December 27, 2004 © The Center for War, Peace and the News Media.
All Rights Reserved.

The fallacy of "dying in vain"


By Dan Smith

Global Beat Syndicate


WASHINGTON--The morning after the attack on the chow hall at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, The New York Times headline was stark and predictable: "Fighting On the Only Option."

This attitude is not unique to the United States, to Western culture, or to the post-modern era of "the sole remaining superpower." It exists, implicitly if not explicitly, in the history and literature of civilizations past and present where it is celebrated as a virtue unless related to war, when it is not merely celebrated but glorified.

We are schooled to think--and thus our choice of words--that the only proper response to catastrophe, whether from nature or human actions, is an unshakable "grim determination" to press on with the same (or similar) course of action. Underlying this response is the almost automatic assumption that whatever we do must be beneficial if not "right," for as rational beings, we would never act otherwise.

Thus, when homes repeatedly are destroyed because they sit on a river's flood plain or are on low islands in hurricane-prone latitudes, owners vow to stay and rebuild. In their logic, any other course constitutes "surrender," a concept entirely encased in negativity.

When war is the subject, however, nations seem to dwell more on their catastrophes in battle - distinctly not beneficial - rather than the conclusion of warfare - without which there can be no new beneficent beginnings. Emotion in the understandable grieving for those killed tends to be elevated into an impassioned nationalism that, at least while armed conflict persists, becomes inflammatory propaganda masquerading as a destructive "patriotism" whose single, constricting mantra is "these dead shall not have died in vain."

But this is revenge, not patriotism.

Patriotism as love of one's country is a virtue, but it is not the highest virtue. Why? Because countries are human constructs, and as such are susceptible to incorporating the flaws, foibles, and imperfect understanding of events to which all humans are subject. It is these shortcomings that, undetected, uncorrected and uncompensated for, so constrict political vision that leaders perceive fewer and fewer options to even the most damaging policies. "Fighting on" becomes not a free choice but an act of sheer desperation.

And the depth of such desperation is palpable in the rhetoric of those who, although instigating armed conflict, do not share the dangers of battlefield service. Theirs is the Homeric "Argument of Minerva":   once war begins, the first to die demand further sacrifice from their companions since they have demonstrated by their deaths that no price is too high to attain the war's objectives. "You must fight on, for if you now make peace with the enemy, you will offend the dead."

But neither the dead nor their memory can be offended, especially by a peace that would end the accumulation of more dead in an effort to achieve "victory." Rather, it is we the living who are offended, and in projecting that sense of being wronged onto the dead, we place on their shoulders the responsibility for future bloodletting. In so doing, we actually dishonor the dead.

True victory really resides in the practice of those virtues that rank above imperfect patriotism. These involve interpersonal relations manifested in the religious and humanistic ideals of respect for the dignity and uniqueness of every other person, living, deceased, and those yet to come.

We are told that life is worth living. If so, then "victory" resides not in the process of war, which is death, but in the never-ending process of life itself.

And for this victory of life, we can all with hope "fight on."


Dan Smith is senior analyst on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Washington, D.C., and a retired U.S. Army colonel. The FCNL is a public interest lobby that seeks to bring the concerns, experiences and testimonies of Friends (called Quakers) to bear on national policy decisions.

© 2004. The Center for War, Peace and the News Media. All Rights Reserved. The Global Beat Syndicate, a service of The Center for War, Peace, and the News Media, provides editors with commentary and perspective articles on critical global issues from contributors around the world. For more information, check out

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