The Magazine

A War Without Heroes?

Only if you're reading the mainstream media.

Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By FRED BARNES
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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.