Stop Perpetuating War by Exalting Its Sacrifices

A reminder upon the death of U.S. Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, the first American to die in combat in Iraq since 2011.


Secretary of Defense/Flickr

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. 

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  1. This guy didn’t die on a zippo raid, burning down straw huts and looking for VC. He didn’t die charging German trenches on the Somme or the Aisne. He didn’t have a heart attack while droning an Afghan wedding party from a cubicle in Nevada.

    He died in an operation to rescue 70 human beings from unimaginably horrible and violent undeserved deaths at the hands of barbarians. There can be no debating that doing this was an incredibly selfless deed.

    There is a time and a place for attacking military fetishization in America and the widespread (and mind-numbingly automatic) glorification of members of the military.

    This isn’t it.

    1. Yeah I’m kind of inclined to agree with this. Bad example to pick. This is one of those rare moments where a soldier’s sacrifice was actually noble.

    2. MC, I disagree. Regardless of the scenario, what right does the government have to force tax payers to pay for, and American soldiers to die for a group of innocent people that aren’t U.S. citizens? If you believe that these folks should have been liberated, then hire mercenaries or become one and go yourself, with the permission of the host country of course. I admit, this is a more nuanced example, and it’s tough not to argue against a raid to liberate 70 prisoners, but if it was less nuanced – if you use extreme examples, the logic becomes more clear. What if you want to overthrow a dictator that’s harming his people? What if you want to overthrow another nation’s government because they are threatening to become more communist-like? The question shouldn’t be “is this our problem?”, the question should be “does the government have the right to force this action on it’s citizenry AND is it a direct threat to the national security of the United States?” Being the world’s police is a slippery slope.

      1. By their own admission, ISIS is our problem. And they are working round the clock to be an even bigger problem. Kill them all.

        1. Indeed. It seems that far too many seem to think that by ignoring those that would do us harm they would no longer wish to do us harm. Naive and out of touch approach.

    3. Get ready for a lot of unpatriotic bullshit responses. Another major cause of why libertarianism never gets off the ground. Belittling this man’s sacrifice is disgusting, and Richman can go fuck himself. That little puke would NEVER have the guts to put himself in harm’s way to protect other people. And fuck a lot of the other people here with similar sentiments.

      1. Agreed, pretty classless.

      2. Suicidy is right. However, hearing the same canned words from the same despicable breed of politician, in this case Carter, designed to elicit an emotional response from Americans is sickening. Someone needs to hold this administration’s feet to the fire regarding the use of the term “advisor” and “noncombat” because they’re blatantly lying and getting a free pass. No one needs to call into question this soldier’s sacrifice.in order to challenge bad and/or dishonest policy.

    4. Point hopelessly missed. Well done, war mongoloid.

      1. War mongoloids.
        I should have guessed all the faux libertarians would have engorged war boners.

        1. Thank God we have fucking morons like yourself to act as gatekeepers as to who is or is not a Libertarian.

  2. Once again, Richman picks a particularly stupid hill to die on.

    1. Yep. I’m waiting for AmSoc to rear his ugly head and prattle on about how the REAL heroes are war protesters and probably ISIS.

      1. And white #blacklivesmatter protesters at Oberlin college.

        1. And probably child molesters. As long as they are pro Palestinian.

  3. Richman is a fucking asshole whose every printed word hurts the Libertarian cause. Just because he writes this spittle-flecked, mean spirited bullshit doesn’t mean Reason has to publish it.

    1. +2

      1. Have you libertards stroked your gun collections today?

        1. Stroking it right now, if it’s any business of yours, or at all relevant to the discussion. Jealous of it? Or just of my large penis?

  4. Wow. Look at the nearsighted weighing in with the comments. This is exactly why Washington gets to create chaos and death in its foreign policy.

    As Richman said, none of those people should have been in Iraq in the first place. Yet, here come the comments shaming him for poking a stick at the whole disgusting thing. Good job boot lickers.

    1. Agreed. He should never have been there. I think the point is, however, that his being there was likely not his choice, but the choice of the idiots so pilloried by this piece, and his selfless actions, despite the fact that he would likely much rather have been *anywhere* else, are worthy of honor.

