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Maj. Bruce Crandall & The Warrior Ethos

By Daniel Henninger

Amid the mad jumble that makes the news in our time, the White House on Monday held a ceremony for a Medal of Honor recipient. His name is Bruce Crandall. Mr. Crandall is 74 now, and earned his medal as a major, flying a Huey helicopter in 1965 in the Vietnam War.

The Medal of Honor is conferred only for bravery in combat. It is a military medal, and it is still generally regarded as the highest public tribute this nation can bestow. It is also very rare.

Still, the Medal of Honor does not occupy the place in the nation's cultural life that it once did. This has much to do with the ambivalent place of the military in our angry politics.

In the House debate just ended on a "non-binding" resolution to thwart the sending of more troops to Iraq, its most noted element was the Democratic formulation to "support the troops" but oppose the war. We will hear more of this when the members of the Senate debate their own symbolic resolution.

In last November's congressional election, the Democrats picked several military veterans as candidates to mitigate the notion, a burden since Vietnam, that an endemic hostility toward things military runs through the party's veins. Those Democratic veterans won. Notwithstanding the bitter divide over Iraq, the presence of these veterans in Congress should be a good thing, if one thinks that the oft-publicized "divide" between the professional military and American civilians is not in this country's interest. It surely cannot be in the country's interest if over time more Americans come to regard the life of U.S. soldiers at war and in combat as an abstraction--as say, mainly Oscar nominees or as newspaper photographs of scenes of utter loss at arms.

Two men have received the Medal of Honor for service in Iraq: Army Sgt. First Class Paul R. Smith, who died defending some 100 fellow soldiers, allowing their withdrawal; and Marine Cpl. Jason L. Dunham, who died after he dove atop a live grenade to protect his squad. (Cpl. Dunham's act was the subject of a 2004 Wall Street Journal story by reporter Michael M. Phillips and later a book, "The Gift of Valor.")

Bruce Crandall's Medal of Honor, at an emotional remove of 42 years, offers a chance to ponder just where the military stands now in the nation's life. The particulars of Lt. Col. Crandall's act of heroism, and what others said of it at the awarding of the medal on Monday, offers we civilians a chance to understand not merely the risks of combat but what animates those who embrace those risks.

Mr. Crandall, then a major, commanded a company with the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, carrying soldiers to a landing zone, called X-ray, in the la Drang Valley. An assault from the North Vietnamese army erupted, as described at the White House ceremony Monday. Three soldiers on Maj. Crandall's helicopter were killed. He kept it on the ground while four wounded were taken aboard. Back at base, he asked for a volunteer to return with him to X-ray. Capt. Ed Freeman came forward. Through smoke and bullets, they flew in and out 14 times, spent 14 hours in the air and used three helicopters. They evacuated 70 wounded. The battalion survived.

A Medal of Honor requires eyewitness accounts, and an officer there attested, "Maj. Crandall's actions were without question the most valorous I've observed of any helicopter pilot in Vietnam."

Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, spoke at the ceremony of what he called "the warrior ethos." Look at his words and consider whether they still stand today, or whether as a matter of the nation's broader ethos of commonly accepted beliefs, they are under challenge. Gen. Schoomaker said: "The words of the warrior ethos that we have today--I will always place the mission first; I will never accept defeat; I will never quit; and I will never leave a fallen comrade--were made real that day in the la Drang Valley."

At issue today is the question: Is that ethos worth it, worth the inevitable sacrifice? And not only in Iraq but in whatever may lie beyond Iraq?

The secretary of the Army, Francis Harvey, went on in this vein: "The courage and fortitude of America's soldiers in combat exemplified by these individuals is, without question, the highest level of human behavior. It demonstrates the basic goodness of mankind as well as the inherent kindness and patriotism of American soldiers."

An American soldier in combat demonstrates "the basic goodness of mankind"? And the highest level of human behavior? This was not thought to be true at the moment Maj. Crandall was flying those choppers in Vietnam. Nor is it now.

To embrace the thoughts of Gen. Schoomaker and of Secretary Harvey is to risk being accused of defending notions of American triumphalism and an overly strong martial spirit thought inappropriate to the realities of a multilateral world. This is a debate worth having. But we are not having it. We are hiding from it.

In a less doubtful culture, Maj. Crandall's magnificent medal would have been on every front page, if only a photograph. It was on no one's front page Tuesday. The New York Times, the culture's lodestar, had a photograph on its front page of President Bush addressing governors about an insurance plan. Maj. Crandall's Medal of Honor was on page 15, in a round-up, three lines from the bottom. Other big-city dailies also ran it in their news summaries; some--the Washington Post, USA Today--ran full accounts inside.

Most schoolchildren once knew the names of the nation's heroes in war--Ethan Allen, John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur, the Swamp Fox Francis Marion, Ulysses S. Grant, Clara Barton, Billy Mitchell, Alvin York, Lee Ann Hester. Lee Ann who? She's the first woman to win a Silver Star for direct combat with the enemy. Did it in a trench in Iraq. Her story should be in schools, but it won't be.

All nations celebrate personal icons, and ours now tend to be doers of good. That's fine. But if we suppress the martial feats of a Bruce Crandall, we distance ourselves further from our military. And in time, we will change. At some risk.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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