By Sean Carroll | January 4, 2008 1:42 pm

Andrew Olmsted was a U.S. soldier who occasionally posted at Obsidian Wings as G’Kar. He was killed yesterday in Iraq. Andrew (who I didn’t know personally) had written a piece with the specific intention of having it posted only in the event of his death. It was posted today by hilzoy.

I write this in part, admittedly, because I would like to think that there’s at least a little something out there to remember me by. Granted, this site will eventually vanish, being ephemeral in a very real sense of the word, but at least for a time it can serve as a tiny record of my contributions to the world. But on a larger scale, for those who knew me well enough to be saddened by my death, especially for those who haven’t known anyone else lost to this war, perhaps my death can serve as a small reminder of the costs of war. Regardless of the merits of this war, or of any war, I think that many of us in America have forgotten that war means death and suffering in wholesale lots. A decision that for most of us in America was academic, whether or not to go to war in Iraq, had very real consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. Yet I was as guilty as anyone of minimizing those very real consequences in lieu of a cold discussion of theoretical merits of war and peace. Now I’m facing some very real consequences of that decision; who says life doesn’t have a sense of humor?

I don’t think the war in Iraq was a good idea. But I have enormous respect and admiration for the people who volunteer and put their lives on the line to serve in the military; they’re not the ones who decide what wars to get into. My heart goes out to Andrew’s friends, colleagues, and family.

  • Dante

    I never knew the guy, and I personally despise the war, but I do agree that the soldiers who fight are generally good people. Thank you for carrying out his wishes in death.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Deeply saddening. I’m sitting here speechless. My thoughts are with all who knew Andrew.

  • MedallionOfFerret

    “…I have enormous respect and admiration for the people who volunteer and put their lives on the line to serve in the military; they’re not the ones who decide what wars to get into.” Year after year, Congress continues to fund the Iraqi occupation, and when questioned Congressmen repeatedly cite the political difficulties they would be in if they didn’t “support the troops”. This is, in part, because everybody has “respect and admiration” for people in the military, and “…agree that the soldiers who fight are generally good people”.

    Maybe military personnel don’t decide what wars to get into, but after nearly five years there are few in the military that haven’t had the opportunity to learn that there were no WMDs in Iraq, that the Hussein government did not provide support to the terrrists who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and who haven’t either joined or re-joined the military that is now occupying Iraq.

    It’s OK though, Sean. Heisenberg probably said similar things 65 years ago, perhaps after a soldier he was personally aware of was killed by Norwegian or Polish partisans. He was a good German, too.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I’m going to respect Andrew’s wishes and not use this as a springboard to a political discussion. You may want to do the same MedallionOfFerret.

  • Jeeves

    My thoughts go to Andrew’s family. I agree with MoF though.

  • Nami

    “But I have enormous respect and admiration for the people who volunteer and put their lives on the line to serve in the military; they’re not the ones who decide what wars to get into.”
    This doesn’t make any sense. Although they don’t decide what wars to get into, they generally decide to get into any war that they are told to, regardless of its merits.

  • http://www.geocities.com/aletawcox/ Sam Cox

    I’m reminded of Schwarzschilds’ untimely, war related death…

  • Michael T

    G’kar, I believe may also be in reference to a character in the SciFi series Babylon 5. This character is an interesting choice of Andrew’s (if it indeed was) and can perhaps tell us something about him. Noble in carriage, devoted to his spiritual foundations and a fierce warrior is what I remember about the character. Andrew, as most young soldiers I personally know, demonstrate a side that reflects the best in us, something to be very proud of. They also can reflect the worst of us when this country sends them to kill and die in mindless acts of Empire.

    Andrew was quite clear in his lament of not having a “cold discussion” on the consequences of war. That neglect, by both the American people and the Congress, has led to great loss of life. And still, many ignore it, refuse to discuss it. I can think of no greater dishonor to the fallen then to dismiss the lessons of history as well as our duty as citizens to speak out, cry out, to acts of injustice and injury to the rule of law.

    The real sadness is that these lessons should have already been learned. There are no “good wars” only “necessary wars” (to quote a soldier from the Ken Burns documentary on WWII). The war in Iraq was not necessary and that was known well before it started. Andrew sees no linkage between merit and consequence which informs the remainder of his thinking; that the decision to go to war was merely “academic”. We have done this lad, and many others, a great disservice if we don’t at listen to them.

  • Ellipsis

    If you read Andrew’s writings it is clear that he was an extraordinarily thoughtful individual, and that he dedicated himself to helping less fortunate Iraqis. He was a model human being first, rather than a model soldier. If only most of us, of all political persuasions, could have a fraction of his decency and courage then the world would be a far better place.

  • Pingback: A man I never knew « Polonius()

  • Hans

    Sean, sorry for this off topic-post.
    But since you are known as an atheist:

    Your name appeares on, what is maybe the worst submitted preprint on the arxiv.
    Don Page has submitted a preprint with the title;

    Does God So Love the Multiverse?

