The Magazine

A Living Hero

From the Scrapbook

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By SCRAPBOOK
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It has been more than 30 years since the United States last conferred its highest military honor on a living soldier. But we have the privilege this week of commending U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, the first living Congressional Medal of Honor recipient of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the added pleasure of knowing he is alive and well to receive the gratitude of his compatriots.

A Living Hero

Salvatore Giunta

As a 22-year-old Specialist, Giunta was stationed in the Korengal Valley of east Afghanistan, fighting with Company B in a craggy six-mile strip that has seen more action than any other in the war on terror. He and his fellow soldiers were ambushed on October 25, 2007, which split their group into two. Insurgents wounded Sgt. Josh Brennan, also 22, and began to drag him away with them. After helping two other wounded comrades, Giunta rushed the enemy, putting himself in harm’s way to rescue Brennan. Giunta killed one insurgent and wounded the other. 

“I started shooting,” Giunta told the New York Times Magazine in 2008. “I emptied that magazine. They dropped Brennan.” Brennan later died of his wounds despite Giunta’s best triage efforts, administered under fire until a Medevac came to rescue Brennan. 

The unassuming Iowan soldier, in the style of true heroes, is a somewhat reluctant one, according to friends and family. President Barack Obama phoned Giunta at his base in Italy Thursday to inform him of the honor. Giunta called his parents with the same misgivings he’s had ever since his chain of command nominated him for the honor.

“He mentions every other soldier would have done the same thing. It kind of rocks his world that he’s being awarded the Medal of Honor for something each and every one of them would have done. He’s very aware of that,” his father told NPR.

Giunta’s Medal of Honor is also the culmination of a years-long campaign by veterans, living Medal of Honor recipients, and congressmen to once again confer the honor on a living warrior. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s living membership has dwindled to 87, with news of World War II recipients passing away the most frequently added items to its website. California congressman Duncan Hunter, himself a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, sent a letter to the president in 2009, asking for a review of the selection process saying, “I am concerned that either knowingly or inadvertently, the Medal of Honor awards process is becoming biased to only acts of valor that result in the death of the service member.”

During Vietnam and World War II, a significant percentage of Medals of Honor were awarded to living heroes. For Iraq and Afghanistan, the overall number of Medals of Honor has been very low, and all of them have been posthumous until now.

We have at times bemoaned the dearth of well-known war heroes in our current conflicts, and the unwillingness of the media to make them household names, as they’ve been in the past. Perhaps Sal Giunta will change that. His company’s exploits in the Korengal Valley are already the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary, Restrepo.

As Iraq veteran and author David Bellavia put it in a tribute, “Giunta represents those that risk their forever for our today. .  .  . Congratulations to President Obama, Secretary Gates and most of all, SSG Giunta’s chain of command for recognizing not only the actions of a genuine hero, but the importance for these living heroes to walk amongst us displaying all that it is to sacrifice for freedom.”

A Plaudit Too Far

One of the sillier conventions of political Washington is the Kennedy Center Honors, in which the usual official suspects over at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts choose five performers to be recognized for (in awards terminology) lifetime achievement. This yields a few weeks of fawning coverage in the press, a glittery reception at the White House, and a gala concert at the Kennedy Center where the five receive their honors and look suitably self-satisfied. The concert is taped and broadcast on PBS around Christmastime. 

Speaking of the usual suspects, since the Kennedy Center Honors are bestowed by an agency of the federal government, the five honorees are always suitably balanced for Race, Sex, Popular Appeal, and Quality of Achievement. A survey of the choices during the last decade shows there is always one, but never more than two, African Americans (Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Morgan Freeman, Smokey Robinson); somebody from the movies (Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty); a rock ’n’ roll/country favorite (George Jones, Brian Wilson, Loretta Lynn, Bruce Springsteen, Sir Elton John); and one representative of Dance (Suzanne Farrell, Twyla Tharp, Mikhail Baryshnikov) or Classical Music (Grace Bumbry, Leon Fleisher, Zubin Mehta, Joan Sutherland). If you’re the gambling type, you can make some easy money guessing each year’s all-too-predictable quintet.

This year there is some slight controversy because talk show queen Oprah Winfrey is one of the Kennedy Center honorees, and Oprah’s connection to the arts/performance world is, at best, tenuous. Defenders of the choice point out that Johnny Carson was an honoree one year—can Jay Leno/David Letterman be far behind?—and, frankly, The Scrapbook cherishes its memories of Oprah’s hamfisted performance as neighborhood matriarch Mattie Michael in the made-for-TV movie The Women of Brewster Place (1989). That’s good enough for us. This year’s other honorees are drawn from Central Casting: Merle Haggard, Jerry Herman, Bill T. Jones, and Sir Paul McCartney.

