How Should We Carry The Emotional Weight Of Squandered Campaigns?

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Light armored vehicle crewmen with Task Force 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 8 fill their LAV with bottled water supplied by motor transportation Marines during a logpack on July 11, 2009, in Iraq's Ninewa province.
Photo by Sgt. Eric C. Schwartz

Although thousands of miles separate Kunduz, Fallujah, and Saigon, these cities are metaphysically connected by the collective emotions of the U.S. veterans who served in each location. It is nearly impossible for veterans and those currently serving in the military not to feel strongly as they observe local security forces squander past investments made with periodic deposits of blood and sweat.


When the public sees fleeing refugees in lands far away, charitable donations and empathy flow like water. When veterans and active service members bear witness to the same terrible things in places with names like Sharqat and Sangin, the feelings can range from frustration, to anger, to sadness, to a profound sense of loss. How should these emotions inform, if at all, the ongoing debate over escalating involvement against the Islamic State and the wisdom of a leaving 5,500 troops behind in Afghanistan beyond 2016?

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that emotions negatively impact decision quality, but it turns out that without emotion, decision making is impossible. At the most basic level, these emotions, particularly negative ones, signal when and what kinds of situations we want to avoid. And negative emotions, such as the reflective sadness evoked by Kunduz and Fallujah, can open us up to new learning opportunities, as some researchers have found. Emotions are, after all, information about our environments and unnecessarily discarding relevant information can be detrimental to future decisions.

We should also acknowledge that emotions can push us toward counterproductive actions. While it is natural to want justice and accountability after feeling angry, untargeted rage and the desire for retaliation can generate more terrorists and insurgents than bombs could ever eliminate. Anger generally makes decision makers more open to risk while fear makes them risk averse. Being armed with knowledge about these tendencies can help us calibrate the right course of action going forward instead of rushing to a decision that ultimately backfires. For veterans, finding outlets, such as helping former interpreters resettle safely in the United States, can focus their emotional energies in productive ways.

The uneasiness of veterans should also inform the calculus of decision makers seeking easy answers — those who see force as the remedy for any unrest and uncertainty. Certainly, choosing the military option can feel empowering. But reality is much less satisfying; to offer a response to Gen. David Petraeus’ famous line, “Tell me how this ends,” we don’t know how this ends, or even if there is something we would call an ending. Even the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who has deep experience and expertise in counterinsurgency and security force assistance, doesn’t know if it is possible to build an indigenous force that will stand up on its own. Making smart choices in the face of strong emotional motivations means being okay with unsatisfying answers.

The recent Taliban attack on Kunduz and last summer’s capture of Fallujah by terrorist forces, seemed, as the late great Yogi Berra might have put it, like emotional “deja vu all over again.” This year is also the 40th anniversary of Saigon’s fall. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan veterans and service members are connected by shared feelings — as David Shipley put it, a “tension between a sense of virtue and a sense of shame.” In other words, we did our best, for our brothers and sisters in arms, yet look at the way things turned out. These emotions have not only not led us astray, but they have led us to ask the hard questions in the first place.

From that deep well spring, we should find the courage to seek the answers to the question of whether we think committing more U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is a good idea or not. Perhaps then we can seek a place of balance between headstrong ambition and deep disillusionment that is the starting point for smartly using force and in full consideration of the human costs.

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Marine Maj. Jose J. Anzaldua Jr. spent more than three years as a prisoner of war during the height of the Vietnam War. Now, more than 45 years after his release, Sig Sauer is paying tribute to his service with a special gift.

Sig Sauer on Friday unveiled a unique 1911 pistol engraved with Anzaldua's name, the details of his imprisonment in Vietnam, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" accompanied by the POW-MIA flag on the grip to commemorate POW-MIA Recognition Day.

The gunmaker also released a short documentary entitled "Once A Marine, Always A Marine" — a fitting title given Anzaldua's courageous actions in the line of duty

Marine Maj. Jose Anzaldua's commemorative 1911 pistol

(Sig Sauer)

Born in Texas in 1950, Anzaldua enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968 and deployed to Vietnam as an intelligence scout assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

On Jan. 23, 1970, he was captured during a foot patrol and spent 1,160 days in captivity in various locations across North Vietnam — including he infamous Hỏa Lò Prison known among American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton" — before he was freed during Operation Homecoming on March 27, 1973.

Anzaldua may have been a prisoner, but he never stopped fighting. After his release, he received two Bronze Stars with combat "V" valor devices and a Prisoner of War Medal for displaying "extraordinary leadership and devotion to his companions" during his time in captivity. From one of his Bronze Star citations:

Using his knowledge of the Vietnamese language, he was diligent, resourceful, and invaluable as a collector of intelligence information for the senior officer interned in the prison camp.

In addition, while performing as interpreter for other United States prisoners making known their needs to their captors, [Anzaldua] regularly, at the grave risk of sever retaliation to himself, delivered and received messages for the senior officer.

On one occasion, when detected, he refused to implicate any of his fellow prisoners, even though severe punitive action was expected.

Anzaldua also received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism in December 1969, when he entered the flaming wreckage of a U.S. helicopter that crashed nearr his battalion command post in the country's Quang Nam Province and rescued the crew chief and a Vietnamese civilian "although painfully burned himself," according to his citation.

After a brief stay at Camp Pendleton following his 1973 release, Anzaldua attended Officer Candidate School at MCB Quantico, Virginia, earning his commission in 1974. He retired from the Corps in 1992 after 24 years of service.

Sig Sauer presented the commemorative 1911 pistol to Anzaldua in a private ceremony at the gunmaker's headquarters in Newington, New Hampshire. The pistol's unique features include:

  • 1911 Pistol: the 1911 pistol was carried by U.S. forces throughout the Vietnam War, and by Major Anzaldua throughout his service. The commemorative 1911 POW pistol features a high-polish DLC finish on both the frame and slide, and is chambered in.45 AUTO with an SAO trigger. All pistol engravings are done in 24k gold;
  • Right Slide Engraving: the Prisoner of War ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor and "Major Jose Anzaldua" engravings;
  • Top Slide Engraving: engraved oak leaf insignia representing the Major's rank at the time of retirement and a pair of dog tags inscribed with the date, latitude and longitude of the location where Major Anzaldua was taken as a prisoner, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" taken from the POW-MIA flag;
  • Left Side Engraving: the Vietnam War service ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor engraving;
  • Pistol Grips: anodized aluminum grips with POW-MIA flag.

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