VALOR: UNSUNG HEROES FROM IRAQ, AFGHANISTAN, AND THE HOME FRONT
By Mark Lee Greenblatt
Taylor Trade Publishing, $22.95, 224 pages
Monday is Memorial Day. It's natural that over time, a holiday starts to lose its soul and become something else. For some — particularly for military families — Memorial Day remains a day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice of life and limb in the defense of our country. They shed deep tears for lost husbands and wives, sons and daughters, and for fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who didn't make it home. For these few, war and its human costs are very real and raw. For most, Memorial Day has become a long weekend that marks the beginning of the lazy, hazy days of summer. Rather than collectively tuning in and remembering the sacrifices made by some for our sake, we tune out and go to the beach.
Mark Lee Greenblatt's "Valor: Unsung Heroes from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front" could single-handedly save this important holiday. Mr. Greenblatt gives an accounting of nine profiles in valor, capturing the common character and soul that we all ought to thankfully, and tearfully, memorialize.
Our generation is unique in that we have been fighting a nearly 13-year multifront war without a draft. Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 6,700 troops have voluntarily given their lives, and thousands more have lost their limbs. This is a huge testament to the martial health and vigor of a free people. Some have argued that Americans are more prone to go to and stay at war, given that we have these noble 1 percenters willing to shoulder the human cost of our wars. There is a truth here, but reinstituting the draft is not the answer. Better to genuinely understand and appreciate those who are on the front lines defending our national interests and principles.
"Valor" ought to be required reading before taking the oath as commander in chief. Democrats and Republicans, doves and hawks alike would be made better for different reasons by confronting the realities so richly and beautifully captured by this book. "Valor" speaks in a way that no folded flag can to anyone who has lost someone to the ravages of war and needs help understanding for what end their loved one died.
Who is this Thucydides of valor? Mr. Greenblatt is not a soldier or a war correspondent, but a lawyer, whose day job is investigating bad guys. Instead of teasing out guilt, Mr. Greenblatt allows these very modest men to share the truth of their heroism. This civilian has given the soldier's courage its due, and non-soldiers an opportunity to grasp the reality of martial courage. "It is no exaggeration to say that interacting with these men has changed my life profoundly and made me, I hope, a better person," writes the author. "Valor" is civic soulcraft at its best. When you read the stories of selflessness, you are changed for the better.
Churchill compared the reality of courage to acting. The valorous soldier plays his role so perfectly in the theater of war that we don't see that he is acting. Mr. Greenblatt's contribution is that he captures how our military creates valorous troops en masse. All of those whom Mr. Greenblatt deposed point to the same explanations for their behavior: rigorous training and brotherhood. The American soldier is well trained. When under live fire, the soldier leans on his muscle memory — the product of daily tactical drilling. When these soldiers are in battle, they are all brothers in arms. The very idea that one wouldn't put his life on the line for a brother is abhorrent to their sense of self. "I'd rather die helping those guys out than have a coward's conscience for the rest of my life."
Mr. Greenblatt's deposition of the valorous is not a boring, "just the facts" read. Each profile reads like a movie treatment, and I couldn't help seeing these valorous acts being played out by Mark Wahlberg. The John Rambo of "Valor" is Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper with the highest number of confirmed kills. Interestingly, Kyle was singled out not for what he did on a roof or mountaintop but for street-level, point-blank heroism. He went down an alley dodging a belt-fed machine gun post while dragging a wounded Marine and wiping out the bad guys. Kyle captured the difference between the American soldier and our committed enemy: "He should have hosed us all down. He may not have killed us all, but at least but he should have hit us. If we would have been fighting any military at all — even the Iraqi military — he would have had us dead to rights." Their faith makes them foolhardy and dangerous, but their lack of training fortunately makes them killable.
My only criticism of the book is that the "Unsung Heroes" subtitle is misleading. All the acts of valor captured received the highest honors of their respective branches, so they are far from "unsung." What's unsung is just how healthy the American military is at developing the talent it and our nation needs. Compare our armed forces to a system of higher education where veritas has given way to diversitas, the pursuit of truth for Orwellian social justice, and you'll see just how much the military is deserving of our collective respect and praise. We owe our troops and the institutions and culture that continue to produce them our thanks. "Valor" is a worthy title to read on your Kindle at the beach and will prompt reflection on what makes our country great. From "Valor," here is what a hero emailed his family after the firefight from hell for which he was awarded the Silver Star:
"My dear loved ones, I have seen the [worst] that God has put on this planet. I am grateful to have been loved by you, cared by you, and most of all, part of a family I can call home. I know you are praying for me every night and trying to think of great things about me so you won't have to be troubled. I am doing OK here, and I am trying my best to keep your prayers in good use."
David DesRosiers is president of Revere Advisors.