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Mako Three Zero Charlie


All Americans should know the name John Chapman. Fathers, tell your sons about him. Tell your daughters too.

An Air Force special operator working with the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, Technical Sergeant Chapman perished in eastern Afghanistan in March of 2002 after fighting, alone and seriously wounded, against many al Qaeda irregulars for several hours. In his final moments, he exposed himself to lethal fire in order to provide cover for comrades in a helicopter.

To this display of surpassing valor, the story adds a note of tragic bitterness between the various service branches. Specifically, the note of bitterness arises from the delay in awarding Chapman the Medal of Honor, which his widow finally received last summer. That delay, it seems, was primarily the product of Navy opposition (though some dispute that), and military-bureaucracy machination.

Sean Naylor supplies all the details, from the inspirational to the ugly, in this riveting report in Newsweek last year, which I will not summarize. Instead, just read it, and I’ll conclude with Sgt. Chapman’s official Medal of Honor citation:

Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism as an Air Force Special Tactics Combat Controller, attached to a Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) Team conducting reconnaissance operations in Takur Ghar, Afghanistan, on March 4, 2002. During insertion, the team’s helicopter was ambushed causing a teammate to fall into an entrenched group of enemy combatants below. Sergeant Chapman and the team voluntarily reinserted onto the snow-capped mountain, into the heart of a known enemy stronghold to rescue one of their own. Without regard for his own safety, Sergeant Chapman immediately engaged, moving in the direction of the closest enemy position despite coming under heavy fire from multiple directions. He fearlessly charged an enemy bunker, up a steep incline in thigh-deep snow and into hostile fire, directly engaging the enemy. Upon reaching the bunker, Sergeant Chapman assaulted and cleared the position, killing all enemy occupants. With complete disregard for his own life, Sergeant Chapman deliberately moved from cover only 12 meters from the enemy, and exposed himself once again to attack a second bunker, from which an emplaced machine gun was firing on his team. During this assault from an exposed position directly in the line of intense fire, Sergeant Chapman was struck and injured by enemy fire. Despite severe, mortal wounds, he continued to fight relentlessly, sustaining a violent engagement with multiple enemy personnel before making the ultimate sacrifice. By his heroic actions and extraordinary valor, sacrificing his life for the lives of his teammates, Technical Sergeant Chapman upheld the highest traditions of military service and reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.

Comments (8)

The people who sign up to go into special forces are a whole level of "brave" beyond that of the not-quite-ordinary bravery of volunteering to join our military forces, they should be greatly honored for that. The training itself is intensely difficult, and at the highest levels it is so difficult that many candidates (already in fantastic physical shape) end up injured or are forced to drop out because they cannot sustain the effort. And of course the missions are even more dangerous than ordinary military missions, often behind enemy lines. These people deserve our respect!

That said, I have often wondered about something that this case sort of highlights: when men go in to rescue trapped or injured soldiers, because "we don't leave our men behind", how many times does the rescue effort end up taking the lives of even more men than would have been lost had we simply decided that nothing more is feasible? Sure, taking a team into a known situation where the enemy has your injured partner pinned down is difficult and dangerous and takes guts; my question is, is doing so a matter of true virtue, or a kind of false bravery?

For the vice that is opposed to virtue can lie in either direction from the virtue, the virtue lies in the mean. Courage is being willing to undertake difficult and dangerous things for the right reason, for worthy purposes. One the one side, the vice of cowardice is the character of being UNwilling to accept danger or difficulty. On the other side, the vice of rashness, recklessness, being foolhardy, is the character of being willing to accept danger or difficulty for less than worthy reasons - especially for trivial reasons, but generically for goods that are not worth the risks. The moral virtue of prudence is a ruling virtue that regulates the other virtues so that they are properly ordered to the true good: willing to take on danger imprudently is not true virtue, it only masquerades as virtue because it looks like courage.

