Where have all the heroes gone?
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
APPARENTLY, there are no war heroes any more. At least, there are none that America feels like lifting up as examples and celebrating. This was the premise of a piece in The New York Times’ Week in Review section Sunday that explained some things to me.
There are, of course, actual heroes in the war on terror. The Times piece gave the names of three of them.
The problem is, I hadn’t heard of them. You probably hadn’t, either. And the contrast between that ignorance on our part, and the way Sgt. Alvin York and Audie Murphy (whose picture, portraying himself in the autobiographical Hollywood movie, “To Hell and Back,” was the dominant feature of the section’s front page) were lionized during and after their wars, is striking — and shocking. And stupid, if, as the story suggests, it reflects a deliberate policy decision on the part of our government.
The three mentioned were:
- Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, Congressional Medal of Honor. He fought off scores of elite Iraqi troops to save his outnumbered unit before he was killed.
- Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, Silver Star. She led a team that killed 27 insurgents who had attacked her convoy.
- Sgt. Rafael Peralta received no medal that I’ve been able to trace. After sustaining multiple wounds to the chest and face during the November battle for Fallujah, he grabbed a live enemy grenade and tucked it under his body, sacrificing himself to save a roomful of fellow Marines.
In an earlier age, Sgt. Hester would have been brought home and sent across the country to sell War Bonds. But we don’t do that today, and not only because there are no War Bonds. (Remember, in this war, the homefront is not being asked to sacrifice in any way whatsoever; instead, we have tax cuts and soaring deficits.)
The NYT piece gave the following, admittedly speculative, “reasons” for this: “(P)ublic opinion on the Iraq war is split, and drawing attention to it risks fueling opposition; the military is more reluctant than it was in the last century to promote the individual over the group; and the war itself is different, with fewer big battles and more and messier engagements involving smaller units of Americans. Then, too, there is a celebrity culture that seems skewed more to the victim than to the hero.”
Amen to that last. Who get portrayed as heroes? Jessica Lynch and football star Pat Tillman — both victims. One was wounded and captured, the other killed by friendly fire.
And we hear about the mostly unsung victims who are killed, without any chance to fight back, by roadside IEDs. The message we get from that? “There’s just no use in continuing to try.”
The actual heroes do get mentioned. President Bush spoke of Sgt. Peralta — a Mexican immigrant who enlisted the day after he got his “green card” — at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast (surely you heard about it). And Sgt. Smith’s name pops up 154 times in the last two years in the news databases I searched. It’s sort of hard to keep the one Medal of Honor awarded in Iraq a complete secret, after all.
But compare Sgt. Smith’s name recognition to Brad Pitt’s. Or Sgt. Hester’s to Janet Jackson’s. Or Rafael Peralta’s to Rafael Palmeiro’s. See what we elevate as worthy of our attention?
Let’s confront another rationale the Times identified: Divided public opinion gives all the more reason to stress the nobility and achievements, not only of those who perform traditional acts of valor in combat, but of those who build schools, or train the new Iraqi army.
Our leaders fear to confront attitudes such as this one, expressed by one Kevin Canterbury in a letter to The Boston Globe:
“I am disgusted by the American media’s glorification of the blood sport we call war,” he begins. (What glorification? Has this guy seen the news?) “Truly sincere, honorable people like Sergeant Rafael Peralta, who make almost superhuman sacrifices to protect freedom and democracy in America, are used as props to personalize and humanize the big lie that the Iraq debacle is a just and noble endeavor.æ.æ.æ. There is nothing romantic about this war.”
No war was ever romantic. It is always an unbelievably horrible, nasty, bloody business. Society used to hide that, and do its best to romanticize combat. But to me, heroism means a lot more when depicted against the brutal reality: Are you more impressed by Audie Murphy in the sanitized battle scenes of “To Hell and Back,” or by the portrayal of Dick Winters’ deeds in HBO’s painfully realistic “Band of Brothers”?
Those of us who believe this war is necessary should not flinch from its horrors. We should hold up what heroes manage to accomplish in spite of it all. Are we squeamish about the fact that the heroism of Sgts. Smith and Hester involved killing the enemy? Yes, we are; even I am. But I think most Americans would appreciate what they’ve done, if they knew enough about them.
Confront directly the attitudes of those like Mr. Canterbury who take the untenable stance of “supporting the troops but not the war.”
As a political tactic, this is a smart improvement over the Vietnam-era practice of spitting (figuratively if not literally) on returning veterans. But when people say “support the troops by bringing them home,” I see it as spitting on the graves of the 1,800 who have already given their lives. That’s what abandoning Iraq would mean.
Soldiers kill. Soldiers get killed — and not in pretty ways, keeling over saying “They got me,” without a trace of blood. They get killed in the manner of Sgt. Peralta, whose remains could only be identified by a tattoo on his shoulder.
If we can’t face that, let’s give up on the whole thing. Let’s disband the military altogether, and just hope the rest of the world decides to show its gratitude by being nice to us from here on.
Or we can face a grim task, and openly respect those who distinguish themselves in performing that task for us while we sit on our broad behinds watching the Michael Jackson trial.
On the day after Sgt. Peralta died, his little brother received the first and last letter the Marine ever wrote to him. “Be proud of being an American,” he wrote. Young Ricardo Peralta should take that advice. And America, returning the favor, should be proud of his big brother.