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Commentary

National Interests, First; Soldiers' Lives, Second

April 29, 2001|JAMES ZUMWALT | James Zumwalt, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, has written extensively on foreign policy and defense issues

History is replete with examples of warrior heroes who, when the call to arms in defense of country was sounded, made great personal sacrifices. One need only read the citations of Medal of Honor recipients to understand that there are men for whom self-preservation took a back seat when the life of another and/or national security was at stake.

History records incidents in other cultures as well where the same is true. Stories are told of great warriors who, in danger of capture, chose to cut out their own tongues rather than run the risk of being tortured into giving up information that would harm their countrymen.

With the release of our EP-3 crew by Beijing after the reconnaissance aircraft's emergency landing on Hainan island following its collision with a Chinese F-8 fighter, a tough question now needs to be asked: Did the crew act responsibly to prevent the compromise of intelligence equipment and documents entrusted to them on board their plane? It is clear that the crew had been regularly trained on how best to destroy equipment in the event of an emergency and how to ditch the aircraft at sea if it became necessary to do so.

Two responsibilities arose as a result of the mission: to prevent secrets from falling into the hands of a foreign power--especially one targeted by the mission's intelligence collection efforts--and to protect the lives of crew members. The harsh reality is this: These two responsibilities were not equal. Top priority should have gone to preventing equipment and documents from falling into Chinese hands, thus avoiding a potential international standoff between Beijing and Washington.

Understandably, as soon as the collision occurred, self-preservation kicked in as the EP-3's pilot struggled to bring the aircraft out of a nose dive. Only his extraordinary flying skills enabled him to regain control of the plane and level off. And, understandably, the crew was seized with fear as the pilot went through this exercise. Once the plane leveled off, the crew reportedly regained its composure. With death no longer imminent, clearer thinking should have prevailed and the two responsibilities placed in their appropriate priority by the crew. They were not; survival took the first priority.

At some point, crew members had to recognize that they might not be able to fully destroy equipment and documents before making an emergency landing in China and, thus, run the additional risk that some of their intelligence-gathering capabilities might be compromised. It is now known this is what happened.

After the midair crash, the options available to the crew were clearly limited. To the north and west, the territorial borders of two communist countries--China and Vietnam--hemmed in the aircraft; potential U.S.-friendly landing sites were much farther away to the south and east. If unable to make it to a friendly site, the crew, as one option, could have considered heading for the nearest non-Chinese land mass--Vietnam. There is no guarantee that the Vietnamese would have been any more respectful of the tenets of international law than were the Chinese. But, it is doubtful Hanoi would have opened the plane up to Chinese inspection due to its own growing concerns over China's burgeoning military might. Even this option held unknowns that could have resulted in the compromise of secrets.

The only way the crew could have ensured that the equipment and documents were not compromised was by heading toward a friendly base, knowing they might well have to ditch the aircraft at sea en route. With parachutes, inflatable rafts, relatively calm seas and calls for assistance all available, chances are that most of the crew might have survived such an ordeal, leaving the aircraft to be recovered later by the U.S., if at all, in international waters.

There is an acceptance of certain responsibilities implied by those who wear the U.S. military uniform. Sacrosanct among these is for the warrior never, ever to allow his or her actions to compromise the security of our country. When necessary, one has to be willing to die for that belief.

With the successes that the U.S. has enjoyed in fighting wars in the Persian Gulf and Kosovo--conflicts that have been resolved with little or no loss of U.S. life--our military has become desensitized to the sacrifices that sometimes must be made on behalf of country.

Such a lesson was not lost on the Taiwanese military. A Taiwanese marine once commented during the early 1970s as Taipei was secretly sending people on rubber boats into mainland China to spy that, "Sometimes they come back; sometimes they don't."

While life is precious and we want to preserve it when possible, there are times we must expect our military personnel will not come back from certain operations. When that happens and lives are lost but national security remains intact, we must accept such loss as necessary.

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