The Magazine

Americans Under Fire

Three accounts of fighting the war on terror.

May 26, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 35 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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Moment of Truth in Iraq

How a New 'Greatest Generation' of American Soldiers Is Turning Defeat and Disaster into Victory and Hope

by Michael Yon

Richard Vigilante, 256 pp., $29.95

House to House

An Epic Memoir of War

by David Bellavia with John R. Bruning

Free Press, 336 pp., $26

Hard Corps

From Gangster to Marine Hero

by Marco Martinez

Crown Forum, 256 pp., $24.95

It seems that Americans have forgotten how to honor their war heroes.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, most boys knew the story of Lt. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II. Indeed, after the war, he became a fairly successful actor. The public, including Hollywood, recognized him for what he was--a hero. Most of us also knew the story of Marine Sgt. John Basilone, who earned the Medal of Honor on Guadalcanal. He was brought home to help sell war bonds but kept asking to go back to the Pacific. His superiors finally relented. He was killed on Iwo Jima. The American public recognized him for what he was--a hero.

No more. Americans have performed extraordinary feats of bravery in Iraq and Afghanistan, but with the exception of those who regularly read military blogs, who knows about them?

Things changed with Vietnam. Although Americans fought bravely there, the press, if not the American people, began to treat those who fought in Vietnam as either moral monsters, victims, or both. The dysfunctional Vietnam vet became a staple of popular culture. Despite the fact that atrocities were rare, My Lai came to symbolize the entire war; and thanks to the press's preoccupation with the anomaly of My Lai, Lt. William Calley became the poster boy for Vietnam. The honorable and heroic performance of the vast majority of those who served in Vietnam went largely unrecognized.

For example, how many Americans know the story of Marine Lt. John P. Bobo, who received the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam? Here is part of his citation:

When an exploding enemy mortar round severed Lieutenant Bobo's right leg below the knee, he refused to be evacuated and insisted upon being placed in a firing position to cover the movement of the command group to a better location. With a web belt around his leg serving as a tourniquet, and with his leg jammed into the dirt to curtail the bleeding, he remained in this position and delivered devastating fire into the ranks of the enemy attempting to overrun the Marines. Lieutenant Bobo was mortally wounded while firing his weapon into the main point of the enemy attack but his valiant spirit inspired his men to heroic efforts.

The reason for this disparity in coverage is simple. My Lai fit the conventional narrative of the antiwar left: Bobo's story did not.

Things haven't changed much since then. The conventional wisdom concerning Vietnam has been absorbed by today's press, even by those too young to remember our Southeast Asia misadventure. The result is a troubling predisposition to believe the worst about those who are willing to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In 2005 Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith became the first soldier in the Iraq war to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He was killed in action when his outnumbered unit was attacked by Iraqi forces at the Baghdad airport on April 4, 2003, and is credited with saving hundreds of lives.

In the Wall Street Journal Robert Kaplan observed last year that, "according to LexisNexis, by June 2005, two months after his posthumous award, [Smith's] stirring story had drawn only 90 media mentions, compared to 4,677 for the supposed Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay, and 5,159 for the court-martialed Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England."

The slander continues. This past January 13 the New York Times published the first of a series of articles recounting the sad cases of servicemen returning from combat zones and committing killings. In "Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles," the reporters wrote that the "Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war."

But the methodology underlying the series was shoddy: There was no attempt to compare the homicide rate among servicemen to that of the same age cohort in the population at large (the former is much lower than the latter). But that apparently didn't matter to the Times. All that mattered was the conventional narrative: Antisocial behavior is the norm among servicemen, especially those who have been in combat. Combat veterans are inherently dysfunctional, teetering on the edge, ready to snap at any time.