From Fighters to Victims

Columbia Free Times | July 12, 2004
From Fighters to Victims

**War Heroes Aren’t What They Used to Be**


It was June 1964. Thirty-year-old Bobby Bacon, an Army advisor assigned to train the South Vietnamese army, was leading his soldiers across a river near the village of Chulai in the Vietnam Delta when concealed Viet Cong troops opened fire. Bacon and his men were caught in a crossfire. Forty years later, in his home in Columbia, Bacon, now 70, describes bullets kicking up water all around him. “It was like throwing rocks in the water,” Bacon says.

Bacon survived the ambush and went on to distinguish himself in two tours of duty in Vietnam. And on June 12, 1964 he was immortalized on the cover of **Life** magazine.

On the other side of the world on March 25, 2003, another American soldier had an experience similar to Bacon’s, according to a Defense Department press release. Marine Corps officer Brian Chontosh was in his humvee leading a column of vehicles down Highway 1 into Baghdad. Suddenly Iraqis in a trench opened fire with machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

The Marines were taking casualties.

Chontosh looked for an escape route and found none, so he told his driver to put their humvee between the Marines and the enemy. Spotting a machine gun emplacement, Chontosh ordered his gunner to open fire. Soon the gun fell silent, but enemy soldiers in the trench continued to shoot at Chontosh’s Marines.

So he did what any irrational person would do. He told his driver to head straight into the trench. Then he grabbed his rifle and a pistol, leaped from the humvee and ran down the trench shooting Iraqis. When his rifle ran out of ammunition, he pulled his pistol and kept shooting. When his pistol ran out of ammo, he grabbed two AK-47s from dead Iraqis. He even picked up a discarded Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade and turned it on the enemy.

Eventually all firing in the trench subsided. The Marines found Chontosh alive and well, surrounded by approximately 50 dead or wounded Iraqis. He had nearly single-handedly cleared a 200-yard trench and saved the lives of many Marines.

On May 6, at his home station in Calif., Commandant of the Marine Corps Michael Hagee awarded 29-year-old Chontosh the Navy Cross, the United States’ second highest award for combat bravery.

Like Bacon, Chontosh is a hero to the U.S. military, the kind of soldier even soldiers admire. But unlike Bacon, Chontosh’s face has never graced a magazine cover. Chances are you’ve never heard of him.

On May 7, Bob Lonsberry, a radio talk-show host in Utah, called Chontosh one of “the heroes. The ones our grandparents would have carried on their shoulders down Fifth Avenue. The ones we completely ignore.”

Venerated victims

Ask any American what name stands out the most in media coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and they might say Pat Tillman or Jessica Lynch.

Tillman, a National Football League star who turned down a $3.6 million contract to join the Army after Sept. 11, was killed in what was probably a friendly fire incident in Afghanistan on April 26, according to the Defense Department.

Tillman became famous not for killing but for dying tragically. Since his death, universities have named scholarships after him, his old teams have retired his number and one, the Arizona Cardinals, is considering naming a stadium after him.

But Tillman is a B-list star compared to Lynch, easily the most famous personality of our recent wars, with a best-selling ghostwritten memoir and her own TV biopic. Lynch’s claim to fame is that she was ambushed, captured, and rescued. By her own account, she never managed to kill a single one of her Iraqi assailants.

By contrast, the most famous personality of World War I was Alvin York, otherwise known as Sgt. York, a former pacifist whose greatest exploit was leading eight men against hundreds of entrenched Germans, killing dozens and capturing 132.

In World War II, there were countless famous personalities, among them fighter ace Pappy Boyington, credited with shooting down 22 Japanese planes, and Audie Murphy, arguably the most famous soldier of all time, who personally killed more than 100 German soldiers.

Some might say that our heroes have changed because our wars have changed, not the least in terms of public support. While some Americans opposed their nation’s involvement in World War II, the war enjoys almost universal support in retrospect, and its heroes remain well known to this day. America’s involvement in Iraq, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, has been characterized by polarization of opinion and public protest back home. Maybe we don’t have traditional war heroes any more because we don’t have wars we’re proud of.

