Americans Under Fire: Three Accounts of Fighting the War on Terror

Mackubin T. Owens

May 1, 2008

Moment of Truth in Iraq

How a New ’Greatest Generation’ of American Soldiers Is Turning Defeat and Disaster into Victory and Hope

by Michael Yon

Richard Vigilante, 256 pp., $29.95

House to House

An Epic Memoir of War

by David Bellavia with John R. Bruning

Free Press, 336 pp., $26

Hard Corps

From Gangster to Marine Hero

by Marco Martinez

Crown Forum, 256 pp., $24.95

It seems that Americans have forgotten how to honor their war heroes.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, most boys knew the story of Lt. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II. Indeed, after the war, he became a fairly successful actor. The public, including Hollywood, recognized him for what he was—a hero. Most of us also knew the story of Marine Sgt. John Basilone, who earned the Medal of Honor on Guadalcanal. He was brought home to help sell war bonds but kept asking to go back to the Pacific. His superiors finally relented. He was killed on Iwo Jima. The American public recognized him for what he was—a hero.

No more. Americans have performed extraordinary feats of bravery in Iraq and Afghanistan, but with the exception of those who regularly read military blogs, who knows about them?

Things changed with Vietnam. Although Americans fought bravely there, the press, if not the American people, began to treat those who fought in Vietnam as either moral monsters, victims, or both. The dysfunctional Vietnam vet became a staple of popular culture. Despite the fact that atrocities were rare, My Lai came to symbolize the entire war; and thanks to the press’s preoccupation with the anomaly of My Lai, Lt. William Calley became the poster boy for Vietnam. The honorable and heroic performance of the vast majority of those who served in Vietnam went largely unrecognized.

For example, how many Americans know the story of Marine Lt. John P. Bobo, who received the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam? Here is part of his citation:

When an exploding enemy mortar round severed Lieutenant Bobo’s right leg below the knee, he refused to be evacuated and insisted upon being placed in a firing position to cover the movement of the command group to a better location. With a web belt around his leg serving as a tourniquet, and with his leg jammed into the dirt to curtail the bleeding, he remained in this position and delivered devastating fire into the ranks of the enemy attempting to overrun the Marines. Lieutenant Bobo was mortally wounded while firing his weapon into the main point of the enemy attack but his valiant spirit inspired his men to heroic efforts.

The reason for this disparity in coverage is simple. My Lai fit the conventional narrative of the antiwar left: Bobo’s story did not.

Things haven’t changed much since then. The conventional wisdom concerning Vietnam has been absorbed by today’s press, even by those too young to remember our Southeast Asia misadventure. The result is a troubling predisposition to believe the worst about those who are willing to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In 2005 Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith became the first soldier in the Iraq war to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He was killed in action when his outnumbered unit was attacked by Iraqi forces at the Baghdad airport on April 4, 2003, and is credited with saving hundreds of lives.

In the Wall Street Journal Robert Kaplan observed last year that, “according to LexisNexis, by June 2005, two months after his posthumous award, [Smith’s] stirring story had drawn only 90 media mentions, compared to 4,677 for the supposed Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay, and 5,159 for the court-martialed Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England.”

The slander continues. This past January 13 the New York Times published the first of a series of articles recounting the sad cases of servicemen returning from combat zones and committing killings. In “Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles,” the reporters wrote that the “Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war.”

But the methodology underlying the series was shoddy: There was no attempt to compare the homicide rate among servicemen to that of the same age cohort in the population at large (the former is much lower than the latter). But that apparently didn’t matter to the Times. All that mattered was the conventional narrative: Antisocial behavior is the norm among servicemen, especially those who have been in combat. Combat veterans are inherently dysfunctional, teetering on the edge, ready to snap at any time.

In any large population, especially one that involves the management of violence, we should not be surprised that people snap. But the Vietnam narrative still prevails in the press, and the public is far more likely to read about Lynndie England than Paul Ray Smith. This is a sad state of affairs.

In his remarkable book about Falluja, No True Glory, Bing West wrote that stories of soldierly courage deserve “to be recorded and read by the next generation. Unsung, the noblest deed will die.” There are now a handful of new books that attempt to do what West calls for, and these three titles—Moment of Truth in Iraq by Michael Yon, House to House by David Bellavia, and Hard Corps by Marco Martinez—are worth a look.

The first, by an intrepid reporter—called by some the Ernie Pyle of this war—is a detailed portrayal of the remarkable soldiers who have helped turn the tide in Iraq. The second recounts the story of an Army non-commissioned officer during the horrendous second battle of Falluja in November 2004, for which he was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor itself. The last is the story of a onetime gang member who rejected the aimlessness of the gangster life to join the Marine Corps, becoming the first Hispanic since Vietnam to be awarded the Navy Cross, the Navy-Marine Corps version of the Distinguished Service Cross.

