Sometimes, these colors must run

April 10, 2007|By Tom Matthews

Running away.

It is taboo to even utter the words in relation to battle. Once the war is engaged, once the armaments start roaring, once your fellow soldiers begin falling dead on either side of you - even once you understand that your leaders have failed you - there is but one way to go: forward, ever forward. Be victorious or be dead, but never be found heading in the other direction. So say all those who bravely define courage from the plush foxholes of punditry and chicken hawk patriotism, having never tasted warfare themselves.

But consider Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith's immortal line: "He who fights and runs away, may live to fight another day." It has those two deplorable words - runs away - so I always took it to be nothing but a coward's rationalization for retreat. But if one accepts the blunt reality that despite the most noble intentions, sometimes the enemy is simply more savage or more determined or luckier than the good guys, there often comes a time in war when anything other than retreat means suicide.

Sometimes warriors have to run away - when to do otherwise is madness.

Here's Goldsmith's entire quote, the latter half of which I would guess most have never heard: "He who fights and runs away, may live to fight another day, but he who is in battle slain, can never rise and fight again." Is this cowardice, or hard pragmatism?

Because there will be "another day." And another, and another after that. I know, because the Bush administration told me. Back before the mantra was, "We're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here," the White House repeatedly threatened that there would be another 9/11-style attack on American soil. Back when it was important to scare the heck out of us because a campaign was on, we were told almost matter-of-factly that a military presence would be needed one day soon to combat more horrors here at home, not to mention all the new battlefields throughout the world.

And guess what? By any measure, Iraq has left our services decimated. Almost every expert familiar with military readiness says we will not be able to respond with the force needed the next time action is required. All as we continue to weaken our defenses further while trapped in the middle of someone else's civil war.

Will Iraq descend into further chaos if troops are withdrawn? Perhaps, but better that hell now than five years from now. The sooner we get that nightmare in our rearview mirror, the sooner we can begin making our troops healthy and whole again, so we'll be prepared for the blowback that our disastrous actions in Iraq have all but guaranteed.

We can begin to figure out how we can retain soldiers who have been overextended and sent into battle with insufficient protection. We can begin to figure out where the new recruits are going to come from now that potential enlistees know that not only might their commanders send them to war unprepared and under false pretenses, but that if they are wounded they may be left to rot in a tangle of government bureaucracy and incompetence. We can begin to resupply the depleted stores of gear and weaponry. We can begin to learn from the horrifying list of mistakes made throughout this campaign, so we can get it right the next time.

On another day.

Tom Matthews wrote the film "Mad City" and the novel "Like We Care." His e-mail address is

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