Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
This essay is the tenth in a series exploring the role of the professions in a modern, liberal democratic society and their effect on the civic culture of the nation. For more information about AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, visit www.citizenship-aei.org.
The military provides a clear benefit to the American polity: it is the country’s federal mechanism for the common defense. But what is its relationship to America’s civic culture? Do the professionals the military molds and employs in the nation’s wars affect the civic culture positively, as models of necessary virtues and keepers of specialized professional knowledge necessary to a healthy civic life? Or do they affect the culture negatively, as damaged and occasionally dangerous men perverted by violence?
My search for the answer to these questions may as well begin in the village of Ganjgal in Konar Province, Afghanistan, on September 8, 2009. The Battle of Ganjgal was smaller in scale than, say, the Battle of Normandy or even the Battle of Fallujah. On the friendly side were a few dozen American advisers from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps fighting alongside about 100 Afghan government troops and policemen. The Taliban brought about 60 men to the fight.
But despite the comparatively smaller scale, in its own modest way the day-long fight at Ganjgal carried all the universal traits of men at war: questionable leadership, intense physical and mental hardship, lives ended, lives saved, reputations broken, reputations made, terrible suffering, conflicting accounts in the aftermath, and extraordinary valor.
he US military’s purpose in visiting Ganjgal had been to secure the allegiance of the villagers to the Kabul government by getting them to accept a police station in return for refurbishments for their mosque. The village was nestled in the high ground, and the Afghans and their American advisers could only approach it by one poor-quality road.
The road and village were surrounded on three sides by elevated terrain such that to approach it, as the advisers and government troops did at dawn, was to be caught in a U-shaped sac. The three-sided ambush was a specialty of the Taliban: usually faced with superior American firepower, they preferred to bend fluidly around allied troops rather than attempt to hold terrain, surrounding Americans and attriting them as they advanced, falling back and melting away as necessary for survival.
Those Americans and government troops who had advanced the farthest into the village were in the worst position, under the most intense fire and cut off from their comrades farther back. The battle became a fight to save them and, ultimately, to recover some of their bodies. Five Americans died: three Marines, one Navy corpsman, and one soldier who, shot that day, later died of his wounds. According to the Afghan soldiers they fought alongside, the Americans had been killed while covering the withdrawal of their Afghan comrades, eight of whom died.
One of the reasons for the number of casualties was that each American was effectively fighting with a hand tied behind his back. Despite repeated calls for indirect fire and air support from men on the scene, the senior leadership responsible for the operation declined for hours to provide help.
Working under the restrictive environment created by General Stanley McChrystal’s rules of engagement, which were designed to safeguard the lives of Afghan civilians, midlevel commanders overenforced the rules, preferring to risk American casualties rather than explain civilian deaths to a general. When late in the day-long fight the commanders allowed helicopter gunships to fire in support of the troops in combat, the effects were decisive but could not bring men back from the dead.
Two men who fought at Ganjgal were awarded the Medal of Honor: Army Captain Will Swenson and Marine Corporal Dakota Meyer. An unofficial if widely understood standard for the Medal of Honor is that the actions of the recipient must have been of such a character that, should the recipient not have performed those actions, no one would question or think less of him as a result.
Both Swenson and Meyer participated in the cruel task of pushing into the enemy’s planned killing fields to rescue the trapped, wounded, and fallen. For the Americans involved in this effort, the thought of not rescuing the men trapped in the village was anathema. They were determined to rescue those men or recover their bodies, even at the cost of their own lives.
The anger and confusion of the battlefield gave way to more anger and confusion in the aftermath. Investigations were conducted and leaders were disciplined. In response to pressure from Congress on the US Department of Defense to award Medals of Honor to living recipients, the Marine Corps was quick to offer up Dakota Meyer while the Army appeared to suppress Will Swenson’s nomination, perhaps stung by his criticism of the chain of command.
Jonathan Landay, a McClatchy reporter who had been on the scene, wrote a series of stories describing how the details of the Marine Corps’ account of Meyer’s actions did not correspond with what he or Swenson remembered. But in some respects Landay’s articles went too far, seeming to imply that because different men remember the chaos of a battlefield differently, then a calculated inflation must be at work. These things were suggested despite the fact that Meyer had consistently said that Will Swenson deserved the Medal of Honor and that he, Meyer, did not.
Moreover, to those with battlefield experience or knowledge of the complicated workings of human memory, the fact that two men remembered the particulars of a battle differently should hardly be tabloid fare. Moreover, it seems something less than a scandal that the Marine Corps would seek to promote with public honors and to make a role model out of a young man who, all agree, repeatedly risked his life to save the lives of his comrades.
What can be said, having reviewed the events and aftermath of Ganjgal, of the military’s contributions to civil society? For many, the events and aftermath would suggest that even considering the confusion and conflicting accounts, these events suggest that the military promotes courage as a virtue and that military men serve as reminders and role models of that essential virtue.
But others might use these events as evidence that the military has a perverting effect on American culture. In their view, the country promotes glamorizing narratives about patriotic, masculinist values to sanitize the reality of what was, in truth, only a grim and nasty affair. Sold on this false narrative, young men continue to volunteer to go to war.