By Matthew Wadler:
I remember being at Fort Campbell preparing for my second deployment to Afghanistan. I was at the division headquarters preparing for a briefing when I saw a document on the wall that caught my eye. It was the letter written by the German Commander calling for the surrender of the Americans who had just taken over the defense of the city of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans had to take the city due to the roads that ran through it. The 101st had been ordered there to hold the city at all costs. They were well outmanned and under prepared lacking rations, weapons, ammunition, cold weather clothing, and personnel; essentially everything needed to sustain operations against the German military. Brigadier General McAuliffe responded to the German letter with a one word reply, “Nuts!” This reply is known by all historians and members of the 101st Airborne Division. However, what isn’t known to most is what that letter actually said. To me it was one of the most poignant moments in my career.
The letter states in its entirety,
“To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river. Our near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands.
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honourable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two-hour term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.
The German Commander.”
What struck me to my core was not the fact that the Americans were surrounded and still chose to fight. Americans have never believed in a no win scenario and we have been proven correct throughout our history. It was not even the fact that we were willing to withstand the constant and overwhelming artillery strikes followed by constant attacks by both infantry and armored units. No, what struck me was the fact that even 72 years-ago this month we were known throughout the world as the safe harbor for those in need. Even our enemies knew that they could use our altruism against us. Their thought – if we cannot beat them by force, we can destroy their will through the killing of innocents.
Of course, there will always be horrendous examples of evil within any community, our military is no different. Unfortunately, malevolence always seems to be able to hide its true colors long enough to embed itself into an organization and cause tremendous damage. But if this were the rule and not the exception we would not have the overwhelming success in combat with enemy combatants running up to US Soldiers trying to surrender. The problem is that these rare exceptions to what makes up a very altruistic and empathetic military are much better press than those who sacrifice their lives for people they have never even met.
Think of the outrage that occurred with the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I am not saying that the behavior should be condoned or accepted. There was no reason that the prisoners should have been mistreated other than the fact that leadership at the lowest levels failed to hold true to the Army Values and because of this Soldiers were allowed to lose their sense of honor. Even with that being said, where is the counter point in the media to this incident? How much outrage was there at the beheadings that the Taliban and ISIS conducted? Was that front and center on the news for months on end? What about any and all of the heroic actions that have occurred in combat? How many people in the United States know the name of a single military member that has died on behalf of others? Specifically, how many know about Specialist (SPC) Ross Andrew McGinnis? On 4 December 2006 a grenade was thrown into his HMMWV, more commonly known as the Humvee, during an engagement in Iraq. SPC McGinnis was in the turret of the vehicle and could have easily escaped the blast by jumping from the vehicle. Instead he entered the main compartment and smothered the grenade with his body, saving the other members of his team. For this action he was awarded the Medal of Honor. I don’t recall however this being front page news at all, instead a brief statement about his death and an equally brief notice of the President signing his and several other heroes posthumous awards.
Before the 4th Brigade Combat Team, ‘The Currahee’s’, deployed to Afghanistan we had a guest speaker come and give a presentation to us. It was Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Dave Grossman who wrote the books On Combat and On Killing. In his presentation he showed a series of 3 photos taken about 5-10 seconds apart. The first photo showed a Soldier on patrol amongst the local civilian populace walking the streets in either Afghanistan or Iraq. In the background, some ways away, there was a plume of smoke from what I assume was an explosion. Everyone had their heads turned to the disturbance. In the second photo everyone is starting to run and there is a small boy who is crying completely dismayed at what was happening. The Soldier had started to turn towards the disruption. In the third and final photo the Soldier is walking directly to the smoke plume and the boy has hidden behind the Soldier. What makes this so powerful is the fact that not only is the boy using the Soldier as a human shield, but the Soldier puts himself in front of the boy to be his shield.
This is the norm for our military. This is why the military carries such regard when spoken around the world. This is also the reason why so many of our enemies fear us. Power does not simply come in the form of the weapons of death and destruction that we carry. True power comes in the form of a whisper. This whisper is more powerful than any weapon that we have devised. This whisper is spoken at night when our enemies sit and stare out into the dark wondering if an American sniper is preparing to take their life. They ask why they are fighting for a despot? They wonder to themselves if the rumors are true, that surrender actually means food and shelter. They cannot believe the promise of medical aide and safety, especially as this is not the same treatment that their leaders would offer to their enemies. This whisper enters deep into their psyche and, in the case of Desert Storm, forced them to surrender in such numbers that they initially overwhelmed our ability to account for them.
Andrew Tobias, author and political activist once stated, “There’s no such thing as altruism.” He is not the first that has made this statement. After all, it can be hard to show how true altruism exists. Even doing something as seemingly unselfish as giving blankets to the homeless in winter can be said to be self-serving as it makes one feel better about themselves. I don’t think this can be said for SPC McGinnis. Nor do I believe it can be said for those Soldiers who turn themselves into human shields for the weak and innocent. I believe there is nothing more altruistic on this planet than being an American Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine, and there are many alive today because of this fact that would echo this conviction.
Matthew Wadler is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army veteran. Matt served in the Army for 20 years as both enlisted and officer before retiring. His service includes time as Military Police, Field Artillery, Adjutant General, and Recruiting. His deployments include Somalia and two tours to Afghanistan. His formal education includes a master’s degree in HR Management. He is a strong supporter of the constitution and advocate for the military and veteran communities.