Some say even the way wars are fought has changed. York and Murphy were products of intense infantry combat, the kind of close-quarters fighting where physical strength and courage can actually make a difference. Many Americans might believe that kind of combat is rare if not extinct these days, that warfare in 2004 is dominated by Predator drones and cruise missiles and GPS-guided bombs.

In fact, warfare after Sept. 11 has marked a return to traditional infantry combat after a decade in which American foreign policy seemed aimed at avoiding ground combat at all costs. Fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has been decidedly low-tech, characterized by guys with guns shooting across streets at each other. The demise of rich, sophisticated, industrialized rivals like the Soviet Union means that, in many ways, warfare of the future looks more like something out of a Greek epic and less like something out of mid-‘80s Tom Clancy novels. Traditional heroes matter in modern combat.

Just ask Marine officer Neal Pugliese, based at Parris Island, who was decorated for leading his men against the heavily defended Iraqi police headquarters in Baghdad on March 21, 2003.

Or Marine Anthony Viggiani of Ohio, who was shot in the leg in a firefight with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan in June, but continued fighting despite heavy bleeding, helping his unit kill at least four Taliban and capture another.

Or Harry Hornbuckle, an Army officer from Georgia who in April 2003 led 80 Americans against 300 Iraqis, killed 200, and brought all his men back alive.

In addition to these infantrymen, whose exploits are documented in Defense Department citations, there are still heroes in the vein of Boyington. Like Kurt Frankenberger and Doug Denneny, a Calif.-based Navy F-14 crew that flew missions over Baghdad in March 2003. Recently the Navy decorated both for braving anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles to attack Iraqi Republican Guard units.

So it’s not that we don’t have candidates for traditional war heroes anymore. What has changed since World War II is our very definition of the term “war hero.” In only 60 years, we’ve gone from praising killers like York and Murphy to praising victims like Lynch and Tillman, even as the traditional war hero has lost none of his relevance to warfare.

Some observers blame a culture of political correctness. “Heroism, by definition, implies a superior quality for a moment in time,” writes retired Navy SEAL Roger Crossland in the Navy professional journal **Proceedings**. “A hero, therefore, is a superior individual by virtue of superior conduct, and the politically correct will not countenance that. No one is superior to anyone else, nothing is better than anything else, no cause is greater than any other. The United States is not exceptional, nor are U.S. causes.”

There’s a flipside to this PC shunning of heroes. “Victims,” Crossland writes, ”are perfectly politically correct.”

Healing power

Scott Gwara, a USC professor of medieval literature, believes we are witnessing a trend that began long before the twentieth century.

“In the **Illiad**, Achilles was half divine through his mother, almost superhuman,” Gwara says. “By the time we reach the Middle Ages, the hero has been downgraded in courtly romance to mere knight, completely secular. He continues his descent into the mundane. In the 18th-century novel, the hero is often the bourgeois gentleman. In the 19th century, he turns into the common man. Nowadays, the hero is someone metaphorically lost or damaged. His strength comes from healing, a kind of feminizing view of power.”

In other words, our heroes are becoming increasingly feminine, a phenomenon that may explain the media fixation on Lynch. Even Vietnam War veteran Bacon, who is opposed to women in combat, admits that Lynch’s story deeply affected him. “She made us think of our mothers and girlfriends being in harm’s way,” Bacon says.

But Bacon says he doesn’t think Lynch is a hero. “In Greek times they had real heroes,” Bacon says. “Everybody was talking about Jessica Lynch, but I don’t think you’ll hear about her in a hundred years.”

Bacon is certainly qualified to comment. With his face on the cover of one of the most well known magazines of the day, Bacon actually stands some chance of being remembered in a hundred years.

Bacon has seen his share of combat and won medals for bravery. But like many soldiers, he refuses to call himself a hero. The nature of his experiences may have something to do with that. He’s been treated for post-traumatic stress. He suffers mysterious symptoms from what he says is exposure to Agent Orange. He doesn’t like to talk about the war. When he does, he gets that look in his eyes that some writers call a “thousand-yard stare.”

“I consider myself lucky,” Bacon says over coffee in his home one morning in June. He opens a package of miniature muffins and stares at them for a long time before continuing. “I had classmates who died in their first week over there.”