By and large, the bold and intrepid will do better in battle than the mouse-like, if direct and immediate action of taking the fight to the enemy is called for; for this reason, the judgment of the risks can be better done by one who has experience of being there at the forefront of such battles. I would not pretend to be a good Monday morning quarterback of what happened here, but it seems on the surface to potentially be one of those situations where going BACK in might not have been the best choice available, given the trade-offs of goods vs risks. I know we want to, broadly speaking, train our warriors to have that mind-set of taking care of each other and looking out for your buddy and "leave nobody behind", but surely there has to be some LIMIT to that mind-set, doesn't there? To save one man, do you put at grave risk another fire-team, a squad, a platoon, a company, a whole battalion? Doesn't the virtue of prudence demand that the courageous man be prepared to say - at SOME level of harmful trade-offs - that "it isn't worth the risks"?

I have heard, all my life (I grew up with a father who had been in WWII) situations where soldiers bravely rescued their co-warriors in seemingly impossible situations, and (so it seems to me) the success of these cases probably gives us enough evidence to say that apparently impossible situations often aren't. What I don't know, though, is whether many of the OTHER cases are simply the ones never reported on - the cases where a rescue was tried and all the men died so nobody could report that the rescue was tried and failed, losing more men than necessary.

"To save one man, do you put at grave risk another fire-team, a squad,
a platoon, a company, a whole battalion? Doesn't the virtue of
prudence demand that the courageous man be prepared to say - at SOME
level of harmful trade-offs - that 'it isn't worth the risks'?"

These questions are at the very core of the best book ever written -
Heinlein's Starship Troopers (please God not the ghastly film
of the same name).

A complete reply would entail a fullblown essay, which I don't feel
like writing. The correct response, Heinlein's own, is that risking
multiple individuals, millions of individuals, the entire society, to
save one individual - even if the effort is hopeless - is proper,
makes perfect sense, and in fact is required, because the individual -
in fact EVERY sentient being - is infinitely, yes INFINITELY,
valuable. This is the point of the exchange where the officer
candidate instructor asks cadet Johnny Rico if one potato is worth a
thousand potatoes, and Rico replies that men are not potatoes.


Well, the infinite value of the individual certainly means that it's wrong deliberately to kill one to save many. But it does not follow that it's required (!!) to risk the probable deaths of many to save one. On the contrary those are all valuable individuals as well, each infinitely valuable.

Any such ethical discussion needs a robust understanding of the active/passive distinction. Refraining from deliberately killing one innocent person, followed by some terrible consequence not of one's own making, is not wrong, because one did not *do* the other terrible thing. Indeed, one was refraining from doing a terrible thing. (Deliberately killing the innocent person.) Similarly, *refraining* from sending a bunch of men to near-certain death in the probably vain attempt to save one is not wrong, because it is not *killing* the one.

In any event, I don't think any of that undermines the heroism of Sergeant Chapman. After all, it looks like he *was* successful here (am I right about that?) in saving the lives of the others in question. And I'm sure if he could have done all of that and gotten out alive himself, he would have done so.

Lydia, I agree that from what we can see, Chapman's heroism is chock full up in the events that played out. Even if there is some doubt about the reconstruction of what happened after Slab pulled out (the first time), his heroism would be manifest. If we accept the reconstruction at face value, then all the more so, and yes he seems to have saved several other men by his actions, which would have made his sacrifice of his own life in the effort worthwhile. I would set aside the Navy carping (14 years after the fact) with possible theories that he failed to accomplish his primary job of calling in aerial bombardment, but even if he did in fact fail in that regard, he failed not by being cowardly or by being a work-shirk, or by letting someone else take the harder jobs, but by responding to a more immediate threat than expected in a less than ideal (but still valuable) way.

Roger, I agree with the sentiment that men are not potatoes, but that doesn't get you out of the woods of making decisions of when to cut your losses. Every commander who has ever retreated from a position, or who ever failed to achieve his objective but still had men left in his command, rejects your hypothesis. And many of those commanders are regarded as (a) full of honor, and (b) wise in military matters. Every military or political leader who has surrendered a unit or a community has conceded to the thesis that the probable loss of more lives in further battle is not worth the prospects of gains reasonably achievable - and many of these men are accounted upright, honorable, and wise. Lydia's point is correct: the men you continue to put at risk are, also, infinitely valuable. The virtue of prudence demands that we weigh the benefits to be gained against the losses to be suffered in a possible course of action (at least when the acts being considered are not intrinsically evil acts), and this includes lives lost and lives protected from loss. One of the classic tenets of just war theory is that one is not allowed to go to war if there is no reasonable prospect of success, and this implies that in some cases a leader must accept things like the unjust deaths of a few innocent citizens because he has no realistic prospect of being able to do anything about it if he tried to go to war.

