried at Nettuno that if he ever ran into anybody who spoke of the glorious war dead, he would “straighten them out.” “It is the least I can do,” he concluded.

Would that we had such leaders as Lucian Truscott this Memorial Day.

Amen.

But, alas, we do not. We appear to have no one who realizes that, regardless of whether the war is perceived as popular or unpopular, justified or not, worth fighting or not, it is not the leaders who suffer the consequences. It is the common soldier who fights, bleeds, and dies.

Comments

  1. #1 Justin Moretti
    May 28, 2007

    The book “Bloody Red Tabs” details all general officers of the British Army killed, wounded or incapacitated in combat in World War One, a conflict in which they are stereotypically painted as having been in least danger. The deaths of many of these men deprived the British Army of competent leaders it sorely needed in the times ahead (Somme etc.), and is one of the very good reasons why senior commanders were and are not encouraged to go close to the fighting. Further examples include Wolfe in Canada and Sir John Moore at Corunna, both outstanding leaders of men who might have done their nations and armies far more good, but who were cut down by random chance on the battlefield.

    Other examples of men who cared include General Sir Herbert Plumer (WW1, Britain), who went down on his knees and prayed for the lives of his soldiers at the appointed time of the attack, wondering if he’d done enough to ensure success; and Wellington, who wept after Waterloo.

    All too often it has been leaders who fought, bled and died; they are not immune. And it has not done their armies or their nations one whit of good. There are two sides to every coin.

  2. #2 Sid Schwab
    May 28, 2007

    Well said. I tried to say the same, recently, in a post on my blog. I should have saved it for today, in retrospect.

  3. #3 Orac
    May 28, 2007

    Justin,

    I never said there weren’t generals who cared or who showed considerable bravery under fire, and certainly many officers at the lower eschelons are directly exposed to combat and risk. Nor did I mean to imply that most generals don’t care when their men die. However, by and large it is not the generals who run the war or the politicians who start the war who pay the price for the war. It is the soldiers and their families. It doesn’t matter if the war is perceived as just (World War II) or a mistake (the war in Iraq).

  4. #4 daedalus2u
    May 28, 2007

    This is nothing new, Sun Tzu on the Art of War said it a couple of thousand years ago.

    25. Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.

  5. #5 Marcia
    May 28, 2007

    Nice post. Thank you for the Truscott post.

    Here’s one more to add to the collection:

    http://abcnews.go.com/Video/playerIndex?id=3218617
    Click “Go Big” under the video to see more clearly.

  6. #6 epador
    May 29, 2007

    You know, there were plenty of folks who thought us entering WWII was a huge mistake. And more than a few that don’t see the idea of toppling Saddam Hussein as a mistake now. I’ve known over a dozen men who died in uniform during the time I served, and many veterans, who would take your assumptions about the current struggle (hard to believe a scientist skeptic so vulnerable to political woo) as offensive as I do. And to use Veteran’s Day as an excuse to rant one-sided political verbiage is in poor taste. I’ve dropped you off my favorites list.

  7. #7 Orac
    May 29, 2007

    My Memorial Day link roundup and brief commentary hardly constituted a rant. If you want a rant, read the Neville Chamberlain post. That’s a rant.

    As for WWII, once we were attacked, isolationism pretty much disappeared; not very many people after December 7, 1941 were still against entering the war. As for the current war, the number of people who do not regard it as a huge mistake is dwindling by the month. My point was, however, that, regardless of whether a war is popular, just, unjust, or a huge mistake, it is the common soldier and the families who bear most of the brunt of our leaders’ decision to go to war and their decisions in conducting the war. Truscott, a general during a war with wide popular support, put those thoughts well, and indeed that level of care does seem to be lacking from our leadership today. Soldiers were maimed and killed by the thousands in WWII just as they are in smaller numbers today; regardless of the specific war, their lives are just as shattered, and their sacrifice is just as profound, and will continue to be in any future wars, regardless of what they are fought over.

    Memorial Day is the perfect time to point that out.

    I never like to see a regular leave, but, really, if all it takes is one post that offends you enough to drive you away out of the hundreds that I’ve done, this blog must not have been high up there among your favorites. PZ, for instance, has posted many things that offend me, occasionally even profoundly, but I’m still a regular at Pharyngula, although I don’t comment nearly as often as I used to.

  8. #8 Peter Barber
    May 29, 2007

    Crikey, epador. I’m glad you’re no longer in the armed forces. If you were simultaneously that touchy and in charge of powerful weapons, then I really wouldn’t want to be a civilian who said the wrong thing to you on your patrol.

    I fail to see what is so insulting about what Orac said. Soldiers die in wars: lots of them. Sometimes they die unnecessarily, for any of a multitude of reasons, from friendly fire to bad strategic decisions; the vast majority of those deaths are in the rank-and-file. A leader who fails to learn from historical mistakes is unlikely to appreciate how many lives (military or civilian) are at risk from his decisions, and will not adequately weight up the human cost against any benefit of action. The vast majority of the global population sees (and saw) the US decision to enter Iraq as a sterling example of such a failure. That is hardly controversial.

