“Iknew wherever I was that you thought of me and that if I got in a tight place, you would come — if alive.” This statement was contained in a letter dated March 10, 1864, written by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. It expresses an ageless ethos among warriors, especially those within the U.S. military. The commitment to come to the aid of fellow Americans in times of duress and danger has always been one of the foundations of America’s fighting forces. Yet that appears to have changed on Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya, when no effort was made to respond to the calls for help by U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his CIA team at the U.S. Consulate facility.
Why was there no attempt to save the lives of the ambassador and his colleagues, beyond sending an unarmed drone to observe their demise? The congressional committees investigating the events in Benghazi seem to have focused on the Sunday talk-show statements of Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who blamed the attack on an obscure anti-Islam video made by a relatively unknown man in California.
While it certainly is important for legislators to determine whether Mrs. Rice was misleading the American public as part of a White House-orchestrated misinformation plan, it is more important to determine why there was no rescue effort. With Mrs. Rice’s name off the table for secretary of state, Congress needs to focus on the military. The excuse that U.S. military forces in the area could not have arrived in time to save Stevens and his team is unacceptable. That means the U.S. military commanders involved determined how long it was going to take the attackers to overrun and kill the Americans in Benghazi. Because their assessment was that it would be done before they could arrive, they chose not to try.
Even if the live video from the drone over the consulate showed that the team in Benghazi had been killed, a military operation still would have been required. It is impossible to determine from an intelligence drone what enemy intentions are and to ascertain the status of other Americans and allies in the vicinity.
The ethos does not apply just to saving lives but includes the notion that no dead American will be left to fall into enemy hands. In 1993, Task Force Ranger fought an 18-hour battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, against a tribal militia numbering in the thousands. I was there as the commander of the Delta Force and bore responsibility for getting 99 warriors out of the city that day after having accomplished our primary mission. The mission was to capture a band of loyalists and supporters of a warlord and tribal leader named Mohammed Aideed. We succeeded in that task rather quickly, but when a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down, the mission changed to one that was even more critical. The battle is chronicled in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”
What most people do not realize is that the special operations forces involved in that fierce fight, which claimed 15 U.S. lives, were fighting over the bodies of two of their comrades. Both the pilot and the co-pilot of the crashed helicopter were killed on impact and trapped in the twisted wreckage. No one was willing to leave their bodies behind because everyone lived by a code that is encapsulated in the fifth stanza of something called the Ranger Creed: “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.”
Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta had multiple options with which to respond to the consulate attack, yet he explained that he was not willing to commit U.S. forces without knowing exactly what was going on at the scene. That is an unacceptable response from the man in charge of our military. Aircraft from the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet could have responded with close air-support platforms, or U.S. Marines in the region could have been dispatched, probably from Sigonella, Italy, a U.S. base in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, a U.S. Navy SEAL team and a U.S. Army Special Forces battalion were co-located with the U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, and both are trained and designated for rescue operations. Why did CNN reach the consulate before any military or U.S. government elements?
Americans must demand answers about why there was no effort to save Stevens and his team — or, as a last resort, to recover their bodies and return them to American control. It would seem that a special investigation by a bipartisan team is in order. The actions of the military during the Benghazi attack must be examined thoroughly. Did the military refuse to respond? Or was it told to “stand down”? Who gave the order not to respond? Why did U.S. leadership decide to let the bodies of Stevens and his cohorts fall into Libyan hands? These questions must be asked, but it appears that these are not concerns of the congressional committees.
Americans who are sent by the U.S. government to perform duties that are considered important to U.S. interests must know that all efforts will be made to protect them and to respond if they are attacked. It is an ethos that is fundamental to our identity as a nation, and we failed to live up to it in Benghazi.
Retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin is executive vice president at the Family Research Council and was an original member of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force.