    Scientific and Philosophical Challenges to Theism

    He thanks you, Sean Carroll in the paper, for many important thoughts.

    It seems to be the first time, that such “papers” appear on a physics server by a mainstream physicist. In 0801.0247 Don Page even tries to “calculate” the probability of “pre-death” experiences.

    Among those peope, whom he especially thanks are
    David Deutsch, Bryce DeWitt, Gary Gibbons, Stephen Hawking, George Ellis, Andrei Linde, Lee Smolin, Bill Unruh, Alex Vilenkin, Steven Weinberg, Leonard Susskind, Alan Guth, James Hartle

    What has happened here? Do all these people support such non-physical ideas?

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Hans, thanks for posting these articles by Don Page that I missed!

    Unfortunately, God doesn’t allow Andrew to blog from Heaven :(

  • http://disorderedcosmos.blogspot.com Chanda

    Mark — I’m a little confused by your admonishment. It seems that Andrew wished, very greatly, in the event of his death, that we take it as an inspiration to think and talk, deeply, about war, peace, and what is happening in Iraq. He asked that we not use him as the face for a view that he did not believe in, but if nothing else, he believed we should have been talking about it and perhaps more importantly developing a feeling for the consequences of choosing war.

    When US troops were sent to Afghanistan, one of the first to go was someone who is like a brother to me. I know what it is like to spend every day wondering if I’m going to get that call that day until someone comes home. And it made me furious that I had to worry like that. That this person was potentially being sacrificed, and for what? That was how I felt. My heart goes out to Andrew’s family because I know the fear they lived in before they were confronted with this sorrow. Whether or not they believed in what Andrew was doing, it is terrifying to wonder every day. And they have lost a thoughtful and caring husband and son. Thankfully, I don’t know that feeling, but I know what it’s like to be forced to imagine it every single day.

    It is with this in mind and in his honour that we should challenge and discuss whether it is best to send our brethren into war. And we should remember, as Andrew asked us to, that whatever loss we have experienced, the Iraqi people have experienced orders of magnitude more. I think it’s not very political to say that Andrew seemed to hope we would all be a little less academic and a little more emotional as we consider the human consequences of our choices.

  • Elliot

    As others have said this is just extremely sad. As the supposedly most intelligent species on the planet, and to date in the universe as far as we know today, isn’t it time that we collectively renounce violence as acceptable behavior.


  • http://disorderedcosmos.blogspot.com Chanda

    Just wanted to add that I’ve been reading the comments over at Obsidian Wings, and I thought this one by JakeB was particularly poignant and worth sharing with a wider audience:

    I thought that i had see to much death, While working in Dover A.F.B. To feel this much pain from someone i had never met before, Thank you Andy for letting me feel again, god bless you.

    For non-native English speakers, AFB = Air Force Base.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    That is not the point Chanda. A serious discussion of whether it is best to send people into this war is certainly warranted. but MoF’s comment seems to shift the blame to the soldiers, which I do not buy into but do not wish to get into on the back of Andrew’s death.

    For the record, the criminals who got us into this disgust me; the soldiers who fight the wars we send them into do not, on the whole.

  • http://disorderedcosmos.blogspot.com Chanda

    Fair enough. But, to look at it from another angle, Sean did sort of open the door by stating that the soldiers had nothing to do with the choices that were made. That is an opinion which is arguably political. And moreover, seems to be kind of orthogonal to Andrew’s suggestion that we are all responsible for the choice to go to war, civilian and non-. It is certainly true that in the US, members of members of the military and their immediate and extended families suffer the consequences far more than everyone else.

    Anyway, I just think it’s not too surprising that someone responded to Sean’s opinion.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    It’s a minor observation, but from his piece, it looks like he was another atheist in the foxhole, killed in service to his country doing something not for hope of eternal benefit, but because he believed it was the right thing to do. Just worth not passing over, since we so often have to hear about non-believers not having the stones to fight or face death in the service of something bigger than themselves.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    This guy touched a lot of people who were concerned about this mess of a war. His tragic loss will be mourned and he will be missed. Andrew’s work needs to be kept on the web (maybe archive.org isn’t enough.)

  • Sili

    I did not know of Schwarzschild’s life and death, myself, until now.

    However little it is, I am grateful for having had this prod to read about him. I in turn was reminded of Moseley since his work was closer to my own quondam field of study.

    I’ve never read OW, but I’m saddened by this reminder of the senselessness of war.

    It is at times like this, that I wish I could honestly believe that “he’s gone to a better place”. Odd, really, since that thought wasn’t with me at my mother’s dead. Perhaps it is the helplessness. I gain no comfort from the idea, myself, but having experienced loss, I don’t wish it on anyone and I do wish I could offer some comfort to his family.

    I’m rambling …

  • MedallionOfFerret

    My previous comment addressed Sean’s statement, not G’Kar or his death. I wasn’t aware of either G’Kar’s request, or that it also covered any statement Sean might make in the future.

