Sunday, September 17, 2006

Every Death Has Meaning

Time and again, I have heard the sentiment expressed that if we leave Iraq, then the deaths of American soldiers in that conflict will have been meaningless. The motives behind such a sentiment are understandable—it is very difficult to contemplate the death of troops in what may be perceived as a “losing” cause. But when examined closely, this notion is revealed as a disservice in itself to the memories of those who have died.

The death of a soldier in war is profoundly meaningful. That soldier gave all that he or she had, paid the ultimate price of service to country. To make this meaning contingent on the war’s outcome is actually to belittle that sacrifice, to make it dependent on circumstances. The families of soldiers know, and every soldier knows, that the sacrifice made has a far greater significance than any later narrative that becomes identified with the war. Every death has meaning because every person is precious, and because the act of service and sacrifice transcends our limited conceptions. Death allows us to recognize ourselves as ends rather than means. In honoring the dead, those who respect the mystery and finality of this sacrifice know this meaning in the depths of our hearts, where politics does not play any part.

On the other hand, from the belief that to withdraw or suffer defeat deprives the dead of meaning, many conclusions follow, all of them absurd. Everyone who died in a losing cause would be dying in vain. Their dignity would be dependent on the outcome of the war. The deaths of the loyalist fighters in the Spanish Civil War, for example, would be devoid of meaning because their side didn’t win. But even if the cause is considered unjust, we recognize the dignity of the individuals who died on that side, at least if their conduct was honorable. Many military men who have faced battle have known moments of respect for the enemy, even if they hate the opposing cause.

More significantly, this notion makes it impossible for the nation to recognize mistakes in its waging of a war. By this logic, any war we fight must continue to be fought regardless of its nature or consequences, simply because soldiers have already died in it. Thousands more must die in order to provide meaning to previous deaths, and only on condition that victory is eventually achieved—or, I presume, self-annihilation. The possibility that the government could be wrong about a war, that a war that we are waging could be wrong, or unwinnable, is not even permitted. To question the validity of the war is, by this line of reasoning, to deny meaning to the deaths of our troops. This is an inhuman and insulting way to consider the lives of soldiers. Their sacrifice is thereby drained of meaning, and made to pay service to purely political ends.

Only in the knowledge that every death has meaning can a nation wage war with the proper attitude towards its troops. Death in war is irrevocable—the lives of young men and women cut short forever. Therefore, war is not an occasion for joy or a means to glory. If a war is necessary, then it should be waged, but in the sure knowledge that it is a tragic and dirty business, and should be carried out in the most effective way possible, avoiding as far as possible a needless loss of life. People who have been in the thick of battle know this truth. Unfortunately, armchair warriors often do not.

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