American soldiers today: Lions led by donkeys

American soldiers today: Lions led by donkeys
© Getty Images

The phrase “Lions led by donkeys” has an ancient provenance but is most associated with World War I, where it so aptly described the appalling contrast between the astounding bravery of the ordinary soldiers, whose corpses by the millions filled the bloody trenches of the Western Front, and the stunning incompetence of the callously hidebound and unimaginative leaders — political and military alike — who sent them to their deaths.

The phrase comes to mind now in the agonizing aftermath of the dark August days we have just witnessed in Afghanistan, as well as the futility and needless sacrifice of the preceding 20 years of an inexplicable and retrospectively pointless war. Delighted enemies and despairing friends alike are seeing the emergence of a new global strategic calculus. Free peoples who long had viewed the United States as reliable and capable have watched in shock as events clearly demonstrated that we sometimes are neither.

Yet, amazingly, in the wake of the chaos, panic and unjustifiable deaths of 13 American soldiers in Kabul’s final tragic hours, the donkeys at the top of the American hierarchy were declaring victory, asserting that the messy endgame was inevitable, insisting that the evacuation was one of the greatest achievements in military history and, most bizarrely, stating that no one would be held accountable because no mistakes were made. In fact, the only individual willing to sacrifice his career in the cause of truth was Marine Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller, who publicly called on the top brass to accept accountability for the debacle, particularly the disastrous abandonment of Bagram Air Base in the middle of the night without notifying either NATO allies or Afghan commanders, thus depriving the U.S. of the only defensible perimeter that could have allowed for an orderly and properly sequenced evacuation. For this impolitic act, Scheller was removed from his command and left with no choice but to resign from the Corps.

ADVERTISEMENT

So, while our donkeys continue to disgrace themselves, and by extension their country, in heretofore unimaginable ways while compounding their folly through breathtaking mendacity, what has been the fate of our lions?

Sent to distant wars both unwarranted (Iraq) and unwinnable (Afghanistan), the American soldier invariably has fought with bravery, skill and resourcefulness. Through deployments at once too long and too frequent, they gave up their lives, their limbs, and their peace of mind and souls on behalf of causes their leaders told them were necessary and important until suddenly, it was apparent to all that they weren’t.

However, the greatest betrayal was saved to the very last, as these remarkable men and women who sacrificed so much were told by their leaders that they were now part and parcel of the greatest threat to national security — domestic terrorism. In astonishment, they heard the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff assure Congress that he was “reading widely” and arduously working to understand “white rage.” Baffled, they heard the Secretary of Defense solemnly declare that he was forming committees and developing strategies to root out and punish the many white supremacists and other extremists in uniform.

Years ago, cartoonist Walt Kelly gave us the delightfully wise little possum, Pogo, who memorably informed us that “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Apparently Pogo was just a little ahead of his time.

That our donkeys are disproportionately drawn from our elites and our lions disproportionately from our working class should not go unnoticed, because this bespeaks an important truth regarding our country’s ominous and worsening class conflict.

In 1854, during the Crimean War, England’s Alfred Lord Tennyson penned one of the most famous poems in the English language — “The Charge of the Light Brigade” — celebrating the remarkable courage of ordinary soldiers whose lives were sacrificed by the ineptitude of higher-ups. The stanzas that speak to us across the centuries are these: “Into the valley of Death Rode the Six Hundred. … Someone had blundered. … Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” 

American soldiers, past and present, and the American people deserve to know “the reason why” and to see accountability for those at the top who “blundered.” Failing such, our country’s present mortal peril may be far graver than any of us would like to think.

William Moloney, Ph.D., is a Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his doctorate from Harvard University. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.