The Corner

Who Will Fight for Us?

As we celebrate our national birthday, it is fitting to remember that we gained our freedom by force of arms. In 1775, our founding fathers fought with muskets. Back then, every soldier was a grunt. Today, the infantry is just one of many branches. But the rifleman still performs the hardest task — closing face-to-face with the enemy. For that reason, the grunt remains the symbol of our military and of the American spirit.

To maintain that spirit, our grunts must possess three qualities. The first is grit. In 2010, for example, Sergeant Matt Abbate was on patrol in southern Afghanistan. When three Marines were blown up in sudden succession, Matt strapped tourniquets on the wounded and led the squad out of the minefield. When Taliban machine guns prevented the medevac helicopter from landing, he charged back across the minefield.

“If we’re going to die,” he yelled to his squad, “we die together!”

When other Marines leaped up and followed him, the startled enemy stopped shooting and dodged away. Matt was killed a few months later, but his spirit continued to inspire his platoon.

Every day, they left the wire, engaged in gunfights, and tried to find the buried IEDs. The 52 Marines in the platoon sustained three fatalities, eight amputations, and 17 shrapnel or bullet wounds. They spoke no Pashto and knew no one in the community. They had no trouble distinguishing between their mission — killing every enemy who shot at them — and the unpredictable end state after they left. In a confidential field survey, the platoon overwhelmingly expressed pride in their sacrifice and in serving their country. In response to the question “Would you do it over again,” the vast majority wrote “Yes.”

You volunteer to be a grunt. Nobody forces you to sign up, and nobody promises you a rose garden. Whether you believe in a political cause or party is irrelevant. The president as the commander-in-chief tells you where to fight. Your job is to win every battle.

The second quality is leadership under stress. In 2009, Army Captain Will Swenson was serving as an adviser to the Afghan police. His unit was ambushed in a mountain village called Ganjigal. Also trapped were dozens of Afghan soldiers and their U.S. Marine advisers. When four Marines were unable to pull back, Will attacked time after time to find them. Denied artillery support, he fought on, refusing to leave behind his comrades.  

Swenson was an Army Ranger who had previously commanded both a platoon and a company. In the chaos of the ambush, he took command of Marines he had never met. He emerged as the leader because he was cool and competent.

The third warrior quality is unit cohesion. You fight as a pack, not as individuals. When the Ganjigal ambush happened, “Hafez” was a retired Afghan sergeant major serving as an interpreter with the Marine advisers. Although wounded, Hafez manned a machine gun and stayed in the battle alongside Swenson and three Marine advisers. After fighting for four hours, they recovered the bodies of the missing advisers. Hafez fought because he considered himself part of the adviser team, not a temporary employee.

These men displayed the essential qualities of our grunts: courage (Abbate), leadership (Swenson), unit solidarity (Hafez)

What else is needed? The social contract between the organization and the grunt must be upheld. The grunt risks everything; in turn, the organization must support him. Sergeant Abbate’s family received his posthumous Navy Cross at a ceremony attended by thousands. But Captain Swenson’s recommendation for the Medal of Honor mysteriously disappeared inside the Department of the Army. His valor has not been honored by his own organization. As for “Hafez,” even his real name cannot be revealed because he is still in Afghanistan, hunted by the Taliban. For four years in a row, the State Department has refused to grant him — and thousands of other loyal interpreters — a visa, despite repeated requests from military commanders.

So who will fight for us? Our grunts have the right stuff. Our bureaucracies . . . not so much. 

Who Will Fight for Us?

As we celebrate our national birthday, it is fitting to remember that we gained our freedom by force of arms. In 1775, our founding fathers fought with muskets. Back then, every soldier was a grunt. Today, the infantry is just one of many branches. But the rifleman still performs the hardest task — closing face-to-face with the enemy. For that reason, the grunt remains the symbol of our military and of the American spirit.

To maintain that spirit, our grunts must possess three qualities. The first is grit. In 2010, for example, Sergeant Matt Abbate was on patrol in southern Afghanistan. When three Marines were blown up in sudden succession, Matt strapped tourniquets on the wounded and led the squad out of the minefield. When Taliban machine guns prevented the medevac helicopter from landing, he charged back across the minefield.

“If we’re going to die,” he yelled to his squad, “we die together!”

When other Marines leaped up and followed him, the startled enemy stopped shooting and dodged away. Matt was killed a few months later, but his spirit continued to inspire his platoon.

Every day, they left the wire, engaged in gunfights, and tried to find the buried IEDs. The 52 Marines in the platoon sustained three fatalities, eight amputations, and 17 shrapnel or bullet wounds. They spoke no Pashto and knew no one in the community. They had no trouble distinguishing between their mission — killing every enemy who shot at them — and the unpredictable end state after they left. In a confidential field survey, the platoon overwhelmingly expressed pride in their sacrifice and in serving their country. In response to the question “Would you do it over again,” the vast majority wrote “Yes.”

You volunteer to be a grunt. Nobody forces you to sign up, and nobody promises you a rose garden. Whether you believe in a political cause or party is irrelevant. The president as the commander-in-chief tells you where to fight. Your job is to win every battle.

The second quality is leadership under stress. In 2009, Army Captain Will Swenson was serving as an adviser to the Afghan police. His unit was ambushed in a mountain village called Ganjigal. Also trapped were dozens of Afghan soldiers and their U.S. Marine advisers. When four Marines were unable to pull back, Will attacked time after time to find them. Denied artillery support, he fought on, refusing to leave behind his comrades.  

Swenson was an Army Ranger who had previously commanded both a platoon and a company. In the chaos of the ambush, he took command of Marines he had never met. He emerged as the leader because he was cool and competent.

The third warrior quality is unit cohesion. You fight as a pack, not as individuals. When the Ganjigal ambush happened, “Hafez” was a retired Afghan sergeant major serving as an interpreter with the Marine advisers. Although wounded, Hafez manned a machine gun and stayed in the battle alongside Swenson and three Marine advisers. After fighting for four hours, they recovered the bodies of the missing advisers. Hafez fought because he considered himself part of the adviser team, not a temporary employee.

These men displayed the essential qualities of our grunts: courage (Abbate), leadership (Swenson), unit solidarity (Hafez)

What else is needed? The social contract between the organization and the grunt must be upheld. The grunt risks everything; in turn, the organization must support him. Sergeant Abbate’s family received his posthumous Navy Cross at a ceremony attended by thousands. But Captain Swenson’s recommendation for the Medal of Honor mysteriously disappeared inside the Department of the Army. His valor has not been honored by his own organization. As for “Hafez,” even his real name cannot be revealed because he is still in Afghanistan, hunted by the Taliban. For four years in a row, the State Department has refused to grant him — and thousands of other loyal interpreters — a visa, despite repeated requests from military commanders.

So who will fight for us? Our grunts have the right stuff. Our bureaucracies . . . not so much.

— Marine Sergeant Dakota Meyer, recipient of the Medal of Honor, and Bing West, also a combat grunt and former assistant secretary of defense, are coauthors of Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War

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