Veteran's Viewpoint

Feb 7, 2014

This is Dan Gallagher with Veteran’s Viewpoint.

In many ways, this is a hard commentary for me to do, and frankly, I worry that my words may not be sufficient to make the points I think important with the amount of feeling the subject merits.

The subject of my discussion today, and in my next Veteran’s Viewpoint, is this:  Do soldiers ever die in vain?

Or, to break it down further, are all battle deaths in vain, or is the nobility of service never in vain?     Are there certain times or wars in which the fallen have given their all in vain; is there any definitive way to tell when a soldier’s life has been wasted; or are the reports and histories of war so skewed by the ’tellers’ of the story that the worthiness of the cause cannot be truly discerned?  And, perhaps most importantly, is it ever emotionally or psychologically possible to accept the concept that our young men and women in uniform made the supreme sacrifice ‘in vain’?

Let’s look deeper at these questions.

While most wartime leaders talk about ‘staying the course’ in a particular war through the use of an affirmation such as “too many good men have died…” or “ too much blood has been shed” for us to turn back from our commitment to war, very few of them have told us just how many deaths it would take or how many gallons of blood must be poured out before we can consider that we have reached the limits of tolerance for the death and destruction that is war.

Abraham Lincoln was among the notable exceptions to that group.  In fact, he came right out and declared, in his Gettysburg Address, that the living had to carry forward with the commitment to secure a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” in order that, as he put it, “these honored dead shall not have died in vain.”

And, in 1865, with the war nearly over, he concluded his second Inaugural by saying that one way to redeem that war’s losses was for us all to work together to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”   In other words, to Lincoln, whether the soldiers had died in vain or not depended on what the living did to actually implement the cause for which the dead and wounded had fought.

Three incidents have occurred recently that brings this ‘dying in vain’ topic to my mind.  The first were the reports from Iraq that the town of Fallujah--where more than 100 Americans died and about a thousand were wounded ‘liberating’ it from Hussein’s troops,  had fallen into the hands of al Qaida forces.  If removing the enemy from

control of Fallujah was the noble goal that led to those 100 + American deaths, it would now see that that particular mission was ’in vain’. 

Sounds a lot like Vietnam, were GIs would take a hill or strategic site at the expense of many American KIAs, and then abandon it to the enemy a short time later--a clear case of American blood being spilled ’in vain’. 

And that’s reminder number 2, because yesterday, January 27, was the 41st anniversary of the day that the Paris Peace Accords formally ended the Vietnam War--with a total of 58,000 dead American teenage soldiers whose deaths brought no victory.  In the most real of terms why DID they have to die?

Finally, item number 3; CNN reporter Jake Tapper recently interviewed Afghan War veteran, “Lone Survivor” author, Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell.  When Tapper wondered aloud why so many GIs had to die in that particular botched attack, Luttrell unloaded on him, asking if he was saying that they had “died in vain.”

A few days later, a Washington Post writer wrote a piece that said “Yes Marcus, they DID die in vain.?  Now neither of these reporters were questioning the courage, dedication, or honor of the dead SEALS, but they were making the point that it is possible, and often happens, that a government can send soldiers to unnecessary death if the cause that is stated is not, in reality, a worthy one, or if the military hierarchy in charge is less than competent.  A hero’s death does not make up for tragic blunder!

Luttrell had invoked what has been a trump line for those who attempt to justify a war by making those who question its cost seem insensitive, cowardly, unpatriotic, or even traitorous. 

But the Post’s writer’s point was that we should turn that thinking around--by questioning the human cost of a war as one means of determining that war’s justification.

On behalf of those we send as soldiers, to be turned into war veterans, we have a moral obligation to start asking such questions--before the shooting starts.


On November 22, 1963, in Austin, Texas, President John F. Kennedy was to have delivered an important foreign policy speech.  Kennedy did not live to see Austin, but his prepared speech survived the day, and it ended with a biblical quotation and a warning against justifying war for war’s sake. 

Kennedy was to have said this:”…the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength, for as was written long ago, ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain’.”

You know--let’s at least think about that!

On my next commentary:  Is it emotionally or psychologically possible for a mother or father or spouse or child of one who has made the supreme sacrifice to accept that their loved one may, indeed, have ‘died in vain’?

One final item:  On Sunday February 16th at 3:00 p.m. at the Wilma Theater in Missoula, the documentary film “BEYOND THE DIVIDE’ will be shown.  It’s a film about the historical divisions between the Vietnam veteran population and the ‘peace community’, and how their relationship has evolved to one of seeking to find common ground.  I urge you all to take it in.

This is Dan Gallagher with Veteran’s Viewpoint.