You have never heard of Brian Chontosh. That's a shame. Not for Brian Chontosh, who I suspect couldn't care less. But for you.
In March of last year, Chontosh was a 29-year-old Marine lieutenant. He was leading his platoon on Highway 1, just outside Baghdad, when his troops came under heavy fire. He ordered his vehicle to head directly for the enemy trench, jumped out and began firing with his rifle and pistol, before running out of ammunition. The citation for Chontosh's Navy Cross picks up the narrative: "With complete disregard for his safety, he twice picked up discarded enemy rifles and continued his ferocious attack. ... When his audacious attack ended, he had cleared over 200 meters of the enemy trench, killing more than 20 enemy soldiers and wounding several others."
This is a battlefield exploit worthy of someone you have heard of, Sgt. Alvin York. He almost single-handedly killed 25 Germans and captured 132 "enemy combatants" -- yes, they existed before the Bush administration -- in 1918. You might know of York because he was played by Gary Cooper in the eponymous movie about him. Or maybe because of the half-dozen books that are still in print about him. Or maybe just because you know some history and he used to be a household name.
We have collectively lost our ability to make popular battlefield heroes like York. With a few exceptions -- say, the extraordinary Pat Tillman, who left the NFL to join the Army Rangers -- people become famous in our wars by being victims or villains. Jessica Lynch was captured by Iraqis and rescued, an ordeal to be sure, but not the kind of fearsome courage that has been celebrated by warring nations at least since Homer sang of Hector. Charles Graner has been pictured multiple times in most major papers in the country, appearing next to his inspiration -- the stack of naked Iraqi prisoners. Lynch and Graner are each, in their very different ways, anti-heroes, but they are more well-known than troops who have done much more notable things.
They are better known than Lance Cpl. Joseph Perez, who led his men to victory in a firefight in Iraq despite serious gunshot wounds. They are more famous than Marco Martinez, then a corporal, who launched a captured rocket-propelled grenade into a building full of Iraqis ambushing his platoon and then single-handedly captured the building. We know more about them than the more than 125 Americans who have been decorated with Silver Stars or other high honors for bravery in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One would think a media so desperate to find heroes and celebrities that it makes every truck driver who passed through Normandy a subject of adulation and even tries to make Nicole Richie interesting would take advantage of the potential celebrity-heroes who are engaged in fantastic deeds every day. This is not to take away anything from those truck drivers, who did their part in a great world-changing crusade, or from Richie, who, after all, knows Paris Hilton. But there is no reason for us to stretch so hard when there are giants of bravery among us, engaged in unbelievably dramatic acts. "There is a movie script happening out there every week," says military expert John Hillen, "that would make 'Black Hawk Down' look like 'Gosford Park.'"
In a brilliant piece in the United States Naval Institute's journal Proceedings, Roger Lee Crossland identifies Vietnam as marking the break with traditional notions of battlefield heroism. Besides the prisoners of war, there were no heroes from that war. Today our culture tends to look for "heroes" who can be portrayed, not as warriors, but as ordinary people who overcame a struggle, just like the daytime TV guest who managed to beat anorexia as a teenager.
Around July 4, we cherish our freedom and remember those extraordinary people who risk so much to defend it. Men like Brian Chontosh -- if we only knew his name.