A blog by Barry Edelson

Toward a New Definition of Heroism

Let Us Honor Not Only the Fallen,
But The Reasons for Which They Fought

What better time than on Memorial Day than to contemplate Americans' particular, ritualistic notion of heroism. Today, the President of the United States will visit Arlington National Cemetery, where he will place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and offer some inspirational oratory about honor and sacrifice and the blessings of having so many who are willing to risk their lives for their country. Similar heartfelt tributes will be made at military memorials and graveyards across the land. I do not know that these things will happen and that such words will be spoken because the schedule of the day is posted online and available for all the world to see. I know it, as you and every other reader knows it, because any president, governor or mayor who failed to salute our fallen heroes with a proper degree of seriousness and solemnity would stand a reasonable chance of losing the next election by a landslide.

Generally speaking, there is obviously nothing peculiar or unseemly about public officials lamenting the loss of men and women whose lives were given for their country. Indeed, a country in which there were no such occasions to honor the fallen would before long find itself with few who were willing to risk life and limb for the homeland unless compelled to do so under force of arms, in which case said country would also find that the quality of such meager devotion is insufficient to protect even the lives of the soldiers themselves, let alone the sovereignty of the nation. Nonetheless, when we throw the word "hero" about as if it were a cheap commodity, we risk cheapening heroic actions themselves and demeaning the very definition of heroism. Worse, we will easily lose sight of what these painful sacrifices are actually made for, and will find, whether in enforcing the law on our streets or defending our ideals and our safety at war, that our civilian and military leaders will likely pursue strategies that neither do justice to the men and women they are sworn to lead nor, in the end, preserve the people and the Constitution they are sworn to protect.

These thoughts came into sharp focus upon reading Thomas Ricks' book, "The Gamble", about the dramatic change in Iraq war strategy which produced the "surge" led by Gen. David Petraeus. Ricks, a Washington Post correspondent, lays out in detail how Donald Rumsfeld's discredited strategy of conducting the invasion and occupation of Iraq on the cheap was predicated on nearly total ignorance of the complexities of the society in which we were operating, and callous indifference to the consequences of clinging to that failed strategy despite a growing counterinsurgency and a gruesome, unrelenting daily body county of American military personnel and Iraqi civilians. While President Bush and his administration seemed pathologically reluctant to admit mistakes, they did in fact have a knack for changing course without actually admitting they were doing so. Ricks gives the former President credit for taking an enormous gamble on the counterinsurgency strategy laid out by Petraeus and others when most of this country, and nearly all of the Washington political establishment, were clamoring instead for a rapid withdrawal from what seemed, in 2006, an intractable civil conflict between Iraq's Shia and Sunni militias.

The main reason why Petraeus' efforts succeeded while the previous, more conventional, military strategy failed is because the focus shifted from one in which American assets, including our soldiers' lives, were protected at all costs, to one in which the safety of the Iraqi civilian population became the paramount concern. It may seem obvious in retrospect, but for the first three and a half years of the war, it didn't strike the leadership at the Pentagon as counter-productive to have American forces hunkered down in heavily fortified bases where the civilian population would see them as distant, hostile, non-human entities who had little if anything to do with securing their country. The disbanding of the Iraqi army, the collapse of the country's economy, and the descent into barbarity created a seemingly limitless supply of young Iraqis willing to blow up Americans and each other. The undisciplined, swaggering behavior of many civilian "contractors", who worked as private security forces for the State Department and others, only heightened the sense among the local population that Americans were in Iraq only for their own benefit, and were far from being the force for good in the world that we prefer to think we are. There was little incentive for them to cooperate with us, not because they knew we would leave one day, but because even when we were there we were simply not deeply involved on a neighborhood and village level in helping to solve the problems that mattered to them.

Ricks' book offers a comprehensive, nuanced explanation of what was wrong with our Iraq strategy and why Petraeus' counterinsurgency had a much better chance of success. What is most striking on a human level is that all four branches of our armed forces were completely unprepared for the kind of war we faced in Iraq (and Afghanistan) and that the way our soldiers were trained was simply the wrong training for this type of fighting. The military's deep-seated, infamous disdain for "nation building" made it almost inevitable that we would fail at the most ambitious nation-building program ever undertaken by the United States. And while the war in Iraq is far from over, even as our attention has wandered away, Petraeus' achievement in the surge was truly astonishing. He did not merely have to convince the White House about a change of tactics, he had to counter the military establishment's entire thinking about how wars are fought. As Ricks writes, before the surge of 2007 and 2008, there was no example in military history of an army successfully changing course so dramatically in the middle of a war.

