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Commentary - Hero worship: Combat isn't a solo enterprise

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The topic of heroism — and just what constitutes a hero — has engendered a good deal of recent debate. My Feb. 21 column, “The trouble with heroes” dealt with a cover story in Esquire, “The Man Who Shot Osama bin Laden Is Screwed.”

That piece related the plight of a former Navy Seal — identified only as “the Shooter” — who claims to have taken out bin Laden and later resigned from the military after 16 years of very honorable service  He reportedly feels slighted because he was not granted a 20-year pension.

Being something of a mathematical literalist, I suggested that he’d been treated fairly according to the terms of the deal he’d agreed to when he enlisted. One trouble with heroes is they sometimes seem to feel the usual rules don’t apply to them. That’s regrettable because rules tend to become usual because they make sense.

My article didn’t generate much controversy – one comment that generally agreed.

Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan, however, met a far different fate when he wrote last week that in light of federal budget cuts, public payment formilitary funerals should be reserved for genuine heroes. He opined, as I had, that not everyone who served is a hero. Taking the thought one step further, he also noted that if everybody’s a hero, then nobody’s a hero. McClellan, incidentally, is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War and thus brings the credibility of experience to the discussion.

His commentary elicited furious responses, ultimately landing him on Fox News to defend the idea in a venue where it had not been warmly received. Personally, I liked the concept of shared sacrifice: If we’re going to cut spending, a lot of worthy people and good programs are going to take a hit. But I found it more difficult than you’d think to draw the line between hero and ordinary grunt.

In The Iliad, Homer extols the exploits of Achilles, Ajax and their battlefield comrades in great detail while giving scant mention to the activities of the mess crew. But the siege of Troy lasted 10 years. Without cooks, the heroes would have starved to death.

Similarly, Seal Team 6 was exactly what its name would imply — a team. Though the case can be fairly made that every man on it became a hero simply by agreeing to take part in the daring raid, some critical tasks were more mundane than others. And as the increasingly not-so-faceless heroes come into clearer focus, it becomes ever more obvious that the identity of the triggerman was determined more by luck than marksmanship.

CNN National Security Analyst, Peter Bergen, has written a rebuttal to the Esquire recount of the mission entitled, “Who Really Killed bin Laden?” His source is an anonymous team member he calls “the operator.” According to this still-active Seal, the Shooter’s rendition of events is “complete B-S.”

When the entry team breached the compound’s outer doors, the men who would confront bin Laden were toward the rear. One by one, members peeled off to neutralize potential threats and to secure non-combatants encountered in adjacent rooms and hallways. In the process, they killed two of bin Laden’s bodyguards, one of his sons and a bodyguard’s wife, while wounding two other women.

The first three men to enter the top floor were “the point man,” “the Shooter” and Matt Bissonnette, who wrote the best-selling "No Easy Day"— a tell-all about the mission published under the failed pseudonym of Mark Owen.

All accounts agree the point man was the first up the stairs and that he fired a round at bin Laden when the fugitive stuck his head out of a bedroom door. It is further agreed that having fired the single shot, the point man burst into the room and rushed two women, gathering them into his embrace to absorb the potentially fatal shock should they be wearing suicide vests (can you spell conspicuous valor?).

Other details are disputed. According to the operator and Bissonette, the point man’s shot struck bin Laden in the forehead. He lay mortally wounded on the floor when the Shooter and Bissonette finished him off with shots to the chest. The only enemy guns in the room were on a shelf high above the door the Seals had just entered. 

The Shooter’s version is more romantic: He enters the room to confront an upright and uninjured adversary with a rifle nearby. While the point man takes out the two potential suicide bombers, the Shooter fires twice, hitting bin Laden in the forehead.

It’s tempting to attribute discrepancies to the “fog of war” but in this case, it’s fairly obvious that somebody’s lying. And if three eye witnesses can’t agree about what happened in a small bedroom just over a year ago, how can we expect a cemetery administrator to sort out who did what in battles decades past when deciding who deserves graveside honors?

Audie Murphy was America’s most decorated infantryman in WW II. He bridled at being labeled a hero. “The real heroes,” he said, “are all dead.” Obviously, the modest warrior was the living refutation of his own observation.

But heroes, like all men, eventually die. Because the tip of the spear is propelled by its shaft, it says here that every veteran who served credibly in a combat zone has earned full military honors for his or her burial. If we can no longer afford that simple but elegant gesture of respect, let’s do it anyway.

M.W. Guzy
M.W. (Michael William) Guzy began as a contributor to St. Louis media in 1997 with an article, “Everybody Loves a Dead Cop,” on the Post-Dispatch Commentary page. In addition to the St. Louis Beacon and now St. Louis Public Radio, his work has been featured in the St. Louis Journalism Review, the Arch City Chronicle, In the Line of Duty and on tompaine.com. He has appeared on the Today Show and Hannity & Combs, as well as numerous local radio and television newscasts and discussion programs.