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The Dying Veteran Poem Analysis Essay

Aeschylus’ towering tragedy “Agamemnon,” staged in 458 B.C., centers on the king’s return from Troy to his palace in Argos, where he is murdered in his bath by his wife, Clytemnestra. Virgil’s “Aeneid” famously relates the travails of the heroic Trojan veteran Aeneas, who, following the destruction of his city by the Greek victors, must make a new home in some other, foreign land.

But it is “The Odyssey” that most directly probes the theme of the war veteran’s return. Threaded through this fairytale saga, amid its historic touchstones, are remarkable scenes addressing aspects of the war veteran’s experience that are disconcertingly familiar to our own age. Odysseus returns home to a place he does not recognize, and then finds his homestead overrun with young men who have no experience of war. Throughout his long voyage back, he has reacted to each stranger with elaborate caginess, concocting stories about who he is and what he has seen and done — the real war he keeps to himself.

Midway through the epic, Odysseus relates to a spellbound audience how, in order to obtain guidance for the voyage ahead, it was necessary to descend to Hades. There, among the thronging souls of men and women dead and past, he confronted his comrades of the war — Agamemnon, Achilles, Patroclus, Antilochus and Ajax — robust heroes of epic tales now reduced to unhappy shades who haunt his story.

Similarly, while Odysseus is lost at sea, his son, Telemachus, embarks on a voyage of discovery, also seeking out his father’s former comrades, but those who lived to return. First of these is old Nestor, a veteran of many campaigns, now at home in sandy Pylos. No mortal man could “tell the whole of it,” says Nestor of the years at Troy, where “all who were our best were killed.” In Sparta, Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, was the cause of the war, is haunted by the losses: “I wish I lived in my house with only a third part of all/these goods, and that the men were alive who died in those days/in wide Troy land.”

Odysseus’ own memories are more potent. Amongst the kindly Phaiakians, who give him hospitality toward the end of his hard voyage, he listens to the court poet sing of the Trojan War’s “famous actions/of men on that venture.” Odysseus, taking his mantle in his hands, “drew it over his head and veiled his fine features/shamed for the tears running down his face.”

And most significantly, epic tradition hints at the dilemmas of military commemoration. In “The Iliad,” Achilles must choose between kleos or nostos — glory or a safe return home. By dying at Troy, Achilles was assured of undying fame as the greatest of all heroes. His choice reflects an uneasy awareness that it is far easier to honor the dead soldier than the soldier who returns. Time-tested and time-honored, the commemoration rites we observe each Memorial Day — the parades and speeches and graveside prayers and offerings — represent a satisfying formula of remembrance by the living for the dead that was already referred to as “ancient custom” by Thucydides in the fifth century B.C.

The commemoration of the veteran — the survivor who did not fall on the field of war — is less starkly defined. The returned soldier, it is hoped, will grow old and die among us, like Nestor, in whose time “two generations of mortal men had perished.” In our own times, the generation born in the optimistic aftermath of World War II has already encountered veterans of both world wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf war and our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and still has several decades of martial possibilities in reserve. As the earlier of those wars recede into the past, their old soldiers fade away; and thus, commemorative rites for the veteran — by definition, the survivor — also tend to end, perversely, at graves.

How to commemorate the living veteran? Again, some guidance can be found in epic, the crucible of heroic mores. Old Nestor, the iconographic veteran, is a teller of many tales of the many battles he once waged. “In my time I have dealt with better men than/you are, and never once did they disregard me,” he tells the entire Greek army in “The Iliad.” “I fought single-handed, yet against such men no one/could do battle.” Although he is a somewhat comic figure, his speeches are deadly earnest; Old Nestor knows that his is the only voice to keep memory of such past campaigns alive.

One suspects such lengthy recitations are rare today. Rarer still is the respectful audience enjoyed by Nestor; impatience with such reminiscences began well before our age. “Menelaus bold/waxed garrulous, and sacked a hundred Troys/’Twixt noon and supper,” wrote Rupert Brooke, cynically, during the years leading up to a later Great War.

