Where Are the War Heroes in the Iraq War?
ONE soldier fought off scores of elite Iraqi troops in a fierce defense of his outnumbered Army unit, saving dozens of American lives before he himself was killed. Another soldier helped lead a team that killed 27 insurgents who had ambushed her convoy. And then there was the marine who, after being shot, managed to tuck an enemy grenade under his stomach to save the men in his unit, dying in the process.
Their names are Sgt. First Class Paul R. Smith, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester and Sgt. Rafael Peralta. If you have never heard of them, even in a week when more than 20 marines were killed in Iraq by insurgents, that might be because the military, the White House and the culture at large have not publicized their actions with the zeal that was lavished on the heroes of World War I and World War II.
Many in the military are disheartened by the absence of an instantly recognizable war hero today, a deficiency with a complex cause: public opinion on the Iraq war is split, and drawing attention to it risks fueling opposition; the military is more reluctant than it was in the last century to promote the individual over the group; and the war itself is different, with fewer big battles and more and messier engagements involving smaller units of Americans. Then, too, there is a celebrity culture that seems skewed more to the victim than to the hero.
Collectively, say military historians, war correspondents and retired senior officers, the country seems to have concluded that war heroes pack a political punch that requires caution. They have become not just symbols of bravery but also reminders of the war's thorniest questions. "No one wants to call the attention of the public to bloodletting and heroism and the horrifying character of combat," said Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina. "What situation can be imagined that would promote the war and not remind people of its ambivalence?"
Heroism in the past was easier to highlight. In World War I, men like Sgt. Alvin York, a sharpshooter from Tennessee who captured 132 German soldiers with only a few rifles and a handful of men, were lauded by the military and devoured by the public. A ticker-tape parade in Manhattan greeted the sergeant's return.
During World War II, the military became even more sophisticated. Responding to the propaganda campaigns of Mussolini and Hitler, every branch of the military created a public relations office, said Paul Kennedy, a military historian at Yale. Heroes were even brought home specifically to rally support for the war.
Richard I. Bong, for example, an Army Air Corps pilot who came to be known as the Ace of Aces, was sent home in December 1944 after shooting down his 40th Japanese plane. He was dispatched immediately on a nationwide tour to help sell war bonds.
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