…from Robert Kaplan of The Atlantic, on what it takes to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. Mr. Kaplan recounts the saga of Army Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith, the first MOH recipient from the Iraq War. He won the award (posthumously) for defeating an Iraqi attack at the Baghdad Airport in April, 2003.
Recognizing the valor of Sergeant Smith represented another battle. His battalion commander spent the next two years pushing the paperwork through the Army bureaucracy, proving that Smith’s actions were worthy of the Medal of Honor. Those efforts finally paid off with a White House ceremony on April 5, 2005,when President Bush presented the medal to Smith’s 11-year-old son.
Yet, as Kaplan notes, the heroism of Sergeant Smith received scant attention from the media and the public:
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. “The medal helps legitimize Iraq for them. World War II had its heroes, and now Iraq has its,” said Colonel Smith.
We all owe a debt to Sergeant First Class Paul Smith, for his uncompromising valor on that fateful day in Baghdad, and to his former commander, who refused to let such brave and selfless acts go unnoticed.