    With the possible exception of Afghanistan, none of the military adventures the U.S. has initiated since WWII have been directly in defense of the U.S. or its territories. Yet the people of this country, and their representatives, continue to act as if all military adventures are saving our society from external threats akin to those posed by Japan and Germany during WWII, and as if our military adventurers are good guys, if not heroes. Sean’s comment seemed to me to fall into the last part of this assumption. There is never a time for our leading thinkers to accept and promote unexamined assumptions, but I believe our society is currently in a perilous enough state that it is imperative that these leaders refrain from promulgating these assumptions.

    If those of you who faithfully followed G’Kar’s blogging would like to fill the gap he left with another blog, I suggest http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com. Riverbend posts infrequently, and is now a refugee in Syria rather than a citizen in Iraq, but she does provide another internal perspective on the Iraqi adventure. All her posts since August 2003 are available. The following is from her Tuesday, July 11, 2006 post:

    Rape. The latest of American atrocities. Though it’s not really the latest- it’s just the one that’s being publicized the most. The poor girl Abeer was neither the first to be raped by American troops, nor will she be the last. The only reason this rape was brought to light and publicized is that her whole immediate family were killed along with her. Rape is a taboo subject in Iraq. Families don’t report rapes here, they avenge them. We’ve been hearing whisperings about rapes in American-controlled prisons and during sieges of towns like Haditha and Samarra for the last three years. The naiveté of Americans who can’t believe their ‘heroes’ are committing such atrocities is ridiculous. Who ever heard of an occupying army committing rape??? You raped the country, why not the people?

    In the news they’re estimating her age to be around 24, but Iraqis from the area say she was only 14. Fourteen. Imagine your 14-year-old sister or your 14-year-old daughter. Imagine her being gang-raped by a group of psychopaths and then the girl was killed and her body burned to cover up the rape. Finally, her parents and her five-year-old sister were also killed. Hail the American heroes… Raise your heads high supporters of the ‘liberation’ – your troops have made you proud today. I don’t believe the troops should be tried in American courts. I believe they should be handed over to the people in the area and only then will justice be properly served. And our ass of a PM, Nouri Al-Maliki, is requesting an ‘independent investigation’, ensconced safely in his American guarded compound because it wasn’t his daughter or sister who was raped, probably tortured and killed. His family is abroad safe from the hands of furious Iraqis and psychotic American troops.

    It fills me with rage to hear about it and read about it. The pity I once had for foreign troops in Iraq is gone. It’s been eradicated by the atrocities in Abu Ghraib, the deaths in Haditha and the latest news of rapes and killings. I look at them in their armored vehicles and to be honest- I can’t bring myself to care whether they are 19 or 39. I can’t bring myself to care if they make it back home alive. I can’t bring myself to care anymore about the wife or parents or children they left behind. I can’t bring myself to care because it’s difficult to see beyond the horrors. I look at them and wonder just how many innocents they killed and how many more they’ll kill before they go home. How many more young Iraqi girls will they rape?

    Why don’t the Americans just go home? They’ve done enough damage and we hear talk of how things will fall apart in Iraq if they ‘cut and run’, but the fact is that they aren’t doing anything right now. How much worse can it get? People are being killed in the streets and in their own homes- what’s being done about it? Nothing. It’s convenient for them- Iraqis can kill each other and they can sit by and watch the bloodshed- unless they want to join in with murder and rape.”

    Riverbend’s posts are not required to be approved by the U.S. military, as all blogging by U.S. military personnel are supposed to be.

    Two more items. I was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army after fulfilling a six year commitment. And–any man’s death diminishes me.

  • Changcho

    Andrew’s death from this useless war is a tragedy, but this bit from Ellispis is rather strange “…he dedicated himself to helping less fortunate Iraqis”. I don’t get it (hint; see later posts).

  • telecom

    Interestingly, I have a brother serving in Baghdad and we rarely talk about the war. Everything else but, really. And it’s not simply a matter of diametrically opposed political viewpoints or our even deeper differences in worldviews. Those issues we can handle, we can argue, discuss, dismantle, criticize, &c. But the war, the war is this tornado that decimates, vanishes into silence, lands again in a shattering firestorm, and vanishes again leaving you wondering where the next one is coming from. Everybody in the sweep of its demonic arc—soldiers, their families, civilians, insurgents and bystanders— is creeping along the edge of helplessness. It’s humiliating. This thing, this tornado, has consumed hundreds of thousands of lives and we’re all just waiting for it to burn itself out. Now, Andrew Olmsted wrote a beautiful thing, it’s true. And I’m certainly ready to believe he was a fine and decent man. But once this thing got started a lot of human fates were sealed, irrespective of what was in their hearts. Good or bad, innocent or evil, deserving’s got nothing to do with it. War breathes death and deserving’s got nothing to do with it.


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Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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