OPINION: No one dies in vain

By Mike Mullen Special to The Washington Post "That these dead shall not have died in vain." Of all the lines -- of all the ideas -- in Lincoln's famous speech, this one resonates most with me. Even now, long after I have taken off the uniform, g...

By Mike Mullen

Special to The Washington Post

“That these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Of all the lines - of all the ideas - in Lincoln’s famous speech, this one resonates most with me. Even now, long after I have taken off the uniform, grieving mothers, fathers, sons and daughters approach me and ask, “Was it worth it? Did his death mean anything?”

I tell them it did. I tell them it mattered.


How could it be otherwise? How could it be that in a democracy - a free society - men and women may risk their lives to defend that freedom and lose those lives in vain?

It cannot be so.

Regardless of the terms of the treaty, the surrender, the withdrawal, the defeat or the victory, no American who sheds blood to preserve that which his ancestors fought to establish can ever be said to have made that sacrifice without meaning.

No one who dies in the service of country dies in vain.

It may be easy to forget this when headlines tell of renewed violence in Iraq and a still-active deadly enemy in Afghanistan, with critics saying we achieved nothing.

It’s easy to forget it when troops still come home through Dover Air Force Base and are laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, when loved ones grapple with futures snuffed out or with wounds, visible and invisible.

It’s easy to forget it when public support wanes for the war effort.

But we should be quick to remember that war, though never glorious, is sometimes necessary, that the soldier is the servant of the state, not the maker of policy, and that sacrifice, though painful, is the price we pay for freedom. For those of us who advised the president to send troops into harm’s way, these were never decisions taken lightly.


We should remember that what qualifies a life well-lived and honorably lost is not merely victory on the battlefield but the nobility of the struggle itself - the courage to take up arms in pursuit of something large.

It was to this idea - to an America whole and free and not simply to more Union victories - that Lincoln aspired when he spoke of the lives sold dearly at Gettysburg.

War is an abomination. It is an ugly, dirty, oppressively exhausting business. The soldier no more welcomes it than he does any other deprivation or hardship. Neither should the citizen or the politician.

In war, as in any other facet of life, there are losses more difficult to reconcile - those caused by accident, faulty judgment, treachery and carelessness. There are losses wholly preventable, even as there are losses wholly necessary. Neither is to be pitied. Neither lacks honor. There is no “good” death in war.

Think about how many Civil War fatalities occurred from wounds that today would be mended quickly. Were they less honorable? Were they less purposeful?

Of course not.

As a volunteer nurse, Walt Whitman spent countless hours tending to the wounded in Union hospitals. He read to them, befriended them.

One such friend was Frank Irwin, a young corporal wounded near Fort Fisher in Virginia in 1865. Irwin had been shot through the knee, and the wound became infected.


Whitman wrote to Irwin’s mother the day the corporal died from that infection.

“He seem’d quite willing to die,” wrote Whitman. “And now like many other noble and good men, after serving his country as a soldier, he has yielded up his young life at the very outset in her service.”

“Such things are gloomy,” he continued, “yet there is a text: ‘God doeth all things well’ - the meaning of which, after due time, appears to the soul.”

More than 6,500 Americans have “yielded up” their young lives since these new wars began. Hundreds of thousands of others have returned home forever changed. Their families, too, have suffered yet endured.

As we remember the carnage and the courage of the Civil War, let us likewise honor a new generation of soldiers. As we mourn the dead or spur the wounded to recovery, let us be willing to believe that in due time the meaning of these fresh sacrifices will appear to the soul - theirs and ours.

Let us take comfort in the knowledge that, whatever the outcome in Iraq and Afghanistan, the precious blood these young people shed for that future shall not - cannot - have been shed in vain.

- Mike Mullen, a retired admiral, was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011.

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