Bacon describes seeing men decapitated in helicopter accidents and shot in the head by snipers. As he talks his voice gets lower and his cadence slower, and he looks around his kitchen as if begging help from the microwave and the refrigerator.

It’s clear that he doesn’t enjoy talking about the war. But he does it anyway.

Over a second pot of coffee, Bacon relates conversations he had with a counselor after the war, conversations he implies helped him feel again after the trauma of combat. “There’s no explanation for why I survived,” he says.

“Am I a hero?” Bacon says. “No.”

Behind him on a wall is a tiny framed panel on which are mounted some of the nation’s highest decorations. By the traditional standard that equates combat prowess with heroism, Bacon **is** a war hero.

But even if Gwara is right and the modern hero is increasingly a damaged person whose power lies in healing, Bacon still qualifies. For 30 years, Bacon has been coming to terms with Vietnam, and it has made him a quiet, careful and compassionate man. He stands as a bridge between Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman and an older generation of war heroes.

Heroes like Moffatt Burriss.

Hollywood heroics

Even at 84 years old, Burriss is an imposing bear of a man with a steady gaze and strong handshake. In June he takes a break from his job on the SC Education Lottery Commission on Main Street to talk about his experiences as an officer in the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II, experiences that inspired him to write a memoir entitled **Strike and Hold** that was published in 2000.

One of Burriss’ early missions saw him land near Anzio in Italy. “I went in with 128 men,” Burriss says. “Seven days later, I had 13.”

After Anzio, Burriss’ unit jumped into the Netherlands as part of a massive airborne attack against German forces. One of his company’s missions was to force a crossing of the Waal River and capture the critical Nijmegen Bridge. In his memoir, Burriss calls the mission “one of the greatest military operations of all time.”

As far as “great” means “difficult and bloody,” historians might agree with him.

Several hundred troopers plied across the river in flimsy canvas boats under murderous fire from Germans on the bank. Dozens died. Dozens more were wounded. The survivors hit the far side and moved against the Germans with such skill and aggression that “any Hollywood version pale[s]” in comparison, Burriss says.

Thirty years later historian Cornelius Ryan recounted the Nijmegen Bridge mission in his novel **A Bridge Too Far**. In 1977, director Richard Attenborough adapted the book into a hit film of the same name. Robert Redford played one of the protagonists, an officer Burriss says is a composite of himself and several others.

It’s a good match. Robert Redford may be prettier, but Burriss has the same imposing physicality and cool confidence as the actor. Sitting opposite Burriss, it’s hard to get Robert Redford out of your head. Burriss is a reminder that heroes are always media creations. Without mass media, whether classical Greek epic poetry or Hollywood cinema or cable news, there are no war heroes, just individual soldiers fighting and dying unknown to anyone but their enemies and peers.

Traditionally, the first step on the path to war hero status is recognition from the military. And for that to happen, “there’s got to be witnesses,” says 82-year-old Charles Murray of Columbia, one of only three living Medal of Honor winners in South Carolina, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in Mt. Pleasant.

The next step is for someone to take the soldier’s story to the public. That’s where the media and Hollywood come in.

Sgt. York is a perfect example. After World War I, he was approached by a Hollywood studio that wanted the rights to his story. It became the hit film **Sergeant York**, starring Gary Cooper.

As for Audie Murphy, after leaving the service he moved to Hollywood to be an actor himself. He eventually wrote a best-selling autobiography that was adapted into the film **To Hell and Back**, in which Murphy played a younger version of himself.

And Pappy Boyington? He wrote a best-selling autobiography that inspired one of the most popular TV dramas of the late 1970s, **Black Sheep Squadron**.

The relationship between heroes and the media is one of which Burriss is highly conscious. Though, like many veterans, he refuses to call himself a hero, he doesn’t hesitate to bring up his memoir or his intersection with Hollywood. He easily recites a long list of documentaries in which he has appeared. And when conversation turns to problems in Iraq, Burris is quick to lay blame.

“I don’t trust the media portrayal of the war,” Burriss says. “They portray what they want you to see, to set their program.”

