Why American Casualties
Are Always Unacceptable
By Roy D. Follendore III
Copyright (c) 2003 by RDFollendoreIII
October 20, 2003
A tiny part of my uncle is with me. From where I sit, I see the dull metals that bear witness to the origins of my understanding on this subject. My Uncle Keith was only a kid of seventeen when he was killed at the World War II battle of Salvo island in the Pacific. He went down with is gun crew on the Cruiser Astoria. The Astoria was one of the few ships that returned fire on a Japanese battle group that attacked one night. In firing back the Astoria turned back that attack and saved the troop ships loaded with Marines in preparing for the invasion of Guadalcanal. But that is not the whole story. The reason why the Astoria and her sister ships went down was because of the failure of Naval commanders to use their radar at night. U.S. Navy Captains refused to try to understand how to use the technology of the day and because of that, they effectively helped their enemy.
The destruction of Astoria was an unnecessary artifact of the history of war, just as the casualties of war are always unnecessary. In retrospect, casualties happen in war. Statistically they probably always will happen. The same reasons why human beings make mistakes will continue to exist. One can always look at life as a fatalist where life is somehow prewritten as inevitable history.
From what I have seen, Generals and Admirals prefer that perspective because it means that they were ordained by destiny (or God) to lead. That is the thing about such lofty roles of leadership. The higher up you go in the military ranks, the more people you don't know directly depend on your every decision. What most people do not understand is that to rise higher in the ranks of command and become a General is to lose explicit control of all of the things that once stayed in control by themselves. Perhaps a personal belief in destiny secretly removes the dual guilt of failure and success that being an Officer brings them. The concept of God exerting his will and the destiny that religion brings is what allows flesh and blood human beings able to make instant decisions that other men would not make. Belief in the concept of destiny means that you do not have to second guess yourself.
The problem with preordained destiny is that it treats war like a vinyl record. There is a undeniable beginning and an inevitable end with unavoidable events sandwiched in the middle. If we choose to believe in destiny of war then nothing about war can change. Because of destiny, casualties will always be necessary because there is never a point where casualties could have been avoided. The reality is that none of this is true. There are crucial moments when decisions do make great differences. Choices can and do make differences in outcomes and they extend back in time from the initialization of war. War amplifies the outcome of differences in those choices. Only in retrospect does destiny appear to exist, but even in the past, destiny remains a protective illusion because by then it is something that can not be changed. This is what makes the casualties of past wars so acceptable.
I can tell you for a fact that my uncle's death so long ago was never acceptable to my family. For us, the decision to switch off the ships radar remains exactly what it was. It was a calculated mistake that did not have to be made at that time. The justification for that mistake was never really addressed by the Navy to the families that lost sons in that naval engagement. There can be no doubt that the Captains and their Admiral did what they thought was right at the time. The Navy went on with winning their war and of course did their duty.
This is the point of this essay. Casualties are always tragedies created from mistakes. Choosing to describe war in terms of destiny is the same as defining a mythical market of death where prices are somehow fixed by annoying casualty rates. When the coin of the realm being traded is the death of loyal men and women who trust us, then what exactly is a good price? The answer is none. The price is too high even though the philosophy of ancient Norse mythology of the Valkyrie may have worked very much like that. Today there are no maidens who lead heroes killed in battle to Valhalla. Modern heroism can never really be an acceptable justification for the creation of casualties because a casualty of war can never be written off as an item on some theoretical accounting ledger as acceptable.
General George S. Patton had it right when he said that the object of war is not to die for your country, it is to make the other poor bastard die for his. He was also trained to be a ruthless man who did not live to fully understand the implications of technologies that was even then beginning to emerge. The whole basis behind the actions of modern warfare is the concept of reductions in risk through the use of controllable violence. As new and more powerful technologies become available to control the effective use of violence, there can be less casualties, both for the ourselves and our future enemies. The trouble is that our Generals do not appreciate the implications of what this means, any more than the sea commanders understood the implications of ship radars at Savo Island in the morning of August 9, 1942.
In light of the fact that casualties of war are largely preventable through better weapons and tactics, the idea of winning a bloodless war becomes something that becomes increasingly feasible. We don't know how to do that now, but we are close. There are new tools available and are on the way, but just like the radar we do not know how and when to use them. One thing should be certain, preventing war and halting war is not the same as waging war. It is because of these advanced weapons and tactics that we possess, the opposite tactic becomes that which our enemies must use. Our enemy's strategy is to cause casualties, any bloody casualties, in order to defeat us. To abandon these, our best tools of war, is to accept war in terms of a battlefield chosen by our enemy. Our leaders must deny the use of their metric to our enemies if we are to prevail.
