A few weeks ago on Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume argued quite eloquently that Time Magazine’s “Person of the Century” distinction could well have gone to the American soldier. I got to thinking about his remarks this past Saturday while attending a “Support Our Troops” rally at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. Standing beside me waving flags, and speaking at the podium, were veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. There may be no more humbling experience for a college student than to be in the company of such remarkable people. Needless to say, I think that Brit Hume was absolutely right.
Over the course of the past 60 years, the American soldier has liberated Nazi death camps; thwarted Japanese attempts to build a racist, fascist empire in east Asia; saved millions of Koreans from the horrors of a Stalinist police state; fought valiantly to protect the freedom of the South Vietnamese; ended the torture, rape and murder of innocent Kuwaitis; and helped stop gruesome slaughter and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Moreover, for roughly 40 of those years the American soldier also protected Western Europe from Soviet aggression—a noble undertaking that ensured countless millions would never have to experience the hardships of communist oppression behind the Iron Curtain. Of course, the U.S. military’s record in the 20th Century was not completely stain-free. War, as the cliché goes, can be hell, and our armies have certainly not been immune to its depredations. But incidents such as the firebombing of Dresden and the My Lai massacre have been exceptions to the much more consistent rule.
Today, the outcome of the war in Iraq is certain: Coalition forces will eventually destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime, wipe out Iraqi Baathism for good and liberate the country. It will be a “total” victory in every sense of the word. But even though the outcome is certain, the path to that outcome is still uncertain. The coming days may yet bring more U.S. and British casualties, particularly as Coalition forces enter Baghdad, and undoubtedly some civilians will be killed as well. Despite such tragedies, we must remember, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has reminded us, that U.S. troops are going to unprecedented lengths to avoid harming innocent Iraqi men, women and children. The blame for most civilian deaths will lie squarely at the feet of a barbaric enemy who uses them as human shields. We must stay resolute in our assured knowledge of the humanity, decency and integrity of our military.
Indeed, we are reminded on a seemingly daily basis of just what makes the American soldier so unique. Consider the story of Pfc. Joseph P. Dwyer, whose picture, by now, you’ve likely seen in a newspaper or on television. Pfc. Dwyer is an Army medic who enlisted two days after Sept. 11. (His three brothers are New York City police officers). Last Tuesday, his unit, the 3rd Squadron of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, was ambushed by Hussein’s troops as they advanced northward along the Euphrates River. The Iraqis were firing from both sides of the road; the Americans shot back and radioed for air strikes. Meanwhile, a family from a nearby village became trapped in the crossfire. As soon as the shooting ceased, the father raced frantically toward the U.S. Army field hospital. The Iraqi man was holding his young son, who had suffered a broken leg. Dwyer sprinted out to the father and rescued the child, sheltering him from danger as he retreated back to a secure area. Army Times photographer Warren Zinn took the now-famous picture as Dwyer ran to cover with the child in his arms. Dwyer later said, “You know, for [the father] to trust us to take his child over and know that we’d take care of him, maybe it’s just me being optimistic, but I think it was a good feeling knowing he trusted us to take care of his child.”
And here’s the most telling bit: Dwyer does not even consider himself a hero. According to his mother, Maureen Dwyer, he feels somewhat uncomfortable with his instant fame. After the publication of Zinn’s photograph, he called home to tell her that what he had done was no different than what his fellow soldiers were doing every day. As his mom put it, Dwyer said that he “was not a hero. He said everybody else over there is doing the same thing and he really feels bad” being singled out for praise. His reaction is quite revealing—it shows the utter humility, diligence and compassion of the Americans serving in Iraq.
Just like their predecessors who fought at Iwo Jima in 1945, landed ashore at Inchon in 1950, and repelled the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive in 1968, the American troops currently surging toward Baghdad represent the very best of their generation. Through their heroism, these soldiers are building upon a legacy that is unlike any other in the history of warfare. They are, as Sir Isaac Newton might have said, “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Those giants are the brave men and women who have worn a uniform and struggled to defend the liberty of not only Americans, but of people in every corner of the globe.
It is inspiring to think of their courage; it is staggering to think of their sacrifice. As President Reagan affirmed in his June 1984 tribute to the heroes of D-Day, “We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may always be free.”
Duncan M. Currie ’04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.