Heroes Real and Manufactured
Robert Kaplan describes the heroism that earned SFC Paul Smith a posthumous Medal of Honor and the two years it took his commander to get it through the system.
As Colonel Smith told me, “Everyone wants to award a Medal of Honor. But everyone is even more concerned with worthiness, with getting it right.” There was a real fear that one unworthy medal would compromise the award, its aura, and its history. The bureaucratic part of the process is kept almost deliberately impossible, to see just how committed those recommending the award are: insufficient passion may indicate the award is unjustified.
“Nobody up top in the Army’s command is trying to find Medal of Honor winners to inspire the public with,” says Colonel Smith. “It’s the opposite. The whole thing is pushed up from the bottom to a skeptical higher command.”
Considering how much other medals have been inflated, though, once can argue this is justified even if the bureaucratic result is excessive. Kaplan has another complaint, though:
The ceremony in the East Room of the White House two years to the day after Sergeant Smith was killed, where President George W. Bush awarded the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Smith’s 11-year-old son, David, was fitfully covered by the media. The Paul Ray Smith story elicited 96 media mentions for the eight week period after the medal was awarded, compared with 4,677 for the supposed abuse of the Koran at Guantánamo Bay and 5,159 for the disgraced Abu Ghraib prison guard Lynndie England, over a much longer time frame that went on for many months. In a society that obsesses over reality-TV shows, gangster and war movies, and NFL quarterbacks, an authentic hero like Sergeant Smith flickers momentarily before the public consciousness.
It may be that the public, which still can’t get enough of World War II heroics, even as it feels guilty about its treatment of Vietnam veterans, simply can’t deliver up the requisite passion for honoring heroes from unpopular wars like Korea and Iraq. It may also be that, encouraged by the media, the public is more comfortable seeing our troops in Iraq as victims of a failed administration rather than as heroes in their own right. Such indifference to valor is another factor that separates an all-volunteer military from the public it defends. “The medal helps legitimize Iraq for them. World War II had its heroes, and now Iraq has its,” Colonel Smith told me, in his office overlooking the Mississippi River, in Memphis, where he now heads the district office of the Army Corps of Engineers.
It’s a fair point, one I addressed in some detail more than two years ago in a post entitled “Unheralded Medal of Honor Winners?”
As to why Smith has not received the acclaim accorded York and Murphy, several explanations come to mind. Mark would point to the fact that the mainstream press supported WWII and have largely not supported this one. That is almost certainly part of the explanation. Indeed, the heroes of Korea and Vietnam don’t exactly come tripping off the tongue either, do they?
But there’s more to it than that. For one thing, Smith was killed in action while Murphy and York came home alive. Surely, a live Medal of Honor winner would be seen on television with some regularity even today.
Moreover, we simply live in a more cynical age. With the exception of post-9/11 firefighters, it is hard to think of any heroes that have received universal acclaim. There are pseduo heroes aplenty -— whether champion athletes, political whistleblowers, or what have you -— but none that have the unreserved acclaim of a WWII Medal winner. Indeed, there would almost surely be some enterprising Woodward and Bernstein wannabes trying to dig up dirt on a York or a Murphy were they around today. That’s just the nature of our society.
While I agree with Kaplan that the comparative coverage of the legitimate heroism of American fighting men in Iraq and the misdeeds of a few gives a distorted vision of reality, it’s hard to fault the press for the editorial decisions. After all, planes that crash get massively more coverage than those who don’t.
Further, while the story of Smith and others is compelling, it’s not reasonable to expect it to be covered in the same volume as an ongoing story. Abu Ghraib was several days worth of stories about what happened, followed by reports on the Congressional hearings, internal military investigations, and the various courts martial that followed. By contrast, there was nothing to cover about Smith’s heroism after his family got his Medal.
Hat tip: Spook86