By Robert H. Scales and Paul van Riper
Friday, November 19, 2010; A21
We watched with enormous pride and humility Tuesday as Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta became the first living soldier awarded the Medal of Honor since Vietnam. For many of us who served in that long-ago war, the circumstances under which Giunta won his medal felt frighteningly familiar: an inhospitable and forbidding mountainous battlefield that looks very much like Vietnam's Central Highlands. A diabolical, fanatic enemy skilled in the tactical art of war. A lone squad patrol, armed with the same class of weapons we used more than four decades ago, engaged in a desperate firefight against an enemy who remained undetected until the patrol entered the kill zone. The results were both heroic and tragic: Two of Giunta's buddies died in what appeared to be, sadly, too fair a fight.
All this raises a question, particularly for those who have served before: After nearly half a century, and after nine years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, why are our soldiers still involved in fair fights?
Giunta's story is simultaneously heartening and maddening because we have seen this go on for too long. His unit was an infantry squad, one of just 2,400 serving in the Army today. During World War II, serving in an infantry small unit was the third most deadly job, behind submarine and bomber crews. In wars fought after World War II, submarine and bomber combat deaths dropped to virtually nil. Yet as a proportion of total combat deaths, infantry deaths have increased from 71 percent in World War II to 81 percent in wars fought since. Put another way, four out of five combat deaths have been suffered by a force that makes up less than 4 percent of uniformed manpower in the Defense Department.
Yet we cannot seem to offer an advantage to those who are charged with doing most of the suffering and dying. Too often defense gurus inside the Beltway still view war as a science project. They talk about cyber and space wars; control of the "global commons," a new concept for striking some distant enemy from the air; and the need to engage our enemies using non-military means. One wonders if they have serious empathy for heroes such as Giunta.
If the "experts" did, then perhaps our soldiers and Marines might have gone into Iraq and Afghanistan ready to fight an unfair fight at the squad level. Giunta's life was saved by state-of-the-art body armor. More soldiers and Marines might have been saved had this body armor been provided before they started the march to Baghdad in 2003. We must also ask why the Taliban was able to see Giunta's squad first by observing the soldiers from the surrounding high ground. After nine years of war, no small unit in such peril should ever cede the high ground to the enemy, particularly when unmanned vehicles are capable of monitoring constantly overhead and transmitting clear pictures of the surrounding terrain. Army and Marine Corps infantry squads were outgunned at the tactical level in Vietnam by the North Vietnamese Army's superior AK-47 assault rifles. We would like a Beltway guru to explain why Sgt. Giunta had to fight with the same rifle we used so long ago.
For more than two-thirds of a century, this country preferred to crush its enemies by exploiting our superiority in the air and on the seas. Unfortunately, these efforts to win with firepower over manpower failed to consider the fact that the enemy had a vote. From Mao Zedong to Ho Chi Minh to Osama bin Laden, all our enemies have recognized that our vulnerable strategic center of gravity is dead Americans. It is no surprise that the common tactic among our enemies has been to kill Americans not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. Every enemy has spotted us those domains where we are dominant and challenged us where we are weak: against small units, on unfamiliar ground.
Memories fade fast. Already the process of denial has begun today, while smoke still obscures some battlefields in South Asia. Politicians on both ends of the political spectrum have called for cutting the share of the ground force budget as a means of paying down the national debt. The experience of Sgt. Giunta and his gallant band of brothers should remind lawmakers and the rest of our country of an equally important debt: to those who do the dirty business of killing and dying. We hope policymakers watched Tuesday's ceremony at the White House and paused to reflect on Giunta's story. They should be asking why the richest nation on Earth could not have done more to help this small infantry unit spot the enemy ambush from the air and defeat them with overwhelming killing power. For Giunta's sake, please: No more fair fights.
Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is a former commandant of the Army War College. Retired Lt. Gen. Paul van Riper is formerly the commander of the Marine Corps Combat Developments Command.