Last Saturday marked the 70th anniversary of the battle for Iwo Jima.
Some of the survivors, many, in their 90s were “bused to the top of Mount Suribachi,” the Associate Press reports (Mar. 22), “where an Associated Press photo of the raising of the American flag while the battle was still raging became a potent symbol of hope and valor to a war-weary public back home that was growing increasingly disillusioned with the seemingly unending battle in the Pacific.”
Today, many veterans are wondering what has happened to that valor, particularly in light of the news that U.S. Army Sargent Bowe Bergdahl will face charges of “desertion and misbehavior before the enemy,” The New York Times writes (Mar. 26). Even greater disillusionment comes from the fact that President Obama gave the green-light to exchange five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba to secure the release of Bergdahl after he was held for five years by insurgents
However, according to a story by Reuters (May 9, 2012), the transfer of the five “was intended as one of a series of confidence-building measures designed to open the door to political talks between the Taliban and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government.
“That move – at the center of U.S. strategy for ending the long, costly conflict in Afghanistan – was also supposed to lead directly to Bowe’s release. … But the Guantanamo transfer proposal, which would have required notification to Congress, ground to a halt when the Taliban rejected U.S. conditions designed to ensure transferred Taliban would not slip away and re-emerge as military leaders.”
Nonetheless, the Obama administration ultimately went through with the trade and Bergdahl was brought home causing many in Congress to question the long-held proposition that we never negotiate with terrorists.
On June 5, 2014, CNN journalist Anderson Cooper interviewed White House spokesman James Carney about the questionable exchange, asking if it can “still be said that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists.”
“It can be,” Carney said, “because when you put on the uniform of the United States and you go and fight on behalf of your country in a foreign land at war, and you’re taken captive by the enemy, the principle that we don’t leave our men and women behind doesn’t have an asterisk attached to it depending on who’s holding you.”
“Even if it was a group like Al Qaeda,” Cooper asked, “there would be negotiations with them?”
“What I’m saying is he was a prisoner in an armed conflict,” Carney responded, “and we were engaged in an effort for five years to try to recover him. As an admiral said on TV today, he said when one of your shipmates goes overboard, you go get them. You don’t ask whether he jumped or he was pushed or he fell. You go get him first and then you find out.”
Now that the Army is in the process of charging Bergdahl with desertion based on evidence from soldiers from his platoon, the wisdom of such a decision clearly becomes all the more problematic.
Circling back to hope, valor, and the requisite sacrifice that many soldiers have made for their country, I’m reminded of a story by former Marine Captain Dale Dye submitted for my book, What Do You Stand For? It came in the form of an insight at the end of a story that’s worth repeating.
After his first experience of killing an enemy soldier at close range, Dye was shaken. Later that night, he went to the company command post and sat down next to the company Gunny.
“ ‘What’s on your mind, Dye?’ He just stared, noting how my hand shook.
“ ‘Nothin’, Gunny. Just feelin’ a little weird, is all.’
“ ‘Blew one away today, didn’t you?’ Gunny knew everything that happened in Echo Company and he knew his Marines.
“ ‘I don’t know if I can do this shit.’
“It was the damndest thing. Gunny – the kick-your-ass, kill-em-and-eat-em, spitting image of John Wayne – reached out and touched my cheek. It was just a touch and the hint of white teeth in the dark, but it was all I needed to start blubbering. He held onto me and whispered things about his own experience in the frozen Chosin Reservoir in Korea. He’d killed a bunch of Chinese in a hill fight one night and had the same reaction. He understood and wanted to let me know he understood.
“We stood watch together that night, answering routine calls on the radio, watching for movement to our front and flanks – becoming professional fighting men together with the tacit understanding that what we had chosen to do required a great leap of faith beyond what most mortals will ever be required to make.
“Just before dawn, the Gunny dragged me from the CP and walked with me over to the area where our KIA’s (killed in action) had been wrapped in ponchos and tagged for evacuation. He knelt by one of the corpses and exposed the face of a Marine I knew well.
“ ‘It ain’t about you, Dye. It’s about him…and all the other Marines in this outfit and all the other outfits. You fight and, when the time comes, you kill to prevent this. If that’s murder…if that’s a sin…then there ain’t no justice. I couldn’t live with that thought in Korea, and you ain’t gonna be able to live with it in the Nam. It’s a hard-assed, horrible thing we gotta do, son, but better we do it than people who can’t handle it. You gotta understand,’ the Gunny told me as we stood to face the dawn, ‘there are things in this life a whole lot bigger and more important than you and me. We got just one life to give, and if we give it to support or defend others, then we done good. God knows that and we should too.’
“I learned a lot that day, but it was not in the nature of an epiphany. It took years for some of the lessons to become part of what I stand for today –
- “Take counsel of your fears but don’t be afraid to wrestle with moral questions. The internal dispute, once resolved, will frequently put you on solid ground when the next tough question arises.
- “Understand and appreciate the sacrifices of others. It gives you a sense of pride, belonging and unity.
- “Back off from your own concerns and bear in mind that there is usually something larger, and more important, than yourself.
- “Stand for your fellow man. He’s generally worth it.
- “Ponder the soldier when times are tight and understand that he’s the ultimate and noblest of all public servants. If he’s willing to die for you, be worth that sacrifice.”
At the end of the day, it’s not about the “people who can’t handle it.” It’s about remembering the millions of others who sacrificed for us that matters.