Why U.S. Military Never Leaves Anyone Behind

The credo is etched on the dog tags of every U.S. soldier in the 10th Mountain Division: "I will never leave a fallen comrade." Last week, after three members of the unit were ambushed and spirited away south of Baghdad, the U.S. military poured 4,000 American and 2,000 Iraqi troops into the area. As surveillance drones flew overhead and spy satellites snapped images from space, the men searched door to door, offering a $200,000 reward by loudspeaker and detaining hundreds of Iraqis for questioning. They drained a canal and sent out cadaver-sniffing dogs. At FOB Youssifiyeh, battalion headquarters for the missing soldiers, grunts and officers alike told NEWSWEEK that finding their comrades was the most important mission of their military careers. "Easily," said Capt. Christopher Sanchez, 25, a West Pointer from Los Angeles. "Just because I know these guys. They're my friends."

Late last week in an interview with the Army Times, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said he knew the kidnappers' names and believed that at least two of the three soldiers were still alive. But they remained missing. "Your soldiers are in our hands. If you want their safety, do not look for them," taunted a group called the Islamic State of Iraq—an umbrella group of Sunni insurgents, including Al Qaeda in Iraq. U.S. military officials tried to keep a brave face on the recovery effort, but some, not speaking on the record for fear of seeming downbeat or defeatist, were asking uncomfortable questions. Why had the soldiers been vulnerable to an ambush? Had their comrades been slow to mount a rescue? How long could they continue to divert massive resources from the larger mission of pacifying Iraq?

"Leave no man behind" is an ancient and noble warrior code. It evokes images of bone-weary Marines carrying the frozen corpses of their comrades on the retreat from Chosin Reservoir in Korea, or helicopters zooming in under fire to rescue surrounded Special Forces in Vietnam. But the cost of bringing back the fallen, dead or alive, can be high, as the Americans and especially the Israelis have discovered over the years.

The three American soldiers vanished from an area in ancient Mesopotamia that spookily resembles Vietnam—soggy lowlands of tall grass and lush palm groves. They were in a squad of eight soldiers, seven Americans and one Iraqi interpreter, sitting in a pair of Humvees, waiting in the dark of night to catch Iraqi insurgents planting IEDs. The GIs' location, nearby some houses, was hardly secret, and they had been positioned there at least once before—not the wisest move in a hostile region where, only a year before, a Humvee had been ambushed. This time, the Humvees were guarded by concertina wire, but the defenses were not enough to stop a grenade and small-weapons attack. One of the Humvees was burned, with occupants apparently still inside. A fifth body was later found in a house 50 yards away. The attack must have been sudden and overwhelming, because the soldiers were unable to get off a radio signal.

Their comrades, a couple of dozen soldiers stationed in Humvees some 500 yards to the north and 875 yards to the south, heard an explosion. But explosions are commonplace, and they did not race to the rescue. Rather, they called in an unmanned aerial drone to send back pictures. That took 15 minutes. It was another 40 minutes before American soldiers, slowed by the need to disarm IEDs in the road, reached the scene. They found marks in the dust suggesting that bodies had been dragged to a waiting vehicle.

In rescue operations, the first minutes and hours are crucial, or the trail goes cold. The abductors are pitiless. When the single Humvee was ambushed a year ago, the two captured GIs were mutilated and dragged behind a truck for video purposes. No wonder that this time around American commanders were diverting resources to the recovery effort, stretching the already thin line that is supposed to be "surging" in Iraq. The door-to-door search, with its interrogations and detentions, is not winning new friends. "We hate Al Qaeda," said Salman Awda, a 55-year-old tractor driver. "But we hate the American troops more."

The military still spends about $100 million a year finding fallen soldiers from earlier wars—a B-24 navigator shot down in 1944 was recovered in Croatia and buried in Michigan just two weeks ago. Before the Korean War, though, American GIs—like British colonial soldiers—were buried in foreign lands where they fell. Bringing home the dead for burial is a relatively modern phenomenon.

No one works harder at it than the Israelis, and their experience illustrates the dilemma of strict adherence to a virtuous ideal. "The policy is always to leave no man behind," says Noa Meir, an Israeli Army spokesperson. "Dead soldiers as well—same value." Such a rigid rule "has a very practical dimension," notes Isaac Ben-Israel, head of security studies at Tel Aviv University. "People who know they won't be left will fight better." But Israel has gone to extraordinary lengths to fulfill this promise. The Israelis are willing to trade hundreds of prisoners for even one Israeli, creating an open bazaar and offering an incentive to guerrillas to abduct a few more. The kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers seized by Hizbullah was a major reason Israel went to war against Lebanon last summer, at the cost of more than 100 Israeli lives and many more Lebanese. The fallout may bring down the Israeli government.

A prolonged, massive search for the missing American GIs in Iraq may undermine the overall mission there. But most U.S. soldiers interviewed by NEWSWEEK have long since stopped insisting that their greatest mission is to bring peace and democracy to Iraq. More and more, they talk about their desire to simply protect their buddies, and to get everyone home alive.