American pop culture has skewed the public’s view of what makes a hero in today’s world and what types of behavior make a person worthy of our attention and accolades. Those who contribute to the greatness of our country are largely ignored by the media who worship the cult of celebrity.Most Americans are familiar with the latest celebrity scandal; they can recite the particulars of the latest Hollywood divorce and Rattle off a list of “American Idol” winners. They know who set the new home run record or led his team to a Super Bowl victory. But if asked to name any Medal of Honor recipient from Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom, most Americans likely could not answer Paul Smith, Jason Dunham, Michael Murphy or Michael Monsoor.
The problem, of course, is not really with “most Americans,” but with the masters of the so-called mainstream media—those who decide what is and isn’t “news” for the rest of us. In this celebrity-driven, info-entertainment age, both television and print media elites devote far more broadcast time and column inches to the foibles of the famous than on those who serve our nation in uniform.
Those who give us our “news” are much more likely to define a hero” as a record-setting athlete, a “daring” politician or even a cartoon character wearing a spandex suit and a cape. In the midst of a war against a brutal enemy, that’s not just a shame—it’s dangerous. Yet, as I have traveled our country signing copies of my new best seller, “American Heroes,” I find that it is pervasive, despite the fact that we’re celebrating the 232nd anniversary of our Independence.
A true hero is a person who puts himself at risk for the benefit of another. My heroes wear flak jackets, helmets, flight suits and combat boots—and they serve our country in ways that quite frankly aren’t recognized enough by our countrymen.
Know the Enemy
To understand the heroism of those who serve in our military, consider the danger that confronts those who serve on the front lines.
Though it’s not politically correct to say so, radical Islam is, perhaps, the greatest threat we have ever confronted as a nation. It is an ideology of hatred whose most virulent adherents and leaders convince their followers to kill themselves in the process of killing those they describe as infidels or kuffars.
During World War II in the Pacific Theater, we faced an adversary who wanted to die in order to kill us. Kamikazes and Banzai attacks pitted us against members of a military machine who intended to die in carrying out their attacks. But even these assaults were aimed at our soldiers, sailors and Marines. Radical Islamic terrorists don’t care if their targets are men or women, military or civilian, Christians, Jews—or even fellow Muslims.
In their own writings, these radicals state that their immediate goal is to re-establish an Islamic Caliphate from Casablanca in the west to Bali in the east. Within that caliphate, no element or institution of Judeo-Christian culture will remain. To achieve that goal, they have launched a jihad against anyone they perceive to be an opponent. That’s why Sept. 11 happened and why there have been so many suicide-homicides—from London to Tel Aviv, Madrid, Amman, Mosul, Bali and Baghdad.
Our military is doing everything it can to respond to this jihad. A major part of the answer is seen in what young American troops have been doing at great personal risk and hardship in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, the horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf. These Americans have become the protectors of Muslim women. Women with fingers still purple from voting in free elections don’t cast a ballot to have their sons become suicide terrorists. They want their children to get an education, to have basic human rights, to have an opportunity to live the right way—not die a martyr’s death. Muslim women are key to ending the jihad.
The Surge Is Working
Everywhere I go in the United States, I’m repeatedly asked if the “campaigns” in Iraq and Afghanistan are winnable and if the surge is working. I certainly don’t pretend to have the gift of prophecy—but there is no doubt from all that I saw on my last trip out there that the surge in Iraq is working. We’re now “surging” more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, which I believe will work, too.
When my friend and editor Chuck Holton and I were in Iraq wrapping up “American Heroes,” we walked down the streets of Fallujah and Ramadi on which I had been shot at every time I had been there. I went into the Souk—the market—without wearing a flak jacket or helmet. We went on operations with Iraqi units that didn’t even exist before the surge. Everyone ought to read what the Iraqis themselves are saying about the progress they are making and why they “came over”—whether they were Sunni or Shiite. Unfortunately, none of this is in the mainstream media.
Americans are not hearing more about the good news in Iraq largely because we don’t have enough correspondents out in the field. A lot of reporters and bureaus are back in the “green zone” in Baghdad filing balcony shots from air-conditioned hotel rooms and buying tape from guys with “Al-Jazeera” or “Al-Arabia” or even “Iranian TV” emblazoned on the sides of their cameras. A good number of those cameras spend a lot of time traveling with the bad guys. When we go out there, we live with the good guys. It offers a dramatically different perspective than you get at home from the mainstream media.
I’ve been to this war a dozen times and can attest that our troops are superb. Yet the fighting continues and the operation remains widely unpopular at home.
Have mistakes been made? Certainly, but what Americans should understand is that most of the things that went wrong were the consequence of high-level political decisions.
For example, as I’ve discovered in the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted with troops, and the analysis I’ve done for my reports for Fox News, my Townhall.com columns and “American Heroes,” few people outside our military actually seem to realize that the war that is being waged against us is much more than Iraq or Afghanistan. Those are just two campaigns in a much wider struggle against radical Islam. For a variety of reasons, our political leaders failed to mobilize our nation to the magnitude of the threat we face after the attack of Sept. 11. There is also the fact that our all-volunteer military is too small to “go-it-alone.” With the exception of the British and the Australians, our military “allies” did not join us in a broad-based coalition that would allow us to put “boots on the ground” everywhere we needed to go. After the liberation of Baghdad, we did not recall the Iraqi Army like we did the German Army in 1945.
