Reviews > Culture

Victims as heroes

Culture | Sentimentality has replaced both martial virtues and clear thinking

Issue: "Iraq: Bloody Ramadan," Nov. 29, 2003

DURING THE INVASION PHASE OF THE IRAQ WAR, Captain Zan Hornbuckle, a 29-year-old Army officer from Georgia, found himself and his 80 men surrounded by 300 Iraqi and Syrian fighters. Unable to obtain air or artillery support, Captain Hornbuckle and his unit-who were never before in combat-fought for eight hours. When the smoke cleared, 200 of the enemy were dead. Thanks to brilliant combat tactics and personal heroism throughout the unit, not a single American was killed.

But who is the most well-known soldier of the Iraq war? Private Jessica Lynch, whose claim to fame is having been captured and rescued, stirring the hearts, as they say, of the whole country.

Why aren't the exploits of Captain Zan and his men better known? Reporters were embedded with his unit, witnessed the victory, and wrote about it. And yet, the popular culture has ignored him-and many, many like him whose feats matched the heroics of earlier wars-in favor of a slip of a young lady who evokes sympathy rather than admiration.

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Nothing against Private Jessica, who has suffered for her country. The fact is, the reaction of Americans to the men and women stationed in Iraq is overwhelmingly one of sympathy, of weepy commiseration for their plight, for the danger they are in, for having to be away from their families, and for having to have lived through such horrible experiences. While they deserve our concern for these sacrifices, what happened to our appreciation for the martial virtues-courage, toughness, victory-that the members of our military have been displaying every day?

This is the point of an article by Jonathan Eig in The Wall Street Journal. "Since the Vietnam War," he writes, "much of the country has tended to venerate survivors more than aggressors, the injured more than those who inflict injuries."

In World War I, Mr. Eig points out, Americans were stirred by the exploits of warriors like Corporal Alvin York, who single-handedly killed 25 Germans and captured 132 more. In World War II, the whole country feted Lieutenant Audie Murphy for killing 240 of the enemy. But today, we seldom honor soldiers for killing, for being warriors.

Even our war movies tend to be anti-war. "When Hollywood makes a war movie," observes Mr. Eig, "it often focuses on saving American lives-Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, Behind Enemy Lines-not killing others."

"We want to fight wars but we don't want any of our people to die and we don't really want to hurt anybody else," says military historian John A. Lynn. "So Private Lynch, who suffers, is a hero even if she doesn't do much. She suffered for us."

Treating the members of our military as victims, rather than as warriors, allows politicians to say that they "support our troops," meaning that they want to bring them home.

Is this because of the feminization of the culture, that while we can still produce macho fighters like Captain Hornbuckle, the culture as a whole only wants to nurture them? Has our culture become pacifist at heart, feeling so guilty at the violence of war that we cannot celebrate actions that violate our ethic of niceness?

Our culture may have channeled all of its war-like values into sports. Here, at least, we still value toughness, strength, and aggression. In sports we still allow ourselves the thrill of victory. But sports are nothing more than play time. In reality, we draw back.

Perhaps our sensitivities are the sign of a refined and peace-loving civilization. But we had better make no mistake about it: Our enemies do not share our sensitivity. Those who want to kill us despise our niceness, and they see our squeamishness about casualties, both our own and those of our enemies, as a weakness.

This in fact motivates terrorists, the conviction that if a few Americans are killed, or even if too many of our enemies are killed, we will feel a national tidal wave of compassion, guilt, and regret. Then we will call our soldiers home, where they will be safe, enjoying our self-righteousness as the terrorists enforce their will on those whom we have abandoned.

This trust in American sentimentality, reinforced every time the terrorists read our editorial writers or listen to a Democratic presidential candidate, encourages them to set bombs and take pot-shots at our troops. In this case, the warriors really are turned into victims.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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