A Ceasefire/Hostage Release Might Have Saved These Elite U.S. Soldiers

It's been a simply horrific past 72 hours in Gaza, as Israel besieges hospitals and the latest round of U.S.-Iranian escalation unfolds. 

A Ceasefire/Hostage Release Might Have Saved These Elite U.S. Soldiers
The Battle of Alexander at Issus by Albrecht Altdorfer, 1529

Edited by Sam Thielman

THE PENTAGON DISCLOSED MONDAY MORNING that five U.S. servicemembers who died on Friday, in what was described as a training mission in the "Eastern Mediterranean," were with the Army's elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), AKA the Night Stalkers. 

You might remember the Night Stalkers as the unit that flew previously-unknown stealth Black Hawks to Abbottabad so SEAL Team Six could kill Osama bin Laden in 2011. After my Nov. 2 piece about U.S. special operators in Israel, it seems likelier than not they were there for a hostage-rescue scenario, although I should be clear I don't have specific confirmation for that.  

Even without specific confirmation, it seems pretty well understood that the SOAR elements were present as a consequence of the Israeli war on Gaza. The Times story accompanying the death notice alludes to the spec-ops deployment to Cyprus, near where the five Night Stalkers died, as part of what is said to be a midair-refueling exercise, as occurring "in case they are needed to help evacuate American citizens from the region." 

The Army's Special Operations Command (USASOC) sent out an appropriately solemn press release on Monday releasing the names of the dead. One of the things that struck me about it was how the commanding general, Lt. Gen. Jonathan Braga, described them as having come from "rare patriotic families with deep military service ties that span multiple generations and formations." That reflects a real transition in American society, the result of a variety of material factors and the creation of the "all-volunteer military" in the 1970s. Military service ever since has filtered into a smaller segment of the population, including making it the family tradition to which Braga alludes. That is bound to have profound consequences for America that we will probably understand more clearly in retrospect, as they accumulate. For now I just think of the void these five leave in the lives of their loved ones.

Rest in peace to Chief Warrant Officer 3 Stephen R. Dwyer, who was 38; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Shane M. Barnes, who was 34; Staff Sgt. Tanner W. Grone, who was 26; Sgt. Andrew P. Southard, who was 27; and Sgt. Cade M. Wolfe, who was 24. According to USASOC, both the warrant officers, Dwyer and Barnes, and Sgt. Grone were highly decorated veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, and "numerous no-notice deployments and exercises world-wide in support of national security objectives," which is to say the shadow wars of the War on Terror. Southard was a decorated Afghanistan veteran as well. Wolfe only enlisted in 2018 but had a Global War on Terror service medal. 

These five Night Stalkers weren't part of a combat mission in Gaza. There may never be a U.S. hostage rescue mission in Gaza. But the circumstances of their death surely connect them to the broader Israeli war on Gaza. It was Hamas that took Americans hostage, prompting the consideration of U.S. special operations "contingencies" for rescue; and Israel's pre-Oct. 7 stranglehold on Gaza, part of its general project of maintaining exclusive sovereignty between the river and the sea, was what Hamas sought to puncture by taking some 240 Israelis and others hostage. As with the lives of thousands of Palestinians, perhaps these soldiers would not have lost their lives had there been a negotiated ceasefire and hostage release, since in such a world, they wouldn't have needed to conduct the midair refueling that went wrong and took their lives. 

But that isn't the world we live in. We live instead in a world where Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu proved intransigent over a ceasefire-for-hostages deal, and where President Biden exerts no pressure on him to act otherwise, despite innumerable points of American leverage. And so we live in a world in which over 11,000 Palestinians, including 4,600 children, and now five elite U.S. soldiers, are dead, as are, of this writing, 44 Israeli soldiers. If we continue to live in that world, these numbers will only rise. 

Every moment spent in such a world is a choice made by Netanyahu and Biden. 

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