A War Without Heroes?
Only if you're reading the mainstream media.
Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By FRED BARNES
DO YOU KNOW WHO PAUL Ray Smith is? If not, don't feel bad. Most Americans aren't familiar with Paul Ray Smith. He is the first and only soldier awarded the Medal of Honor for extraordinary courage in the war in Iraq. Five days before Baghdad fell in April 2003, Sergeant Smith and his men were building a makeshift jail for captured Iraqi troops.
Surprised by 100 of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards, Smith and his men, some of them wounded, were pinned down and in danger of being overrun. Smith manned a 50-caliber machine gun atop a damaged armored vehicle. Exposed to enemy fire, he singlehandedly repelled the attack, allowing his men to scramble to safety. He killed as many as 50 of Saddam's elite soldiers and saved more than 100 American troops. Paul Ray Smith, 33, was killed by a shot to the head.
The war in Iraq is a war without heroes. There are no men--or women, for that matter--known to most Americans for their bravery in combat. There are no household names like Audie Murphy or Sgt. York or Arthur MacArthur or even Don Holleder, the West Point football star killed in Vietnam. When President Bush held a White House ceremony to award the Medal of Honor to Smith, posthumously, the TV networks and big newspapers reported the story. The coverage lasted one day. The story didn't have legs.
Instead of heroes, there are victims. The two most famous soldiers in the war are Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman (in Afghanistan). Lynch was captured by Saddam's troops after her truck crashed. Stories of her heroism in a gun battle with Iraqis turned out to be false. She was rescued later from an Iraqi hospital. Tillman, who gave up a pro football career to join the Army, was killed by friendly fire. "The press made that a negative story, a scandal almost," says a Pentagon official.
It gets worse. In a study of over 1,300 reports broadcast on network news programs from January to September of this year, Rich Noyes of the Media Research Center found only eight stories of heroism or valor by American troops and nine of soldiers helping the Iraqi people. But there were 79 stories, Noyes said, "focused on allegations of combat mistakes or outright misconduct on the part of U.S. military personnel."
Who is responsible for the lack of heroes? The Pentagon bears some of the blame. "We could do a better job," says Larry Di Rita, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. But the fault lies mostly with the media. With the striking exception of CBS News, the media aren't interested in stories of heroism by Americans in Iraq.
And even when the media take an interest, it isn't always respectful. When CNN took up the medal awarded to Smith the day after the ceremony at the White House, here's how anchor Paula Zahn presented it:
"Time now for all of you to choose your favorite person of the day. Every day, you can vote on our website, cnn.com/paula. Today's choices: the mourners pouring into Rome, spending hours in line to pay their respects to the pope; Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Paul Smith for giving his life to save so many of his fellow soldiers in Iraq. And British prime minister Tony Blair, calling for a new election, even though his party has lost support in the polls."
At least Smith won. Zahn went on to describe his heroic act and call up soundbites from the president and Smith's widow. "His actions in that courtyard saved the lives of more than 100 American soldiers. Scripture tells us . . . that a man has no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends."
The New York Times took an odd approach to the Paul Ray Smith case. The nearer the awarding of the Medal of Honor came, the less coverage the Smith case got. It was as if the Times didn't want President Bush to get any credit for honoring Smith.
The day after the White House event, the Times put a picture of Smith on page A16 with a brief caption. True, the Times had run two earlier stories about Smith, one in 2003, the other earlier this year. The first was headlined: "The Struggle for Iraq: Casualties; Medals for His Valor, Ashes for His Wife." The second said Smith would get the Medal of Honor.
The back-page treatment of the award ceremony infuriated the White House. "We keep hearing how the people opposed to the war are not against the troops but only against the president," an official said. "Man wins the highest medal this nation offers--and you know how rare that is--and the Times does not think that is worth a full story and on page one. The Medal of Honor is not about the president. It is about the troops."
The media have no excuse for ignoring heroism. "There's no dearth of opportunity there," says Di Rita. In Iraq and Afghanistan, American Marines alone have been awarded 8 Navy Crosses, 35 Silver Stars, 617 Bronze Stars with "V," 1,126 Bronze Stars, and 5,197 Purple Hearts.
For its part, the White House has made an effort to play up heroes. In his speeches on Iraq, the president frequently singles out soldiers and sailors. Last month in Annapolis, Bush cited Marine Corporal Jeff Starr, who had been killed in Ramadi. He left behind a message on his laptop and the president read a portion of it. "If you're reading this, then I've died in Iraq," he wrote. "I don't regret going. Everybody dies, but few get to do it for something as important as freedom."
Last July 4, Bush spoke at West Virginia University and mentioned two men who'd served in Iraq with the state's National Guard. One of them, Lieutenant James McCormick, had just written him a letter. "If needed, all of us would return and continue the mission," McCormick wrote. "It's a just and much needed fight."
Bill McGurn, the chief White House speechwriter, says the stories of heroism are easy to find. "There are gazillions of them," he says. "It's like dipping your hand in a barrel and pulling one out." And when the president mentions a brave American service man or woman, that person tends to get some press coverage, if only in a hometown paper.
There is an exception to the rule on heroes. Beginning in May 2004, CBS News began running a short feature on "fallen heroes" on its evening news show--every night. A few sentences touched on the life and death of a deceased soldier. Despite the name, however, these stories did not focus on heroism. Then on December 5, 2005, CBS revamped the feature and began calling it "American Heroes." The segment was expanded to include, as anchor Bob Schieffer put it, "not only those killed in the war zones, but also those who display exceptional courage on the battlefield and beyond."
On December 8, the hero was Gary Villalobos. He and his lieutenant were ambushed during a house-to-house hunt for enemy soldiers. The lieutenant was killed. Villalobos didn't retreat. He fought off insurgents and risked his life to protect a fellow soldier. In all, the CBS segment consisted of only 67 words--but words rarely spoken by the media.
The CBS feature, as admirable as it is, won't create national heroes. The segments are too short and involve a different person each night. For a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan to achieve national renown--to become a celebrity even--the media would have to dwell on his heroism. That didn't happen with Paul Ray Smith. So don't get your hopes up.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.