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Celebrating the Anti-Hero - by Steve Russell

Decorations are for the purpose of raising the fighting value of troops; therefore they must be awarded promptly....Discipline can only be obtained when all officers are imbued with the sense of their awful obligation to their men and to their country that they cannot tolerate negligence.  Officers who fail to correct errors or to praise excellence are valueless in peace and dangerous misfits in war. - General George S. Patton, Jr


How long are we to accept the complete failure to embrace true heroes in this war?  To most Americans, every soldier is a hero.  In a general sense, that is somewhat true—but not entirely.  Americans cannot be blamed fully for the failure to comprehend genuine battlefield heroics.  They rely on our military institutions for understanding.  That seems to be the failure of our Army.

Some generals and field officers—the rank where one controls the recognition of valorous acts—dismiss such issues pathetically with, “Well, he was just doing his job.  All of our soldiers are making sacrifices and are doing a great job.”  So we miss yet another great opportunity to achieve victory in the war on terror.  Such a statement forfeits opportunity and speaks of a dangerous failure to recognize, even in our military culture, what is noble; what is just; and what is true.  We must think on these things.

When a soldier crosses the threshold of valor, he makes a decision to act with full, even instantaneous, understanding that such a decision could result in death.  This is nothing akin to ‘going on patrol’ or facing the daily dangers of combat.  That is the part where ‘everyone is doing a great job.’  Acting heroically when not commanded, or facing pain and suffering to save a buddy or accomplish the mission when your position would be secure without such sacrifice, is valor and it is time for the Army to recognize it again. 

In the Second World War, a division commander had full authority to bestow valor awards up to the Silver Star.  Company commanders were entrusted to award the Purple Heart and the Combat Infantry Badge.  Today, a division commander may find his recommendation for a Silver Star completely overridden.  An insulated, bureaucratic staff forming a top general’s ‘recommending council’ likely intercepts the recommendation and determines whether a division commander, a Major General in rank, really had it right.  Who could better determine the merit of a valor award than a soldier’s own field commanders?  Even an evacuated soldier’s Purple Heart now has to be argued before the Pentagon staff bureaucracy.  Our trust level in the last sixty years has migrated from fighting captain to Pentagon.  Can we imagine this system during the Second World War?

The anti-heroic, moral deprecation into which our culture is spiraling has even dizzied field and senior military leaders into doing nothing that would ‘rock the boat’ or cause soldiers to ‘feel bad’ about themselves or their unit if not recognized.  So we see our Army leadership taking the easy way out.  Having commandeered all authority to themselves for the awarding of valor medals, the senior leader responsibility for exercising that authority seems to be wanting by many that possess it.  These leaders appear instead to find great safety in the awarding of victims’ medals as the preponderant norm.  These medals should be awarded.  As a nation we must care for the widow and the orphan and recognize the suffering of the wounded, but we cannot stop there.  Some soldiers like the infantry captain above, go beyond the call of duty and should be recognized for it.  So should many of the living.  

Americans love winners.  At least they used to.  Acts of valor, properly recognized, are great opportunities to inspire the troops.  They spur motivation and manifest a visible sign of victory to the soldier.  What motivation is reward upon death?  By neglecting to honor and endorse genuine heroics rather than ‘feel good’ heroics, we subvert the opportunity to inspire initiative. 

Lest the reader think that I am too harsh, the unit that I commanded in battle was recognized for valor—a rare honor.  My own soldiers personally recommended me for individual valorous honors, but this is not about me.  It is about the failure to properly honor the valorous, in deference to protecting the self-esteem of the mediocre.  Does Army leadership not realize proper recognition of heroism inspires greater heroism? Should we forfeit all the benefits of raising the fighting value of troops to the fear that ‘the system’ might get abused if entrusted to battle commanders? 

It is time for our nation to stop celebrating the anti-hero—to reject the notion that self-deprecation takes a place superior to valor in war.  Senior military leaders cannot afford to forsake this materiel means to rally the troops to achieve victory in the field, or to rally those back home with a tangible hero.  This is the original purpose of valor awards.

The sole purpose of a general is to achieve victory. The nation faithfully and automatically defers too much trust, respect and time for a general to entertain any other option.  I believe Americans have tired of seeing the grim-faced general at the press conference using words like ‘difficult,’ challenging,’ and ‘complex.’  They need to see a press conference shocker that lays aside the day’s glum agenda to exalt Corporal Jones in his or her valorous deed.  This oversight cannot be blamed on politics, public sentiment at home, or on the nation as a whole.  If some of our generals never faced a desperate situation where they had to come to grips with their own physical courage, they at least need to find the moral courage to recognize those soldiers that have, and elevate them above their peers.  SDR

Steve Russell, Lieutenant Colonel, US Army (ret.).  The unit LTC Russell commanded was a central player in the hunt and capture of Saddam Hussein. Steve Russell serves as Chairman of Vets for Victory and speaks across the nation to rally the American public to support the troops with victory, not just words. For information on how to book him for a speaking engagement or media event go to

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