The Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest decoration for bravery during combat operations. The president presents the medal in the name of Congress to a member of the military who has "distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States." Congress has awarded the medal to three soldiers¯all posthumously¯during the War on Terror, most recently to Lieutenant Michael Patrick Murphy of the U.S. Navy.
In June 2005, Lt. Murphy was leading his four-man SEAL team in search of a terrorist leader along the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. At an elevation of over 10,000 feet, the team was discovered and attacked by a force of forty Taliban fighters. The Taliban forces had the high ground and quickly surrounded the SEALs. Miles from the nearest reinforcements, the SEALs repelled attack after attack, killing large numbers of the enemy.
After forty-five minutes of fighting and with one member of his team already severely wounded, Lt. Murphy determined that his team would not survive without immediate reinforcements. He walked into a completely exposed position to get cellular reception to call in a Quick Reaction Force. During the conversation, Lt. Murphy was shot several times, including a hit in the back that caused him to drop the phone. Still under fire, he retrieved the phone and completed his call for help, concluding it by saying, "Roger that, sir. Thank you." He returned, now severely wounded, to continue the fight with his men.
A contingent of helicopters was sent to attempt a rescue of the embattled SEALs. Taliban forces employed a rocket-propelled grenade to shoot down the lead helicopter before it could land, killing all sixteen men onboard. The other pilots witnessed the "unbelievable firefight" as the SEALs continued to repel continuous enemy attacks. After two hours of continuous fighting, the team had nearly exhausted its ammunition, and all four SEALS were seriously wounded.
Ultimately, Navy SEALs Matthew Axelson, Danny Dietz, and Patrick Murphy were killed. The fourth man, Marcus Luttrell, blown over a ridge by the explosion of a grenade and later shot, managed to evade Taliban fighters for four days (killing six more Taliban himself in the process) before being rescued. Luttrell tells the whole the story of SEAL Team 10 in his book Lone Survivor . It was on the basis of his account that Congress voted to award Lt. Murphy the Medal of Honor.
What makes men like Lt. Murphy do such extraordinary things? In the U.S. military, we often say, "Drive on." We say this in myriad settings to convey in two simple words that difficulties must be overcome. It means that you never quit, that you keep going, that you always find the will to accomplish your mission. The military teaches and endlessly develops the will of its members to drive on . Combat is hard¯much, much harder than most people ever realize. Nevertheless, in combat you can never quit. If you quit, you lose; if you lose, you die. The only way to win is to drive on, even¯and even especially¯when you don’t think you can go any further.
Sun Tzu, whom the American military reads carefully and holds in high regard, taught that victory on the battlefield is achieved by defeating your enemy’s will to fight. Military training is hard because the job of soldiers is hard. You’ve been deployed to war for the third time in less than three years¯drive on. You’ve been out in the mountains for several days, and you’re cold, tired, hungry, and then it starts to rain¯drive on. You’ve witnessed friends being wounded or killed¯drive on. You’re surrounded, outnumbered, and severely wounded, and the only way to get help is to walk into the open to make a phone call, almost assuredly sacrificing your own life¯drive on. The will of American soldiers is constantly tested. The will of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan¯I speak from personal experience now¯is strong. It must be so; the job demands it. On the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States military most certainly has the will to fight and win.
But the will of our nation, the will of the American people who do not face the enemy in battle, can be shockingly different. It’s amazing, almost inexplicable, that those who go into battle and those who face death are more determined to fight and win than those who remain safely at home. The United States is a nation of economic and military might unprecedented in the history of the world, and yet this supremacy has somehow been attended by the weakening of our national will. After the success of World War II, a victory that cost the lives of more than 400,000 American military personnel, America seemed to lose its will when the going got tough. A stalemate in the Korean War was followed by "Peace with Honor" in Vietnam. Ironically, the first Gulf War and the action in Kosovo further weakened the American will: The acceptable casualty rate in war became effectively zero. Sun Tzu’s theory, if applied to democratic nation-states, would most assuredly hold that victory could also be achieved by defeating the will of the civilian populace. As a former soldier, I worry that that is exactly what is happening.
Set aside the reasons for going to war in Iraq and its handling to date. We might not like where we are, just as Lt. Murphy did not like finding his team surrounded and outnumbered ten to one. But like Lt. Murphy we can only ask ourselves what we ought to do next, what’s best for the United States and for Iraq. We have invaded another country and removed a man recognized by the world as a dictator, an abuser of human rights, and a threat to the international community. In freeing the Iraqi people from a cruel regime, we inadvertently exposed them to massive civil upheaval and malicious interference from neighboring states and terrorist organizations. Having subjected the Iraqi people to these serious threats, are we not obligated to protect them until they are capable of protecting themselves? Don’t we have to walk out into the open to make that phone call even though we might get shot?
American politicians and the public were overwhelmingly in support of this war at its inception. Now many¯probably most¯want to quit. They have lost the will to fight. Shortly after the attacks of September 11, the president, in readying the nation for war, repeated the words of Todd Beamer from United Flight 93, the man who began the American counterattack by saying, "Let’s roll." After six years of fighting the War on Terror and four years in Iraq, although we are caught in a tough spot, it’s time to drive on .
Jeremy Clark, a student at Villanova School of Law, was an infantry captain with the 82nd Airborne and a three-time veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.