Today, veterans’ tales are more likely to be safeguarded in books and replicated in movies than self-narrated to a respectful throng. Detailed knowledge of the experience in which a veteran’s memories were forged is thus made common. To learn these stories is both civilian duty and commemoration. Death on the field and the voyage home — both are epic.

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Navy Lieutenant Mike Murphy.

Petty Officer Second Class Matt Axelson.

Petty Officer Second Class Danny Dietz.

These Navy SEALs died in 2005 as part of Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan. Their sacrifices were meaningful, same as those of any soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine that dies on the fields of unfriendly strife.

These three hallowed men mattered to the battle’s lone survivor, Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell — mattered so much that an interviewer’s suggestion the SEALs deaths were “senseless” prompted Luttrell’s seething response: “[Are you] telling me because we were over there doing what we were told by our country that it was senseless and my guys died for nothing?” Shortly thereafter, Army veteran Jim Gourley penned a provocative essay answering Luttrell’s rhetorical question: “Yes Marcus. Your friends died in vain.”

The phrase in vain flies off the page like a bloody shirt up a giant flagpole. Gourley’s core logic is that if the war, battle, or military judgment was wrong, then the soldier’s death was in vain. As far as courage is concerned, he notes, “however honorably a soldier acquits himself, he can die in vain.” His targets are chickenhawk leaders and apathetic America, a “country that abandoned its civic duty.” And Gourley finds, “the sooner we acknowledge [these conclusions], the more lives we might save.”

But when Gourley advises readers to be wary of “confus[ing] valor with vanity,” he takes the argument far beyond counting costs to denying value. We should scrutinize vanity here, the vanity of declaring, so publicly, the actions and lives of three valorously decorated Navy SEALs were “to no avail” or “without success” (as the dictionary definesin vain). If this seems wrong, seems off — that’s because it is.

In vain is verbal carpet-bombing and always results in collateral damage to a soldier’s reputation. While afflicting the comfortable, in vain also afflicts the afflicted. Gourley’s argument may have meant well, but, then again, the road to Baghdad was also paved with good intentions. Words impact memory, particularly those attaching to soldier’s wartime performance. Think of the difference in the way society collectively remembers the “Good War” fought by the “Greatest Generation” versus that “quagmire” fought by a bunch of unthinking, “body-count” obsessed soldiers. In vain’s stain is as effectively imprecise as napalm.

It is time to strike this use of in vain, on behalf of those who gave “the last full measure of devotion” and for those yet to give their last full measure of devotion. Logic, history, and experience guide us to reject in vain: The impossibility of future knowledge, a mistaken focus on narrow costs as opposed to broader value, and, perhaps most importantly, specific pronouncements on the value of a soldier’s life should not be open for public commentary.

The strategic value of a single sacrifice cannot be known for many years, even decades.

Gourley’s essay confidently, even certainly, declares these three SEALs died in vain, all while fully acknowledging the results were not in yet, writing that the “strategic outlook” is “not optimistic” and “current events forebode a harsh future for Afghanistan.” I disagree and find the war there was worth it, yet even if one were to accept Gourley’s assessment, history counsels modesty in that failure is not durable and strategic outcomes shift.

Consider the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which held the Union line at a critical moment on the second day at the Battle of Gettysburg. Knowing they were outnumbered 4 to 1, the First Minnesota advanced, sustaining over 82 percent casualties, the highest percentage in all the bloody Civil War, in order to buy roughly fifteen minutes for a larger unit’s arrival. Their heavy tactical costs, while tragic, enabled a crucial operational success. The unit included the brothers Patrick and Isaac Taylor. Isaac, a teacher, was killed in the battle and Patrick buried him, sobbing uncontrollably into July Fourth.

In the years after the war, Isaac’s sacrifice appeared vindicated. But, over time, an Emancipation proclaimed went unclaimed, and the end of Reconstruction ushered in a period of “home rule” that kept the American South in a de facto state of slavery until the 1960s. Was Isaac’s sacrifice made in vain from 1877 until the Civil Rights Act of 1964? And now, should it be reappraised?

