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Friday, June 18, 2010

Where Has All the Valor Gone?

Shortly after I posted my Memorial Day thoughts questioning whether modern-day soldiers are seeing as much of the elephant as their predecessors did, an article, "What Happened to Valor?" appeared in the New York Times magazine reporting some rather striking statistics:
Despite its symbolic importance and educational role in military culture, the Medal of Honor has been awarded only six times for service in Iraq or Afghanistan. By contrast, 464 Medals of Honor were awarded for service during World War II, 133 during the Korean War and 246 during the Vietnam War. “From World War I through Vietnam,” The Army Times claimed in April 2009, “the rate of Medal of Honor recipients per 100,000 service members stayed between 2.3 (Korea) and 2.9 (World War II). But since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only five Medals of Honor have been awarded, a rate of 0.1 per 100,000 — one in a million.”
The reporter, Katherine Zoepf, goes on to say that one reason for fewer medals may be the nature of modern warfare: it no longer necessitates coming face to face with an enemy in bloody combat. She cites Michael O’Hanlon, a defense-policy specialist at the Brookings. He argues that counterinsurgency efforts, which place greater emphasis on avoiding the use of force (to minimize civilian casualties), call for "a quieter daily kind of courage," one that rarely requires "that moment of extreme valor typically honored with a medal

Upon learning these stats, I had a series of contradictory thoughts (it turns out that, when describing this particular elephant, I can be all of the blind men at once!):

1) First, I felt rather smug about my powers of deduction: from a drop of water, I had inferred the Niagra, as the redoubtable Sherlock Holmes would say. I wondered if my next post on this topic should be called "Seeing Mr Snuffleupagus" — the Sesame Street character who looks like an elephant at first glance (he has a nose that he drags along the ground but no tusk or ears, not to mention a dinosaur's tail). What got me thinking along these lines was Mr S's appearance at a benefit gala for military families, held in Manhattan on June 2 and sponsored by Sesame Street. Upon noticing that the Wall Street Journal gave Mr S pride of place in their write-up of the event, I started to think that a muppet that goes by the nickname of Snuffy might be a more apt symbol for modern-day military service than the elephant (very yesteryear).

2) But, not so fast, my friend! Many combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan dispute O'Hanlon's arguments, and it turns out they have a good point. Indeed, another reason for the current paucity of medals might be a lack of valor not on the part of soldiers but on the part of the top military brass. The Pentagon is afraid to give out such medals without being 300% sure that an act of valor occurred — and who can be sure of anything in the fog of war? What's more, because of the Pentagon's recent experiences with Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, it is hesitant to publicize or otherwise herald tales of heroism, for fear of later embarrassment. (Both Lynch, in 2003, and Tillman, in 2004, were initially celebrated as war heroes.)

Those who believe that the Pentagon has become overly cautious and bureaucratic on medals often point to the example of Rafael Peralta. Despite horrific wounds, the 25-year-old Marine had the presence of mind and courage to scoop a live grenade from under his body to save the lives of his comrades. Yet he has been denied the Medal of Honor.

3) I was less struck, however, by another argument that Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans frequently make, which is that they have become the victims of their own success. Congressman Duncan Hunter, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine, told Katherine Zoepf that in today’s all-volunteer military, an action that would have been considered heroic in the mid-20th century is seen today almost as routine conduct, "just being a Marine." With all due respect, Congressman Hunter, but my years and years of living in Japan — where U.S. Marines stationed at Futenma and other U.S. bases in Okinawa were constantly causing scandals and headlines — will forever make it difficult for me to associate that particular branch of the American armed forces with rising standards of behavior. I understand that acts of valor are something different, but still...

4) That said, I do buy another argument made by many younger servicemen, which is that Pentagon officials are frequently disrespectful, even dismissive, of their eyewitness accounts of acts of valor. In today’s military, younger servicemen sometimes have far more combat experience than their seniors now working in the Pentagon, who often progressed through the military hierarchy in a time of relative peace: after Vietnam but before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Having lived in a hierarchical society like Japan, I know that nothing goads your superior more than the knowledge that you've experienced something he or she hasn't--particularly when it comes to seeing the elephant. Could their seniors be jealous? Uh... yeah.

In a blog post for the National Review responding to Zoepf's article, David French wrote:
Why is the military awarding so few medals of honor? Are we less courageous now? Or is the military stifling valor awards in a labyrinthine bureaucracy dominated by rear echelon second-guessers?
This blogging business makes strange bedfellows, but as First Lieutenant in the United States Army Reserve and a senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, I think French has the creds to ask such pointed questions. Why, indeed?


susumu said...

I don't think you're being fair on the Marines. Could it be that the stuff in a Marine that creates scandals and headlines in civilian life also results in acts of valor in battle? In other words, you don't want a Marine base in your backyard but you do want the Marines to fight the enemy on your behalf. They are the toughest and the meanest.

ML Awanohara said...

What a Shakespearean observation! I am thinking of the play "Coriolanus," about the 5th century B.C. Roman general known for his exceptional valor in doing battle against Rome's great enemy, the Volscians. But the very qualities that lead him to win military honors--he is a dreaded, impossible, invulnerable opponent--are also the qualities that lead to his downfall in peace time.

Rome wishes to further honor Coriolanus with a seat on the council, but when the time arrives for him to entreat the people and show his wounds, he blusters, rages, boasts, and speaks arrogantly. He ends up being banished.

From what you say, many of the Marines could match Coriolanus in military prowess and fearlessness, while at the same time they show contempt (or at the very least a lack of respect) for civilians and civilian life. Is it any wonder the Okinawans want to banish them?

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