      1. Whatever else can be said about all this, a master sergeant in Delta Force busted his ass over a career to get there. I suspect he was exactly where he wanted to be.

    2. I fail to see how “poking a stick at the whole disgusting thing”, specifically when using this particular example, is constructive or helpful at all. There’s plenty of ways to make the author’s case, but using an example where a soldier saved 70 people just makes the author look like a jackass.

      1. Richman IS a jackass. And a coward. All this does is piss people off and diminishes his argument.

        With friends like Sheldon, libertarianism doesn’t stand much chance. Maybe that’s his real agenda.

        1. With idiots like Suicidy – we should be so luck – and foul-=mouthed asshats like SEvo, and gun-fetishizers like – well, most of you – it’s no wonder nobody takes libertarians seriously. The ideas never get a hearing b/c too many of you are gun-loving war-mongoloids.

    3. No one is saying we should have been or should be in Iraq. We’re saying that attacking a guy who got killed during the process of rescuing people who were due to be executed is just stupid and wrong.

      Richman’s implication is that Wheeler was either a dupe or is complicit with the the policies that ultimately led to his death(he deserved what he got, right?). It’s a subtle slight but it’s still a slight of someone who, again, died while trying to rescue people.

      Richman could advocate feeding the generals into a meat grinder and I’d be inclined to agree but this article is pretty rotten. Then again, moral preening is what Libertarians seem to do best regardless of the political consequences and articles like these are prime examples of why we are, and always will be, a fringe political movement that no one of importance pays any real attention to.

      1. Agreed. Ultimately, it’s the odious gasbags that we elect that determine where members of the military go and what their missions are. If you don’t like the mission, take it out on the troglodytes in Washington, not on the folks who gave their lives to carry out a mission that was assigned to them by said buffoons.

        1. You’re right, joining the military is a rational decision for many people, it opens up a lot of doors and generally provides huge benefits. So why are we idolizing them?

          1. Joining the Fire Department is also a rational decision. Does that make the loss of firefighters’ lives, when it occurs, any less tragic?

            1. Do we revere oil rig divers, since their job is dangerous? Do soldiers do net good, like firefighters do? No. Your analogy is flimsy even if firefighters were as exalted as soldiers, which they’re not.

              1. I revere oil rig divers. And truck drivers. Dangerous and necessary jobs and I respect the hell out of them. Why most people don’t as much as soldiers and firefighters probably has to do with yeah, the net good that most people think the military does. But I’m sure you know that. We live in the most peaceful era in the entirety of human history. Many find it hard to believe that the Pax Americana isn’t partially due to our ginormous military and nuclear arsenal, whatever drawbacks those things also tend to have.

          2. The military is a lot more than a job contract and a benefits package. You really don’t get it.

      2. I don’t like Richman and i’m all for feeding generals into a meat grinder (or woodchipper). But, to be fair, he isn’t attacking MSG Wheeler; he’s just saying that he shouldn’t be publicly lauded (because that acclaim tends to become support for war). I disagree.

        Generally speaking, I get Richman’s point that the public celebration of military who die in wars like this serves to perpetuate the war. But, this particular case is a really bad example to use.

        1. Men like Wheeler deserve to be honored. Period. If that is used to market foreign policy you don’t like, too bad. Argue against the policy. Richman, like so many of his articles, should never have written this crap.

          1. agreed. recent history has proven that you don’t need to discredit the dead to object to what got them killed. if anything, remembering our men and women who get killed should be a negative for the polices, not a support of them.

            1. Suicidy and Foo_dd, you pieces of shit. You damn well know the author wasn’t attacking the soldier or refusing to honor the heroism of his deed.

              1. No, he just said no one should. For political purposes. Which is particularly despicable in Wheeler’s case. Do you have ANY idea how exceptional you have to be to even make it through Special Forces training? Let alone have a long successful career at it? Wheeler was part of a very rare breed. he was both exceptional in life and in his death. A death that will probably have more purpose than most of us here will lay claim.

