Wheeler was killed in a raid by U.S. and Kurdish commandos on an Islamic State base in Hawijah, Kirkuk province, following a request from the Kurdistan Regional Government. About 70 hostages, including dozens of civilians, were freed. The Pentagon said they faced imminent execution.Since I am on principle opposed to the U.S. charging around the world trying to right wrongs with bombs and bullets, this obviously presents a problem for me. I think we can all understand what Wheeler did, and even admire it. He saw 70 civilian hostages slated for execution by one of the world's most evil regimes, their graves already dug, and rushed to help. The army generally disapproves of soldiers freelancing around the battlefield outside the rules of engagement, but even the Defense Secretary offered no criticism of Wheeler's conduct. Nor is anyone likely to criticize the Secretary for ordering his men to assist the Kurds in this operation. Presented with an aerial photograph of the 70 open graves, how could he not?
Carter added he made the decision to aid the Kurdish troops after receiving actionable intelligence the hostages faced imminent execution. He said the hostages, who have since been debriefed, had told them that their graves had been dug.
“We had seen the graves beforehand,” Carter said.
Here’s how the Pentagon described the U.S. role on Thursday: “The U.S. provided helicopter lift and accompanied Iraqi Peshmerga forces to the compound.” The Peshmerga came under fire, Wheeler was injured, and died later, the Defense Department said.
On Friday, Carter provided more details about Wheeler’s actions: “He ran toward the gunfire,” he said.
He said he was proud of Wheeler’s actions and called them courageous. “It wasn’t part of the plan, but it’s something that he did,” he said.
But. The Islamic State only exists because we overthrew Saddam Hussein, a truly monstrous man, with the blood of tens of thousands on his hands. I admit that removing him was a gain for the world, but that has to be balanced against the 120,000 Iraqis and more than 4,000 Americans killed in the war that followed, the trillion dollars spent, the million refugees. And the rise of the Islamic State, the bastard child of Islamic fundamentalism and American shock and awe.
Take a look at Libya, where the U.S., France and Britain intervened to prevent what they thought was an inevitable massacre of people we admired, civilian protesters in the vanguard of the Arab Spring. It strikes me as an almost exact parallel to the choice faced by Sergeant Wheeler; seeing an atrocity about to unfold, he charged in, and so did Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary. And then once we had defended the virtuous protesters, we decided to help them rid themselves of the wicked regime that threatened them, a government guilty of manifold crimes including bombing at least one airliner. And now Libya is a ruin. Thousands have been killed in the civil war that followed Qaddafi's fall, and hundreds of thousands have been made into refugees. Was it worth it?
What about the world's most evil government, in North Korea? Nobody seriously doubts that we could overthrow that regime if we decided to, and its disappearance would be a greater boon even than the fall of Saddam. But how many would be killed? How many lives ruined? What would the cost be of putting Korea back together?
I feel like a cad, but I have to say: sometimes it is better to let few innocent people be murdered than to charge to the rescue without having any idea what the eventual consequences might be.