Where are the Iraq War Heroes?

New York Times

Where are the Iraq War Heroes?

Damien Cave, New York Times, August 7, 2005

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?

“We had absolute military superiority but they had absolute political supremacy,” Mr. Halberstam said. “That led to a stalemate – and that became the governing issue.”

The military responded by pulling inward, said Maj. Bruce Norton, a Vietnam veteran and the author of a book of military award recipients, “Encyclopedia of American Military Heroes.” He recalled the case of a marine who received the Navy Cross, the second-highest military honor, in the mail.

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.

Perhaps, some experts said, the military knows that promotion will attract unwanted scrutiny. After the heroic tales of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and Sgt. Pat Tillman were largely debunked – with Private Lynch shown to have never fired a shot during her capture and rescue in Iraq, and Sergeant Tillman killed accidentally by fellow Americans, not the enemy, in Afghanistan – the Pentagon may have grown cautious.

“The military wouldn’t be foolish enough to choose a soldier and promote them,” said Mark Bowden, the author of “Black Hawk Down,” “in part because of widespread ambivalence about the war.”

Or, as some suggest, perhaps the military, which has always been uncomfortable with elevating one soldier’s actions over the efforts of others, would rather favor the group than the individual. “Everyone is in it, fighting 110 percent, so unless there is an act of truly outstanding heroism, you don’t want to select just one,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Mr. Mead said that “the cult of celebrity has cheapened fame.” He added, “What’s a war hero to do? Go on ‘Oprah’?”

Many military experts also said the short shrift given to heroes cannot be separated from the specifics of the war. Fighting an insurgency does not lend itself to individual heroism, said Maj. Gen. John G. Meyer Jr., who retired in 2000 as the Army’s chief of public affairs. “It’s more like guerrilla warfare,” he said. “It’s not the Battle of the Bulge, where we have massive battles and we get a single hero out of it.”

So instead of highlighting heroes, the military and the White House favor a two-pronged approach: for those who are likely to support the war, there is occasional talk of heroic sacrifice; for the larger national audience, there are speeches about victory.

It is a rhetorical split that mirrors the larger national divide between the minority who serve in the military and those who do not, said Anthony Swofford, a former Marine and the author of “Jarhead.” And it leaves important stories untold and unappreciated. “There might be heroes,” Mr. Swofford said, “in some of those coffins.”

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