America divided on war - not on valor of US soldiers

It is time for Americans to be thinking about a memorial to their soldiers who have fallen in Iraq.

This might seem premature. Clearly there are more battles yet to be fought and more casualties to be taken.

It also might seem fanciful to be talking about building such a memorial on the Washington Mall at a time when there are still deep divisions among Americans about the rectitude of the war.

But though such divisions of opinion exist about whether such a war should have been launched, there is great unity of admiration for the valor of the young soldiers - often no more than teenagers just out of high school - who went to Iraq in the service of their country.

Americans of all political persuasions have paid tribute to the steadfastness of these young warriors in the difficult guerrilla warfare confronting them. President Bush has consistently struck a patriotic theme in their support. During the presidential election campaign, Senator Kerry, although ambivalent about pursuit of the war, was careful to praise them.

Thus the nation could find a unifying bond in planning for a memorial to those who are not returning.

There is special poignancy about their sacrifice because, unlike the troops in the Vietnam War, who were often draftees, the American soldiers who have gone to Iraq are part of a volunteer Army.

I was thinking about this over the Thanksgiving holidays safe with my family in the serenity and beauty of sun-splashed southern Utah, as I was reading the firsthand accounts of newsmen embedded with US units engaged in the street-to-street assault on Fallujah.

Dexter Filkins, of The New York Times, was with Bravo Company of the Eighth Marines. His stark account of the dangers encountered by US soldiers, and their acts of courage on that rubble-strewn battlefield, are incredibly moving to those of us who remain virtually untouched by the new kind of warfare in which the US is engaged.

Mr. Filkins has covered a half-dozen armed conflicts, including the war in Iraq since it began in March 2003. Fallujah, he writes, "was a qualitatively different experience, a leap into a different kind of battle." It was "the most sustained period of street-to-street fighting that Americans have encountered since the Vietnam War. The proximity gave the fighting a hellish intensity, with soldiers often close enough to look their enemies in the eyes."

He tells of marines storming an insurgent-held minaret to recover the lifeless body of one of their comrades; of a corporal who braved gunfire to drag in a fatally wounded sargeant and who was himself killed in an ambush three days later; of a captain who rallied his men, hiding his own fear, "because if I were to show it, the whole thing would come apart," and other acts of heroism.

Despite their youth, writes Filkins, the marines seemed to "tower over their peers outside the military in maturity and guts." Many of Bravo company's "best marines, its most proficient killers" were 19 and 20 years old. The company's three lieutenants, each responsible for the lives of about 50 men, were 23 and 24 years old.

In the fighting in Fallujah, the company of 150 took 36 casualties, including six dead. Thus, the unit's men had a 1-in-4 chance of being wounded or killed. The heroism of Bravo Company was replicated in other units of the 10,000 US soldiers and marines in Fallujah and chronicled by other embedded reporters.

Is Iraq worth all this sacrifice?

Tom Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist who supported the war, has many doubts about its prosecution and its outcome. Yet, after a visit to Fallujah, he wrote that "despite all the mistakes made," what the US is attempting in Iraq "is an incredibly noble thing."

He is impressed by the uncynical conviction of the Army and Marine grunts on the ground. They are so convinced that they are "doing good and doing right - even though they, too, are unsure it will work."

This "incredibly noble" US effort may fail. But whatever the outcome, what hasn't proved a failure is the courage and resolve of the young soldiers who have risked life and limb in what they believe to be a worthwhile sacrifice for their own country and the Iraqi people.

They deserve to be honored by all Americans. That honor should one day be translated into permanent recognition in the shape of a memorial on the Washington Mall.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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