On the eve of the seventh-year anniversary of the deaths of paratroopers PFC Michael Metcalf and 1LT Jonathan Walsh, whose demise by IED I detailed in my book The Brave Ones: A Memoir of Hope, Pride, and Military Service, a reader sent an email disagreeing with my analysis.
In my book I write:
“The bereaved parents that I would speak with after the deployment often wanted to know what the objective was for the mission their son died on. ‘What has the army traded for my son’s life?’ Yet war rarely affords a fair value, or even any value, to the individual life. Soldiers who have tasted the brine of combat understand this, which is why they get so angry when someone disrespects the flag. This country is the value, what we value is the value, and often, that’s as specific as one can get.”
The critical reader, son of an officer who was with the 8thAir Force on D-Day and himself, a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran, writes, “Perhaps, in a war protecting America, but not Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan (our son has deployed three times), perhaps, even Korea. What a waste and how wrong . . . the truncated lives, single parents, kids without parents and the money, too, not lost for this country. Your book strengthens my conviction… Here America is, almost 70 years after the beginning of the Korean “Conflict” and about 60 years after the beginning of Vietnam, and Americans are still dying for politicians!”
His wasn’t a question, only an opinion – a reaction – that he felt compelled to share. Yet for the veterans of America’s longest war, the only war we’ve conducted in which a child not yet born when the war began can now serve in the same war as his father or mother, the sacrifices made in Afghanistan are a burning irritant. In Qara Bagh where Walsh and Metcalf were killed, Afghan forces and the Taliban are still battling for control of Highway 1. What had they died for?
The day his email arrived, I happened to be spending the day with a Marine veteran of the Battle of Khe Sanh, a bilateral amputee infantryman of the Iraq War whose life is dedicated to service members suffering from the wounds of war, and an Army officer who had led soldiers in the slums of Sadr City and was an infantry company commander in the same battalion as Walsh and Metcalf when they were killed. I also emailed a favorite command sergeant major on active duty with the 82nd, one who had escaped the communists in Vietnam and emigrated to America. I asked each their opinion of the man’s statement, “What a waste and how wrong.”
None of them answered quickly. When they finally did, I was struck by the consistency of what that had to say. Here then is their reply to the Air Force vet’s comment.
1) There is rarely a simple answer to the worth of combat deaths. Were the 2,336 American KIA and 8,450 WIA on the strategically unimportant island of Peleliu during World War II a waste, or somehow necessary to the defeat of Imperial Japan? Depends on who you ask.
2) The Air Force vet is fortunate that he can criticize the State in an email and not pay a price for it, either immediately or long-term. As Americans, we take that for granted, as do free peoples from countries that have benefited from the projection of American power since his father flew with the Mighty Eighth over Normandy and Berlin.
3) Hind-sight gives much-improved accuracy and the ability to criticize those who made the calls on difficult decisions in war, and ultimately, the “worth” of any particular action.
4) Regarding American lives lost "for the country," it's common knowledge among front-line warriors that lives are risked in defense of a brother or sister, and only tangentially for country. That said, America asks citizens to vote for representatives and an executive. She asks these politicians to make good decisions based on what the citizenry want, or they get voted out. She asks the soldier to defend her. It seems the weak link there is the citizen. Not sure how the soldier's life is wasted, then, if he fights well for the man on his left and right. If he does so, his forfeited life is not a waste to him. The man’s family – either man’s family – may feel differently.
Regarding politicians, who likes them? Yes, we need to keep their feet to the fire so we (and the rest of the free world whose defense is subsidized by the US military) don't end up facing the very worst of human nature here at home.
I told the reader he has every right to believe that the 70 thousand lives lost during and since the Vietnam War were a waste, or not in service to country, if he so chooses. He is free to believe what he wants and speak his mind freely. So am I. I think it was a waste of life for COL Greg Townsend, who survived multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan with our unit, to get killed this past Easter Weekend – seven years to the day that Walsh and Metcalf were killed – when he pulled over to help a stranded motorist on Route 460 in Virginia and the car jack failed, crushing Greg underneath.
I’m still pretty sure COL Townsend would not have regretted helping the stranger because that's the man Greg was.
If they had a vote, perhaps those who have lost their lives in recent wars would agree with the skeptical Air Force veteran that their lives were wasted. Maybe they wouldn't. At least we, the living, might consider that their intentions for their own lives counted.
Note about the Author: Michael J. MacLeod is a former US Army paratrooper who served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 2008-2013 as a combat correspondent. He is one of the most published military journalists of the last decade and has won dozens of journalism awards including the Army’s 2012 Military Journalist of the Year. For his work during deployment, MacLeod was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, an award normally reserved for soldiers of much higher rank.
You can read his full book here: