David French talks about the unbearable weight of grief combined with the sudden thrust into the public spotlight for Gold Star families – those who have lost to combat a son or daughter who were serving in the armed forces. And he rightly says that it is a shame to politicize such an event the way Congresswoman Wilson did in the case of Sergeant La David Johnson. And the way the president responded with a typical Twitter slug fest.

Allow to me to respectfully disagree with David French on certain aspects of what may very well turn out to be a symbolic turning point in not just how we view combat casualties, but how the war on terror itself is viewed.

In the first place it is more than reasonable to ask what the hell those marines were doing in Niger. The answer seems to be twofold.

  • Boko Haram – an Al Qaeda and/or ISIS affiliate – operates in Southern Niger and Northern Nigeria.
  • Nigeria is a major oil producer and should it’s corrupt democracy – with a history of authoritarian governments and military intervention something like various Latin American countries in past decades – fall to radical islamic terror groups like Boko Haram, then those groups will have their hands on at least part of Nigeria’s considerable oil wealth.

Does this mean that the Niger-Nigeria region is at risk of becoming another Syria within a few years? Or a few months? With French, American and possibly Russian forces competing for influence and territory through proxy forces or directly? So yes, it is more than reasonable to politicize Sgt. Johnson’s death. It’s how you politicize it that matters.

That’s why Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford’s press conference was so key. In marked contrast to Defense Secretary Mattis, he promised as much transparency as possible on why Sgt. Johnson and his cohorts – along with Nigerien (that means soldiers from Niger as opposed to Nigerian which of course means from Nigeria) army personnel – were there in Southern (or Southeastern) Niger. In other words, tax payers, voters, and yes Gold Star and other military families deserve to know if America is being pulled into another low-level war in West Africa. As well as more specific details on what went wrong in that ambush by Boko Haram terrorists.

This the key point. The sacred honor that is justly and righteously (in the true and virtuous sense of the word) bestowed on those men and women who give their lives for their nation does not mean that any questions on how and why and who and what Sgt. La David Johnson’s patrol was doing in Niger are somehow inappropriate. It is a great temptation to use that honor as a shield against civilian scrutiny.

Yes, it is a tricky balance. Debating in public the roles of intelligence assets on the ground in places like Niger and Afghanistan and elsewhere, for example, is often impossible for obvious reasons. But America’s military does not need to be stripped of its honor in order to be a little more forthcoming about its multiple engagements around the globe. And President Trump could be a little more creative and diplomatic when it comes to the impossible and thankless job of contacting Gold Star families. And that’s despite the fact that Democrats want to turn the Niger ambush into a Benghazi for the Trump administration. There are better ways to shame Congresswoman Wilson. Just ask your Chief of Staff, Mr. President.

And rather than just give a speech, perhaps George W. Bush could give the president a phone call and share some of the harsh attacks from Gold Star families that he himself had to deal with. It would be more than a gesture. It would be the right thing for Bush 43 to do, regardless of whether President Trump takes his advice or not.

The sacred honor of the military exists to defend freedom of the press and freedom of expression in all its unruly forms. Not the other way around. Even as this ideal is often compromised, it must remain as the guiding principal.

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