A Knock on the Door was my response to the murder of thirteen members of our military in Afghanistan, August 26, 2021. I tried to share how hard it can be for those on both sides of the door when the party knocking has to relay the horrible news that a loved one is dead. Here, I want to follow up on the issue of pain with a thought about the way we label casualties, especially deaths like the thirteen servicemen and women mentioned above.
In these and many other cases, we hear the comment, “We need to remember them for their sacrifice.” If not that exact phrase, then a similar phrase using the term sacrifice. Words matter, and here, I want to call our use of the term sacrifice into question.
Words matter because they impact the way we remember tragedies. They matter because they may distort the reality of the disaster. They matter because they can provide cover for those who should bear at least some blame for the losses.
When speaking of those whose jobs place them in harm’s way, we often mention their sacrifices. Thanking the military, first responders, or frontline medical personnel for their sacrifices is appropriate and welcome, if sometimes embarrassing, to those we thank. To them, they are just doing their job.
Of course, they do make sacrifices to perform their jobs. They sacrifice many things most take for granted. They work long hours in dangerous situations. They are called upon to meet higher standards than many others, and they suffer the consequences of not meeting those expected standards.
Also, they sacrifice family time and family commitments because of their duties. Occasionally, they lose their lives while performing their duties. When they do, it is often said they sacrificed their lives for the good of others. Many times using the term “sacrificed” may be incorrect.
The thirteen service members murdered in Afghanistan did make sacrifices. They were making sacrifices by serving in a hell hole like the one in which they died. However, on the day they died, they did not sacrifice themselves.
Yes! They knew there were risks. Still, they did not volunteer for an extremely dangerous assignment. They followed orders. They did not report for duty, knowing they would die. They did not throw themselves on a grenade, tackle the suicide bomber trying to save others, or perform another action of intentional sacrifice. They might have, but there was no warning and no time.
Some may raise an eyebrow or clench their teeth while reading the last couple of paragraphs. They may wonder what difference it makes if they volunteered, followed orders, or died trying to stop the bomber. It makes a difference, and here is why.
Others sacrificed them! Their deaths were the result of decisions made by others. Their blood is on the hands of those in charge, from the local command to the Oval Office.*
The next time you hear that someone in the military, a first responder, or anyone on the frontline sacrificed themself, remember this. There is a difference between sacrificing oneself and being placed in a situation where you become a sacrifice.
*Wonder why I am so interested in calling out the misuse of the word sacrifice? In 1968 then President Johnson made changes in the way the war in Vietnam was being waged. Read Lest We Forget or Living With the Past to get a taste of how a decision in the Oval Office changed lives.