What is The Only Thing Worth Dying For?
Copyright © 2010 by Bill Becker
In March 2010, Eric Blehm published The Only Thing Worth Dying For: How Eleven Green Berets Forged a New Afghanistan. It is the story of a Green Beret team — Operational Detachment -Alpha 574 — that flew into Afghanistan immediately after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, and linked up with Taliban foe Hamid Karzai and his guerrillas. With support from ODA574, Karzai and his fighters overcame the Taliban, and he thereby became — out of the several tribal leaders who had opposed the Taliban — the chieftain favored internationally for the Presidency of a new, democratic Afghanistan. And, in December 2004, he was indeed elected President in Afghanistans first national election.
The book is highly praised as a model of meticulous research and gripping story-telling. Of the 42 Amazon reviews as of this writing, 39 were 5-star, 2 were 4-star, and 1 was 3-star. (The 3-star reviewer liked the book, but simply did not consider it "great.") I'm sure that one Amazon reviewer speaks for all of them: "[Blehm] makes you feel like you are on the ground in Afghanistan, serving as a member of a Special Forces 'A-team.'" The reader comes to see the team members as friends. Moreover, say some reviewers, the book is neither pro-war or anti-war; it simply tells the story of a courageous group of soldiers, and of their sometimes clueless superior officers. Some of these officers, evidently, caused several deaths by friendly fire . One reviewer, an ex-officer and Vietnam combat veteran, hopes "they rot in a very hot place for this behavior."
I am sure that The Only Thing Worth Dying For is very well-, and honestly written. I'm sure there is heroism on both small and grand scales. Karzai is portrayed as a genuine leader, and not as a puppet of the State Department. I have no reason to doubt that assessment. My guess is that the book will be made into a movie, and that it will as good a movie of that genre as has yet been produced. I wish Blehm all success in all phases of the book's life, and with his future writing.
As is so often the case with me, my interest here is personal and highly eccentric. I am interested only in the title of the book: The Only Thing Worth Dying For. The first review I read stated bluntly: "This book, more than anything, demonstrates exactly what it is that constitutes the only thing worth dying for." No review I read, however, actually stated what that particular thing is. Because ODA574 was charged with protecting Karzai at all costs, one Amazon reviewer hints that Karzai himself was the only thing worth dying for. This seems unlikely. Perhaps Blehm took the title from a comment made by a team member, spoken quietly as the squad watched the sun set over bleak Afghan mountains; something like "You know, when you get right down to it, ________________ is the only thing worth dying for". Perhaps Blehm originated the title himself. Perhaps it was insisted upon by the publisher. Because I have not read the book, and do not intend to read it, I cannot know.
Nevertheless, based upon the reviews I read; upon my own observations of patriotic fervor; and upon many fictional and documentary war films I have seen, I am certain that I know what "the only thing worth dying for" does not refer to.
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan took over, and made official what had been a private effort, led by former CIA and military officers, to destabilize the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. In effect, the Reagan administration thanked these operatives for doing a good job in organizing the remnants of Nicaragua's former Guardia Nacional, an extraordinarily vicious collection of sociopaths, most of whom fled to Honduras after the 1979 insurrection that toppled one of America's favorite dictators, Anastasio Somoza.
After training them and loading them up with supplies, the CIA unleashed the former guardsmen on the peasants of the Nicaraguan countryside. There they blew up schools, health clinics, grain silos, water works, and along the way murdered teachers; doctors; nurses; and whole families who were suspected of supporting the Sandinistas. They were soon given the nickname contras, for counter-revolutionaries.
All this was justified by President Reagan as being necessary to prevent the Sandinistas from giving AK-47s and bandoliers to all these peasants, doctors and teachers, loading them into trucks, and sending them off to conquer Harlingen, Texas-only a two-day drive from Managua, according to Reagan. Millions of Americans trembled at the thought.
But, many did not tremble. They suspected that Reagan was not telling the truth, so they did some research. Many of them went to Nicaragua itself, and learned that the Sandinistas were probably the most benign revolutionary group that had ever come to power.
The carnage increased, and in 1983 a remarkable interfaith group was formed: Witness for Peace. Comprised of the major U.S. Protestant denominations, WFP hit upon a novel idea: volunteers would go to live with the Nicaraguan villagers most vulnerable to attack by the contras. The thought was that their very presence would serve as protection from the contras, whom Reagan would eventually call "the moral equivalents of our Founding Fathers."
