Dispatch June 2008

No Greater Honor

Robert D. Kaplan comments on what it takes to earn the highest award the military can bestow—and why the public fails to appreciate its worth

What impressed Colonel Smith about the incident was that no matter how many platoon members he solicited for statements, the story’s details never varied. Even when embedded journalists like Alex Leary and Michael Corkery of The Providence Journal-Bulletin investigated the incident, they came away with the same narrative.

After talking with another battalion commander and his brigade commander, Colonel Smith decided to recommend his sergeant for the Medal of Honor. He was now operating in unfamiliar territory. Standards for the Medal of Honor are vague, if not undefinable. Whereas the Medal of Honor, according to the regulations, is for “gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty,” the Distinguished Service Cross, the next- highest decoration, is for an “act or acts of heroism … so notable” and involving “risk of life so extraordinary as to set the individual apart” from his comrades. There is no metric to differentiate between the two awards or, for that matter, to set the Distinguished Service Cross apart from the Silver Star. It is largely a matter of a commanding officer’s judgment.

Colonel Smith prepared the paperwork while surrounded by photos of Saddam Hussein in one of the Iraqi leader’s palaces. The process began with Army Form DA-638, the same form used to recommend someone for an Army Achievement Medal, the lowest peacetime award. The only difference was Colonel Smith’s note to “see attached.”

There are nine bureaucratic levels of processing for the Medal of Honor. Smith’s paperwork didn’t even make it past the first. Word came down from the headquarters of the Third Infantry Division that he needed a lot more documentation. Smith prepared a PowerPoint presentation, recorded the “bumper numbers” of all the vehicles involved, prodded surviving platoon members for more details, and built a whole “story book” around the incident. But at the third level, the Senior Army Decoration Board, that still wasn’t enough. The bureaucratic package was returned to Colonel Smith in December 2003. “Perhaps the Board had some sort of devil’s advocate, a former decorated soldier from Vietnam who was not completely convinced, either of the story or that it merited the medal.”

At this point, the Third Infantry Division was going to assign another officer to follow up on the paper trail. Colonel Smith knew that if that happened, the chances of Sergeant Smith getting the medal would die, since only someone from Sergeant Smith’s battalion would have the passion to battle the Army bureaucracy.

The Army was desperate for metrics. How many Iraqis exactly were killed? How many minutes exactly did the firefight last? The Army, in its own way, was not being unreasonable. As Colonel Smith told me, “Everyone wants to award a Medal of Honor. But everyone is even more concerned with worthiness, with getting it right.” There was a real fear that one unworthy medal would compromise the award, its aura, and its history. The bureaucratic part of the process is kept almost deliberately impossible, to see just how committed those recommending the award are: insufficient passion may indicate the award is unjustified.

“Nobody up top in the Army’s command is trying to find Medal of Honor winners to inspire the public with,” says Colonel Smith. “It’s the opposite. The whole thing is pushed up from the bottom to a skeptical higher command.”

Colonel Smith’s problem was that the platoon members were soldiers, not writers. To get more details from them, he drew up a list of questions and made them each write down the answers, which were then used to fill out the narrative. “Describe Sergeant Smith’s state of mind and understanding of the situation. Did you see him give instructions to another soldier? What were those instructions? When the mortar round hit the M113A3, where were you? What was Sergeant Smith’s reaction to it?”

“The answers came back in spades,” Colonel Smith told me. Suddenly he had a much fatter storybook to put into the application. He waited another year as the application made its way up to Personnel Command, Manpower and Reserve Affairs, the chief of the Army, the secretary of the Army, the secretary of defense, and the president. The queries kept coming. Only when it hit the level of the secretary of defense did Colonel Smith feel he could breathe easier.

The ceremony in the East Room of the White House two years to the day after Sergeant Smith was killed, where President George W. Bush awarded the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Smith’s 11-year-old son, David, was fitfully covered by the media. The Paul Ray Smith story elicited 96 media mentions for the eight week period after the medal was awarded, compared with 4,677 for the supposed abuse of the Koran at Guantánamo Bay and 5,159 for the disgraced Abu Ghraib prison guard Lynndie England, over a much longer time frame that went on for many months. In a society that obsesses over reality-TV shows, gangster and war movies, and NFL quarterbacks, an authentic hero like Sergeant Smith flickers momentarily before the public consciousness.

It may be that the public, which still can’t get enough of World War II heroics, even as it feels guilty about its treatment of Vietnam veterans, simply can’t deliver up the requisite passion for honoring heroes from unpopular wars like Korea and Iraq. It may also be that, encouraged by the media, the public is more comfortable seeing our troops in Iraq as victims of a failed administration rather than as heroes in their own right. Such indifference to valor is another factor that separates an all-volunteer military from the public it defends. “The medal helps legitimize Iraq for them. World War II had its heroes, and now Iraq has its,” Colonel Smith told me, in his office overlooking the Mississippi River, in Memphis, where he now heads the district office of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Colonel Smith believes there are other Paul Smiths out there, both in their level of professionalism and in their commitment—each a product of an all-volunteer system now in its fourth decade. How many others have performed as valiantly as Sergeant Smith and not been recommended for the Medal of Honor? After all, had it not been for that brief respite in combat in the early days of the occupation of Baghdad, the process for the sergeant’s award might not have begun its slow, dogged, and ultimately successful climb up the chain of command.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.

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