A few points:

It's important to recognize how special operations (especially at the very high end, as in this battle) differ in conception and execution, as compared to conventional operations. Just from a utilitarian point of view, the investment of training, selection, equipment, unit cohesion, experience, etc., in these tier one teams, is quite extraordinary. We're not just talking about supremely capable light infantry units, as with Army Rangers or something like that. With SEAL Team 6, Delta, or Chapman's Air Force unit, these are men who add to the finest skills of soldiering, something approaching the skills of a CIA officer: languages, negotiation, technical expertise, interrogation, hostage-rescue. Skills and experience not easily replaced. The other side of that coin is that these men, ideally, do not deploy for pitched battles against superior numbers. When you find the enemy in force, you send in 75th Rangers or a full Marine rifle company: a sledge-hammer instead of a scalpel, in short.

None of this obviates the need for clear-eyed application of prudence, as Tony rightly points out, but it does alter that calculus in key ways.

something approaching the skills of a CIA officer:

In actuality, in part of their training they probably go somewhat beyond the level of training for true black ops people. As a result, what looks like an impossible nightmare situation to you or me often doesn't look like that to them. But even to them, some situations are too difficult to take on and shouldn't be tried - and it takes someone who knows their training and resources to decide which. Arguably, given the results, maybe this was one of the "shouldn't be tried" ones, (at least the return rescue mission), although I hesitate to say it and recognize that a fair judgment needs to be made on the basis of knowledge they had before the results, not after. And properly speaking, SOME of the missions that will eventually fail are ones that should have been tried because - before the fact - the information available indicates at least a modest chance of success.

One of my favorite vignettes from the Starship Troopers book is a flashback to Johnny Rico's high school civics class. The teacher (Mr. Dubois, who turns out to be a remarkable character in his own right) is questioning the students to see if they understood the latest reading assignment, concerning the collapse of the 20th century democracies (i.e., us - the book is set in the far future, and was published in 1959). The kids can't believe what asses we were. One says that, apparently, we thought we could have things we needed, like pensions, education, and medical care, not by paying for them, but just by voting for them. Mr. Dubois said that was correct. The kids laughed at us. Another student said we seemed to have believed that a society could be sustained on that basis. Mr. Dubois said that also was correct. The class laughed even harder at our stupidity. Mr. Dubois brought them up short, telling them not to be so quick to mock us, that we had meant well, and paid a terrible price for our folly. He goes on to say that our suffering taught them a lesson they must never forget if their own civilization was to survive, that lesson being, if you keep voting for the impossible, you will end up with the inevitable.

Tony, another factor to consider here is that this battle occurred a mere six months after September 11th. Very early on, in other words. True, JSOC was in charge of the deployment in Mogadishu a decade before -- but that was essentially the only sustained, major-battle, combat experience the command had. Countless hours of intensive training, sure; plus numerous small-scale or secret missions. But there's just no substitute for direct combat experience. Almost twenty years later, I'm confident the command has a much more rigorous foundation of practical knowledge.

Interestingly, the very good film Black Hawk Down, which ably depicts that Mogadishu battle, includes several well-wrought scenes illustrating the conventional forces/special forces divide. The emphasis on independence of mind among the latter appears clearly. The Rangers kind of resent the Delta guys keeping their own counsel: their indifference to regulations, their defiance of the chain of command. I can't remember the exact dialogue, but there is a great scene where a Ranger officer growls at a Delta NCO: "Someday you cowboys are gonna need us Rangers."

Indeed, in that very battle, Delta sergeants Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart (both Medal of Honor winners) voluntarily threw themselves into a clearly unwinnable situation when they deployed off a small chopper to defend one of the downed Black Hawks. Command resisted their requests to insert numerous times, then finally relented.

In other words, Tony, there's a sense in which, on that cold day in Afghanistan, March 2002, absent a direct order from Team 6 officer, no one could have stopped those guys from going back for Sgt. Chapman.

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