Anyone with military experience — indeed, anyone who has ever watched an American war movie — knows that one of the fundamental aspects of soldier training is unit cohesiveness. In other words, you protect your buddies no matter what, and they will protect you. This mutually reinforcing ethos has, for a century or more, been the foundation of one of the most formidable and effective fighting machines ever created. Heroism in our culture has largely been defined by the solder who is willing to risk his own life for those of his comrades. The dark underside of this methodology, however, has often been the reckless disregard for the lives of anyone else who may find himself in close proximity to the battlefield. Apart from acts of wanton murder of civilians, which are relatively rare, there have still been many highly publicized instances in the Iraq war of civilians being killed in large numbers because American soldiers, motivated solely by their deeply ingrained training to protect themselves and the other soldiers in their unit, fired on civilians because they just couldn't be sure if their intentions were hostile.

Consider, then, how breathtaking a change Petraeus brought to the conduct of the war. The essence of the surge was that American soldiers have had to live among the Iraqi population and to make the protection of civilians their top priority. There were other factors that clearly helped to make the surge successful, most notably the excesses of al Qaeda in Iraq which compelled many formerly hostile Sunnis to come over to our side, and the decision by Moqtada al-Sadr to enforce a cease fire by his powerful militia. Ricks makes it abundantly clear that the security situation, while vastly improved, could still come undone and Iraq could easily sink towards anarchy again. But the new counterinsurgency strategy, which had been applied on a small scale by some creative commanders in various areas of the country, had an unquestionably positive outcome in al-Anbar and Baghdad, long the two most dangerous places for both American forces and Iraqi civilians. From the beginning of the war, there were surely Americans on the ground who cared deeply about the well-being of Iraqis and who did their utmost to provide them with medical care and other kinds of support. But that is qualitatively different from making such concern the object, rather than a by-product, of the war itself.

This change in strategy also brought about a subtle but real shift in the definition of what it means to be a hero. It would be more than a little interesting if some of the urban police departments in the United States took notice of the Petraeus doctrine. As many as one-third of America's police officers had military experience, and it shows: our police forces operate very much like paramilitary organizations. One feature that is strikingly similar is the devotion of police to their fellow officers. The rites for a police officer killed in the line of duty has many of the same characteristics of a military funeral: the rows of uniformed officers, the flag-draped coffin, the strict adherence to ritual. But while the closing of ranks for a fallen officer is understandable, it unintentionally sets the police apart from the population they are sworn to defend. Just like soldiers, police sometimes kill civilians in the sincere belief that they are acting in self-defense, or in defense of a partner under fire. It is no wonder that so many of the poor, inner-city population view the police as the enemy rather than their protectors. The consequences are often tragic both for the police and for the people they are meant to defend. Imagine how different it would be if the Petraeus strategy in Iraq were applied on the streets of our cities. If the police were less preoccupied with their own survival and were trained instead to put the lives of the people ahead of all other concerns, perhaps more of the people would be motivated to work with the police to solve their own problems. It is easy to contemplate such changes from the safety of one's own mind, but surely there is no city in America whose problems and conflicts are as intractable as those encountered by our armed forces on the streets of Baghdad. Some police forces, New York's among them, have in fact shifted to "neighborhood policing" and other analogous techniques to bring the police closer to the populations they serve. And it works.

It is too soon to say if these changes in military strategy represent a permanent, humanizing influence on the conduct of American military operations. It is being applied in Afghanistan right now, so the chances are that, at the very least, no military strategist will be able to ignore the Petraeus counterinsurgency doctrine in future planning. But the military, like the police, is a huge, old and hidebound institution, and there was powerful resistance to the surge all along the way. Only Bush's stubborn support for Petraeus, according to Ricks, gave the general the time and space he needed to test his theory in such a large theater of operations. It would be ironic indeed if this turn in the war marked the beginning of the end of our reflexive paeans to heroism. Perhaps we may live to see the day when the ritual observance of holidays like Memorial Day and Veterans Day become less a time to honor the fallen and the flag under which they fought, than occasions to pay tribute to the humane ideals for which they fell.

May 25, 2009

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