Burriss describes a friendly-fire incident that took place during the 1943 invasion of Sicily. “Our regiment was fired on by our own ships,” he says. “One entire battalion out of our regiment was shot down. We lost 26 planes and 500 men. You didn’t hear anything about it.”

In Iraq, Burriss says, the media is interested in tragedy, not heroics. “That sends a message to the American people that makes them wonder why we’re over there.”

After a momentary pause, Burriss continues. “I think that we’re fighting two enemies,” he says, eyeing this reporter suspiciously. “The Iraqis and the media.”

The Arnett factor

If Burriss means that the news media are no longer in the business of eagerly creating heroes out of soldiers at the military’s request, he’s right. Where in some previous conflicts, the media relied on the military to brief them on combat operations, these days media deploy with the troops, live with the troops, accompany the troops into battle, and sometimes even die with them. Widespread embedding means that better than ever before, reporters are able to directly witness the realities of war. Maybe what they see at the front discourages them from heaping praise on individual soldiers.

For perhaps the same reasons, gone too are the glossy, bloodless, family-friendly war movies that were so popular in the 1940s and 1950s, films like **The Flying Tigers**, **Wake Island** and **Thirty Seconds over Tokyo**. Now we have **Saving Private Ryan**, **Black Hawk Down** and **Three Kings**, all movies emphasizing the ambiguities and collective hardships of war over the exploits of individuals. Even the initial Rambo movie, **First Blood**, features little in the way of action and a lot in the way of confusion and suffering.

While it may be true that some Americans are unable to separate fact from Hollywood fiction, at least in the case of recent war movies Hollywood is erring on the side of realism. As a result, the average person probably understands war better now than they did 50 years ago. Can that understanding be one reason why the traditional war hero has lost his sway?

Bacon knows better than most the media’s role in making heroes. On August 26, 1969 Bacon was the commander of a battalion tasked with taking North Vietnamese positions in the Song Chang Valley in South Vietnam. Tension with a subordinate officer resulted in delays in getting one of his infantry companies to move into battle. To put it simply, Bacon says, “They were never issued a direct order.”

But Peter Arnett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press reporter who would become infamous in 2003 for telling Iraqi television that the coalition’s invasion had failed, saw events in the Song Chang Valley differently. Reporting from Saigon, Arnett claimed the company’s soldiers were exhausted, crying, sick of combat and scared of dying. Arnett wrote that they had received an order to move out and had refused to obey.

In other words, mutiny.

Bacon says it’s simply not true. But in retrospect, he says, he shouldn’t have been surprised that Arnett’s story hyped his soldiers’ suffering. In a 1973 report, Bacon describes what may be a turning point in the American media’s portrayal of the Vietnam War. “Less experienced correspondents surged into Vietnam,” Bacon writes. “These young turks knew where the action was and some would go to any extreme to sensationalize to get that all-important byline.”

Some would say the media’s portrayal of America’s wars hasn’t been the same since.

But accusations of sensationalism on the part of reporters don’t take into account how sensational traditional heroes can be. Despite the clambering for that “all-important byline,” reporters today avoid tales of individual heroism. Instead, they focus on victims like Lynch.

“Since the Vietnam War, much of the country has tended to venerate survivors more than aggressors, the injured more than those who inflict injuries,” writes **Wall Street Journal** reporter Jonathan Eig in a Nov. 11, 2003 article.

His gripe with Arnett aside, Bacon sees media attention on victims over killers as a product of our national conscience. Our media focus on tragedy and hardship not because they’re bad people, says Bacon, but because the suffering of soldiers like Lynch and Tillman matters more to Americans than any spectacular display of combat prowess. “When others wage war, they’re not as humane as we are,” he says. “We’re such a kind people.“

It may be that while we wage war with great skill, Americans do so increasingly reluctantly. Perhaps we don’t have traditional war heroes anymore because we can’t stomach war.

Mark Beck, a classics professor at USC, says that part of the classical definition of a hero is someone who “functions as a role-model,” someone we “identify with.” So as our culture emphasizes healing and devalues killing, of course our heroes are going to change.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s not.

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