When Combat Isn’t Combat

If the U.S. is not officially at war, why are its soldiers dying in war zones?

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter speaks to the 82nd Airborne Division in Baghdad. (Reuters)

An American soldier died in Iraq this week as a result of the U.S. intervention to support Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic State. It’s the first loss of an American service member since the fight against ISIS began, and the first U.S. combat death in Iraq since 2011. U.S. special operations forces operating in Iraq in what Pentagon officials say was a supporting role took part in an Iraqi operation to free Iraqi hostages, including members of the Iraqi Security Forces. After more than 70 hostages were freed, 39-year-old Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, a veteran of 14 official combat deployments and doubtless several other less-official trips into danger, died of his gunshot wound.

His death has raised the question of how an American could have died in combat when America, at least according to President Barack Obama and his national security leaders, is not at war.

“We have this capability. It is a great American strength,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Friday at the Pentagon of special-operations raids like the one this week. But he insisted those raids are not the same as the U.S. military “assuming a combat role.”

“Americans are flying combat missions, thousands of combat missions, over Syria and Iraqi territory. There are Americans involved in training and advising Iraqi security forces around the country. We do not have combat formations there the way we had once upon a time in Iraq, or the way we have had in years past in Afghanistan,” Carter said.

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook had been blunter on Thursday: “Our mission in Iraq is the train, advise and assist mission. This was a unique circumstance. … This was a support mission in which they were providing support to the Kurdistan Regional Government. U.S. forces are not in an active combat mission in Iraq.”

But before Carter left the podium on Friday, he offered this explanation for why he couldn’t reveal more details of Wheeler’s actions: “This is combat. Things are complicated.”


The rules of the official advise-and-assist mission meant the Americans were to “stay behind the last covered and concealed position,” but when the fighters they were supporting began taking fire and casualties, they stepped in and acted. As Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren noted from Baghdad, “In the chaos of combat, when you see your friends being hit, I would submit to you that you’re under somewhat of a moral obligation.” Again, combat.

Thursday’s events have thrust into the public spotlight the rather plastic definitions of “war” and “combat” with which Americans have been operating for a while now. And not just in Iraq and Syria. Officially, combat operations ended in Afghanistan in December 2014. In May, Obama noted that “for many of us, this Memorial Day is especially meaningful; it is the first since our war in Afghanistan came to an end. Today is the first Memorial Day in 14 years that the United States is not engaged in a major ground war.”

And yet as of today, America has sustained 14 casualties in Afghanistan since Obama’s speech, including four deaths the Pentagon labels as “killed in action.” Even if the official mission of U.S. troops is to support Afghan forces, American lives are on the line and in combat theaters. American forces serving in Afghanistan are eligible to earn the Afghanistan Campaign Medal.

The U.S. may not by name or distinction be a nation at war, and it may not be a nation whose troops are part of full-scale, on-the-ground combat operations. But the men and women serving in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are indeed at war whether or not America is.