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Copyright by John T. Reed

In recent years, I have heard certain military personnel, usually Marines, bragging that they never leave a comrade behind—even a dead comrade.

Let’s think about that.

For one thing, I call it a “purported” policy because I am not sure it is the official policy of the Marines or any other unit. I even wonder if it is a Marine policy that has been proclaimed by Marine privates without consulting with the Commandant of the Marine Corps. If so, the Commandant has not been quick enough or loud enough at correcting the notion that the Marines never leave a dead comrade behind.

The U.S. Army Ranger Creed says, in part, “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy.” Who wrote the Ranger Creed and whether it is official Army policy is not discussed on that Web page. (See my article on Rangers for other details about that training.)

I wonder if the “policy” has not been denounced by the leaders of the Marine Corps or Rangers or whoever because they fear it would make them look bad. The “existence” of such a “policy” may have achieved “fact” status. That is, so many people may regard it as a fact that the leaders of the Corps or Rangers do not have the guts to say it was never the case. Or maybe it is the case. I cannot be sure of that.

Fog of war

For one thing, such a policy must contend with the fog of war. A policy that says the Marines or Rangers or whatever other unit never leave a dead comrade behind suggests a black-and-white situational certainty that rarely exists in war. During combat, it is hard to tell whether a comrade has been left anywhere and/or whether such comrade is dead.

The comrade in question may have gone to the bathroom, literally. That happened to my patrol in Ranger School once. A guy took a potty break in a bush while the patrol was moving. When he finished, he bolted out of the bush at full speed. We thought he was the enemy and machine gunned him—with blanks. We might have thought he was not where he was supposed to be because he was dead in slightly different circumstances.

A missing soldier may be with another U.S. unit because of the fog of war. He may have been wounded and taken himself to the rear or been taken to the rear.

He may not be immediately available because he is still within the American lines, but not visible to those looking for him. That is, his nearby, relatively safe position may be obscured by a bush or tree or log or mound of dirt.

Also, how do you tell when a missing comrade has been captured by the enemy and removed to their rear area? You could lose a lot of men trying to find his nonexistent dead body in the vicinity of the enemy.

What about a comrade who goes nuts and commits suicide by one-man frontal assault? Do his surviving comrades have to mimic his insanity and do likewise to retrieve him?

In short, whether a comrade is “behind,” that is, lying out near the enemy in a location that the U.S. unit is about to retreat from is often extremely hard to determine when guns are shooting, explosives are going off, smoke and dust and noise are everywhere, and all hell is generally breaking loose.

Enemy tricks

If I were the enemy and knew some U.S. units had a policy of never leaving a dead comrade behind, I would try to make the Americans believe they were doing just that to lure them into an ambush. For example, put a dead Iraqi out in the open dressed in an American uniform. If we truly NEVER leave such a comrade behind, we would have to fall for that trap. During World War II, the Japanese often lured Americans to their deaths or tried to by pretending verbally to be wounded, not dead, Americans. They did not pretend to be dead Americans because we had no such never-leave-a-dead-comrade-behind policy then.

Is this the way it has always been?

I was a kid in the late 1940s and early 1950s. World War II had just ended. The movies were often war movies about World War II. I remember many a World War II movie with a scene where a group of Americans was retreating from the enemy and one of their comrades was wounded to the point that he was slowing them down.

“Go on without me. I’ll hold them off as long as I can.” he says. “Are you sure,” his healthier comrades ask. Maybe they initially refuse to leave him and he has to argue strenuously to get them to go. Whatever the details, they ultimately leave him some extra ammo and grenades and, sitting rather than standing because of his leg wounds, he turns toward the pursuing enemy as his comrades say good bye and run away. When the enemy appears, he blasts away until, outnumbered, he is killed by them. His comrades escape safely because of his delaying action. He subsequently is posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor or Navy Cross or some such for his heroism.

As I grew older, went to West Point then to Vietnam, I still never heard of any “We never leave a fellow Marine [or other military person] behind” policy. I do not believe there ever was such a policy.

Then, recently, around the late 1990s, I began hearing that the Marines never leave a dead comrade behind. When writing this article, I learned of the Ranger Creed that says the same. Maybe they don’t anymore, but I would be amazed if that has been their policy in the past.

Worth the risk?

The most obvious problem with such a policy is the risk to the live Marines, Rangers, or other military personnel in the unit in question. Let’s say that a group of Marines knows for certain that a dead comrade is lying in the vicinity of the enemy some yards forward of their Americans’ position. According to the policy, they must advance toward the enemy to retrieve the dead body.

