Sunday, January 28, 2007

A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF VALOR… As I have written and reflected on the culmination of the I Marine Expeditionary Force’s tour of duty in Iraq and interacted with those involved in the awards process for individual Marines, the concept of valor has come to the forefront. The demonstration of valor is a key requirement in the justification of combat awards for both units and individuals. Valor is perhaps the most admired quality in the profession of arms.

What troubles me is that our societal definitions and perceptions of valor may not be keeping pace with the changes in armed conflict that today’s warriors face. It seems that our existing paradigm of valor was formed in an era when enemies wore uniforms, moved against you in formations and confronted you head-on over the field of battle. Valor was easy to spot and easy to define. I saw in a recent “Stars and Stripes” article that Congress has asked the DoD to look into why so few of our nation’s highest awards for heroism have been handed out in our four years in Iraq. Do we need to shift our paradigm in the face of a set of new realities?

United States combat power has grown so lethal and so dominant, that confronting it is nearly certain suicide for any adversary we can envision at present. It should come as no surprise that our enemies have adopted asymmetrical warfare tactics in an attempt to neutralize our lopsided advantages. Today in Iraq, our forces find themselves fighting a counterinsurgency (COIN) war against an enemy who hides among the populace we are here to help and who almost never fights us in a prolonged, traditional manner. He strikes amidst innocents and dares us to respond.

In a COIN war, not only do our troops seldom have the chance to attack the enemy with the directness and ferocity that is normally associated with valor, but, often as not, such a traditional response would be counter-productive. The effective warrior on the modern battlefield must possess the same courage to face enemy attack as heroes of days gone by, but must also possess qualities of self-restraint, discernment and wisdom.

What takes more courage, responding to a sniper with volumes of return fire or exercising restraint to protect innocents who may be caught in the middle? The volume of fire is the safest option (at least in the short term) for the troop, but often works against the long-term interests of the unit and our nation as it creates more embitterment among the population and ultimately breeds more insurgents. The self discipline to wait for positive identification (PID) before engaging is the more difficult and courageous option and the best one for the mission. Do we regard it and reward it in that light as we should?

To give an example, troops who don’t detect an IED and whose vehicle is hit by the effects of a blast will be awarded the Combat Action Ribbon. Conversely, the attentive crew which detects the IED, stops the convoy and sets out a cordon (at the risk of being hit by sniper fire) while the bomb is neutralized will not get the award. They did exactly what was asked of them. Their actions saved lives, protected property, foiled the enemy’s intentions and took great courage. They will certainly get a pat on their back from their commander, but not the small piece of ribbon by which young troops (and our society?) measure the value of their actions.

Is it time to reexamine our views of valor in the light of modern warfare? These are just some thoughts… regardless of how we define it or what these youngsters wear on their chests, they are surely heroes. It’s a privilege to be here documenting their stories.


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