Yon, who has been providing straightforward dispatches about the war on his website almost since the outset, has proved to be the most reliable source of information about how things are going on the ground in Iraq. In his dispatches, Yon, a former Special Forces soldier, has provided a perspective that one doesn’t get from “mainstream” reporters who write stories from the Green Zone based on reports from Iraqi stringers whose veracity may be in question. Unfortunately, Yon is not well known outside the blogosphere; Moment of Truth in Iraq will change this state of affairs.

Yon has been no cheerleader for the military or the Bush administration. Those who know him say he is completely apolitical. Indeed, he raised the ire of senior military officers by criticizing the approaches to Iraq that he believed were leading to defeat, and was twice denied access to the country. Yon praises Gen. David Petraeus and the surge, but makes clear that it is working because of the remarkable soldiers and Marines who are implementing it.

Two of these remarkable individuals have written memoirs, and the stories they tell are riveting and poignant. Those who have served in the military, especially if their service involved combat, will recognize the dynamic both describe in recounting their experiences: cohesion, loyalty, trust, and comradeship. In House to House, the reader (as in The Iliad) is thrown in media res where these characteristics are taken as the starting point. Hard Corps recounts the way the characteristics are built during Marine boot camp and infantry training.

Neither volume is for the faint of heart: The language and the descriptions of events are graphic. Bellavia’s account of killing an insurgent with a knife is a case in point:

The blade sinks into him, and he wails with terror and pain. The blade finally sinks all the way to the handle. … [The insurgent’s] mouth is curled in a grimace. His teeth are bared. … I’m bathed in warmth from neck to chest. I can’t see it but I know it is his blood. His eyes lose their luster. The hate evaporates. … He takes a last ragged breath, and his eyes go dim, still staring into mine.

All too often, the popular culture portrays our soldiers as victims or cold-blooded killers. But the flesh and blood men described in House to House and Hard Corps don’t fit those caricatures. They may kill the enemy, but they don’t take pleasure in it. They are Americans, and they are men. They miss their loved ones at home, but they forge a bond with their comrades that only those who have been in combat can understand. They feel guilty when they are away from their comrades, and this takes a great psychological toll, especially on men like Bellavia who are family men.

Our logistical system may be magnificent, enabling American soldiers to fight far from America’s shores; but it doesn’t mean that these hard, dirty, exhausted infantrymen aren’t cynical and angry when it seems they are the only ones bearing the brunt of the action. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have disdain for those rear echelon types who eat hot chow at secure bases while the infantrymen fight and die in the dirty, bloody streets of Falluja.

All of these books illustrate the critical importance of unit cohesion in combat. During the “happy times” of the 1990s, academic experts assured us that cohesion was overrated, that technology had changed the nature of war by eliminating friction and the “fog of uncertainty,” and that henceforth conflicts would be fought from 15,000 feet with precision weapons. Accordingly, they told us, cohesion should never be used as an excuse to prevent social engineering—such as the integration of women in combat. We haven’t heard much about that in a while, and these books explain why.

Moment of Truth in Iraq, House to House, and Hard Corps confirm the research on men in battle that has shown unit cohesion to be a necessary element of battlefield success. Cohesion in combat is far more than mere teamwork: Cohesion arises from the bond among disparate individuals who have nothing in common but facing death and misery together. This bond is akin to what the Greeks called philia—friendship, comradeship, brotherly love. Philia has been well described by J. Glenn Gray in his discussion of unit cohesion in The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle:

Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale. The commander who can preserve and strengthen it knows that all other physical and psychological factors are little in comparison. The feeling of loyalty, it is clear, is the result not the cause of comradeship. Comrades are loyal to each other spontaneously and without any need for reasons.

By describing the horror and carnage of real war, House to House and Hard Corps drive these observations home in a powerful way. And in light of the New York Times’s story about homicidal vets, it is interesting to note that had Marco Martinez not become a Marine, it is very likely that he would be in prison now, possibly for homicide. But since he wouldn’t have been a veteran, he would not have qualified for the Times’s narrative.

Some will find the detailed descriptions in these books troubling. All describe men at war killing other men. But as George Orwell once observed, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” These books also remind us that a liberal democracy faces a dilemma when it comes to the relationship between the military and society at large: The military cannot govern itself in accordance with the liberal principles that it ultimately defends. It must be governed by virtues that many civilians see as brutal, and even barbaric, because the military is one of the few jobs where you may have to tell someone: “Go die.” If we cannot count on members of the military to prepare for such an eventuality, the military will fail, and if it does fail, the liberal society it protects may not survive.

We should be thankful for David Bellavia and Marco Martinez and countless others who have been willing to lay a “costly … sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” And we should thank Michael Yon for helping to tell their story.

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.