    And if not on such a day, when do you propose this sort of discussion? Is it somehow more respectful of war veterans that everyone keeps quiet and pretends that mistakes never happen, so that their children and grandchildren can carry on making them?

  9. #9 TheProbe
    May 29, 2007

    epador, just to let you know…Veterans’ Day is in November, Memorial Day is in May.

    While you may have known several men who died, I bled with them as an 11B grunt in Vietnam. Groundpounders bear the brunt of war.

    Peter Barber: “A leader who fails to learn from historical mistakes is unlikely to appreciate how many lives (military or civilian) are at risk from his decisions, and will not adequately weight up the human cost against any benefit of action.”

    I consider one of the main lessons of the Vietnam War is to let the military wage the war without the tethers of politics. George HW Bush learned that, and failed to pass it on to his son.

  10. #10 TheProbe
    May 29, 2007

    epador, just to let you know…Veterans’ Day is in November, Memorial Day is in May.

    While you may have known several men who died, I bled with them as an 11B grunt in Vietnam. Groundpounders bear the brunt of war.

    Peter Barber: “A leader who fails to learn from historical mistakes is unlikely to appreciate how many lives (military or civilian) are at risk from his decisions, and will not adequately weight up the human cost against any benefit of action.”

    I consider one of the main lessons of the Vietnam War is to let the military wage the war without the tethers of politics. George HW Bush learned that, and failed to pass it on to his son.

  11. #11 Sid Schwab
    May 30, 2007

    Even if “the idea of toppling Saddam Hussein” wasn’t a mistake, the outcome certainly is. I fail to see how anyone — especially a faithful reader of and generally enlightend commenter on this blog — could argue that the war in Iraq has accomplished making the world or the US safer. By all measures, the opposite is true. Having had “the idea,” if GWB had thought it through (a tall order, it would seem), he would have seen the idea was at best impractical and at worst would lead to the chaos that was predicted and that has come to pass. What better time than a day to honor those who gave their lives to contemplate the horror of war and the absolute necessity that when undertaken, it ought to be inarguably the only alternative, and a matter of life or death. I too served in a war — also one predicated on a false premise. The difference is that the mistake was ultimatley recognized and the withdrawal had no horrific consequences. In this war, the mistake is far worse: there seems literally no way out.

  12. #12 Felix Kasza
    May 31, 2007

    Dear Dr. Schwab,

    may I correct the odd misperception?

    > I fail to see how anyone […] could argue
    > that the war in Iraq has accomplished making
    > the world or the US safer.

    I would rather have the rabid freaks die in Iraq than in the cockpit of a plane ramming a high-rise. The “I’ll stay out of this, it is not my concern” attitude was what gave us 9/11 as its legacy — WTC 1993 was, apparently, not enough of a warning.

    > The difference [between, I infer, Vietnam
    > and Iraq — felixk] is that the mistake was
    > ultimatley recognized and the withdrawal had
    > no horrific consequences.

    … except for the millions of victims of the Killing Fields. Except for the millions of Vietnamese carted off to learn proper behaviour in Communist re-education camps. Except for the masses of Vietnamese who were so happy with those non-horrific consequences that they celebrated by taking their boats out to pleasure jaunts on the open ocean.

    How come someone as sensitive and perceptive as you can produce so callous a comment, devoid of any semblance of humanity?

    In puzzlement,
    Felix Kasza.

  13. #13 Sid Schwab
    May 31, 2007

    Felix: we have since emailed each other, but for the record, my response, in essense, was this:

    I appreciate your comments. I think the “fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here” concept is more callous than anything I said: it’s as if to say “as long as we send our children over there for them to kill, they’ll be satisfied and won’t come over here.” It’s hooey at best, and sick at worst — if it were true. (I don’t mean you — I mean our leaders who feed us that one.) Surely you don’t think those that want to kill us are distracted by Iraq? Like a postman throwing meat at a charging dog to keep him from biting? By all reports, the war has created more people who want to kill us, and — according to reports quite recent — they’re being trained there and fanning out across the world. Moreover, it’s clearly depleted our military and treasure, the funds being spent needlessly instead of to secure ports, beef up the FBI, CIA, etc. To have stayed out of Iraq would not in any way to have stayed out of the fight against terrorists. Quite, in fact, the opposite.

    As to Vietnam: I could have said it better: the rationale was the “Domino Theory.” It didn’t happen. Nor can anyone say that the killing fields wouldn’t have happened later. The re-education camps: yes, it happened. As it has all over the world on many occasions, in many places. Either you think we should intervene everywhere at all times, or your argument fails. My point, basically, was that only a few decades later, Vietnam is a trading partner… We waited a hell of a long time to join WWII; we still have done nothing in Darfur; we voted for Saddam before we voted against him; Stalin was once our buddy. There are no straight moral lines. On either side of either ocean.

