Soldiers don't do math. That's the terrible beauty underscored
by the return home this week of Petty Officer First Class Neil
Roberts and the six other American fighting men who gave their
lives in Afghanistan on Monday in the effort to recover his body.
In press briefings at the Pentagon, the loss of these seven
lives led to embarrassing references to "Black Hawk Down," the
recent, blockbuster film chronicling how one Ranger who'd missed
his rope as he left his helicopter ended up costing the lives
of 18 other soldiers who went to help him. Understandably, the
Pentagon is not big on parallels to Mogadishu. But as Brig.
Gen. John Rosa told reporters: "We don't leave Americans behind."
And that is one parallel that should be celebrated.
In any practical calculus, risking live soldiers to collect
dead ones makes no sense. But plainly the warriors understand
it. The Ranger credo of "Leave no man behind" is the centerpiece
of "Black Hawk Down." The same goes for the just-released "We
Were Soldiers." In this chronicle of the 1965 battle of la Drang,
the first major clash between U.S. and Vietnamese troops, Mel
Gibson's Lt. Col. Hal Moore acknowledges to his men that he
can't promise to bring them all back alive. But he does vow
that he "will leave no one behind. We will all go home together,
whether dead or alive." That language may sound like John Wayne
boilerplate. But it was a pledge kept on the battlefield at
Joe Galloway, a reporter who was at the battle and later
co-authored the book on which the movie is based, remembers
it well. "Col. Moore moved the perimeter out 300 yards and ordered
his men to get down on their hands and knees and crawl through
the grass to find the last guy," he told us. "And they did."
In his experience in Vietnam as a war correspondent, he
says, he saw many a young Marine lieutenant do the same.
Surely it is no coincidence that it is two of our most elite
forces—the Rangers and the Marines—that spend so much time drumming
into their men the importance of recovering the fallen among
their ranks. Maybe they know something the bookkeepers like
Robert McNamara, so brilliant with numbers, never did: That
if an officer wants his men to take his talk of brotherhood
seriously, he'd better show them that he takes it seriously
himself. And if he's not willing to risk lives to collect his
dead, where does he draw the line? With a man he thinks is probably
already dead? With a wounded one who likely won't live yet is
holding up the others? With one who might die?
The truth is that much of the best we do makes no sense
in utilitarian terms. When Khmer Rouge forces seized the U.S.
merchant ship Mayaguez in May 1975, it took the lives of 41
American servicemen to save the lives of the 39 crew members.
In Bosnia the lives of more than four dozen people were put
at risk to rescue one pilot, Scott O'Grady. And as we have seen
in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, it cost six good Americans
to recover the body of Petty Officer Roberts.
Mr. Galloway says there are two parts to this ethic. Anyone
can see what it costs. But maybe you have to be a soldier to
understand what it's worth.