A Soldier’s Valor

The families were glad to have their soldier sons safely home from Iraq—but the soldiers themselves were angry. “We should have stayed and finished our mission,” one sergeant told a reporter. One of his buddies agreed. “When you see the poverty and people living in mud houses next to Saddam’s palaces, the work we were doing seems justified,” he explained. “It had valor.” These amazing comments came, not from American servicemen returning home, but from Spanish soldiers—men who had been brought home by their new prime minister, Zapatero. While some of these men were initially opposed to the war, they told the Boston Globe they regretted having to “abandon what they felt was a useful humanitarian mission.” Clearly, these soldiers knew that they were not there to conquer and kill. They were there to help heal a war-torn nation. And this is the same spirit American soldiers have exhibited. I’ve talked to many of them in the last few weeks; they have a sense of nobility in what they are doing. They know their mission is worthy. The behavior of the vast majority of soldiers echoes the values and valor of previous generations of military men we remember on Memorial Day. As the late historian Stephen Ambrose so memorably put it, reflecting on World War II, “The most terrifying sight to most civilians was a squad of armed teenage boys in uniform.” Whether it was the Red Army in Warsaw, the Japanese in Manila, or the Germans in Holland, this sight meant trouble. There was one exception. “Everywhere in the world,” Ambrose wrote, “the sight of a twelve-man squad of GIs brought joy to people’s hearts.” Why? “Because the sight of those American kids meant cigarettes, candy, c-rations, and freedom. They had come not to conquer or terrorize but to liberate.” This is why our soldiers are in Iraq today: not as conquerors, but as liberators. And ordinary Iraqis know that when they see coalition soldiers, they are not seeing those who will torture and rape and steal, but they are seeing those who will share their food and water with a hungry child. When the news surfaced that soldiers were abusing Iraqi prisoners, many in the press gleefully jumped on this story in order to blame everybody from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to President Bush. What most failed to note was that the story made headlines precisely because it was so extraordinary. Americans don’t do things like this, and the bad apples that did it do not represent us. If Saddam Hussein were still in charge, the torment would have involved, not humiliation, but chopping off hands and feet. And yes, only a handful of our 135,000 soldiers took part. But if we are in Iraq for noble purposes (and we are), we must judge ourselves by the standards of a noble people, and we will. This is how we prove “the rectitude of our intentions,” as the Declaration of Independence puts it. This is how we prove to a cynical world the truth of the words of that Spanish soldier: that the mission—and the men and woman who carry it out—are noble. A just war, as Aquinas argued, is an expression of Christian love for one’s neighbor. Our soldiers in Iraq are part of a great tradition of duty, honor, and valor, and that is a tradition we as a free people can celebrate this Memorial Day.


Chuck Colson


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