Should presidents be condoling families of those killed in action?

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  Oct. 23, 2017 at 6:00 AM
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Much of last week's news in America was dominated by the misogyny of Harvey Weinstein and the deaths of four U.S. Green Berets ambushed in Niger. Weinstein should be left to the courts although the prurient nature of his conduct understandably grabbed the headlines.

About the four dead Green Berets, an account of what actually happened and what did not is still under investigation. A sad but tragic bet is that this ambush was most likely an "inside job." Certain unknown parties may have tipped off the Islamic State in what otherwise was a routine train and assist patrol in Niger. This treachery is as old as warfare.

Lt. Bill Fitzgerald, for whom the destroyer is named and a Naval Academy classmate of mine, was killed at Coastal Group 16 in South Vietnam's I Corps in 1967 in an "inside job." In this case, several South Vietnamese sailors were in actuality members of the Viet Cong who in the dark of night opened the gates to their colleagues. Fitz was shot in the back of the head. These are the risks of war.

And of course, the verbal firefight between President Donald Trump and Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson and the family of the deceased soldier Army Sgt. la David Johnson over what was or was not said on the condolence call made from the Oval Office was to no one's advantage. It is hard to imagine that any president would wish to disparage or disrespect an American killed serving his or her country. And it is very likely that the grieving family regarded the comments no matter how well intended in the wrong light. However, as the Wall Street Journal observed on its Op-Ed page Friday, the president "as usual made things worse by lashing out in response."

The larger question is how did we find ourselves in the position where presidents of both parties now make condolences calls to families of those killed in action? In the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam, the horrible news was delivered by telegram beginning, "We regret to inform you..." Obviously, with masses of casualties, no president had the time to make calls. Ironically, now that combat deaths are fortunately few -- and fewere than those killed in training accidents at least this year, presidents somehow feel compelled to act. A second question is why are training deaths any less tragic than those killed in battle?

Presidential compassion is noble. Yet, is it helpful? Supporters of a president who lose a family member in war no doubt appreciate the effort. For those who are not keen on a president, the chances for a backlash are present.

Part of this dilemma between good intentions and presidential interventions arises from a fact that few Americans know. Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, during the ensuing 28 years, the United States has been at war or engaged in major combat operations for about 70 percent of that period. In simple terms, American servicemen and women have been operating in harm's way in combat missions basically five out of every seven days. This state of near perpetual war is unique in American history.

Fortunately, the numbers of Americans killed and wounded in combat since the end of the Cold War by historical standards is mercifully small although that is not a useful distinction for those who died serving their country in battle. About 300,000 Americans were killed in World War II; 38,000 In Korea; and 58,000 in Vietnam. Those numbers would overwhelm any White House's ability to respond.

The alternative is to leave the proper condolences and dealing with families of those killed in action to the military services and the Pentagon. Turning condolences into a political issue to be used for or against individual presidents is a travesty. But will any White House have the courage and tenacity to make this case? Almost certainly, if there is a change in these policies, at first, any president will be accused of being uncaring, which is untrue.

If, as White House Chief of Staff Ret. Marine Gen. John Kelly says that these deaths in battle are sacred, then they should be depoliticized. The best way is to turn the grieving back to the military to handle.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is a senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His next book, "Anatomy of Failure: Why America has Lost Every War it Starts," will be published in the fall. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

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