In the great 1964 antiwar film, The Americanization of Emily, the protagonist, Charlie Madison (James Garner), says what Americans desperately need to learn: "We perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices." This is worth contemplating as we see pictures of the flag-draped coffin bearing the body of U.S. Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, the first American to die in combat in Iraq since 2011 and the first since Barack Obama launched his illegal and unconstitutional war against the Islamic State.
Wheeler, a Delta Force member, was killed last week during a raid in northern Iraq to free 70 prisoners of the Islamic State. He was "advising and assisting" a Kurdish force, Secretary of War Ash Carter said, but joined the charge when the Kurds met resistance.
Curiously, President Obama says no U.S. "combat troops" are in Iraq, but it is evident that troops don't have to be designated "combat troops" to engage in combat. Carter says U.S troops will conduct "such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground."
Imagine if Obama had committed actual combat troops! As Gayle Tzemach Lemmon writes in The Atlantic,
Thursday's events have thrust into the public spotlight the rather plastic definitions of "war" and "combat" with which Americans have been operating for a while now. And not just in Iraq and Syria … [but also Afghanistan, U.S. combat supposedly having ended] where America has sustained 14 casualties…, including four deaths the Pentagon labels as "killed in action."
George Orwell would have understood—war is peace, and combat is noncombat.
Carter lauded the "sacrifice and decisive action of this courageous American in support of his comrades…." He continued: "This American did what I'm very proud that Americans do in that situation. He ran to the sound of the guns, and he stood up, and all the indications are it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that made the mission successful."
Much will be said in the coming days of Wheeler's heroism and courage in face of grave danger. That he risked his life to save a large group of prisoners held by Islamic State barbarians is obvious. But the point is he should not have been anywhere near Hawijah, Iraq. He should have been at home in the United States, along with the rest of his colleagues. Instead he was in a U.S.-created hellhole serving the imperial ends of hack American politicians and generals. Some people call that "serving his country."
Wheeler's death will be highly useful to the Obama administration and jingoists at large in assuring a war-wary American public that U.S. intervention in the Middle East is not only right but also an opportunity for individual noble acts. And therein lies the danger—for by portraying war as an occasion for virtue, the politicians romanticize evil and lure innocents into it.
As "Charlie Madison" put it,
It's not war that's insane, you see. It's the morality of it. It's not greed or ambition that makes war: it's goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity…. It's not war that's unnatural to us, it's virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved.
Charlie had no time for military "leaders" who later say that war is hell:
I don't trust people who make bitter reflections about war…. It's always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a Hell it is. And it's always the widows who lead the Memorial Day parades…. We shall never end wars by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It's the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widows' weeds like nuns … and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices…. May be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution.
This piece originally appeared at Richman's "Free Association" blog.