I t’s rare to run into someone one who hasn’t heard of the Battle of Thermopylae. Leonidas I, the Spartan king, stood with a small force at a mountain pass called “Hot Gates” in 480 BC against a vastly larger army of Persians under King Xerxes, who was in the process of trying to take over the world.
The Spartans held the pass for a week, allowing the rest of Greece to mobilize and get ready to fend off the Persians. It worked. Leonidas and his men saved Greece.
Thermopylae is similar in many ways to the final battle of the Alamo in 1836. That battle was fought by about 185 men, mostly Texans, against a far larger force from Mexico, giving Sam Houston time to prepare the rest of his army. That worked, too. William Travis, Jim Bowie, and the rest of the garrison at the Alamo saved Texas.
Both times, men stood for what they believed against overwhelming odds. They knew they were going to die, and refused to surrender anyway. They believed the cause they fought for was worth more than their lives. Whether they were right or wrong probably depended on whose side one happened to be on, but their courage cannot be questioned. They sacrificed themselves because they believed in something.
Many have said that such men and women do not exist today, that such bravery and sacrifice are a thing of the past. Even those who can be expected to know better sometimes despair of finding such selflessness in more modern times. A U.S. Marine general is supposed to have said, just before a famous battle, that he was afraid that the men under his command were not made of the same stuff as those who had won the previous war.
The general was Alexander Archer Vandegrift. The battle was the U.S. invasion of Guadalcanal in August, 1942. And we all know how that one turned out. Whether Gen. Vandegrift actually worried about the mettle of his troops is in question; their conduct is not.
Many movies have been produced about all three of these battles, and at the beginning of each the claim is made that the film is “based on true events.” At the beginning of the movie “13 Hours,” a different claim is offered. It says, ‘This is a true story.’ And a horrible story it is.
All of Libya, and Benghazi in particular, was a powder keg during the summer of 2012. The situation got so bad that the representatives of just about every other country left. Not the U.S. We still had a temporary diplomatic residence and a ‘secret’ CIA compound in Benghazi. They were defended mostly by ex-military special operators. These men lived in danger every day, risking their lives to protect those in their charge.
Realizing their situation was becoming increasingly dangerous, and that Libya’s political stability was going from bad to worse, the Benghazi contingent sent numerous requests for additional support through the summer, but the requests were denied.
On 10 September 2012 Ambassador Chris Stevens arrived in Benghazi, and the next day, the 11th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Islamic militants converged on the diplomatic residence where Ambassador Stevens was staying.
The men charged with protecting Americans in the area were stationed at the CIA compound a mile away. They were not allowed to be positioned at the diplomatic residence for some reason, but when they learned of the attack as it began, they suited up and prepared to go to the defense of the ambassador.
Delays ensued, as protocol required approval from above for such a mission. Bureaucracies are never quick, when decisions must be made by people thousands of miles from ground zero. When those decisions will doubtless be subjected to minute scrutiny by higher-ups, the wheels turn exceedingly slowly.
Ultimately, the men were told they were not allowed to go to Ambassador Stevens’s aid. They went anyway. They could see the fires and hear the explosions and the small arms fire clearly that night. They knew from radio communications that they would be vastly outnumbered, and that the delays had moved their task from the “extremely dangerous” column into the “unlikely to survive” zone. They were under no obligation to go, and would have been entirely within their rights to remain out of harm’s way for the moment.
They went anyway.
By the time they got there Ambassador Stevens had already been taken hostage, and was ultimately brutalized, tortured, and murdered by the people he had come to help. No good deed goes unpunished.
Three men, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone Woods, also died that night. They died in a nasty little place far from home and family, fighting for a cause they didn’t understand, protecting people who didn’t appreciate them. They died saving others, not because the others were better, or more important, but because there was no one else to save them. They died because those they depended on for support failed to provide it. They didn’t just die. They were sacrificed.
It’s said the three hardest things to do are climb a fence that leans toward you, kiss a girl that leans away from you, and help someone who doesn’t want your help. Maybe that’s true for most of us, but for the warrior, I think the hardest thing to do is turn your back on someone who needs your help.
It’s a pity that not everyone is made that way.
Email Kendal Hemphill at [email protected]