None of this, however, should diminish the extraordinary courage, perseverance and success achieved by the troops themselves—or the sacrifices of their families.
High-Caliber Men and Women
No nation has ever had soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen and Marines as bright, well educated and, now, as combat experienced as those serving our military today. These are remarkable young Americans. They are all volunteers. They committed themselves to service in a time of war. They know that by volunteering to wear a U.S. military uniform they will likely be sent into harm’s way and to serve in some of the most difficult places and dangerous circumstances on earth.
Today, the re-enlistment rate—the best barometer of troop morale—is the highest it has ever been. All of this is occurring in the midst of extremely adverse publicity from my colleagues in the so-called mainstream media. The troops who have “been-there-done-that” know that they are winning the fight against radical Islam—and they wouldn’t “re-up” if they believed they were serving in a losing cause.
I’m a son of what Tom Brokaw called the “greatest generation.” My Mom and Dad weathered the Great Depression, met at a USO dance and married before he went off to fight the Nazis in Europe. All my uncles served in World War II. Growing up, all my heroes were people who had fought in World War II, Korea or both. All of my brothers and I served in combat. That’s the context for my observations of those who serve in uniform today. It is what leads me to conclude that these men and women are of a different mold.
The troops that famous World War II reporter Ernie Pyle covered were part of a U.S. military that numbered more than 16.5 million men and women in uniform—and it’s said that every American family knew the name of someone serving. All of that has changed. Today our country’s population is nearly twice as large—but our active-duty military is fewer than 2 million strong. Even though more than 1 million young Americans have served in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, fewer than 2 percent of the American people even know the name of someone serving in uniform.
Unique in This Era
Today’s military is better educated than the general population. Overall, they are more goal-oriented than their peers. They have a clear sense of purpose in what they have chosen to do and know that they are part of something bigger than “self.” In my conversations with them, it is also evident that a remarkable number of them have extraordinary faith.
Some troops may still be able to take obscene language to the level of a new art form, but an astounding number of them know the Lord, they know the Good Book and they’re unashamed to be seen reading from it. They pray before going out on missions, lead Bible studies and willingly attend memorial services for their fallen brethren. The photos I put in “American Heroes” of them praying aren’t staged. They aren’t getting ready for a football game. They are going into harm’s way. They know that they’re in grave jeopardy, and yet they constantly go back and do it day in and day out. They have a selflessness that is literally biblical.
War changes everyone it touches. Ground combat is the most awful experience a human can endure. Even though I have spent most of my life in and around the military, I never used to think that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was real. Now, I know better—in large part because of what I have observed on the battlefield over the last seven years.
My time with the troops has bolstered my own faith. I have long known where I am going and why I am going there, but these men and women have also reinforced my belief that God has purpose for my life beyond what I can comprehend.
Covering this war has also made me even more grateful for the support, encouragement and prayers of my family when I’m in harm’s way and has also changed my perspective on the women who serve in our Armed Forces, giving me a greater awareness of the sacrifices demanded of their families back home.
Where We Could Do Better
Our military has experienced great success in the fight against radical Islam, but more needs to be done on other fronts.
First, we ought not to be afraid to describe ourselves as we really are. Christianity and our Judeo-Christian value system are not a threat to anybody, and we should never be ashamed of that. The United States has introduced freedom to more people on the planet than anybody or any combination of countries has ever done. We need to tell that story more often.
Second, we need to be straightforward about the nature of radical Islam. We constantly hear that this is not a religious war, but that’s not how the enemy sees it. When a suicide terrorist intentionally puts on a bomb jacket or gets into a vehicle full of explosives and drives it into a crowd of Iraqis, Americans, Britons, Spaniards, Israelis or Jordanians, they intend to die in the process of killing one or more of us. They are not always targeting Americans—many times it’s a crowd of their countrymen and fellow Muslims. These terrorists have been radicalized by people who have taught them to die the “right” way. For us, all the dying was done 2,000 years ago on a hill called Calvary. We’re taught to live the right way. There’s an enormous difference.
Third, we must remember that we didn’t start this war—they did. We need to remind our countrymen and our “allies” in that part of the world, who are glad to get our petrodollars but won’t let a Bible into their country, that not enough is being done to reign in radical Islam. We especially need to remind our fellow Americans who say, “well, gee, this is all our fault,” that it’s not. We didn’t provoke the attack on Sept. 11 or Saddam’s threats. Most importantly, as is evident from the hundreds I interviewed for “American Heroes,” this is a war we can win—and dare not lose.
Those of us who enjoy our liberties in this country need to get to know the men and women serving in uniform. These heroes are the protectors of our liberty. It’s been that way for 232 years. That’s why we can claim that we’re the home of the brave and the land of the free.
Note: The U.S. military has always stood in harm’s way, protecting American liberties and keeping us safe. The soldiers are the true heroes and our source of strength. This feature article by Col. Oliver North was published in the July issue of Townhall Magazine. Click here to receive Townhall Magazine every month.