Now and then a situation comes along that defies partisan bromides and seems impossible to resolve through policy changes. That heroism may arise from such a situation is not unusual. Nor is it unusual for the authorities, in commemorating the heroism, to focus on the clear-cut record of courage rather than the ambiguous aspects of policy.
And it is right to honor the hero. But it's also essential for the people under whose charter the hero fights to understand the circumstances that provoked him to courage. Such is the story of Marine Corporal (now Sergeant) Dakota Meyer, who was awarded the Medal of Honor on September 15 for acts of surpassing bravery in Ganjigal, Afghanistan in 2009. The story merits telling; a people who direct the course of their nation and their armed forces need to hear it.
Bing West, a Marine infantryman in Vietnam and now an author, recounted Dakota Meyer's story in the Wall Street Journal the day of the medal ceremony at the White House. West's account is an indispensable companion to the official citation for the Medal of Honor award; it relates important features of the event that the citation fails to mention. One is that the U.S. Marines and Afghan soldiers who came under fire in the battle were drawn into the remote Afghan village by a ruse: the village elders requested assistance in repairing a mosque. The joint U.S.-Afghan detachment sent to confer with them was ambushed on arrival.
West introduces the other significant feature of the engagement with these words:
[A] handful of soldiers and Marines . . . one day in September 2009 were abandoned by their chain of command and relied on their own initiative to dislodge a fierce enemy.
The "abandonment" of which he speaks was the chain of command's repeated rejection of requests from the Marine officers on the scene for artillery and air support. West explains why the requests were rebuffed:
[R]adio calls for artillery fire . . . were refused by officers at higher headquarters due to concern for endangering villagers.
This most understandable of concerns is not to be dismissed. But it is not always requited by an observance of neutrality among the local civilians. West reports an additional detail:
Cpl. Meyer watched women and children darting among the houses, carrying ammunition to the jihadists.
It's easy to have an opinion on these factors when they're abstractions related to the success of our military strategy. As exigencies that provoke the extraordinary heroism in our troops, however, they are more challenging for our settled ideas. To be certain, a Marine like Dakota Meyer would display exceptional courage whenever it was called for. But what responsibility do we have, as a self-ruling people, to refrain from stacking the deck against him? Where is the line at which policy tips over the unavoidable realities of combat into the avoidable consequences of deck-stacking?
I don't believe in a single, unambiguous answer to those questions. Certainly we never found a satisfactory resolution in Vietnam. We had better success in Iraq, at least for a time. Paradoxically, operations in both Afghanistan and the Balkans of the 1990s have demonstrated that focusing principally on protecting civilians, at the expense of effectiveness in combat, produces a paralysis and self-constraint that prolongs the efforts of the enemy and ultimately put the civilians at greater risk over the long term.
But the tie-breaker, in the end, is not really our feelings about endangering civilians; it is the nature of our overarching objective. When the objective is sufficiently clear-cut and compelling, we can generally bring ourselves to endanger civilians for a time, in order to secure—in the expression of historian B.H. Liddell-Hart—"a better peace." It is when our objective is less clear—less decisively transformative—that we find it difficult to justify enforcing a rule of favorable combat conditions for our own troops.
Partisan schemes of political blame are not useful or illuminating in cases like this. Nor is it obvious that God's precepts would prescribe one course versus the other. Effective combat is deadly—but so is ineffective combat. It prolongs indecision and bloodshed; it does not ameliorate or domesticate them. War has an inexorable logic that cannot be contravened. There is, moreover, a limit to how much heroism can be demanded of even the best-motivated troops, if their efforts do not at some point produce a decisive result.