With Their Boots On

Paul Greenberg

8/12/2011 2:31:00 PM - Paul Greenberg

They did not hesitate. They never do, the men and women serving with this country's Special Forces around the world. Those forces are well named, for the troopers who meet the arduous tests of admission are indeed special -- whether they're serving with the Navy's SEALs or the Army's Delta Team or Night Stalkers. Not to mention various outfits whose very names may be secret.

It may be only when the casualties of this unending war on terror around the globe are listed that those of us whose security depends on American might day and night may learn their names, and to whom our homage is due. Like the 30 American fighting men aboard the lumbering Chinook helicopter, most of them Navy SEALs, that went down last weekend. It was lifting off after having come to the rescue of a team of U.S. Army Rangers who found themselves under fire in Afghanistan's Taliban-infested Tangi Valley south of Kabul.

Every American KIA is a grievous loss for the country and especially for those back home they were closest to. Another empty space at family gatherings, another youthful picture in a scrapbook of someone who will never grow old.

Such men are no strangers to danger. Or to sacrifice. Or to comradeship, for these special forces are bound by the special ties that unite those who are accustomed to accomplishing the improbable routinely, the seeming impossible when necessary.

Working with counterintelligence types from both military and civilian life, it was the Navy SEALs who consigned one Osama bin Laden to the netherworld not long ago, making this one a far better and safer place for the rest of us.

Our special forces may carry out dozens of such operations every night in Afghanistan alone, not to mention Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and wherever else a shrinking al-Qaida still dares show its masked face. Ordinarily, the deeds of these heroes never make the papers, but one can be assured the enemy knows they've been there.

It's only on the rare occasion when these special warriors may be lost, like the 16 killed when their Chinook transport went down in Kunar Province in Afghanistan back in 2005, that we learn of their exploits. Arriving unannounced, descending like the American eagle, swift and sure, they may return the same way, leaving only an American victory in their wake.

But when the enemy knows to expect them, as when an American outfit has been surrounded and help is bound to be on the way, for we do not abandon our troops, these very special forces are vulnerable. As they were in the Tangi Valley. And may be again as the troops that composed the major part of the American surge in Afghanistan are withdrawn. Without all those boots on the ground, the enemy enjoys a new freedom to attack the remaining forces shouldering more and more of the burden of this war.

There will be those who use this grievous loss, as they use everything else, to argue that now is the time to withdraw from Afghanistan, and maybe the rest of the Middle East and world, too, for it is just too great a burden to chase down terrorists wherever they may swarm. Would it be so bad for this republic, which was never intended to be an empire, to lay down its imperial burden and just come home?

The tenth anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, is approaching. Which should be a more than adequate response to those who believe we can safely turn our backs on a world full of dangers. These men didn't.

There are many (doubtless conflicting) lessons to be drawn from this sad news out of Afghanistan. Politicians, armchair generals, and kibitzers in general have not been slow to offer their own pet theories and unsought counsel in the wake of this grievous loss.

But for the moment, surely it isn't too much to ask that all of us just be still. And remember the kind of warriors who have always responded to their country's call without cavil or complaint, hesitation or accusation. And who die with their boots on in accord with, as the citations might say, the highest traditions of the armed forces of the United States of America.