There are two ironclad priorities in military operations:

  1. accomplishment of the mission
  2. the welfare of the men

in that order.

The mission

The commander of the unit must first accomplish his mission. It is hard to imagine a circumstance where retrieving a dead body at risk to the remaining men in the unit constitutes the best way to accomplish the unit’s mission.

The mission typically is to defend a portion of the larger unit’s perimeter or to advance upon a particular section of the enemy’s position according to a particular schedule (thus the oft-heard “synchronize your watches” admonition in war movies). In rarer cases, the unit may be conducting a reconnaissance patrol in which case they are the eyes of the larger unit and must ascertain the dispositions of the enemy and report them accurately and promptly to the higher headquarters.

About the only mission that would allow retrieval of a dead body would be the latter reconnaissance mission. One man could be sent to the rear to report on the enemy dispositions. The unit in question, thus off duty as far as accomplishment of the mission was concerned, could go to priority 2 and take the actions that would maximize the welfare of the men.

Dereliction of duty

When the mission is the more common defend or attack type, going off to retrieve a dead body would be abandonment of the mission, dereliction of duty. It could result in loss of the battle and dramatically increased allied casualties. Units depend on each other to accomplish their individual missions. Accomplishing your unit’s mission must always be assumed to be a life-or-death matter and generally the unit is expected to accomplish the mission or die trying—literally.

There was a good illustration of that in the movie Gettysburg where a Union unit had the responsibility of defending the flank on Little Round Top. They did so bravely until they ran out of ammunition. Then their commander ordered them to fix bayonets and charge down the hill at the Confederate soldiers. Amazingly, this maneuver caused the Confederates in question to surrender to Union soldiers pointing unloaded guns at them. Both sides had bayonets.

My point here is that they certainly were not off retrieving the body of a dead comrade. They had no such choice to make, no such option. Their mission was to defend the flank, period.

Welfare of the men?

Retrieving a dead comrade, by definition, does nothing for the welfare of the deceased. But it is welcomed generally by the living in the sense that they would want their bodies recovered if it were they who got killed. However, that does not necessarily mean they agree that risking their own lives to retrieve the dead man is a wise, calculated risk.

But is the psychological benefit of such knowledge sufficiently valuable to the living that they should risk serious injury or even death to achieve it?

Absolutely not.

“Welfare of the men” refers, by definition, to the living men. Their welfare is certainly not served by risking their lives. It is appropriate to risk the men’s lives and even to expend them to accomplish the mission because of the larger good. It is also appropriate, within reason, to risk the lives of the men to rescue a wounded or trapped comrade. But risking the men’s lives to retrieve the body of a dead comrade would violate the accomplishment-of-the-mission imperative in most cases and the secondary welfare-of-the-men imperative in all cases.

Never say ‘never’

Bottom line: never say “never.”

The obviously correct policy would be to retrieve bodies whenever possible as long as it can be done without jeopardizing accomplishment of the mission or the welfare of the remaining living members of the unit.

I suspect that there never was an official policy that prohibited levaing a dead comrade behind. But it is quite clear that large numbers of military personnel and the public believe there is such a policy.

Carrying dead bodies for days

In the book Matterhorn, author Marlantes tells of a marine company that had a man killed by a tiger on a patrol. To find him, they had to call off an ambush. Plus they had to call for artillery illumination rounds (flares hanging from parachutes) to look for the marine in question. They were not sure he was dead. The illumination rounds revealed the location of the marines to all enemy for miles around. I would have expected they would immediately be extracted by choppers because their stealth mission had been completely compromised. Nope. On the contrary, they were required to spend many more days on forced marches on new missions that were added to the original missions. They were on half rations for the first several days then no rations at all for the rest. Requests for resupply were deliberately ignored because the colonel was pissed about how slow they were moving. Or weather conditions prevented re supply by chopper.

So where is the dead marine while all this is going on? Hanging in a poncho from two poles suspended on the shoulders of four marines. Those marines also had to carry their own packs and most of the pack and weapon of the dead marine were distributed among the other marines increasing their loads. The marine was in pieces when they found him. The pieces had to be wired together to keep them from falling out of the poncho. In the jungle heat, the body quickly deteriorated giving off a near intolerable stench and attracting swarms of flies that tormented the body bearers. Repeated requests for a chopper to extract the body were not approved. The company finally sweet talked a chopper from another unit into taking it out.

