Slighting This Greatest Generation

U.S. Marines patrol Fallujah in November 2004.
U.S. Marines patrol Fallujah in November 2004. (By Anja Niedringhaus -- Associated Press)

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By Bing West
Sunday, October 9, 2005

Recently the refractory city of Fallujah reemerged as a front-page story. Fallujah first leaped to national attention last November when it became the scene of the fiercest urban combat in the past 35 years. During that battle, 100 Marine squads engaged in more than 200 firefights inside small, dark cement rooms against suicidal jihadists. A single such ferocious gunfight between police and gangs anywhere in America would receive overwhelming and immediate press attention. The Marines did that 200 times in one week in Fallujah.

Since then Fallujah has received scant press attention. I was in Fallujah in September, shortly after Pfc. Romano Romero, 19, was killed by a roadside bomb -- the 160th American to die in and around the city since the Iraq war began. The Marines staked out the area and days later shot two Iraqis brazenly placing another explosive device at the same spot. This grueling routine of counterinsurgency did not merit front-page coverage.

Yet Fallujah has suddenly popped back up as major news. Why? Because allegations have emerged that American soldiers beat prisoners there two years ago. The allegations were about beatings, not about torture or murder. At the time of the alleged incidents, in late 2003 and early 2004, violence in Fallujah was escalating. The 1st Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment had suffered 94 casualties inside the city -- one every other day. They warned the Marines who were rotating in that they would be bloodied, because the insurgents were massing.

The paratroopers were right. Over the next nine months, Fallujah grew into the stronghold of the insurgency and the vipers' nest for jihadists infiltrating from Syria. The fighting escalated in ferocity. Among the Marines, acts of courage became common. 1st Sgt. Brad Kasal, for instance, threw his body over a wounded Marine and shot jihadists two feet away. Cpl. Tim Connors, 20, battled inside two adjoining concrete rooms for four hours before killing five jihadists and recovering the body of a fallen squad member. So it went, day after day.

Hundreds of gripping stories of valor emerged that would have been publicized in World War II. Although there are far more heroes than louts in the ranks, stories of the abuses at Abu Ghraib and now at Fallujah vastly outnumber stories of heroism and sacrifice.

Not to take anything away from The Greatest Generation, but the behavior of our soldiers today will stand scrutiny when compared to the performance of those in any past war. The focus of the press on abuse is not due to any relaxation in military discipline or social mores. Why was valor considered front-page news in 1945 and abuse considered front-page news in 2005?

Poor conduct, like shipwrecks, makes news. On the other hand, saving a ship should also make news. For saving a Marine in what is called "the house from hell" in Fallujah, Sgt. Kasal has passed into Marine legend. Yet Fallujah Redux as a front-page story is based on allegations of bad conduct, not of heroism. If a story about louts two years ago merits the front page today, then stories of heroes merit equal attention today and tomorrow.

Many say they oppose the war but support the troops, meaning that policy can go awry but the nation needs its guardians. As a nation, we'd best be careful about what we choose to accentuate about ourselves. This is not a plea for cheerleading; it is an argument for balance.

To subdue hostile cities such as Fallujah, our country needs stout infantrymen such as the Marines and the paratroopers. Fed a steady diet of stories about bad conduct and deprived of models of valor, the youth of America will eventually decline to serve. As the poet Pindar wrote: "Unsung, the noblest deed will die."

The writer, a former Marine and former assistant secretary of defense, is the author of "No True Glory: A Firsthand Account of the Battle for Fallujah."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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