As Patricia Smith spoke at the Republican National Convention of a son lost in Benghazi, one could feel her pain and anguish.
Her words conjured up other thoughts as well.
Battlefield warriors, both past and present, sometimes are uniquely blessed—serving under leaders they proudly would follow “to Hell and back.”
To get there, and return, is, perhaps, the warrior’s ultimate “high.”
History tells us of troops, vastly outnumbered, marching into Hell, some returning; some not. General George Custer exemplified the latter—losing every member of his command in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn; Marine Colonel “Chesty” Puller exemplified the former in the 1950 Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean war.
In such cases, success turns on the influence a leader, whether present on that battlefield or not, exerts.
A senior Vietnam war commander was asked of three wars in which he fought—including World War II and Korea—which proved toughest in leading men into battle. Without hesitation he answered “Vietnam.”
He explained during his first two wars, he was a junior and middle grade officer. Thus, orders he gave and decisions he made placed him in harm’s way alongside the same men he led. But, as a senior Vietnam war commander, this was not the case. In that conflict, while his orders placed those he led in harm’s way, he remained safely behind.
Recognizing the disparity, this commander initially would accompany his units on patrols to demonstrate his willingness to expose himself to the same dangers into which he ordered them. The practice continued until his senior commander ordered it stopped, fearing a propaganda victory for the enemy were he killed or captured.
There was both a negative and a positive aspect to the disparity. The negative was it haunted the commander throughout his Vietnam tour. The positive was it drove him to plan for every conceivable contingency for any operation he ordered. Thus, those he sent into harm’s way always knew he had their backs covered.
Casualty reports had priority for him. While casualties proved inevitable due to the nature of the war, this commander’s attention to detail drastically reduced them.
Yet, the loss of just one man weighed heavy upon his mind, causing him repeatedly to review operational details to ascertain whether anything else could be done to prevent casualties.
He never was able to shake off the psychological impact of sending subordinates into harm’s way. This, perhaps, was particularly so as he had earlier advised his superiors that fighting in Vietnam “was the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
I personally witnessed that war’s impact on this commander—for he was my late father, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. And, in a bitter irony of a war he believed wrong, he eventually lost a son—my brother—who served under his command.
There was a big difference, however, in the circumstances surrounding his son’s loss and Patricia Smith’s.
My brother died of Agent Orange-related cancers in 1988—exposure to which he incurred due to my father’s orders to use the chemical defoliant. Its use denied the enemy riverbank concealment in which to set up deadly ambushes. My father’s decision decreased U.S. losses sixfold—although the long-term cancerous effects on those exposed was not fully known until years later.
A swift boat commander, my brother knew Agent Orange’s use undoubtedly enabled him to survive Vietnam, return home and have a family. Dying at age 42, he knew he had enjoyed two extra decades of life he otherwise would not have. Months before his death, he thanked dad for having given him those years with that wartime decision.
After my brother’s death, my father was asked if he harbored regrets about ordering its use. Having explored all possible options beforehand, he had none—for his decision had saved lives.
That is a quality of responsible leadership—fully educating oneself on all options beforehand leaves one with no regrets in one’s decision-making, regardless of the ultimate outcome. Like my brother, thousands of veterans survived the war, before fatally falling victim years later to their Agent Orange exposure.
This family experience leaves me perplexed about Hillary Clinton’s “what difference does it make” response during congressional questioning about the loss of four American lives in Benghazi, including Smith’s son, on September 11, 2012 to Islamic militants.
In fairness to Clinton, her statement was immediately followed with: “It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again…”
Yet, three and a half years after Benghazi, she had unabashedly forgotten about the loss, claiming on the campaign trail that, as secretary of state, she “didn’t lose a single person” in Libya.
True leaders never forget a loss of life occurring under their command.
Representative Trey Gowdy conducted a two-year investigation into Benghazi. Both parties politicized the final report, but some disturbing findings arose. Most disturbing was that a rescue team awaited, but never received, mandatory executive branch authorization to fly into Libya.
Two Republican committee members have called Benghazi “a tragic failure of leadership.”
Inexcusably, Clinton never thought out the consequences of sending these four Americans into harm’s way without adequate security or a contingency rescue plan.
Two Benghazi survivors have demonized Clinton’s conduct during the incident. Safely situated thousands of miles away, she went home that night rather than remaining in the Situation Room to see it through, as she was willing to do during the Osama bin Laden raid. Apparently saving American lives did not rise to the same historical significance of taking bin Laden’s.
One survivor believes, should Hillary be elected president, special operators will leave in droves, lacking confidence she will cover their backs.
Patricia Smith suggests a special place in Hell exists for Hillary. If so, it looks like there will not be a rush to follow her for fear it will be a one-way trip.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.
Listen to Lt. Col. Zumwalt discuss this article on Breitbart News Daily on SiriusXM: