Max Boot: What the U.S. casualties in Syria tell us about America’s wars

The four Americans killed Jan. 16 in a suicide bombing in Manbij, Syria, were all heroes — but hardly conventional soldiers engaged in a normal combat mission.

Only two of the fallen Americans fit the traditional stereotype of a front-line soldier — and even they were far older than a typical combatant. According to a New York Times profile of the four American casualties, Scott A. Wirtz, 42, was a “fun-loving,” tattooed and bearded former high school football player and former Navy SEAL from St. Louis who was working as a civilian for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan Farmer, 37, was a strapping, 6-foot, 4-inch former high school basketball player from south Florida who had four children and had deployed numerous times to Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces.

But while being classic military types who could be (and, for all we know, might be) portrayed on the screen by Bradley Cooper or Mark Wahlberg, they were not engaged in a classic mission killing the enemy. What they were actually doing in Manbij is classified, but it appears they were collecting intelligence — an activity far more frustrating and challenging, and yet ultimately more important, than “kinetic” operations in a war against a shadowy enemy such as Islamic State. The American military, the world’s most advanced, can easily eliminate terrorists if it knows their GPS coordinates. But identifying and locating them are excruciatingly difficult endeavors.

That’s where the other two Americans who were killed came in. Navy chief cryptologic technician (interpretive) Shannon Kent, a 35-year-old college graduate from upstate New York and the mother of two, was assigned to Cryptologic Warfare Activity 66, based at Fort Meade, Maryland, the home of the National Security Agency. Her job would have been intercepting communications — the surest way to identify targets for “kill or capture” missions.

Ghadir Taher, 27, was a civilian contractor who had been born in Syria and who became a naturalized American after moving to the United States in 2001. As a “terp” (the military shorthand for interpreters), she allowed the other members of the unit to communicate with the locals and to gain an understanding of the “human terrain” in which they were operating. In a “war among the people” — as all insurgencies are — soldiers must understand what the people are saying and thinking. Taher made that possible.

This was the deadliest mission yet for the U.S. armed forces in Syria and, out of four fatalities, two were women, two were civilians, and one was born abroad. This is the face of war in the 21st century. It upends traditional stereotypes about who is needed on the front lines.

Heather Mac Donald, a conservative commentator, wrote an op-ed last week in the Wall Street Journal arguing that “Women Don’t Belong in Combat Units.” She called upon the Trump administration to overturn then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s 2015 decision to open all military occupational specialties to females. This ignores the fact that women were already serving in combat — including in military police, logistical and intelligence units — long before 2015. Some 200 women have died in the post-9/11 wars and more have been wounded, demonstrating that there is no shortage of danger on a 360-degree, counterinsurgency battlefield even for those who are not in ground-combat billets. If the Pentagon takes Mac Donald’s advice to roll back gender integration, the result would be a loss of highly dedicated and skilled warriors.

We are already seeing such a loss because of the Trump administration’s animus against immigrants. In 2009, the Pentagon launched the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program to enlist soldiers who were not U.S. citizens or permanent residents but who had vital skills such as medical training or knowledge of languages such as Russian, Mandarin or Pashto. The 10,400 troops enlisted as part of the program included many who served in Special Operations forces — including Sgt. Saral K. Shrestha, a Nepalese native who speaks fluent Urdu and won the Army’s soldier-of-the-year competition in 2012.

But the MAVNI program was suspended by the Obama administration in 2016 pending a review of background checks, and it was ended in 2017 by the Trump administration. Five hundred MAVNI soldiers have already been kicked out of the Army, potentially leaving them vulnerable to deportation, but the process is now on hold pending the resolution of several lawsuits. The ostensible justification was security concerns, even though a 2017 Rand Corp. study found no evidence of any security problems, including any recruits involved in terrorism or espionage. Taher wasn’t part of MAVNI, but she was only able to risk — and ultimately lose — her life fighting for the United States because she came here before Trump instituted a ban on travel from five majority-Muslim countries, including Syria.

Social conservatives and nativists appear determined to deny the United States the human capital it needs to defend itself. Highly skilled female service members such as Kent and foreign-born interpreters such as Taher are some of the United States' most valuable and underappreciated weapons systems. We should honor them and make it easier, rather than harder, to utilize volunteers like them in the future.


Max Boot | The Washington Post

Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right."