The Human Element of War

If you like your politics unencumbered by doubt, you shouldn’t read Lone Survivor just as the ISIS is retaking parts of Iraq for which Americans once died.  You might have a hard time getting your moral and intellectual bearings at the contrast between the kind of selfless heroism shown by Marcus Luttrell and the Seals who fought and died in Afghanistan, with the seeming futility of the American campaign in Iraq.

Among the troublesome thoughts: Why did we invade Iraq?  Was it worth the loss of so many lives on both sides in a region of the world where the historical, religious, and cultural traditions are so relentlessly hostile to western values?  What will become of Afghanistan when the last of the U.S. troops leave?  Is the U.S. position in that part of the world stronger or weaker this many years later?

Make no mistake, not everyone will be so conflicted.  Certainly not the armchair warriors in some think tanks and media outlets.  For them, as for so many, the human sacrifices are bloodless things, little more than data or wooden pieces on a chessboard.

It’s only when you read the true stories of their lives and deaths, as with Luttrell’s harrowing account of a Seal mission deep inside Afghanistan in Lone Survivor, or when, as with the publication by the AP in 2009 of a photo of a dying Marine, Joshua Bernard, that the human element of such campaigns comes to light.

Much as we can marvel at the heroism of the Marcus Luttrells, we can see, even in Luttrell’s own account of things, hints of futility and contradiction.  The white-hot hatred of the U.S. military, for instance, among so many of the native mountain villagers, including those not allied with Al Qaeda or the Taliban, and the remarkable courage of a Pashtun tribe who, at extraordinary risk to their own lives, sheltered and protected the wounded Luttrell even after the Taliban knew he was among them.  (Indeed, even after U.S. warplanes, searching for Luttrell, bombed areas of the countryside so close to the Pashtun tribe protecting him it damaged some of their houses!)

According to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count (, between 2003 and 2012 Operation Iraqi Freedom cost the lives of more than 4,400 American military personnel, and an additional 400 lives of allies, British for the most part.  In the same report it’s recorded that the first American fatality, in March 2003, was Lieutenant Therrel Shane Childers.  Childers was 30 years old when he was killed in action in southern Iraq.

Apart from a brief mention by NPR, and some obituaries in his and his parents’ local papers, not much was reported about Childers’s life or death.  Little or nothing in the big-city newspapers or the broadcast networks.  And more’s the pity, because it’s this, the human element in war, which has to be chronicled!  It simply isn’t good enough for the media to reduce wartime casualties to the language of partisan politics or geopolitical constructs.

In a recent blog in the Washington Post, Ed Rogers counsels Republicans to follow Sen. Rand Paul’s, rather than Dick Cheney’s, take on what the United States should do next in Iraq.  Whatever we do, or don’t do, it would be a good idea for the MSM not to overlook the human element in this.  Just as war ought not to be sugar coated, neither should it be reported as though it were a video game without real consequences.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

The AP and Joshua Bernard

The decision made by the Associated Press to publish a photograph of a mortally wounded Marine in Afghanistan has been condemned by many, including the slain soldier’s family and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The photo itself is both horrifying and heart wrenching, as it shows Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard clinging to life as he lay in the mud, one leg completely severed and the other badly mangled, the result of a rocket-propelled grenade fired during a Taliban ambush.

Though the photo was taken on Aug. 14, the AP didn’t release it until Sept. 4, after the slain soldier’s burial, and after having shown several photos from the scene to Bernard’s family.

The view from here is that the AP did the right thing.  What, after all, do we imagine?  That when a U.S. soldier dies on foreign soil his passing is like that of a stateside family member, sedated against pain and surrounded by loved ones?

Lance Corporal Bernard paid a terrible price — the ultimate price — in service to his country, and for us not to be able to look his death in the face is not only cowardly and intellectually dishonest, it robs Bernard’s sacrifice of any meaning, as though he just wandered off peacefully somewhere, a quiescent statistic.

To express such an opinion is not to utter a single word either for or against the war in Afghanistan.  That is another issue.  Rather, the point here is that, when it comes to matters of life and death in direct consequence of government policy, we owe it to those in harm’s way, and to ourselves, not to sugar coat or sanitize the brutal results.

In recent months the AP has made some serious mistakes in judgment, most recently in the decision to distribute so-called “investigative news stories” paid for by nonprofit organizations with a political agenda.  But the decision to publish the photo of Joshua Bernard was not a mistake.  It was, instead, exactly right.