WASHINGTON – Two years to the day after Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith was killed defending his unit from an enemy attack near the Baghdad airport, President Bush on Monday presented his family the first Medal of Honor awarded in more than a decade.
As you’ve probably noticed, the awarding of the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Smith has been pretty big news in the past few days. There was something about it that bothered me, though, and up until last night I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. But then it hit me.
The problem is one of credibility – not the credibility of a fallen hero, but that of the people bestowing the award – and it has put people like me, people who think about what the government does and what they see on television, in an awkward position.
From what I can tell, Sgt. Smith died as every bit the bonafide American war hero he’s been made out to be (see myths_americana‘s post here, where he notes that “[t]he military heroism of Sgt. Smith was incontestable and has been recited too often for repetition her”). Right. Smith seems not to be one of our newfangled PC everybody-gets-a-gold-star-just-for-showing-up heroes. You may have noted how these days everybody who dies becomes a hero. Remember the aftermath of 9/11? All the people killed that day were heroes. The problem is that when you use the word this way, you destroy its meaning. What’s the difference between “hero” and “victim,” you know?
But I knew Bush was awarding Smith the MoH before I knew the details, and sadly, my instinctive, gut-level reaction was to balk. My first thought wasn’t “he must have been a real hero,” it was “what is the administration up to this time?” Was this a cynical, unwarranted, partisan knee-jerk on my part? Well, some will see it that way no matter what I say. But the truth is that I feel pretty badly about it. This man laid down his life to save his fellow soldiers, and whether I like the war in Iraq or not, there is no arguing that he willingly made the ultimate sacrifice in service to his country.
To some degree – and this I can’t pretend to quantify – Smith’s day was cheapened by this administration’s ongoing campaign to spin the American people regardless of the facts, regardless of the truth, regardless of any kind of moral or ethical prinicples regarding the process, propriety, and responsibility attending official state communications. When we can no longer tell the difference between the State interest and the Party interest, we have become the Soviet machine we worked so hard to defeat.
Why? Because this administration has used that term “hero” before. Remember Jessica Lynch? Jessica was no doubt an earnest and dedicated soldier, but her heroism mainly consisted of getting lost and captured. Yet Bush and the administration’s media apparatchiks dressed the story up so that she looked like Patton and Mother Teresa rolled into one. Suddenly, those of us who think as a matter of course had cause to wonder whether we could trust the word “hero” in the mouths of our leaders.
You only have to cry wolf once, but Bush and Co. semingly never miss a chance to weave their mythology, regardless of the authenticity of the core facts from which it is being woven. So I heard “Sgt. Smith, Hero” and reflexively flinched, wondering if the truth would turn out to be more like Sgt. York or Pvt. Lynch.
In the end, this one appears more than legit (although I defer to Dr. Lawrence at myths_americana on other, deeper questions). But I’m profoundly saddened that I live in an age where my president can say “this man is a hero” and I can’t trust it without doing a little research, just to be sure.
I can apologize for my cynicism, but I can’t shoulder all the blame for it.