Dirty little wars offer little chance for heroism

In the early days of the Iraq war, on the last day of his life, Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith showed valor that no U.S. soldier has matched in Iraq.

Smith’s men came under attack as they mopped up after the capture of Baghdad’s airport. The sergeant braved hostile fire to evacuate three wounded soldiers and single-handedly killed dozens of enemy soldiers before being killed himself as he covered the evacuation of other wounded Americans.

Smith posthumously became the first soldier in the Iraq war awarded the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military award, given in recognition of extreme valor in combat. More than three years later, Smith remains the only service member to receive the honor for action in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

That the U.S. military’s top honor has become so rare is a sign of how warfare has changed.

Far fewer soldiers are fighting in Iraq than fought in World War II or Vietnam, wars in which hundreds of the medals were awarded. Also, fewer soldiers are involved in the kinds of sustained fire from massive enemy forces that their fathers and grandfathers faced.

Instead, the attacks are often fast and deadly, like the blast of a roadside bomb.

Smith’s was an exception.

It was April 4, 2003. A company of Iraqi Republican Guards attacked Smith and other soldiers as they built holding areas for prisoners of war.

Smith’s medal citation said he organized a two-platoon defensive wall, braved hostile fire to attack with hand grenades and anti-tank weapons and evacuated three wounded soldiers from their disabled armored personnel carrier. Still under fire, he mounted a damaged armored personnel carrier and fired its .50 caliber machine gun into the Iraqi ranks.

In helping defeat the Iraqi attack, Smith killed as many as 50 Iraqis and allowed the extraction of numerous wounded soldiers before being killed himself, the citation said.

In the circumstances of modern warfare, such self-sacrifice for a soldier’s unit occurs less frequently, said Malham M. Wakin, a retired Air Force brigadier general and professor emeritus of military ethics at the U.S. Air Force Academy. “It’s not ‘Stand up and fight,’ company against company, battalion against battalion,” Wakin said.

“Opportunities for heroism are very different in this kind of fight, where it’s an unexpected explosion that knocks you out of your jeep or tank.”

The difference certainly is not the quality of the individual, Wakin said. “I think we’ve got guys out there who really have a strong heart and really care about their troops,” he said.

The Iraq war has lasted 38 months. The United States was in World War II for 44 months and in the first 38 months of that war, 347 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor.

But that was a war in which millions of soldiers saw combat around the globe. By the end of 1942, one year after war was declared, 5.4 million Americans were in uniform.

In Iraq, the largest U.S. complement at any time has been about 165,000, and overall, since the U.S.-led invasion began on March 20, 2003, several hundred thousand have served there, roughly one-10th the 1940s number. In all, World War II produced 464 Medal of Honor recipients.

Walton Haddix, a Navy officer 40 years ago, is trying to make it 465. He is spearheading an effort to have the Army award the Medal of Honor to 1st Lt. Garlin Murl Conner, Haddix’s former neighbor in Kentucky, for his exploits against six German tanks and 600 infantrymen. Conner received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second most prestigious award; it is a measure of the value of the Medal of Honor that Haddix is trying to undo what he considers the Army’s injustice to his late friend.

U.S. law allows a member of Congress to request the Army secretary to waive time limitations on upgrading awards, normally two to three years, and Conner’s congressman, Rep. Edward Whitfield, has done that. Whitfield also has introduced legislation to authorize the president to waive time limitations and award Conner the medal posthumously.

What Conner did, Haddix said, is unlikely to be widespread in wars fought with the fewest possible infantry.

“The way they fight wars now, there’s not going to be many more heroes” like those who faced down entire units, Haddix said.

Smith, who in April 2005 was posthumously awarded the medal in the Iraq war, was a member of the 3rd Infantry Division. Members of that unit were awarded 39 Medals of Honor during World War II. Among them was 2nd Lt. Audie Murphy, reputedly the most-decorated American of World War II and later a movie star.

Conner also was a member of the division, and his Distinguished Service Cross “could have been, I believe, a Congressional Medal of Honor,” his commander, Lt. Col. Lloyd B. Ramsey, wrote then.

Smith’s citation and those of Murphy and Conner are remarkably similar, although both World War II soldiers engaged larger and better-armed units than the Iraqi soldiers Smith faced down.

Ramsey, who went on to command the American Division in Vietnam, said in an interview that even the jungle warfare of Vietnam was less conducive to such daring as World War II. Vietnam lasted about twice as long as World War II but resulted in slightly more than half the number of Medal of Honor awards: 245. The United States sent 2.7 million men into that war.

“In World War II we were fighting an enemy that you knew who the enemy were. There was courageous action taking place all the time,” Ramsey said. “We don’t have that kind of war in Vietnam or Iraq.”

© 2006 The Associated Press