Politics & Policy

To Live with Honor

Mike Spann and the meaning of Memorial Day.

‘My son died with honor.”

These words struck this writer like a bolt from the blue. Captured by a television news crew, they were spoken with quiet dignity by Johnny Spann to reporters at the front gate of his home in Winfield, Alabama, upon learning of the death of his son, Johnny Mike Spann, the first American to die on a foreign field of battle in the War on Islamic Terror. Mike, as he was known to his friends and family, was killed on November 25, 2001, during a combined al-Qaeda–Taliban uprising at a temporary prison in Qala-i Jangi, not far from the town of Mazar-e Sharif in Northern Afghanistan. He was 32 years old. He is survived by his wife, Shannon, and three young children.

The words of Johnny Spann were so striking because they immediately recalled an earlier heroic age, one that apparently had been subsumed by the zeitgeist of our own cynical, self-absorbed, postmodern era. But the American spirit had never been extinguished. It reemerged instantaneously on September 11, embodied by the raw courage of the firemen, police, and emergency workers in New York City, the men and women on Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the rescuers at the Pentagon in northern Virginia, and the thousands of Americans in all three locations who looked death in the eye. On display for the world to witness was the valor woven into the very core of a free people. It was this moral code that inspired Mike Spann to do his duty on a remote desert plain thousands of miles from home.


In Mike Spann’s gallantry resides a lesson for us to consider as we commemorate Memorial Day. While he died with honor, what is now incumbent upon us is to live with honor. By so doing, we will venerate his sacrifice, as well as the memory of countless men and women extending back to the Revolutionary War who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. How to live with honor is a path we must blaze each in our own personal way. Fortunately, wellsprings exist that we may draw upon for guidance. One of them is the example set by Mike Spann himself. As his wife, Shannon, poignantly recalled at his funeral in Arlington Cemetery, “Mike is a hero not because of the way he died, but because of the way he lived. Mike was prepared to give his life in Afghanistan because he already gave his life to us everyday at home.” In the soul of this one warrior we can discern the meaning of Memorial Day.

Spann grew up in Winfield, Alabama. He graduated from Auburn University in 1992 and immediately entered the Marine Corps, rising to the rank of captain. He then joined the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division, and departed for Southwest Asia in the days following September 11. Soon after arriving in Mazar-e Sharif, he and a colleague were sent to Qala-i Jangi to interrogate newly captured prisoners on the morning of November 25. What transpired on that fateful day is recounted in the gripping new book, Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, by Gary Berntsen, a former member of the CIA whose team spearheaded the initial wave of American forces into Afghanistan. According to Berntsen, what Mike Spann and his partner, “Dawson,” a member of the Jawbreaker unit, found at Qala-i Jangi “looked like something out of the Middle Ages: a massive fortress made of mud surrounded by two sets of thick walls topped with ramparts and turrets.” Hastily turned into a prison under the control of the Northern Alliance, “it was crammed with five hundred Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners who’d been trucked in the night before following the fall of Kunduz.” Alas, some of them, as it would turn out, carried “concealed weapons and grenades.”

Spann and his associate entered into this perilous labyrinth. Berntsen explains why they could not wait. “Mike and Dawson knew that the mission they’d been sent to undertake was dangerous, but absolutely had to be done. They were in Qala-i Jangi to identify foreign fighters with the knowledge of future al-Qaeda attacks against the West. If one of the 500 prisoners revealed a future hijacking or dirty-bomb attack, hundreds, or even thousands, of innocent lives could be saved.” With the fate of so many Americans at stake, they did not hesitate. “So they dove in, going from prisoner to prisoner. CNN reporter Robert Young Pelton recorded Dawson asking in Farsi, ‘Why are you here? Why have you joined the Taliban?’ ‘To kill you!’ came the answer from the Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis, Uzbeks and even a few Europeans.” This reply was aimed not just at the two men, but at all Americans. Nauseatingly, one was already in Qala-i Jangi. “As they moved through the prisoners, Mike Spann noticed a pale young man with long hair who was trying to look invisible.” It was John Walker Lindh, the notorious “American Taliban,” a convicted criminal now languishing in federal prison who betrayed his country and who stands in utter contrast — in terms of character, patriotism, and human decency — to Mike Spann.

Berntsen’s book goes on to recount the sudden outbreak of the prison riot that morning, at 11:15 A.M. It reveals how Mike Spann truly died with honor, how he went down fighting, first with his weapons and then hand-to-hand, taking several of the enemy with him as he drew his last breath. It also details the tireless efforts of his compatriots to retrieve his body for the long journey home to Arlington Cemetery, where he now rests in peace.

Two weeks later, on December 11, 2001, the House of Representatives unanimously approved a resolution honoring Mike Spann. Speaking from the floor, Congressman Robert Aderholt, whose district includes Winfield, Alabama, captured the essence of his spirit: “we can be certain that Mike Spann died doing what he loved, serving and fighting for his country. Since September 11, we have witnessed an outpouring of patriotism across this nation. Mike was someone who overflowed with patriotism even during a time when it was not popular. His father recently quoted Mike as saying, ‘Someone has to do the right thing that no one else wants to do.’”

Porter Goss, representing the 14th District in Florida (and later appointed director of the CIA), explained just what “the right thing” was that Spann did in Afghanistan: “Half a world away, in a dusty, inhospitable and alien environment, Mike confronted our nation’s fiercest enemy eye-to-eye. He did this not because it was his job, but because he was compelled to ensure that all people, regardless of their nationality or religion, could live without the fear of being victims of terrorism. Mike died fighting, trying to obtain information on terrorist plans and intentions so we could save others. Face-to-face against those bent on killing innocent men, women, and children, Mike stood strong, he stood tireless and fearless. That is the description of an American hero, and Mike was one.”


In death, Mike Spann’s legacy lives on. At his funeral, the former director of the CIA, George Tenet, remarked that “while fighting for the future of the American people, he fought to bring a better future to the Afghan people. And it was there, one evening, that he said he would gladly risk his life if he could help make the world a safer place for his wife and children.” By his bravery he has made the world more secure, for his family and his nation, an achievement he shares with battalions of American fighting men and women. As he wrote on his CIA application, “I believe in the meaning of honor and integrity. I am an action person who feels personally responsible for making any changes in this world that are in my power . . . because if I don’t, no one else will.”

Mike Spann shaped those changes, in our country and in our world. He died with honor so that we might live with honor. To this Marine, and to his fallen brothers and sisters, we vow on this Memorial Day and on every day, “Semper Fidelis.”

Joseph Morrison Skelly, a college history professor in New York City, is an officer in the United States Army Reserve.


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