Would we consider the soldiers lost in 1991’s Gulf War to have been in vain as the Islamic State currently controls much of Iraq? Or were those lost in the Cold War lost in vain now that Putin is on the march and the Doomsday Clock is closer to midnight than it has been since 1984?

Strategic landscapes change, sometimes rapidly, over time. We cannot know with precision what will come, or precisely what caused the move. It is simply too early to pass judgment on an ongoing conflict; wars are chaotic and chaotic describes Afghanistan. How can we say a life was lost in vain if the outcome is this much in doubt?

The specific value of one soldier’s sacrifice will not be known to those either distant from the war or distant from the soldier.

Gourley conflates costs with value, focusing solely on whether he thinks America is winning or not. This single unit of measure, a personal dampened thumb in the wind, forgets and fails to recognize any value in a soldier’s sacrifice. As the adage often attributed to Einstein reminds us, “not everything that counts can be counted.” Just because value is beyond sight doesn’t mean it does not exist. There are multiple objectives in war — tactical, operational, moral, and even personal — to which a soldier can contribute value.

As the First Minnesota demonstrates, military operations provide different value at different levels. Even the moral. During Operation Red Wings, while attempting to remain concealed from enemy Taliban, the four SEALs came upon two Afghan men and a 14-year-old boy with a herd of goats. As Harvard’s Michael Sandel recounts, “the goatherds appeared to be unarmed civilians,” yet, “letting them go would run the risk that they would inform the Taliban.” Without any rope to tie the Afghans, “the only choice was to kill them or let them go free.” Led by Lieutenant Murphy, the SEALs chose the harder right over the easier wrong and let the non-hostile non-combatants go. They upheld our American values. They followed our rules of engagement. They did what would be deemed honorable by even those as distant as the ancient 300 Spartans, whose tombstone reads: “here, obedient to [Spartan] laws, we lie.”

These old Greeks would also understand the personal. Soldiers fight for one another. When asked why he performed so many feats of heroism, Audie Murphy replied, “They were trying to kill my friends.” We ought to remember a soldier’s death may have meaning to his or her comrades, which we cannot possibly comprehend or understand from our comfortable distance.

Without accounting for these conditions — tactical, operational, moral, and personal — how can we declare a military death is to no avail, without success, or in vain?

Judgments about the value of an individual sacrifice are sacrosanct, to be protected, and limited only to those closest to the deceased.

In vain is political commentary that harms what should be sacred and spiritual. This we must respect, this space, typically the high ground claimed by religion, which is an appropriate venue for weighing a person’s life and death. For example, the Talmud teaches that whoever saves one life, saves the world entire. Danny Dietz and Matt Axelson saved Marcus Luttrell’s life. Was their sacrifice in vain?

A life is not measured in years, or objectives, but in, as Jackie Robinson’s gravestone reads, “the impact it has on other lives.” Mike Murphy posthumously earned the Medal of Honor, in addition to a seemingly unending list of tributes, and continues to inspire millions. Was the life he lived and the death he died — in vain?

If one wants to cast blame on leaders, or apathy, that is understandable and even necessary as the core of a functioning democracy. Citizens and taxpayers should have their say. Yet, as we cannot and will not know the value of a soldier’s sacrifice, surely there are other ways to make those arguments, there must be, because, as Abraham Lincoln said on another occasion marking the solemn soldierly march into the afterlife, their sacrifice is “far above our poor power to add or detract.” We owe them reverence and care with our words; in essence, their noble deaths have elevated them beyond the pigpen of politics. That is why these dead shall not — shall never — have died in vain.


Author’s Note: I selected the blanket term “soldier” to cover all manner of armed service to simplify the essay, unify the concept, and with an eye on length. With more space, in another format, I would have expanded this terminology.


Major Matt Cavanaugh, a U.S. Army Strategist, has served in assignments from Iraq to the Pentagon, and New York to New Zealand. He writes regularly at WarCouncil.org and invites others to connect via Twitter @MLCavanaugh. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the US Military Academy, Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US government.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army

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