Analysis & Opinions - The Atlantic

Why I Didn't Tolerate Hairsplitting in War

| June 11, 2019

When I was secretary of defense, I was sure to talk honestly and plainly about war—especially with those waging it.

Joshua Wheeler became famous as the first American soldier to die in the fight against the Islamic State—ISIS. But there’s more to his story than most people know.

Wheeler grew up in a poor, troubled family in rural eastern Oklahoma, the oldest of five kids. After high school, he faced the same choice as most of his fellow graduates: He could look for work in the oil business, or he could join the military. Josh chose the Army. In 1997, two years after he’d enlisted, he joined the elite Rangers and later was assigned to Army Special Operations Command, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

In October 2015, Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler was stationed in Iraq. At that point, U.S. forces were no longer doing all the fighting in that troubled part of the world. Instead, they were engaged in training and support of local forces battling against the militants of ISIS. One day, the Kurdish commandos Wheeler was working with received a tip: A nearby compound controlled by ISIS contained some 70 local hostages, held prisoner for cooperating with Iraqi government officials. Now it appeared that the execution of those hostages was imminent—in fact, aerial photos showed a newly dug mass grave near the compound, waiting for their bodies.

On October 22, the Kurdish commandos swung into action, supported by their U.S. special-operations partners. They launched a helicopter raid on the compound, determined to rescue the hostages. Wheeler and a team of 10 to 20 U.S. fighters went along to provide intelligence and communications support. But the raid went wrong. An effort by the commandos to blast a hole in the compound’s outer wall failed. Gunfire immediately broke out. It was obvious that the commandos were in trouble.

American fighters do—they ran toward the sound of the guns. When the battle ended, the hostages had been freed. A few of the Iraqi commandos were injured. Only one rescuer died in the operation—Joshua Wheeler.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Carter, Ash.“Why I Didn't Tolerate Hairsplitting in War.” The Atlantic, June 11, 2019.