In other words, the concrete details of leave no one behind are a lot less fun than the bar stool abstract bragging about that self-righteous policy. My impression was that transporting the dead marine for days increased the danger to the company by slowing them down, increased radio traffic that can be monitored by the enemy, increased chopper contact, when they finally got it. A chopper visiting your patrol in the bush, and leaving you there, advertises our location to the enemy for miles around. Choppers are extremely noisy and easy to see when they fly much above tree-top level.

Matterhorn is a novel, but my impression is that everything in it really happened in Vietnam and that the fictional aspects involve little more than changing names and consolidating events and personalities into composites to avoid being sued or having to check a million facts, but neither exaggerating nor understating the reality of Marlantes’ experience in Vietnam as a marine officer.

End it

If there is, it should be ended immediately. If there is not such a policy, the leaders of the military need to communicate that immediately to all members of the military units that purport to have such a policy, as well as to the public. Until they do, not only are mens’ lives unnecessarily in danger, but so are the more important priorities: accomplishment of the mission and the welfare of the men.

It may be that this “policy” has been invented only by the lowest level Marines or members of other “elite” units as part of their never-ending, one-upsmanship competition with the other services or units.

Do you doubt that the Marines would do such a thing?

During Vietnam, Army soldiers had one-year tours. Marines had 13-month tours. I know of no reason for this other than interservice one-upsmanship. When I wondered aloud how many Marines died during that one-up thirteenth month, a Marine I was talking to said something to the effect of no one because they were all sent to a rear area during that month. In that case, I again ask, what was the point, if not mere one-upsmanship?

Important life-and-death, military doctrine and policy should not be set by adolescent privates and corporals seeking bragging rights in local taverns. Neither should it be set by Hollywood scriptwriters seeking phony drama. Such policy must be set only by the top brass in the Marine Corps and other units who might have claimed a “never leave a dead comrade behind” policy.

If we are going to have a policy on such things, it should be to make retrieving of dead comrades’ bodies third in priority and subordinate to accomplishment of the mission and the welfare of the living members of the unit.

This ‘we never leave a man behind nonsense” is maddening. I never heard of this until around 2011, yet it is depicted as a 250-year old U.S. military tradition.

I spent 47 months at West Point, which is the heart of the heart of the U.S. military. There is no longer course for becoming anything in any branch of the military. Not even close. We were indoctrinated in the U.S. military ethos 24/7. In the barracks, in formations, in the mess hall, in class, in summer training. That stuff was carved into the walls all over West Point. We had to memorize it. The Cadet Prayer, the Code of Conduct, the Ranger Code, the Honor Code, The Corps, etc., etc

On our first day at West Point, we all got a small hardcover book titled Bugle Notes that has all that sort of stuff in it. Bugle Notes has NO mention of this “ancient” policy. But it damned well has everything else of such nature indicating that if there had been such a policy back then—1964—it would be in Bugle Notes.

NEVER, in all that time, or in my year of additional training after graduation, did I hear one word about how we were to conduct ourselves with regard to dead comrades. Not one word.

As far as POWs, it went without saying, and is part of the Geneva Convention, that prisoners are to be returned to each side at the end of a war. Hundreds of Americans became prisoners of the other side on a weekly basis in all our wars. Nobody went looking for them except in isolated cases where it would not interfere with accomplishment of normal missions. The movie The Great Raid was about a true story, the rescue of American POWs of Japan at Cabanatuan. But it was a special case, not any ancient policy of the U.S. military.

I would like to hear the results of a NEXUS search of phrases like “The U.S military policy of never leaving a soldier behind.” I’ll bet such a search will find NO TRACE of this until around 2011. I do not have access to NEXUS, a paid service, and Google is not adequate for finding when such historical things began.

This so-called long-term policy is now in some official U.S. military statements and documents but, again, I’ll bet the pre-2011 versions of those documents have NO mention of it.