                I get that this is harder to understand for many of you here that never served (like Richman). But this article us shit, and an insult to every war vet that has fallen. As are many of the comments here. If you think I’m over reacting, you’re wrong. And you just don’t get it.

                1. Settle down, son. Yes, Wheeler was a hero, dying to free innocent people.
                  The point of the article was that hero worship is dangerous for free people, because glamorizing war can cause more if it.
                  I’m not sure if I buy that theory. But you’re arguing that soldiers should be recognized as heroes and celebrated as such, which is kind of the author’s point.
                  Yes, Wheeler was a great man, but idolizing him, and war in general, makes war more likely.

                  1. the authors point is idiotic. when you look at what Vietnam vets went through, it should be clear that if the public ties its feelings on a war to those who fight it, it only serves to hurt the soldiers. when you look at the Iraq war, it should be clear that people can oppose a war, without making it a personal issue with the soldiers.

                    the author is taking a basic thought exercise past it’s logical extreme. and getting the cause and effect wrong. we don’t send people to war because we honor the fallen….. we honor the fallen because we send people to war.

                    he was a soldier for our country… you can disagree with the fact that we have so many soldiers, what orders they are given, and why they are in the places the are in… but not their individual commitments to us as a country. when one of them falls, it SHOULD hurt us all a little bit, as a matter of basic human decency.

      3. Richman didn’t say a thing about Wheeler or his intentions. His criticism was of the way the public reacts to events like this. One poignant story and we’re back to fetishizing the act of being a hired gun, indulging in tunnel vision to ignore the quagmire that is the result of our interventionism.

        1. He didn’t attack Wheeler. But he did say we shouldn’t honor him. Which Wheeler’s sacrifice deserves. All to advance a political agenda. Which is quite ironic when you think about it.

          1. Nobody has any obligation to honor anyone else.

            1. Nobody has to be a decent human being either. But They should.

          2. My gang of friends and I break into your house. We smash the place up. My friends steal your stuff. We inadvertently start a fire, which puts your wife in danger. I save your wife and die in the process. The media and everyone else are touched by my sacrifice; I’m honored as a hero. See anything wrong with this picture?

            1. To be clear, this isn’t about assigning blame. The point is that none of this had to happen. You take Wheeler’s actions out of context and the pointlessness of it all, all misery or loss of life our actions have brought about, is lost.

            2. How is that at all comparable to the hostage situation? The US was asked to assist

    4. There is such a thing as too much or too extreme intervention. But saving people from ISIS and stopping them are not a terribly unreasonable thing to do.

      1. So when are you leaving for Syria? Send us a postcard.

        1. I’m too old now. And I’ve already been. And in a theater of war. So don’t start that shit with me.

          1. Too old to squeeze a trigger? You could always help out in the hospitals with the wounded. I mean, if it’s that important to you. Rather than forcing others to pay for it.

            1. Yes, and freedom could always be defended at home. If we are too old to serve in the armed forces of the Empire of Government Almighty, we could serve freedom at home… A good place to start might be to take out some DEA agents, who deprive us of freedoms that we (on a state-wide local basis) have voted for. Recall the French revolution… French taxpayers got sick and tired of being taxed out the ass to support freedom and democracy in foreign lands (USA being born at the time), while they had no freedom and democracy at home. That’s how I feel… I am taxed out the ass to bring freedom and democracy for foreigners, while I have VERY little here at home. Bring Wheeler’s buddies home, and have them fight the DEA and the FDA and a BUNCH of alphabet-soup bastards at home… THAT would be a case of defending MY freedom with MY tax money!

            2. I’ve sacrificed a great deal for the US, and the Kuwaitis for that matter. And clearly you know nothing of military service in a theater of combat. It is far more demanding than you make out.

              I also have regular contact with friends and family in active military service. They have no problem doing what is needed to eliminate ISIS. As long as Obama lets them actually win. So maybe you should actually learn a little something first so you know what the hell you’re talking about.

              And I sure as fuck won’t be lectured by some non-serving puke like you about being willing to serve my country.