Calling continuous American deaths a tragedy and then defining those deaths as "acceptable" is an affront to every American who depends on the risks that our servicemen must take. Moreover, it plays into the objectives of our enemies. As a nation we must not allow our leaders to continue to go down that path. As Americans, we must never accept the ideas that some personal sense of God has ordained our Generals with the right to gloriously accept the death of others as their personal sacrifice. Our military officers have simply been given the honor and responsibility of avoiding mistakes in the face of their duty.
Bush's war in Iraq is not over and it is becoming increasingly obvious, even to the Pentagon, that it can never be won as it is being fought. Every day, American soldiers in Iraq are ambushed, killed and delivered to their families in plastic bags because they are considered invaders. These were soldiers who were trained to trust in their equipment and their leaders. We must therefore be particularly careful of the words that we choose to use. When our sons and daughters sign up to defend our nation, they become troops that do not do so in order to sacrifice themselves. When they are killed in a foreign land they are sacrificed by mistakes and failures, not righteous glory. Any other attitude perpetuates the acceptability of more mistakes and failures. When it comes between the choice of invincible pride and our "democratic" goals, we have to think about their humanity.
Our invincible generals and our prideful politicians who order them into war have never been particularly good at establishing or representing the value of goals for humanity. This is probably because they have been trained to look down on the role of humanitarians. From the perspective of a humanitarian, the economics of war can not be reasonably applied to life without a devaluation of life and there is no market value for a military decision because there can be no predetermined price. For a humanitarian, the market for securing freedom for Iraq is never 3.5 Americans a day. When as citizens we give our Generals the benefit of the doubt by assuming that a such market exists, we are writing them a blank check to do as they will.
Markets values are based on the manipulation of statistics. Statistics sell investors. Death too must be sold to investors. Generals are salesmen who attempt to use statistics to justify their views because they must try to enhance the "clean" ideal that the absolute cost of casualty "debts" of war within society can be calculated. It is a false premise and it is an institutional concept made up to suit their goals. There may be expected casualties. There may be probable casualties. There may even be tradeoffs between American causalities and operational objectives. But there is no such thing as "acceptable" American causalities.
Modern war involves risk but with the right decisions at the right time it is possible to wage war with minimal or no causalities. This core ideal of any commander's philosophy should be to conserve the lives of their troops while completing the mission. The idea is to keep troops safe in this process, not sacrifice them. For military unit commander, the language of market based economics is indefensible and completely wrong headed because it undermines individual and unit loyalty. Every individual American casualty is an absolute failure of a military commander. Every life is necessary, even the life of the enemy. Heroes and martyrs are victories that cause others to commit to war.
There may be apologies for errors made by commanders on the modern battlefield, but there can be no excuses. When active and retired American military leaders become willing to expose a cavalier attitude toward the sanctity of life, they expose their personal weakness and incompetence, and disregard for the reality of the unnecessary waste of lives being made by our sons and daughters.
A couple of notes:
You may want to know what inspired this essay.
I recently heard General Tommy Franks, U.S. Army Retired, speak in Reston, Virginia at the "Networked Economy, Building Faith In the Network Summit." He was also there with about a dozen other existing and former Bush administration leaders to sell us on our war. It was in this setting that General Franks told the audience of senior technical security executives how wonderful the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been. It became apparent that he was at the summit to sell us on his new book that he is writing.
The General told us in his powerful commanding voice that he likes the situation that America is now in. General Franks said that the world is fearful of what we might do with our military power and he repeated several times that he likes that. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, the General suddenly made the surprising announcement that two, three and five casualties a day are acceptable and "worth it."
This was the spark that induced my writing this essay. The words of military leaders like General Franks should be discussed and publicly criticized. Regardless of their past military success, or career or contributions to our nation it is important that Americans really think about what they are saying. The context of General Franks statements were indicative of the overall issues of fighting a war without limitations to meanings.
To me it was absolutely astounding how a summit that was supposed to be about using technical security to rebuild faith in our nation's network infrastructure became a political forum for ideology of the Bush administration policies in Iraq. I have never witnessed such a sense of fear and such a misjudgment in appropriate topics and questions. The questions that the audience were asked to vote upon were skewed to promote answers supporting the President's existing policies. Over fifty percent of the "Networked Economy Summit, Building Faith in the Network" had absolutely nothing to do with the network, the economy or security.
The summit was a political forum and it was a privilege to get the chance to witness this level of politics. I considered it perhaps the most educational event that I have ever attended. It was particularly amazing to note just how many of our senior Government officials made a conscience effort to explain to us that they came from Midland Texas. In the case of General Franks, among others, it appeared obvious that George W. Bush selected him because he was a hometown boy and not because of his professional military qualifications. I now better understand how America has gotten itself into such a horrible mess.
Copyright (c) 2001-2007 RDFollendoreIII All Rights Reserved