Tough Choices: SEALS vs Goatherders

From a column by Diana West:

Dropped behind enemy lines to kill or capture a Taliban kingpin who commanded between 150 and 200 fighters, the SEAL team was unexpectedly discovered in the early stages of a mission whose success, of course, depended on secrecy. Three unarmed Afghan goatherds, one a teenager, had stumbled across the Americans' position, presenting the soldiers with an urgent dilemma: What should they do?

If they let the Afghans go, the Afghans would probably alert the Taliban to their whereabouts. This would mean a battle in which the Americans were outnumbered by at least 35 to 1. If the Americans didn't let the goatherds go -- if they killed them, because there was no way to hold them -- the Americans would avoid detection and, most likely, leave the area safely. On a treeless mountainside far from home, four of our bravest patriots came to the ghastly conclusion that the only way to save themselves was forbidden by the ROE. Such an action would set off a media firestorm, and lead to murder charges for all.

It is agonizing to read their tense debate as recounted by Marcus Luttrell, the "lone survivor" of the disastrous mission. Each of the SEALs was aware of "the strictly correct military decision" -- namely, that it would be suicide to let the goatherds live. But they were also aware that their own country, for which they were fighting, would ultimately turn on them if they made that decision. It was as if committing suicide had become the only politically correct option. For fighting men ordered behind enemy lines, such rules are not only insane, they're immoral.

The SEALs sent the goatherds on their way. One hour later, a sizeable Taliban force attacked, beginning a horrendous battle that resulted not only in the deaths of Mr. Luttrell's three SEAL teammates, but also the deaths of 16 would-be rescuers -- eight additional SEALs and eight Army special operations soldiers whose helicopter was shot down by a Taliban RPG.

Actually, Ms. West, what would be immoral is murder of civilians. The SEALs did exactly the right thing, both ethically and tactically. I doubt political correctness had anything to do with it.

As an Army officer and company commander I thought a lot about these issues. Here is the deal: American soldiers do not intentionally kill non-combatants. Never, ever, under any circumstances whatsoever. We do not do it. Or at least we should not; sometimes it happens, and those who do it are deservedly punished.

Obviously, civilians will be caught in the crossfire at times and get hurt or killed. That’s different. Killing them was not our intent. We take reasonable steps to minimize it, but in modern warfare civilian deaths are inevitable. Everyone recognizes this.

That was not the case in this situation. The goatherders had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ms. West thinks that this was, in effect, a capital offense. The SEALs should have just executed these people in order to save themselves, she says.

The SEALs made the right choice. It is unfortunate that some of them paid for it with their lives, but should not be surprising. U.S. troops are all volunteers who know they may go into combat and risk death. Special Ops units like the SEALs are doubly so. The goatherders, on the other hand, did not volunteer for any such thing. They were simply going about their business, harming no one. If you want to blame someone for the American casualties, blame the commander who appears to have sent them into this situation without adequate plans and resources.

On a purely practical level, killing the civilians might have saved some American lives in the short run. It would also have ended any chance of further cooperation from the inhabitants of that region. Creating still more enemies when you already have enough of them is rarely a good strategic move. The end result would likely have been far more American deaths as the population turned hostile.

Ms. West concludes her column with a particularly despicable line: “A nation that doesn't automatically value its sons who fight to protect it more than the "unarmed civilians" — spies? fighters? — whom they encounter behind enemy lines is not only unlikely to win a war, it isn't showing much interest in its own survival.”

Let me rephrase: a nation that allows, and even encourages, its sons to kill unarmed civilians in cold blood will not only lose its wars. It will lose its soul.

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