By lex, on March 1st, 2007
I didn’t write anything on the heroism of retired Army LCOL Bruce Crandall, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor last week for his actions in Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley. I thought that many other people had done his tale better justice than could I.
The long and the short of it was that over 22 sorties in a 14-hour fly day on the 15th of November, 1965, he risked his life over and over again, flying into a hot LZ to bring ammunition in and wounded out of the battlespace. His actions kept the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry in the fight, and brought back 70 of their wounded soldiers, many of whom would have died without his valor. The ammunition he brought quite possibly kept the battalion from being over-run and destroyed in detail. He did so even though the LZ was operationally “closed,” meaning that he had every doctrinal reason not to land and that most likely no one would have questioned him for failing to do so. He did it even though he had three machines shot up so badly as to be un-flyable.
Certainly deserving, and certainly overdue.
But in today’s WSJ (subscription only) Danniel Henninger makes a great point:
Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, spoke at the ceremony of what he called “the warrior ethos.” Look at his words and consider whether they still stand today, or whether as a matter of the nation’s broader ethos of commonly accepted beliefs, they are under challenge. Gen. Schoomaker said: “The words of the warrior ethos that we have today — I will always place the mission first; I will never accept defeat; I will never quit; and I will never leave a fallen comrade — were made real that day in the la Drang Valley.”
At issue today is the question: Is that ethos worth it, worth the inevitable sacrifice? And not only in Iraq but in whatever may lie beyond Iraq?
The secretary of the Army, Francis Harvey, went on in this vein: “The courage and fortitude of America’s soldiers in combat exemplified by these individuals is, without question, the highest level of human behavior. It demonstrates the basic goodness of mankind as well as the inherent kindness and patriotism of American soldiers.”
An American soldier in combat demonstrates “the basic goodness of mankind”? And the highest level of human behavior? This was not thought to be true at the moment Maj. Crandall was flying those choppers in Vietnam. Nor is it now.
To embrace the thoughts of Gen. Schoomaker and of Secretary Harvey is to risk being accused of defending notions of American triumphalism and an overly strong martial spirit thought inappropriate to the realities of a multilateral world. This is a debate worth having. But we are not having it. We are hiding from it.
In a less doubtful culture, Maj. Crandall’s magnificent medal would have been on every front page, if only a photograph. It was on no one’s front page Tuesday. The New York Times, the culture’s lodestar, had a photograph on its front page of President Bush addressing governors about an insurance plan. Maj. Crandall’s Medal of Honor was on page 15, in a round-up, three lines from the bottom. Other big-city dailies also ran it in their news summaries; some — the Washington Post, USA Today — ran full accounts inside.
Most school children once knew the names of the nation’s heroes in war — Ethan Allen, John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur, the Swamp Fox Francis Marion, Ulysses S. Grant, Clara Barton, Billy Mitchell, Alvin York, Lee Ann Hester. Lee Ann who? She’s the first woman to win a Silver Star for direct combat with the enemy. Did it in a trench in Iraq. Her story should be in schools, but it won’t be.
All nations celebrate personal icons, and ours now tend to be doers of good. That’s fine. But if we suppress the martial feats of a Bruce Crandall, we distance ourselves further from our military. And in time, we will change. At some risk.
Maybe it has something to do with the “do your own thing” culture, or the growing trend towards lowest-common-denominator self-esteemism – you know, no one’s better than anyone else, you’re great! Even if you haven’t really done anything great, and have no particular plan to do so.
But when I was a kid, if you asked any one of us, “Who is your hero?” the odds are pretty good that we’d have had an unironic answer. It might have been one of the Apollo astronauts, or John F. Kennedy, or it might have been some character played by John Wayne that didn’t really represent anyone in particular but rather an aggregation within an iconic individual of the virtues we knew existed in the real world. Virtues that were worthy of emulation, that were commonly shared.
You’re almost afraid to ask the question today, the idea itself has become almost anachronistic. Our heroes now are “nurses,” or “firemen,” or even “the soldiers.” Faceless collectives and meaningless aggregations – to celebrate all of them is to celebrate none of them.
Valor, determination, honor: These are individual virtues. Recognizing them in individuals gives us something to shoot for, a stretch goal – it raises us above ourselves. It makes us better people, and it makes us a Better People.
With all the mediocrity in the world, the fact that there are heroes among us ought to be newsworthy – why do we no longer honor them?