Tuesday, June 03, 2008

No Greater Honor

In The Atlantic Robert D. Kaplan describes the process of awarding the U.S. military's highest honor, and reflects on the disconnection between those who serve and those who are served.

Over the decades, the Medal of Honor—the highest award for valor—has evolved into the U.S. military equivalent of sainthood. Only eight Medals of Honor have been awarded since the Vietnam War, all posthumously....

Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith was the ultimate iron grunt, the kind of relentless, professional, noncommissioned officer that the all-volunteer, expeditionary American military has been quietly producing for four decades. “The American people provide broad, brand-management approval of the U.S. military,” notes Colonel Smith, “about how great it is, and how much they support it, but the public truly has no idea how skilled and experienced many of these troops are.”

Sergeant Smith had fought and served in Desert Storm, Bosnia, and Kosovo prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom. To his men, he was an intense, “infuriating, by-the-book taskmaster,” in the words of Alex Leary of The St. Petersburg Times, Sergeant Smith’s hometown newspaper. Long after other platoons were let off duty, Sergeant Smith would be drilling his men late into the night, checking the cleanliness of their rifle barrels with the Q-tips he carried in his pocket. During one inspection, he found a small screw missing from a soldier’s helmet. He called the platoon back to drill until 10 p.m. “He wasn’t an in-your-face type,” Colonel Smith told me, “just a methodical, hard-ass professional who had been in combat in Desert Storm, and took it as his personal responsibility to prepare his men for it.”

Sergeant Smith’s mind-set epitomized the Western philosophy on war: War is not a way of life, an interminable series of hit-and-run raids for the sake of vendetta and tribal honor, in societies built on blood and discord. War is awful, to be waged only as a last resort, and with terrific intensity, to elicit a desired outcome in the shortest possible time. Because Sergeant Smith took war seriously, he never let up on his men, and never forgot about them...

The ceremony in the East Room of the White House two years to the day after Sergeant Smith was killed, where President George W. Bush awarded the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Smith’s 11-year-old son, David, was fitfully covered by the media. The Paul Ray Smith story elicited 96 media mentions for the eight week period after the medal was awarded, compared with 4,677 for the supposed abuse of the Koran at Guantánamo Bay and 5,159 for the disgraced Abu Ghraib prison guard Lynndie England, over a much longer time frame that went on for many months. In a society that obsesses over reality-TV shows, gangster and war movies, and NFL quarterbacks, an authentic hero like Sergeant Smith flickers momentarily before the public consciousness.

It may be that the public, which still can’t get enough of World War II heroics, even as it feels guilty about its treatment of Vietnam veterans, simply can’t deliver up the requisite passion for honoring heroes from unpopular wars like Korea and Iraq. It may also be that, encouraged by the media, the public is more comfortable seeing our troops in Iraq as victims of a failed administration rather than as heroes in their own right. Such indifference to valor is another factor that separates an all-volunteer military from the public it defends.
Read the short article. It is well worth your time.

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