The Corner

Why It’s Not ‘Senseless’ When Good Men Die in a Losing Fight

I’ve given a lot of thought to the controversial exchange earlier this month between CNN’s Jake Tapper and former SEAL Marcus Luttrell. I apologize for posting it in full context, but any discussion requires context:

JAKE TAPPER (voice-over): It’s clear for Marcus Luttrell the battle, almost a decade ago, still cuts close to the bone today.

(on camera): One of the emotions I felt while watching the film is, first of all, just the hopelessness of the situation, how horrific it was and also just all that loss of life of these brave American men. And I was torn about the message of the film in the same way that I think I am about the war in Afghanistan itself. I don’t want any more senseless American death and at the same time I know that there are bad”  people there and good people who need help. Was that intentional?

MARCUS LUTTRELL: Well, I don’t know what part of the film you were watching, but hopelessness really ever came into it. Where did you see that? We never felt like we were hopelessly lost or anything like that. We never gave up. We never felt like we were losing unless we were actually dead. That never came across in the battle and while we were fighting on the mountain and it was just us against them.

TAPPER: Hopelessness, just the sense of all these wonderful people who died. It seemed senseless. I don’t mean to disrespect in any way but it seemed senseless, all of these wonderful people who were killed for an op that went wrong.

LUTTRELL: We spend our whole lives defending this country so you tell me because we were over there doing what we were told to do was senseless and they died for nothing?

TAPPER: No, I’m not saying that at all.

LUTTRELL: That’s what you said. So, let me just say that, yes, it went bad for us over there but that was our job. That’s what we did. We didn’t complain about it. We went out there and did what we did best and at the end, we weren’t standing. They were. We were lucky. I was lucky. And the rest of the guys, we fought as hard as we possibly could. Never felt sorry for ourselves while we were out there. This was a job we were going after a high value target and, you know, it got switched on us.

TAPPER: Maybe it’s just the difference between what a civilian feels when he watches this versus what a soldier does.

WAHLBERG: Absolutely.

I emphatically reject the idea that Tapper had malicious intent. He’s one of the best reporters in the business, he’s risked his own life in Afghanistan, and it’s impossible to read his book and think that he has anything but the highest respect for the American soldier. The exchange above wasn’t evidence of disrespect but of a cultural disconnect. 

It’s easy enough to understand the civilian take on death and defeat. In a world where true sacrifice is unusual, and ultimate sacrifice rarer still, paying the ultimate price in part because bosses or colleagues made a mistake almost defines “senseless.” We don’t like to give up our weekends for our jobs, and while we may sacrifice much for family, our definition of “family” rarely includes the guy in the cubicle next to you. How much will you sacrifice for him? How much will you sacrifice at all when your boss makes an obvious mistake?

Within the military, the situation is dramatically different. The bond between brothers-in-arms has to be experienced to be truly understood, and no matter how difficult the situation, it is never “senseless” to fight with all your being for the man or woman next to you — even against overwhelming odds. 

But the contrast goes even deeper than that. No army experiences constant victory. Even the best-trained, best-equipped forces can pick the wrong fights, make wrong tactical or strategic decisions, or simply act on bad information. How an army responds to adversity determines its character as surely as its conduct in victory. Examples abound. Would “Remember the Alamo” have been an effective rallying cry had James Bowie and William Travis surrendered meekly at the first cannonade? American resistance at Corregidor helped salvage national honor during the long Pacific retreat in the opening months of World War II. The Marines’ conduct during the retreat through the Chosin Reservoir has propelled that nominal military “defeat” into the stuff of legend.

Courage and honor beget courage and honor, so those virtues — when displayed — are never wasted, and courageous and honorable men consequently never die for “nothing.”

In reading Lone Survivor and Into the Fire — two great books about desperate fights — I recall words about a different, desperate fight more than a century ago:

Half a league, half a league,

 Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

 Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

“Charge for the guns!” he said:

Into the valley of Death

 Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismay’d?

Not tho’ the soldier knew

 Someone had blunder’d:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

 Rode the six hundred.

Someone has blundered — that is the soldier’s lament throughout the ages, but the soldier presses on regardless. And upon that honorable sacrifice an army is built. Indeed, cultures are built on such character.

When can their glory fade?

O the wild charge they made!

 All the world wondered.

Honor the charge they made,

Honor the Light Brigade,

 Noble six hundred.

Lone Survivor and movies like it (Blackhawk Down, Saving Private Ryan) do well not just because of brilliant filmmaking but because the courage displayed — for a just cause — speaks to the sense of eternity God set in our hearts. 

In the American Army, blunders abound, but courage abounds all the more, and the courageous live and die for a purpose, even when that purpose is measured not by ground taken, enemy leaders captured, or lives saved but instead by virtue lived to the point of death itself.

Their glory cannot — it must not — be allowed to fade.

Update: There were two errors in the transcription above (“dead people” should be “bad people,” and the last comment is Mark Wahlberg’s). I’ve made the corrections and apologize for passing on the original errors.