Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter: Fallen Special Forces Hero Was Not Serving ‘Combat Role’ in Iraq

Joshua Wheeler

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter insisted in a press conference on Friday that the anti-ISIS raid in which Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed does not mean American troops have a “combat role” in Iraq.

“This is combat; things are complicated,” Carter said at a press conference on Friday, as quoted by the Marine Corps Timeswhich proceeded to chronicle Carter’s convoluted effort to insist American forces have no combat role in Iraq, not even when they are exchanging fire with ISIS militants:

“Combat” is a term that Carter and many military officials have studiously avoided using over the past few months in an effort to comport with President Obama’s vow to keep U.S. troops out of combat in Iraq.

But Wheeler’s death this week from a gunshot wound in a firefight against hostile enemy forces is fueling new questions about whether U.S. military operations in Iraq have quietly expanded into a combat mission.

Carter on Friday took pains to explain how Wheeler’s death does not mean that the entire force of 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq is involved in a combat mission.

“It doesn’t represent us assuming a combat role,” Carter said at the press briefing at the Pentagon. “It represents a continuation of our advise-and-assist mission.”

“We do not have combat formations there, the way we did once upon a time in Iraq,” he said.

Carter went on to stress that American troops participating in the raid on an ISIS prison last week were supposed to be serving an “advise-and-assist” role, but made the call to engage in combat when the operation ran into trouble.

“This American did what I’m very proud that Americans do in that situation; he ran to the sound of the guns and he stood up,” Carter said of Master Sgt. Wheeler. “All indications are it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that protected those who were involved in breaching the compound and made the mission successful.”

“Again, it wasn’t part of the plan, but it was something that he did, and I’m immensely proud that he did that,” Carter repeated for emphasis.

Nevertheless, Carter’s take on the operation will not sit well with those who believe military operations should not be made secondary to political considerations.

Writing at CommentaryNoah Rothman quotes several other officials repeating the “no combat role in Iraq” talking point, and finds its political dimension painfully transparent:

If there were “boots on the ground” in Iraq engaged in combat against Islamist militias, it would constitute the collapse of one of this White House’s preferred political narratives. For the sake of trite politics, the supreme sacrifice of a decorated American serviceman who fell in a firefight on foreign soil had to be briefly diminished.

Rothman puts this in context with President Obama’s stunning veto of the defense bill last week, a veto that came on the same day Wheeler was killed in Iraq. “Such is this White House’s commitment to the deceptive narrative that his presidency oversaw the end of America’s post-9/11 wars,” Rothman judges. “That’s more than merely tragic; it’s a disgrace.”

Some will find uncomfortable echoes of the administration’s infamous insistence upon classifying the Ft. Hood shooting as an incident of “workplace violence” rather than a terrorist attack, despite the mountain of readily available evidence that the traitor Nidal Hassan considered himself a terrorist operative acting on behalf of international terrorist operations. This White House has very little room to avoid accusations of politicizing the military.

The handling of Wheeler’s death is not just a matter of politics. It will cause many Americans to worry that the administration will fail to give the fallen special operator his due by refusing to fully embrace the reality of the mission he was on.

Also, it leads one to wonder if the administration has given sufficient thought to what the “assist” part of “advise-and-assist” missions really means. If the tempo of operations against ISIS picks up in Iraq, more such instances are likely, where U.S. advisers rush to the sound of the guns and defend our allies. This particular instance involved support for the most combat-capable of those allies, the Kurds. It is likely that advisers will transition to “assistance” roles as the far less battle-hardened Iraqi military engages ISIS more heavily. The political need to keep President Obama’s “no boots on the ground” talking point alive should not blind military leaders to the necessity of making plans for the reality of a growing American combat role in Iraq.

We should ask what message the enemy takes from watching the administration back away from a highly successful raid that involved a single U.S. casualty. The notion that American operations have an extremely low threshold for pain–possibly lower than any nation in history–will lead ISIS to assume nothing they do can possibly trigger a serious American military response. Rarely has an aggressive power been assured, so bluntly and repeatedly, that its most powerful enemy will not take the field against it.


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