It is a colossally stupid policy that has already, and will continue to, get good men killed for no good purpose. And it is about a five-year old policy apparently invented by some drunken Marines in their never-ending quest for one-upsmanship against the Army—then later adopted, along with the lie that it has always been our policy, by officers who should have had more character. (I first heard that it was only a marine policy. Then it suddenly became the entire U.S. military’s always-been-here policy. Total BS)

I appreciated reading & agree with your commentary on the idea of recovering the body of fallen. I would like to offer two additional factors that have contributed to the popularity of this perspective. First, is the increasing occurrence or threat of desecration of the bodies of killed service members. The first significant appearance of this was the Blackhawk Down event from Somolia (however, their situation was compounded in the attempts to recover bodies-although mixed with survivours). In that case the bodies of the dead US soldiers were torn apart by the mobs. In our recent operations in Iraq & Afghanistan, the
execution of captured or desecration of their remains have been a deliberate technique of the more organized forces as well. This is presents an added "troop welfare" dynamic. The second reason is the "information war" where the mass media broadcast of desecrations is seen as a second injury to the families of those killed, as well as affecting public support (justly or not).
Best wishes,

Maj Dov Kawamoto, USMC

[Reed response] Military policy should not be based on such considerations. It should always be based on what is most likely to accomplish the mission and secondly, serve the welfare of the men. Although preventing desecration would help morale, in my experience, the troops use morale to argue for all manner of things that they should not get. Recovering bodies or rescuing living troops at great risk is too deleterious to the accomplishment of the mission to be standard policy. It is also deleterious to morale if commanders repeatedly send healthy men out at great risk to recover bodies and isolated troops. The never leave behind policy might increase the number of Americans desecrated.
May I quote you?
Jack Reed

Kawamoto’s response to my response]

I'm flattered that my comments meet the standard of informed, well thought out & constructive, unless of course you want to quote me for satirical purposes, then... not so much. Either way, you may quote me. Thanks for asking. I only ask that you not attribute my current billet or that I'm deployed.

I would like to clarify that I have never heard of such a policy in the Marine Corps. I have heard many in the military use such language. I generally see this as an indicative of that while we still teach "Mission accomplishment & Troop welfare", the order tends to get reversed in the minds of many.

Two other thoughts on the possible evolution of this idea: First are the efforts to recover the remains of fallen service members from past conflicts (I looked into being the OIC for the Hanoi detachment for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command but, couldn't convince my wife to deal
with the humidity). The second interpretation I could imagine is that one who is separated from will not be given up for dead; a reverse obligation of the code of conduct. I'm not sure when the change was made from the "Y" to "H" harness & I don't know the intentions behind it but, it functionally added the "drag handle" currently put on the back of vests & load bearing equipment. The purpose of that strap is to aid in the recovery of someone wounded. The line between wounded & dead is a blurry line. I think there is psychological as well as practical value to this line of thought. Those in uniform may be expendable but, they are not cheap.

The troops do use morale to argue for unnecessary things however to be fair, I don't think this is on the same level as ice cream. I think you said it correctly that this is a third priority. I might modify it to 2.b.

My last point would be that while I'm irritated at idiotic rhetoric, I haven't really seen behavior or actual orders that implied a policy of recovery as a priority. The only exception would be CSAR & they are a supporting effort to larger missions. The closest during the Lynch rescue in An Nasariyah there was the secondary mission to recover the remains of the other soldiers killed in the ambush, only after it was feasible to do so. If you've found examples, I'd be curious to read about them.

An aside FYI: I read another post where you noted receiving an email labeled "unclassified", like this one. It's just a feature of our email system that automatically tags the messages & I think, prevents cross domain problems.

Thanks again as I've enjoyed reading several of your articles over the slow time here.
Best wishes,

[Reed Response] I am fine with handles on the suspenders for the purpose of dragging wounded or killed soldiers or marines. All I am saying is that there should be no policy on rescuing live or recovering dead U.S. military personnel during a firefight. I am not against the practice or in favor of it. Rather, I oppose a Pentagon policy on it. Such decisions should be made by the commander on the scene based on the mission and welfare of the men in that order. Common sense should be the standard once the accomplishment of the mission is taken care of.

I believe I have heard top commanders—maybe Petraeus—say we ever leave a man behind. I believe I was surprised to find that policy in some official Soldier’s Code or some such I saw on the Internet. One way or another it is out there and the military has an obligation to knock it down if it is not official policy. Their silence on the matter if that is indeed what they are doing is dishonest and encourages officers and men to erroneously believe that IS the policy when it’s not.

Teenage marines and soldiers beating their chest over their never leave a man behind policy need to be told in no uncertain terms that there is no such policy and that they will not take such actions if they conflict with acomplishing the unit’s mission or are mathematically unsound with regard to the health and safety of the men who would be doing the rescue. In other word, we are not going to take action that is likely to get ten more men killed to recover the body of one guy or to rescue one guy.

John T. Reed

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