              1. Oh, and Chiipper, you hunk you’re so goddamn clever. Why don’t you go down to your local VFW and share what you’re saying here with the vets there. Bet you haven’t got the guts to do that.

                1. Meh, you are taking this too personally. I am out.

                  1. Good. If you don’t understand why, there is no explaining it to you. And that’s actually very sad.

              2. I actually spent 4+ years in the military, and have friends serving also, so I know a wee tad about it, actually. “Serving my country” is fine and dandy, but some of us (paraphrasing Henry David Thoreau) do not serve the state with our bodies, like a beast of burden serves the farmer, but rather, serve with our conscience instead. Those who serve with their conscience, for the most part, oppose the state, rather than support it. Just as one random example of just HOW LITTLE freedom we have left here is the USA, study up on the “lung flute”; see http://www.churchofsqrls.com for “lung flute” and more. The very most trivial devices are FDA-regulated and prescription-required… I am surprised that I can still scratch my ass w/o a doctor’s permission. WHY should I fight and die to “protect freedom” when we have so very-very little left? How much more freedom will we have to loose before the REAL freedom lovers refuse to pick up a gun to defend our fictional freedom?

    5. You want political fodder against foreign adventurism? Find it somewhere else. You will not diminish the sacrifice of men like this because it suits you. And be careful who you call a bootlicker.

      1. Well said.

      2. “I, for one, welcome the reign of our new bootlickers”.

        Although, to be honest, the “boot” part is superfluous, I would just as soon welcome our new liquors!

    6. Rescuing 70 innocents from certain death-regardless where it is-it not noble enough for you? This wasn’t an attack from a hospital, using patients and children as shields (truly barbaric), this was a humanitarian mission. Your lack of empathy for anyone else is truly astonishing-if it weren’t the new norm.

    7. I could attempt to explain it to you, but it would be like explaining color to a blind man.

      I understand you don’t mean to be a contemptible piece of shit and failure of a human being, so I won’t hate you for it.

  5. At least he didn’t compare Wheeler to Adam Lanza.

    1. ^This.

    2. That will probably be next week. And it will also be Israel’s fault.

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  8. So now freeing prisoners of psychotic totalitarian theocrats is a bad thing because war is icky.

    2 points for Sheldon! He accomplished what I thought was impossible- lowering my opinion of him.

    1. Indeed. Also, if I needed someone to have my back, it would be MSgt. Wheeler over pretty much anyone here. Including Richman. Cowardly little puke that he is.

  9. In cases like this, I invoke the George Carlin abstention. It takes too much energy to figure out the vector between baby/wedding party killers versus minty breathed, saintly sacrifants. My interest in agendas don’t go near far enough.

    1. Ah, Richman once again defending/advocating cowardice. Color me shocked. Sheldon, we get it. You were scared shitless to go to Vietnam and you think everyone who did is icky (though never once do we hear you explain what happened after the US left Vietnam and why THOSE deaths – at the hands of communist governments – don’t matter at all compared to your worthless existence.)

      I hate American interventionism. I hate that we waste some of our best on it (yes, the US military are fundamentally some of the best this country has to offer by any metric, deal with it). But the idea that virtues like courage, valor, fidelity, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, etc. should be eschewed or even diminished because Sheldon is a coward and disagrees with a particular foreign policy, is embarrassing.

      Go ahead, Sheldon. Eliminate courage – and public support for people who have that virtue – because you’re still dealing with your Vietnam issues and are too simple to consider attacking shitty foreign policy on its own terms. See how that plays out in the end. “If only the US hadn’t had courage during the War of 1812, or WW2, we’d be so much better off!”

      Fuck. This piece is awful.

