At NRO’s The Corner, Michael Ledeen shared a beautiful letter from a soldier in Afghanistan, which clearly explains how the soldiers view themselves; hype-free, somewhat introspective, and beautifully articulated. What Mr. Ledeen missed, however, was that this letter, originally published in the Benninton (VT) Banner, was in response to an opinion piece published earlier by one Charles Putney.
I think it’s important to get the context of what Maj. Albrycht was responding to, so I have included the original column and the Major’s response below. After reading both, I leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Their ultimate sacrifice
In the Gettysburg Address, one of the greatest speeches in our nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln tried to make sense of the horrendous loss of life at Gettysburg and the entire war. He said, in part, “It is … for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain… ”
Lincoln enshrined in his speech what we would all like to believe: that those who die in war will have done it for a noble reason. This is particularly important in a “citizen army” made up of volunteers, reservists and National Guard members. Ironically, as Lincoln pointed out in his Second Inaugural Address, Northern and Southern combatants and their families all prayed to the same God for the same victory.
It is a common refrain, in unpopular and losing efforts, that withdrawing without winning negates the value of the sacrifice made by soldiers. It leads us to persist in wrong-headed war policies because not to persist means we are diminishing the sacrifice of those who have died.
In the 60 years since the end of World War II, the U.S. has had to face the fact that not all of our wars have been successful. Korea was a draw. Vietnam was a loss. Time will tell about the outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In these wars, there has been a big risk that those who have died — more than 56,000 in Vietnam, for example, lost their lives with no discernible benefit to the U.S. The Civil War, which led to the deaths of more Americans than all of our other wars combined, had a major impact on the way we think about war and death. The number of soldiers who died in the American Revolution was relatively small, and subsequent wars were small and localized. The Civil War led to massive numbers of young Americans — from both the North and the South — dying in horrific battles. The three-day battle at Gettysburg resulted in about 50,000 casualties on both sides.
In “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,” published last year, Drew Gilpin Faust details the difficulty Americans faced when their young men died away from home, often remaining unidentified amidst the carnage. The U.S. Army was incapable of keeping up with the identification of wounded and dead or their graves, and it was not until after the war that many cemeteries were established for Union dead.
In the South, community-based organizations, largely run by women, took the lead in establishing cemeteries for Confederate war dead. The U.S. Congress was not about to worry about the dead from the rebellious states.
Given the carnage, Lincoln faced the task of how to calm Union sentiments to pull out of the war and let the Southern states go their own way. His argument was, in part, that to do so was to negate the deaths of Union soldiers who had died in the effort to keep the U.S. whole to promote liberty. Its logic was appealing and convincing — one of the reasons the Gettysburg Address is probably one of the best known of U.S. speeches. In a few words he brought home the point that death in war is about the final ends, not about the deaths, and that these deaths are ennobled when the ultimate objective has high moral purpose.
So, what do we tell family members of military personnel who have died in our modern and very ambiguous wars? Or those who are permanently disabled as a result of active service in Iraq? Do we say it was all worth it? America is safer for your sacrifice, or do we say “sorry, but we goofed”?
Charles R. Putney is a consultant to not-for-profit organizations nationally. He lives in Bennington.
Maj. Sarah Albrycht’s response:
Service itself is our honor
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. “
— Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
A few nights ago, I walked a quiet mile with hundreds of other service members. It was a clear night in Bagram, Afghanistan. Although it was late, the birds were singing, perhaps roused by the unusual occurrence of people walking under their trees at the late hour. Soft voices broke the solemnity, but no words were discernible. Suddenly, as if on cue, soldiers, airmen, seamen, marines, broke off the sidewalk and lined the road, spacing themselves regularly and assuming a position of silent watchfulness. The honor cordon had formed.
Heads began to turn right as flashing blue lights appeared far down the road. As the vehicles neared, one by one, service members assumed the position of attention and rendered the hand salute. In the back of an open truck sat eight military members, and between them, at their feet, was a flag draped casket.
As I rendered my salute, I thought about the fallen soldier. I did not know his name, his unit or his home. I never saw his face or spoke to his family. I did not know why he volunteered for the Army or what he was doing when he was killed. But there was much I did know. I knew he had fought and died in an honorable cause, a cause that had little to do with our policy on Afghanistan. This soldier had volunteered to put his very life on the line in service to his nation and his brothers-in-arms. I see no more honorable cause that that.
In a column, Mr. Putney has again raised the debate about the sacrifice of America’s “sons and daughters” in uniform. Some have argued that we must continue the fight to honor their memory “so that they have not died in vain.” Others argue we must stop the wars to save soldiers from this fate. I think an essential understanding of what motivates those of us in uniform is missing in this debate.
We are not your sons and daughters, whom you must protect and defend. We are your sword and your shield. We are men and women who volunteer to place our lives on the line so you do not have to. We do not decide when or where we will be sent. We go. You are our advocates, not our parents.
We trust you to care for our families, to hold our jobs, pay for our equipment, salary and medical care and yes, to honor our sacrifice. We trust you to vote for good political leadership, to speak out against bad policy decisions and to demand public accountability. However, we do not count on you to explain the honorable character of our service. We are ennobled by the very fact we serve.
Our “high moral cause” is one of service to a nation whose principles we believe in. We miss the point of political debate when we distill it down to numbers of service member deaths. Debate should be about the policy that leads us in or pulls us out of war. I, as a soldier, am personally insulted when debate about war becomes not about policy, but about deaths, because it implies that my service is at best uninformed or ill-conceived, and at worst valueless.
I know my life is in the hands of others because I choose for it to be that way. I am not your daughter, a child who must be guided. I have made my choice and pledge my honor to it. I will thank you to remember that because we serve our nation, none of us dies in vain, regardless of the cause; end of debate.
Every day a new Marine enlists or an airman puts on her uniform is a reminder that our defenders come from people who still believe in our nation and the values it aspires to, as flawed as we sometimes are. War does not make our sacrifice honorable, death does not make our service honorable; service itself is our honor.
We, your American service members, do not see the cause for which we may give our last full measure of devotion, as our nation’s goals in Iraq or Afghanistan, and perhaps that is the difference. Our cause is our nation, in all her beautiful, imperfect glory.
So on a dark night in Afghanistan we stood under a velvet sky of a million stars to honor one man who lay under 50. We never doubted what he died for. Pfc. Patrick A. Devoe II died for you, the United States of America. That, Mr. Putney, is no goof.
Sarah Albrycht is a Bennington native serving in the Army in Afghanistan.
Maj. Albrycht, thank you for your service and God bless you. Mr. Putney… er, get lost.