A Death in the Class of 9/11

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Emily Perez, far left, with a command team from West Point's Beast Barracks, summer 2004.

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On one of my last days at West Point, I watched from the stands as the class of 9/11 took the art of parading to its farcical zenith. A high wind had blown a tall plumed hat off of one of the lead cadets, forcing the hundreds that followed in box formation to try to step over it without glancing down or altering their parade stride. As you can imagine, this did not work out so well. Cadet after cadet ended up stumbling over a hat that could have easily been picked up and tossed out of the way.

Even the West Point parents in attendance couldn't help but snicker at these proud ranks being decimated by a hat. But watching this, I finally was able to articulate something that I had only vaguely sensed before: This thing that West Pointers do — parading in unyielding formation, shining already gleaming boots, enlisting to sacrifice their lives on some unknown and unloved territory far from home — is not done out of ignorance, but out of faith. They have faith that the American values and resourcefulness do not lend themselves to meaningless death. They have faith that not only is freedom worth fighting for, but that we do not fight for any lesser end.

What do we owe them in return? An honest debate and some tough questions that soldiers by definition cannot outwardly ask or answer. Many of her classmates, like Lushenko, see Perez's death as a reason for more resolve in the fight. And one imagines that Perez, who was not given to second-guessing herself or her mission, would agree. This election season has featured Democrats obsessed with blaming their opponents for getting into the war and Republicans mistaking discussion for sedition. Instead, we should be asking straight questions: Do we have enough troops? Is the war winnable? Should we redeploy to safer bases or should we be a more muscular presence on the streets of Iraq? "Emily was just a problem solver," says one of her fellow cadets. Iraq may have defied solution so far, but we owe her a continued, honest effort.

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