And so, long-term (6-months or more) volunteers were trained in the customs of the campo, and sent down to where the contras were most active. There they would plan for the arrival of more numerous short-term volunteers, who would come and live with a family for two-weeks or so. The short-term volunteers would mostly pay their own way, so as not to be a financial burden on the townspeople or the families they lived with. And, the strategy worked. In those areas with WP presence, death-by-contra, if not contra violence itself, abated.
But, contra atrocities continued in the areas not covered by WP volunteers, and the long-termers documented them. They recorded truly macabre creativity in the contra violence, and sent the photos back to Congressional Committees. The pictures showed a side to "the moral equivalents of the Founding Fathers" somehow at odds with the popular understanding of what the Founding Fathers stood for.
I was not a Witness for Peace volunteer, but I met a few of them. Two in particular stand out in my memory, and are the counter-point to the title of Blehm's undoubtedly fine book. I met Anne and Don, each a university professor, when we were all members of a Witness for Peace delegation officially authorized to observe the 1990 Nicaraguan Election - the second free election in Nicaragua's history. (I was fortunate to have been an observer of the 1984 Nicaraguan Election as well.) Most of us were grouped together by denomination, but Don, a Quaker; Anne, a Presbyterian; and I, a Unitarian, found ourselves together in a catch-all interfaith group.
At some point in our travels through the rural district to which we were assigned, we were chatting about our experiences, and Anne related the story of her own close call with the contras as a short-term Witness for Peace volunteer a few years before. She had been assigned to a very remote village, which had twice been attacked, and once burned down, by the contras. Well after she and her family had gone to bed this particular evening, Anne heard gunfire not far away. Soon, a WFP long-termer burst through her door and said that the contras were on their way. There was no safe place to which she and her family could flee, so she should have her passport ready in case the contras broke in on her.
Anne prepared for a contra intrusion, and was of course very frightened. But she soon calmed down, and came to realize that whatever happened, she was in exactly the place she should be. She drifted off to sleep, and "had the most life-affirming dream." The next morning she learned that the contras had bypassed her neighborhood.
Don had been a Witness for Peace volunteer as well, but I learned only recently that he had also worked with Peace Brigades International.
Peace Brigades International (PBI) is an NGO, founded in 1981, which "protects human rights and promotes nonviolent transformation of conflicts". It primarily does this by sending volunteers to accompany human rights defenders whose lives are at risk in areas of conflict and to provide training in conflict resolution. They only set up operations in a new country upon the invitation of a local organization. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_Brigades_International)
The accompaniment of human rights activists is inherently dangerous, and during the 80s, virtually all of the human rights activists accompanied by PBI were at risk in dictatorships enthusiastically supported by the U.S. government.
Then there was Veterans For Peace, made up mostly of Vietnam vets who opposed Reagan's policies in Nicaragua and Central America. I met a few of them during the 1994 Nicaraguan elections. I don't recall exactly what activities and support VFP provided for the Nicaraguans at risk in the campo, but I do know that they traveled regularly on the roads that were mined by the contras, and which were often deadly for the peasants who rode the buses and trucks on their way to market.
These peace activists, then — Anne, Don, Veterans for Peace, Witness for Peace, and Peace Brigades International volunteers — certainly have a more imaginative, more expansive view of what is worth dying for than what I'm sure is referred to by Blehm's heroic title. The Americans among them risked their lives to prevent their own president from killing poor people in other countries. If this is not thinking outside the box, nothing is.
From my Guatemala page:
"A few of the Peace Brigades International volunteers who accompanied potential death squad targets. I think that the "John Wayne" paradigm of courage, the only one that has so far captured the imagination of the vast majority of Americans, comes off as a distinct second best in comparison to the courage shown by these folks. As I recall, most of this group were Europeans."
I myself never had the courage or the commitment that Anne, Don, and others mentioned here had. I was told by one Veterans for Peace member that even though I was not a veteran, my experience so far would probably qualify me for a slot with a delegation scheduled to go down again in early 1985. It was an appealing idea, but I had never before embarked on an adventure with serious risk attached, and I was not ready to chance getting blown up on one of the contra-mined roads.
I am certain that Blehm's book cannot credibly be called "pro-war." But, it will undoubtedly find a place among countless paeans to the warrior archetype that go back as far as recorded history. The book is what it is, and I have no quarrel with it. I just don't like the title.