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When the Army Left Its Fallen Comrades Behind: Band of Brothers "Bastogne"

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

Towards the middle of the Band of Brothers episode, “Bastogne”, Staff Sergeant Martin leads a reconnaissance patrol through the winter forest of Bastogne. As the platoon approaches a pile of logs, he sends a soldier (whose name I couldn’t catch) to a forward position. While moving, the German lines open fire. A bullet rips through the soldier’s neck.

The Easy company men try multiple times to rescue the dying soldier. They return fire with everything they have, but the withering German fire refuses to abate. After multiple attempts, Staff Sergeant Martin, and the rest of the reconnaissance patrol, reluctantly falls back.

They left one of their own behind.

Later, Sergeant Martin explains what happened to Captain Winters. They tried to rescue the wounded soldier, but just couldn’t get there. They just can’t rescue everyone.

While its founding occurred during the Revolutionary War, the U.S. Army (and probably the Navy and Marine Corps, but I am going to stick to one service for this post) is really an army born out of the second World War. Until World War II, after every major war from 1776 to 1914, following the dramatic build up of its ground forces, at the end to hostilities the U.S. Army kicked everyone back out again. Most American Army units were founded in World War II or the build up to it. The Big Red One? The 101st? The 82nd? Two ID? Those are World War II units (Technically, it was after the Korean War that the Army never drew down again, but everyone forgot that war.)

As similar as the soldiers of today are to the soldiers of WWII, I have one question: how would World War II veterans feel about the Soldier’s creed, specifically the “Warrior Ethos”?

I will always place the mission first.

I will never accept defeat.

I will never quit.

I will never leave a fallen comrade.

According to contemporary doctrine, reinforced at virtually every Army school, as recited in early morning PT formations, “warriors”--which all soldiers in the Army should aspire to--will never leave a fallen comrade.

Never leave a fallen comrade.

This means, alive or dead, we bring everyone home. Thus, during the war in Afghanistan, when a soldier went MIA, virtually every intelligence asset in country was requisitioned to find him. Same with most of the special operations forces in country. Other combat operations in Afghanistan virtually ceased in an effort to find him. The Taliban didn’t stop fighting or influencing local populations or infiltrating, but NATO turned its entire attention to finding one soldier.

I don’t want to debate the value of the Warrior Ethos in today’s post, but I do want to point out an inconvenient truth:

Our World War II veterans didn’t always fight this way.

And I would never call them anything but warriors. As I wrote above, the modern U.S. Army inherits its warrior tradition from those soldiers. And most World War II veterans could relate to the Warrior Ethos. But they probably wouldn’t have felt the need to constantly say it. The “greatest generation” understood that each of the components of the warrior ethos were constantly in balance.

Staff Sergeant Martin clearly wanted to rescue that fallen soldier during the reconnaissance patrol. The plot of the episode, “Bastogne”, revolves around a medic who does whatever he can to care and heal his fellow soldiers, constantly risking his life. If the situation became too dire, though, from headquarters to fire teams, leaders knew they sometimes had to leave their fallen comrades, and their bodies, behind.

In World War II our soldiers didn’t have a choice. We couldn’t spare the manpower to save every POW, MIA, WIA or KIA. In a maneuver war against an evenly-matched foe, if soldiers went missing, we couldn’t rescue them.

Our contemporary wars are different. In wars of choice, not about survival, the U.S. Army can choose to rescue every lost soldier. It is--strictly speaking--a luxury for our current combat forces.

As I pointed out before, the values of “mission first, people always” are impossible to always follow. Same with “mission first” and “never leave a fallen comrade”. Our core guiding ethos as a U.S. Army is fundamentally contradictory. Most soldiers and leaders and pundits and politicians don’t even realize this.

four comments

As a Marine on ship, one of the stark realities I was taught was that the amphibious ready group (ARG) was not going to turn around for “man overboard”. Meaning, despite everything the Marine Corps has drummed into us about never leaving a Marine, the truth is that the ARG’s timeline and mission will not be compromised for a single Marine or sailor.

In Marine Corps lore, no unit has ever left a Marine behind. But the truth is that 2d Raider Battalion left 19 Marines behind in the Makin Island raid in 1942, and three Marines were left behind on Koh Tang Island durign the abortive Mayaguez rescue in 1975, and the Admiral in command elected not to send a rescue team ashore.

I’d be curious to learn when and how we arrived at the point where “never leave a man behind” has become the highest priority mission in the combat theater. Does it reflect the demographic shift, where families have fewer sons/daughters to sacrifice? Is it a product of Hollywood mythmaking? The advertising campaign to support recruiting? Some combination of the above?

@ Joel – My thought is that it became a priority when our military could afford to not leave anyone behind. If the future of America were at stake, men would be left behind.

Also, post-Vietnam, America shifted its emphasis to the troops, as a response to the perceived abandonment of the troops by civilians during and after Vietnam.

That’s my theory at least.

This is a subject that has always troubled me. With an ingrained respect for all that military men and women do, all they and their families sacrifice, it is only just that every fallen soldier deserves to be laid to rest by their families in whatever manner they have chosen. To be sure if one of my family went missing overseas, I would do everything to see them come home. At the same time, retrieving the bodies of the fallen may end with the loss of more allied lives. Meaning more families are left to mourn. The first example that springs to mind is Blackhawk Down. While certainly not a documentary, the question remains how many were killed or wounded while engineers retrieved the pilots pinned in the wreckage? There’s no easy answer.