Why is the decision by President Biden, his Vice President, Secretaries of Defense and State, national security advisor, silent field commanders, pliant members of Congress – to abandon Americans in Afghanistan so abhorrent? It goes to the heart of who we are. That makes it unforgivable.
The phrase dates to Roman times, “Nemo resideo” or “no one left behind,” part of who we are, “We, Americans,” since our founding. Embedded, it applies to living and dead, goes well beyond the military.
When veterans come home wounded, they are tended with loyalty, care, and empathy because we “leave no one behind.” When emergency responders risk all to rescue others from burning buildings, engulfed cars, forest fires, high seas, hurricanes, and disease – it is for that: “We leave no one behind.”
When Rogers Rangers, in the French and Indian War – later as Continentals in the Revolutionary War – concluded a battle, they “left no man behind.” Thousands of heroic rescues are animated by this sacred principle.
Americans virtually breathe it with a collective voice: One life matters.
Why has every president, until now, put aside everything to defend, protect, preserve, and rescue Americans’ lives – even one? Why did FDR, in January 1945, commission the Raid at Cabanatuan, rescuing those held by Japan after the Bataan Death March?
Why did we pull all stops for sailors on the USS Squalus in 1939? Why risk all for airman Gene Hambleton, Bat 21 Bravo, shot down over Vietnam?
Why did Americans risk death to save Captain Philips on the Maersk Alabama, or Iraqi POW Jessica Lynch? Why did President Ford – despite losses – rescue the SS Mayaguez crew? President Carter attempt Operation Eagle Claw to rescue Americans? Why deploy Green Beret, Rangers, Seal Teams, and Delta Force into peril on every continent in every year of their existence to save Americans? See, List of operations conducted by Delta Force; List of operations conducted by SEAL Team Six; The Army Rangers: Missions and History; United States Army Special Forces;
Why do we search – to this day – for 30,000 fallen in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam? Or writ larger, why has America never failed to rescue our own and allies, WWI and WWII to countless modern rescues?
Why have we placed such a premium on rescue of Americans from the Revolutionary War to Patton’s Third Army in Bastogne, daring rescue of an American doctor from Afghanistan by SEALs in 2012 to SEAL Team rescue of US citizen Philip Walton in Niger in 2020. Why do we do this?
Even as civilians, we concentrate all – often risk all – for an American life. Why did Americans rush into the Twin Towers on 9-11?
Why did we care about Apollo 13? Why do 1,150 Search & Rescue teams exist across the US?
The answer forces focus. It is fundamental. We “leave no one behind” because of that precept, inner ticker, principle – that every human life is sacred, and that every American life is part of us, within the family, what we live for, what we are willing to die for – lives in all of us.
This is part of what makes us different and what makes us whole. It is not logical but love never is. It is not mechanical, robotic, mathematical, explainable by cost-benefit, return on investment or politics.
It is about heart, the soul, living to our fullest – an innate understanding of things that often escape understanding, that we are not the end, but stewards of ideals that outlive us, that we are defined to ourselves and history by our willingness to stand, serve, sacrifice if necessary lose all for who we are.
Put differently, if we are not true to who we say we are, if we will not risk all to save others if we will not be who we say we are – if we instead turn high principle into low politics, breaking faith with our fellow Americans, sworn allies, those trusted our word, then who are we?
We, Americans – have always stood with those who counted on us, who believed we were different, true to values so deeply held that no evil, no cowardice, no concocted reasoning could separate us from our True North. This is who we really are, and why we have prevailed – as a People.
Are we different?
Yes, we are. We have kept faith, as much as any society in history, with the idea that principles guide us, that we owe something indescribably gripping that calls us to a higher level, bonds us to the wellbeing of other Americans, and those to whom we give our solemn word.
Americans are not cynics but people of courage. Cheerful, we are serious when chips are down, when it is do or die when we must rise or fall on truth and our word. Never is that more so than when evil rises to challenge the conviction and to separate us from our hearts.
Not all Americans are Christian, but roughly two-thirds count themselves so. All respect the Constitution, drawn from natural law, the idea that freedom is God-given. Perhaps that is why we insist on being true, understand verses like John 15:13: “Greater love has no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends.”
Perhaps a nagging combination – our history, higher angels, sense of moral obligation, honor, integrity, and sanctity of our “word” is what makes us believe, when we say “no one left behind” – we mean it. And maybe that belief – held in every American heart – is why we feel revulsion at what has just happened. An American president has abandoned Americans – and those with whom we promised to keep faith – to face evil alone, knowing thousands will die. Unforgivable.