Reading the newspaper summary of the life of Joseph Lemm—who was killed with five other American troops in Afghanistan two days ago—makes for a devastating reminder that the people we lose on these battlefields and outposts thousands of miles from home are the very best of us. We have no right to expect such people to be given to us in the first place; we certainly have no right to believe they will always be there to lay down their lives for our safety. And so we also have a duty (in which we are failing) to take care that their sacrifices are for causes that we truly cherish and will continue to defend.
Joseph Lemm was 45 years old when he died near Bagram Air Base at the hands of a Taliban suicide bomber. He joined the New York City Police Department in 2000, and so he was an officer when the attacks of September 11th took place. Two years ago he rose to the rank of Detective. He was in Afghanistan by virtue of his continuing membership in the Air National Guard. But his service to his country actually began back in 1989, when he joined the Air Force right after graduating from high school. A cousin is quoted as saying: “I know there were three or four different times he was going to retire and he kept re-enlisting.”
He leaves behind a wife, Christine, a 16 year-old daughter, Brook, and a 4 year-old son, Ryan.
Yet, though he died as a member of the NYPD, he was born and raised in a tiny town named Beemer, Nebraska, where today people who knew him and his family are also mourning his loss. He returned to Beemer many times, but he had apparently made a conscious and cheerful decision to embrace New York as his home, based on a childhood dream to be a New York City police officer. He achieved his dream, and much more, and meanwhile put himself on the line to protect his country, and—in no small way—his adopted city, which he had seen so wounded on September 11th, 2001.
He was 6′ 5″, 250 lbs, and had made 427 arrests during his tenure at the NYPD. Some of his colleagues nicknamed him “Superman.” One of those colleagues is quoted as saying: “He was that guy, if you called for help and you saw him coming, you knew things were going to be O.K.” Left unspoken is the knowledge in his precinct and in this city and in his home that no one is going to see him coming ever again.
But from where do such people come? That is, people who have so much, who give so much, and are willing to take the risk of losing it all for a higher purpose that most of us give little or no thought to, in our fatness and complacency, day after day.
Let no one doubt that Joseph Lemm died worthily, serving his country, his city and his family in the noblest of ways. Without such people being there miraculously to step up, we do not even exist—let alone do we enjoy the freedoms that we do.
Yet, we fail if we do not hold our elected leaders to account and question what the ultimate purpose is of Americans currently deployed in Afghanistan and at constant risk of death by death cult jihadists. These Americans are the very best of us. For what, exactly, are we asking them to sacrifice at the present time?
After 9/11/2001, the mission seemed clear (and thousands of America’s best lined up to enlist). We would eliminate al-Qaeda’s safe haven; we would dislodge their sponsors, the Taliban, from their control over Afghanistan; and we would provide support to a new, democratic government in that country.
In each of those respects, we succeeded. That is, the best of us, people like Joseph Lemm: they succeeded. While dropping bombs on the Taliban, we also dropped food and medical supplies to the ordinary people. Bin Laden and his cohorts had to hide in holes or be killed; the Taliban were blown to hell and replaced by the Northern Alliance opposition; elections were held and we saw the pictures of people holding up their colored thumbs showing they had voted. People were able again to fly kites, play soccer, listen to music, and act like human beings. Girls were going to school and women were being elected to the new parliament. This appeared to be the most optimistic way of pursuing war: not obliterating the nation at war with us, but saving it.
What happened since then? Those schools where girls were being educated were attacked with bombs and poisons. And likewise every attempt at progress in Afghanistan has been beaten back by the ugliest forces of the ingrained culture, forces which those American troops were not given permission to fight back against, no matter how sick.
America did not push forward a victory of the best American values, but deferred instead to the values of the defeated, which have risen again and are primed to take over again.
And now we have a relatively small contingent of American troops on the ground, not pursuing any kind of victory at all, but apparently just hanging around so that our current President can claim that we withdrew in a controlled and dignified manner, rather than being routed and chased out. Yet, the Taliban and the other jihadists are determined to demonstrate otherwise: hence the suicide bombing which claimed the lives of these six American troops.
For what? Such sacrifices deserve much higher goals than merely defending the failed policy of leaders who refuse to rally the will of those who elected them in order to achieve anything at all.
And this question is not going away, but only becoming more relevant as the 21st century progresses. When faced with an urgent threat to national security from an area of the world where a toxic death-cult ideology has held sway, what do we do? Do we pour U.S. troops in to defeat the immediate protagonists, only later to cede the territory to those who share their ideology? Or do we invest the necessary blood and determination to eliminate that toxic ideology, street by street, house by house, and actually establish the way of life that we claim to believe in, and that we ask our soldiers to die for (with liberty and justice for all)?
It’s a question of will and it’s a question of confidence in our own culture and way of life. The enemy has that will and confidence, which is why they are advancing, from Syria to Nigeria to Paris.
This war in Afghanistan began in the most optimistic way a war can begin, seeking not simply military victory but the redemption of the best aspects of an ancient culture, and the defeat of a tyranny which we wanted to believe had hijacked it. Yet the deployment of our troops is ending with that self-same tyranny in the ascendance, belief in its toxic philosophies being apparently the common denominator that trumps all other cultural values.
Could we have done things differently in Afghanistan, and advanced with a more muscular assertion of our values, to the betterment of the people of Afghanistan? Values such as equal rights for women, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and so on? Surely, we might have, while incurring the wrath of many critics. But are we willing to do things differently in future conflicts? And how many of our very best and bravest, like Joseph Lemm, are willing to sacrifice themselves? Will those who send them to such sacrifice get re-elected?
Or, at another extreme, are we instead to choose to use our superior military power, up to and including nuclear weapons, in an attempt to simply wipe the practitioners of this toxic ideology, this cult of death, from the face of the earth?
What is the most moral response? What is the most pragmatic response? What is the most effective response? What, dare I say it, is the most Christian response?
And how do we honor the sacrifice of those who have already given all?
Like it or not, we’ll be facing these questions for the foreseeable future. Whether we come up with the right answers or not, there can be no doubt that Joseph Lemm gave an answer better than any of us sitting at home will ever muster.