Where Are the War Heroes?
One soldier fought off scores of elite Iraqi troops in a fierce defense of his outnumbered Army unit, saving dozens of American lives before he himself was killed. Another soldier helped lead a team that killed 27 insurgents who had ambushed her convoy. And then there was the marine who, after being shot, managed to tuck an enemy grenade under his stomach to save the men in his unit, dying in the process. Their names are Sgt. First Class Paul R. Smith, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester and Sgt. Rafael Peralta. If you have never heard of them, even in a week when more than 20 marines were killed in Iraq by insurgents, that might be because the military, the White House and the culture at large have not publicized their actions with the zeal that was lavished on the heroes of World War I and World War II.
Many in the military are disheartened by the absence of an instantly recognizable war hero today, a deficiency with a complex cause: public 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.
Collectively, say military historians, war correspondents and retired senior officers, the country seems to have concluded that war heroes pack a political punch that requires caution. They have become not just symbols of bravery but also reminders of the war’s thorniest questions. “No one wants to call the attention of the public to bloodletting and heroism and the horrifying character of combat,” said Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina. “What situation can be imagined that would promote the war and not remind people of its ambivalence?”
Heroism in the past was easier to highlight. In World War I, men like Sgt. Alvin York, a sharpshooter from Tennessee who captured 132 German soldiers with only a few rifles and a handful of men, were lauded by the military and devoured by the public. A ticker-tape parade in Manhattan greeted the sergeant’s return.
During World War II, the military became even more sophisticated. Responding to the propaganda campaigns of Mussolini and Hitler, every branch of the military created a public relations office, said Paul Kennedy, a military historian at Yale. Heroes were even brought home specifically to rally support for the war. Richard I. Bong, for example, an Army Air Corps pilot who came to be known as the Ace of Aces, was sent home in December 1944 after shooting down his 40th Japanese plane. He was dispatched immediately on a nationwide tour to help sell war bonds.
Audie Murphy, perhaps the best-known World War II hero, took part in similar tours. He went on to act in 44 Hollywood films, including his own autobiography, “To Hell and Back.” Dozens of other combat heroes played roles in the war’s promotion. “Everyone was involved,” said Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The deliberate mobilization of the home front was considered a major priority by government in a way that it’s just not now.”
The change began, historians said, with the murky stalemate of the Korean War, which did not require as much mobilization or support as previous wars. Vietnam cemented the shift. While the swashbuckling Green Berets were lionized in the war’s early years, by 1968 the public became skeptical of military planners who perpetually predicted a victory that never came. “What happened very quickly was a move away from the bravery of the kids fighting,” David Halberstam, the author and former war correspondent, said in an interview. The question that ran through everyone’s mind was, Can this war be won?
President Bush has taken the middle road. He presented the Medal of Honor to the family of Sergeant Smith in a White House ceremony on April 4. He praised Sergeant Peralta, a Mexican immigrant, in a radio address and at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in June. But these citations did not occur in prime time, nor have they been repeated. And Sergeant Smith’s Medal of Honor is the only one that has been awarded for action in Iraq.
Meanwhile, despite recruiting shortfalls, the Army’s television advertisements have not featured the stories of Sergeant Smith or Sergeant Hester, the first woman since World War II to receive a Silver Star. “We have not done as much as we ought to be doing to remind people that we’re at war,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a military historian at Johns Hopkins University, whose son is an infantry officer about to ship to Iraq.
Mr. Mead said that “the cult of celebrity has cheapened fame.” He added, “What’s a war hero to do? Go on ‘Oprah’?”
A very interesting dilemma. Given the vastly superior training and education our troops serving in Iraq have compared to their WWI and WWII counterparts, I can’t imagine that there aren’t plenty of Alvin Yorks and Audie Murphys among them. It’s a shame they aren’t recognized.
As Cave notes, though, the modern media is much more skeptical of “heroes” than their 1940s predecessors. It’s much more difficult to be “heroic” when there’s a scoop to be had in exposing their flaws.
TPM’s cscs argues that,
America needs to sacrifice for this war. Not just the troops and their families. We need to move beyond the magnetic-ribbon-politics that is encouraging apathy and nonchalance about the 1800 soldiers already dead. How many more will it take?
We don’t have any war heroes because they remind us of the sacrifices people are making everyday in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While there’s something to this generally, I’m not sure it explains this particular problem. Indeed, the fact that comparatively few people have military experience actually makes the ordinary actions of soldiers in a combat zone seem even more amazing. In the era when serving one’s country during war was simply expected, it took something truly above and beyond to stand out. Perhaps the idea that “they’re all heroes,” which has a certain merit, makes it harder for the especially heroic to get the attention they once did.