On bravery and heroism, then and now

One of the purposes of education is to convey a society's mores, customs, morality, body of knowledge and traditions from one generation to the next.

Public education alone is not going to get the job done. It takes knowledge of current events and their underlying causalities so we can understand how to repeat what is good and avoid what is unpleasant -- or even pure evil. That takes sophisticated communication, such as that provided by newspapers -- in print and online.

Have the country's standards slipped?

I began thinking about this after reading a column by Thomas Sowell, who appears regularly in the Review-Journal. He studied what happened to France between the World Wars. How the nation changed.

"In France, after the First World War, the teachers' unions launched a systematic purge of textbooks, in order to promote internationalism and pacifism," Sowell wrote.

"Books that depicted the courage and self-sacrifice of soldiers who had defended France against the German invaders were called 'bellicose' books to be banished from the schools.

"The once epic story of the French soldiers' heroic defense against the German invaders at Verdun, despite the massive casualties suffered by the French, was now transformed into a story of horrible suffering by all soldiers at Verdun -- French and German alike."

It was victimization for all sides. No heroes. No winners. Just suffering. The horrors of war and none of the gallantry.

The French surrendered to the Germans in World War II in just six weeks.

Sowell's column struck a chord of familiarity, so I looked up the Medal of Honor citations from the war in Iraq.

"Aware of the imminent danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast," read one citation.

Another read, "In a selfless act of bravery, in which he was mortally wounded, Private McGinnis covered the live grenade, pinning it between his body and the vehicle and absorbing most of the explosion."

Still another, "Although only he could have escaped the blast, Petty Officer Monsoor chose instead to protect his teammates. Instantly and without regard for his own safety, he threw himself onto the grenade ..."

Gallant sacrifices all.

But contrast these with some Medal of Honor citations typical from World War II.

"Finally, when the third German machinegun opened up on him at a range of 20 yards, S/Sgt. Adams killed the gunner with BAR fire," said the first one I read. "In the course of the action, he personally killed 9 Germans, eliminated 3 enemy machineguns, vanquished a specialized force which was armed with automatic weapons and grenade launchers, cleared the woods of hostile elements, and reopened the severed supply lines to the assault companies of his battalion."

Selected at random further down the alphabet was this one that said "the squadron under his zealous and inspiring leadership shot down a total of 27 Japanese planes. His superb airmanship, his outstanding skill and personal valor reflect great credit upon Maj. Galer's gallant fighting spirit ..."

Then I searched to see if anyone named Mitchell was so honored and found a citation for Mitchell Paige.

"When the enemy broke through the line directly in front of his position, P/Sgt. Paige, commanding a machinegun section with fearless determination, continued to direct the fire of his gunners until all his men were either killed or wounded," his citation read. "Alone, against the deadly hail of Japanese shells, he fought with his gun and when it was destroyed, took over another, moving from gun to gun, never ceasing his withering fire against the advancing hordes until reinforcements finally arrived. Then, forming a new line, he dauntlessly and aggressively led a bayonet charge, driving the enemy back and preventing a breakthrough in our lines."

Do you see a pattern? Back when my father -- who joined the Army at the age of 16 and was in Pearl City 67 years ago today -- was island-hopping with his artillery unit across the Pacific, some medals went to men who selflessly died for their country, but more often to those who made the enemy die for theirs.

Sacrifice was important, but winning was paramount.

This is no denigration of our brave soldiers in Iraq, but an observation about what the people awarding medals are thinking now vs. then.

P.S.: If the name Mitchell Paige sounds familiar it might be because columnist Vin Suprynowicz writes about him occasionally. He was the Marine platoon sergeant whose countenance was appropriated by Hasbro for its toy soldier G.I. Joe.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@ reviewjournal.com.