In The Scrapbook’s opinion, Sir Paul is this year’s dubious choice. We say this partly for artistic reasons—doesn’t everyone agree that “Yesterday” is especially cringe-inducing?—but out of a sense of propriety as well. As recently as this past July, Sir Paul was honored with yet another taxpayer-underwritten decoration—​the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Music—and at the inevitable PBS-televised concert at the White House made the graceful concluding remark that “after the last eight years it’s great to have a president who knows what a library is.” 

So we are now faced with the prospect of American taxpayers financing a night of civic worship for an over-the-hill British rock ’n’ roller who comes to these shores to accept gratuitous praise and insult the twice-elected president of the United States.

On the other hand, things could be worse. It’s the British government, after all, and not our own, that conferred a knighthood on Sir Paul. All we are doing is making a big deal out of a musical mediocrity who hasn’t written a memorable tune in 40 years. We can be thankful, too, that we don’t confer titles in our republican system, otherwise next year’s Kennedy Center Honors might feature Dame Whoopi Goldberg or Sir Michael Moore.

The Great Stimulator

During last Friday’s press conference, CBS’s Chip Reid told the president that “we can’t get people in the White House to say [it’s latest economic package] is a stimulus—$50 billion for roads and other infrastructure, but they avoid the word ‘stimulus’ like the plague.” Wondered Reid, “Is that because the original stimulus is so deeply unpopular?”

Of course we know the answer is yes​—precisely because not once during the press conference did the president utter the word “stimulus.” “Economic plan,” “small business bill,” and “economic proposals” were all bandied about by the commander in chief, but not the “s” word. So when the president concluded his lengthy answer by explaining the many ways the economy would be boosted by his administration’s actions, Reid pressed him: “So this is a second stimulus?”

The president laughed, and then elaborated: “Here’s how I would—there is no doubt that everything we’ve been trying to do—everything we’ve been trying to do is designed to stimulate growth and additional jobs in the economy. I mean, that’s our entire agenda. So I have no problem with people saying the president is trying to stimulate growth and hiring. Isn’t that what I should be doing? I would assume that’s what the Republicans think we should do, to stimulate growth and jobs. And I will keep on trying to stimulate growth and jobs for as long as I’m president of the United States.”

Impressively, the president did not slip once and say “stimulus” while explaining in a stimulating way that his job is to stimulate—and maintain stimulation—of the economy.

 

When Toasts Become Roasts

So much for that old saying, “Whatever happens at a U.N. conference stays at a U.N. conference.” When the United Nations held a retreat in the Austrian Alps two weeks ago, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was toasted by his undersecretary general for economic and social affairs, Sha Zukang. Except it was Sha who turned out to be toasted. Thanks to a few glasses of liquid courage, the undersecretary let loose on his superior, telling him, according to Foreign Policy, “I know you never liked me Mr. Secretary-General​—well, I never liked you, either.” 

Sha, who had been recommended for the job by his masters in Beijing, claimed that Ban Ki-Moon was plotting to fire him. He also turned to an American colleague, Bob Orr, saying, “I really don’t like him: He’s an American, and I really don’t like Americans.” Sha did have a few nice things to say about both Ban Ki-Moon and Orr, but those sentiments seemed to have been lost in the drunken rant which, as one U.N. official told FP, “went on for about ten or fifteen minutes but it felt like an hour.”

Needless to say, the next morning a remorseful (and no doubt hung-over) Sha apologized to his boss. It remains unclear whether the undersecretary will have to resign. In fact, the only thing that is certain is that the bartenders will be paying better attention to those customers who are three sheets to the wind and will cut them off—diplomatic immunity or no.

 

Oops!

Two weeks ago Internet cartography buffs noticed something strange: Google had misplaced the Lincoln Memorial. Normally, searching for Lincoln Memorial using Google Maps produces a result in the exact right place—Google drops one of its handy red pins west of the reflecting pool on the Mall, at the center of the circle at the base of the Memorial Bridge. But some time around August 26, a search for Lincoln Memorial on Google Maps dropped the little red pin south and east of the correct location—smack dab in the middle of the FDR Memorial. A search using Google Earth produced the same result, even though Google Earth’s hard-coded point-of-interest markers clearly showed the correct location of both memorials. 

This minor technical glitch is of note only because an abnormally large number of people were looking for the Lincoln Memorial at just that time—Glenn Beck’s rally was set to take place there on August 28—and they happen not to be the kind of people beloved of our Google overlords.

Despite repeated notice—everyone from PC World to Yahoo! had pointed out the confusion—Google did not restore the Lincoln Memorial to its proper place until late in the morning on the 28th. Asked about the mistake by GeographicTravels.com, Google issued a nonresponse calling the switch a routine error.

But of course.

 

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