At 9:44 p.m. on July 27, 1953, Harold Smith had just 16 more minutes of the Korean War to survive before a ceasefire came into effect at 10:00 p.m. You can imagine this 21-year old Marine from Illinois out on combat patrol that evening, looking at his watch, mentally ticking down the seconds. Suddenly, Smith tripped a land mine and was fatally wounded. As one soldier recalled, “I was preparing to fire a white star cluster to signal the armistice when his body was brought in”.
Twenty-two years later, on April 29, 1975, Darwin Judge and Charles McMahon were serving as Marine guards near Saigon in South Vietnam. Judge was an Iowa boy and a gifted woodworker. His buddy, McMahon, from Woburn, Massachusetts, was a natural leader. “He loved the Marines as much as anybody I ever saw in the Marines”, said one friend. They had only been in South Vietnam for a few days. At 4:00 a.m. on April 29, a communist rocket struck their position and the two men died instantly.
On the early evening of November 14, 2011, David Hickman was traveling in an armored truck through Baghdad. Hickman, an army specialist from North Carolina, had been in ninth grade when the Iraq War started in 2003. A massive explosion ripped into Hickman’s truck. It was a roadside bomb—the signature weapon of Iraqi insurgents. Hickman was grievously wounded. The next day, just before midnight, the Army visited Hickman’s parents in North Carolina to tell them their son was dead.
Smith, Judge, McMahon, and Hickman were the final American combat fatalities in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, respectively. An unknown soldier will have the same fate in Afghanistan.
These men are the nation’s last full measure of devotion. The final casualty in war is uniquely poignant. It highlights the individual human price of conflict. It signifies the aggravated cruelty of near-survival. It has all the random arbitrariness of a lottery. The Soviet-made 122 mm rocket that killed Judge and McMahon in 1975 was famously inaccurate. It could have landed anywhere in their vicinity. But it fell just a few feet from the Marines. The sergeant who found their bodies wondered, “Why them and not me?”
Most of all, the final casualty underscores the value of ending a conflict. If the United States could have resolved the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq earlier—even just a few minutes earlier—Smith, Judge, McMahon, and Hickman’s lives would have been the first to be spared.
Concluding the fighting has particular urgency in a war without victory. As former navy lieutenant John Kerry remarked during congressional testimony on Vietnam in 1971, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”