Outside Fallujah a year ago today, a small convoy was ambushed by 50 insurgents. A rocket-propelled grenade hit the first Humvee, robbing one Marine of his hands and raking the others with shrapnel. Machine-gun fire swept the kill zone.
Captain Brent Morel was in the second Humvee. “Stop and dismount,” was all he said before opening his door and sprinting off toward the ambush position. A small band of Marines followed him over two berms, splashing across a chest-deep canal as they closed on the ambushers.
As the surprised enemy broke, the Marines shot them down. It was the last time a large group of insurgents attacked an American convoy on that route with small arms, notwithstanding numerical advantage.
Twelve hours later, the casualty assistance teams were at the doorstep of Brent’s widow, Amy, and his parents, Mike and Molly.
On a rooftop fight in Fallujah last year, Lance Corporal Carlos Gomez-Perez hurled grenades and manned a machine gun to drive back a band of insurgents. Once the roof was cleared, he walked downstairs, pouring blood. An RPG had torn a chunk the size of a Coke can out of his shoulder.
“Sorry, sir,” he mumbled to his lieutenant. “Mind if I take a break to get this patched up?”
The public image of the military is shaped by the press. No matter how laudatory the actions of a soldier, if the press ignores them, the public is not aware of them. Today’s battlefield elites are given scant focus by media elites. On Monday, Sgt 1st Class Paul Ray Smith was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award, with little fanfare and media coverage that burned out in 24 hours. So whom are we celebrating?
In World War II, the press were cheerleaders who shared a symbiotic relationship with the military. Gutsy warriors like Audie Murphy and “Pappy” Boyington were famous for their high kill totals. In Vietnam, the press soured on the effort, tied the troops to the policymakers and refused to laud aggressive soldiers. Instead, victims were accentuated. American prisoners of war–who were certainly brave–were the only acclaimed heroes. Rugged commando-types–just as brave–were ignored.
This was reflected in the wave of Vietnam movies that proliferated in the 1980s. In the four most popular movies–Rambo: First Blood Part II, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Casualties of War–two themes emerged: soldier as victim and soldier as criminal.
In Iraq, the most famous soldiers to emerge are PFC Jessica Lynch and PFC Lynndie England, a victim and criminal, respectively. Their public images are the offspring of Vietnam. Celebrity and cynicism have trumped achievement.
Habits die hard, for the press as well as for the rest of us. The disproportionate coverage of seven guards at Abu Ghraib and one quick-acting Marine in a mosque trumped the extraordinary victory won by thousands of Marines and soldiers in Fallujah, now one of the safest cities in the Sunni Triangle. The obsessive spotlight damaged the image of the American soldier at home while failing to assuage our detractors abroad. America is proud of its collective conscience, but self-flagellation has a deteriorating effect.
A nation’s selection of its heroes is a reflection of its values. Jihadists like Zarqawi are not idealistic agrarian reformers. We are not a nation of victims. The press ought to make a real effort to show the tough guys who fight for us.
They don’t have to look far. One hundred and forty squads fought house to house in Fallujah last November. In the course of two weeks, on three separate occasions the average squad shot jihadists hiding in rooms waiting to kill an American and die. The average 19-year-old searched dozens of houses each day, knowing with certainty that he would open a door and someone would shoot at him, not once, but on three separate occasions. Fewer than one SWAT team in a hundred encounters determined suicidal shooters barricaded in a room. Our SWAT teams are dedicated and courageous and we have seen many deserved depictions of their bravery.
Surely the media can do more to bring alive for all of us the nature of the sacrifices, courage, and, yes, ferocious aggression of our troops. The strength of our martial might is in our warriors more than in our weapons. It is time we understood why they are so feared. Our riflemen are not victims; they’re hunters. Audie Murphy would be proud of Carlos Gomez-Perez, Brent Morel, and Paul Ray Smith.
–Owen West, a trader at Goldman, Sachs, served with the Marines in Iraq. Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense, has written several books about combat. They are writing a screenplay entitled, No True Glory: The Battle for Fallujah.