    I don’t doubt the fight against radical Islam is enoromously important. I happen to think that by all measures the invasion of Iraq has made things much, much worse.

    Nor is it devoid of humanity to look at what we’ve done to Iraq, to contemplate its consequences, and weep.

  14. #14 Steven Ashley
    June 2, 2007

    Sid,

    You overlook that Saddam was paying the families of the suicide bombers in Israel, in some sort of sick death benefit to the terrorists, so if he wasn’t an active terrorist he was for sure a supporter of their goals.

    And yes, Iraq is a distraction to terrorists, the majority of the bombers in Iraq are outside terrorists by all informed accounts.

    And you appear to have forgotten that we knew about the killing fields in time to stop it but were hamstrung by legislation passed in congress aimed at keeping us out of southeast Asia.

    This time we well know what would happen to the Kurds if we pull out before there is a stable central government, the same thing Saddam has been proven to have done to them in the past.

    Maybe you can answer why fighting for the lives and freedom of Europeans is worth while goal, while fighting for the lives and freedom of the darker skinned peoples of the world isn’t.

    We paid a much higher price in Europe than in Iraq for their freedom, and didn’t give it a second thought. Maybe America isn’t the light of the world anymore.

  15. #15 Sid Schwab
    June 3, 2007

    Steven: when we went to war in Europe, it was pretty obvious that civilization was at stake. When we pre-emptively invaded Iraq, nothing much was at stake. Saddam had been completely de-fanged. Inspectors had been in place. No fly zones. Whatever he had been, he was no longer. Who knows what Bush was actually thinking (if the word can be used in the same sentence) when he decided to invade Iraq and to do it on the cheap. Is his paying 25K to a few suicide bombers justification for our having spent the lives of 3500, the bodies of thousands more, and a couple of trillion dollars? And no, I’d say that in his conduct for the past six years, Bush has indeed shown the world that the US is no longer the light of the world.

    Using the “dark skinned” trope is so bogus as to be unworthy of response. But I will anyway: we should be doing something in Darfur. We should be doing more about worldwide AIDS. We should have stayed in Afganistan. We should be leading the world in morality, including rejecting torture. We should be leading the world in climate change reaction. We should not be the laughing stock of the world in having leaders and a population that disbelieves evolution, or in having a leader that claims God told him to invade Iraq. We should not have undertaken a war that has created more terrorists than it has killed “by all informed accounts.” The resources we have wasted in Iraq (eventually calculated to be 2 trillion dollars and who knows how many lives ended or ruined?) could have been much better spent on the real war on terrorism: making our facilities safe, beefing up intelligence, showing the world we are worthy of respect rather than the derision of the last six years.

  16. #16 Sid Schwab
    June 3, 2007

    Steven: when we went to war in Europe, it was pretty obvious that civilization was at stake. When we pre-emptively invaded Iraq, nothing much was at stake. Saddam had been completely de-fanged. Inspectors had been in place. No fly zones. Whatever he had been, he was no longer. Who knows what Bush was actually thinking (if the word can be used in the same sentence) when he decided to invade Iraq and to do it on the cheap. Is his paying 25K to a few suicide bombers justification for our having spent the lives of 3500, the bodies of thousands more, and a couple of trillion dollars? And no, I’d say that in his conduct for the past six years, Bush has indeed shown the world that the US is no longer the light of the world.

    Using the “dark skinned” trope is so bogus as to be unworthy of response. But I will anyway: we should be doing something in Darfur. We should be doing more about worldwide AIDS. We should have stayed in Afganistan. We should be leading the world in morality, including rejecting torture. We should be leading the world in climate change reaction. We should not be the laughing stock of the world in having leaders and a population that disbelieves evolution, or in having a leader that claims God told him to invade Iraq. We should not have undertaken a war that has created more terrorists than it has killed “by all informed accounts.” The resources we have wasted in Iraq (eventually calculated to be 2 trillion dollars and who knows how many lives ended or ruined?) could have been much better spent on the real war on terrorism: making our facilities safe, beefing up intelligence, showing the world we are worthy of respect rather than the derision of the last six years.

  17. #17 windy
    June 3, 2007

    And you appear to have forgotten that we knew about the killing fields in time to stop it but were hamstrung by legislation passed in congress aimed at keeping us out of southeast Asia.

    Nice to hear that the US might have briefly entertained some altruistic notions towards Cambodian peasants after first bombing the shit out of them, and later supporting the exiled Khmer Rouge.

  18. #18 galatasaray resimleri
    December 27, 2007

    Nice post. Thank you for the Truscott post.

    Here’s one more to add to the collection:

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