On May 7th, a US Navy warship will be christened in the memory of a fallen Navy SEAL operator and Medal of Honor recipient, Lieutenant Michael Murphy. Murphy, then 29 years old, was killed in action in Afghanistan’s Kunar province on June 28, 2005. The circumstances surrounding his death present a microcosmic example of the immorality in American foreign policy.
Murphy and three other Navy SEALs were performing a reconnaissance mission in the Hindu Kush mountains when a handful of goat herders stumbled upon them. Fearing that their mission might be compromised, the SEAL operators debated feverishly whether the herders should be spared or killed. The Associated Press writes:
If they were Taliban sympathizers, then letting the herders go would allow them to alert the Taliban forces lurking in the area; killing them might ensure the team’s safety, but there were issues of possible military charges and a media backlash…
Military charges? Media backlash? These are the issues that American service members must burden themselves with when engaged in a war zone? Do combat troops have a right to self-defense anymore? Lieutenant Murphy argued in favor of releasing the goat herders:
Murphy, who favored letting the goat herders go, guided a discussion of military, political, safety and moral implications. A majority agreed with him.
Dan Murphy said his son made the right call.
“It was exactly the right decision and what Michael had to do. I’m looking at it from Michael’s perspective, that these were clearly civilians. One of them was 14 years old, which was about the age of his brother. Michael knew the rules of engagement and the risks associated with it,” the father said.
In 1944, the 12th SS Panzer Division ferociously defended Caen from the British and Canadian advance during the Normandy campaign. The unit was comprised of 16 to 18 year olds from the Hitler Youth or Hitlerjugend. During the Battle of Berlin, the Hitler Youth were integral to the Nazi’s last line of defense. Many of the combatants were as young as 12 and they were reportedly some of the fiercest fighters.
Potentiality cannot be confused for actuality. Just because a boy is young does not make him innocent in the ways of the world. Age is minuscule in the larger scheme of the battlefield. The nature of any conflict is the materialization of contrasting ideas. Ideas do not discriminate in terms of age. In the case of the Hitler Youth, their lives belonged, not to themselves, but to the Fuehrer.
Unfortunately, Lieutenant Murphy did not understand the irrelevance of age on the battlefield:
An hour after the herders were released, more than 100 Taliban armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades opened fire, attacking from higher elevation, and maneuvering to outflank the SEALs…
Three of the team members had been shot at least once when Murphy decided drastic action was needed to save the team…With the team’s radio out of commission, Murphy exposed himself to enemy gunfire by stepping into a clearing with a satellite phone to make a call to Bagram Airfield to relay the dire situation. He dropped the phone after being shot, then picked it up to complete the phone call with four words: “Roger that, thank you.”
By the end of the two-hour firefight, Murphy, Dietz and Axelson were dead [Danny Dietz and Matthew Axelson were Petty Officers and Navy SEALs as well]. The tragedy was compounded when 16 rescuers — eight additional SEALs and eight members of the Army’s elite “Night Stalkers” — were killed when their MH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade.
The only Navy SEAL operator deployed with Lieutenant Murphy that survived the assault was Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell:
Luttrell, who was blown off the mountain by a rocket-propelled grenade and knocked unconscious, evaded capture until he was taken in by villagers who protected him until he was liberated five days later by special forces.
The Associated Press article closes with a revealing quote:
Navy Cmdr. Chad Muse, commanding officer of SEAL Delivery Team 1 in Hawaii, noted one of Murphy’s favorite books was Steven Pressfield’s “Gates of Fire,” an account of outnumbered Spartans and their epic battle against hundreds of thousands of invading Persians nearly 2,500 years ago at the Battle of Thermopylae.
Like the Spartans, who were ultimately slaughtered, Murphy had a spirit that didn’t give up. “It’s about sacrifice and the Spartan ideal — and valor and heroism in battle,” Muse said.
The Battle of Thermopylae is understandably alluring. It’s the idea that principles are worth risking everything. But sacrifice claiming the apex of morality? What transpired on June 28, 2005 was indeed sacrificial. Instead of extinguishing three goat herders for the sake of preserving and protecting the Navy SEALs and their mission, 19 brave and courageous American soldiers had to be carried home in caskets. What drove Lieutenant Murphy’s decision to release the Taliban sympathizers were Washington D.C.’s horrendous interpretation of ethics.
Instead of utilizing every capability to defeat a vicious, irrational enemy, and properly identifying the social, cultural, political, and, yes, religious nature of the enemy, Americans are told to exercise restraint. They are told that waging total war will only incite and increase the number of terrorist recruits. They are told that Islam means peace; that “civilians” have more value than the American soldier. The soldier who commits his mind and body to defending and protecting, not others, but his own inalienable, individual rights.
The President of the United States has the prerogative of deciding whether Osama Bin Laden will be bombed out of his fortified compound or raided by special forces. If the President chooses the latter, it should be to confirm the tyrannical mystic is finally and permanently removed from this earth. It cannot be for the sake of protecting “innocent civilians.”
The fear that principally applying force will expand the conflict is driven by voluntary ignorance and moral cowardice. It is the incapacity of politicians to distinguish between reason and faith. This inadequacy explains why it’s perfectly appropriate to shoot Osama Bin Laden in the face, but must treat him to a formal burial in accordance with Islamic law (It’s also technically unconstitutional given that it violates the separation of church and state clause). It explains the logic of how releasing photographs of his corpse might cause fiendish fury in the Islamic world, but the fact that he’s dead, somehow, will not.
The vehement refusal to define the enemy in objective terms or conduct the necessary action to destroy said enemy as quickly as possible breeds contradictory and, subsequently, shoddy foreign policy. American soldiers are placed in harm’s way, but they must hold debates among themselves about the socio-political implications of self-defense. Unsurprisingly, when military commanders and political leaders claim sacrifice will ensure victory, sacrifice becomes the strategy.
Lieutenant Murphy will not be remembered for his valor in vicious combat or maintaining enough composure to say “thank you” in closing a radio transmission; wounded and under heavy fire–as only a Navy SEAL can. No, Lieutenant Murphy will be remembered for his decision to release a few goat herders at the expense of his own life. It is because of the popularity of altruism that honorable soldiers are entangled in endless, aimless welfare wars. It is because of the bankrupt nature of altruism that events such as those on June 28, 2005 in Kunar province occur, and no one can explain the rationale for 19 dead American servicemen.