      1. Well put. Let me buy you a virtual beer.

        1. I’ll lick up the virtual tab for the virtual shot to go with it.

          1. Licking tabs can get you very spaced out. The orange tabs are pretty good.

            1. Avoid the brown ones. I hear they’re bad news.

        2. I’ll get the second round.

      2. And articles like this are why the LP will never gain enough national prominence for major office.

  10. Sorry, toolkien, not meant as a reply to your comment.

  11. Perpetuating war is really about perpetuating the Defense Department budget which everyone should know is the single largest source of ILLICIT political money. Bottom line is that our sons and daughters in uniform are dying so filthy politicians can embezzle money from the Pentagon and perpetuate their incumbency. Time to wise up folks. The military industrial complex is alive and well, stealing your tax dollars and killing our men and women in uniform. Quit supporting incumbents. Term limits at the ballot box. Short of violent revolution, it’s our best bet for reform.

    1. Yeah man, I agree… Are people in Iraq better off, or worse off, for the USA having gotten involved and killed Saddam? … Sad to say, some stupid people here and there NEED a dictator… They are WORSE off for the lack of Saddam!!! More suicide bombings, etc, hands down, if we are honest… All that, for our 1.5 trillion or so spent, and thousands of American lives, and who knows how many Iraqis killed… Time to learn our lessons, put our dicks back in our pants, and GO HOME, and STAY HOME!!! Can we find some skin cells of Saddam, clone him, put him back in power, and repair the damage we have done? “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” Some stupid people are mice… They NEED a cat! Saddam was a cat, and that’s where it’s at! (For stupid goat-fuckers and others who NEED a cat, that is, I do not want Saddam resurrected here in the USA; We have Donald Trump who will take care of us).

  12. Excuse me, but I WILL exalt Sergeant Wheeler’s sacrifice in fighting this evil. And if you demean it, Richman, then you are a monumental jerk.

    1. Absolutely. Although I served back in Desert Storm, I never had the long term durability to stay in the military. Let alone the drive to join Special Forces. Wheeler did. And he sacrificed everything in performing his duty. While once may debate the wisdom of our presence in Syria, Wheeler’s service and sacrifice is NOT a subject of debate.

  13. The war of 1776 was a huge mistake. Glorifying the sacrifices of that war is the start of all the other war glorification.

    We should be ashamed that we are not still part of the British Commonwealth.

    (Did I channel Richman OK? )

    1. Yes. But you didn’t blame Israel for the Revolutionary War

        1. Don’t forget BOOoooOoOoOsh!!1!

  14. Hmm, could it be that wars is perpetuated by not fighting to win? By desperately trying to avoid conflict at all costs, we seem to perpetuate smaller conflicts that never end. Perhaps, were we to allow our soldiers to do what they are trained to do-or, as General Patton said, “make the other SOB die for his country”, or cause, or whatever, we would have fewer casualties of our own. It seems Sheldon is one who subscribes to the theory that every bad thing that happens is the fault of the USA. While I see stories daily of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man in virtually every other country in the world, it always seems to be our fault? By having a standing military to defend, somehow we are at fault? I don’t beg to disagree-I disagree wholeheartedly, and would go so far as to say that attitudes like this are a major contributing factor to the ongoing violence in the first place.

    1. There are bad people in the world. Despots. They are opportunistic, and will take advantage of any perceived weakness. When Khrushchev first met Kennedy, he thought JFK weak and unprepared. That perception was a factor in the Soviet’s actions that lead to the Cuban Missle Crisis (as per Khrushchev’s own journals). Kennedy largely proved him wrong.

      Ronald Reagan believed in peace through the strength. If you’re so powerful that no one can beat you, and no you are decisive and ruthless against an adversary, no one will cross you. Which is the best way to ensure peace.

      Obama has conducted himself in the opposite way. And the world is become a more geopolitically unstable place because of it.

      Bottom line, bad guys respect strength and prey on weakness.

      1. Absolutely. Bullies ignored simply become bigger bullies. And the only thing the vast majority of them understand-and respect-is strength…and a willingness to use it when necessary.

    2. If I’m not mistaken, the likelihood of quick victory (to minimize the violence) is one of the tenants of Augustine’s Just War theory.

  15. It’s not a sacrifice. The guy had done a lot to get in that position. He WANTED to be there.

    1. He died in battle against fucked up lunatics in order to save others. What more do you want? That he wanted to be there makes his sacrifice all the more admirable.

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