Book Falls Short in Honoring Unsung Heroes
By Ann Scott Tyson
Thursday, May 18, 2006; A21


Honoring the Unsung Heroes in the War on Terror

By Caspar W. Weinberger and Wynton C. Hall
Forge. 320 pp. $26

In this posthumously published book, former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger has a worthy aim -- to illuminate heroic acts by U.S. soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen decorated for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, its execution is disappointing.

A few of the 19 service members profiled here have been written about extensively -- such as Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, a Medal of Honor recipient who was killed by enemy fire in a battle in which he saved the lives of more than 100 fellow soldiers near Baghdad in April 2003, and Army National Guard Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, the military police soldier who fought off an ambush on her convoy in March 2005, becoming the first woman in decades to be awarded a Silver Star.

Many others, however, are less familiar to most Americans despite their uncommon acts of courage under fire, and their stories deserve to be told.

The book relates the gripping actions of Marine Lt. Brian R. Chontosh, decorated with a Navy Cross for leading his platoon on a "ferocious attack" that cleared 200 yards of an enemy trench near Diwaniyah in March 2003, using enemy rifles when he ran out of ammunition.

One account from Afghanistan describes the daring November 2001 rescue mission at Qala-i-Jhangi Fortress by Maj. Mark Mitchell of the Special Forces. Another tells of the bravery of Air Force Senior Airman Stephen M. Achey, who rushed through intense fire to retrieve critical radio gear needed to call in air strikes during a major battle in the Shahikot Valley in March 2002 -- then alternated between his rifle and the radio to fend off enemy attacks.

The best chapters are based on interviews with the medal winners and include vivid scenes, personal reflections and -- in a few cases -- the kind of black humor typical when GIs recount such events.

Yet the book falls short of doing justice to the topic. The book's overall credibility is thrown into doubt by inaccuracies, grammatical errors and a heavy reliance on secondary accounts, including government news releases. In some cases, chapters seem cobbled together with no input from the medal recipients.

Often the descriptions of combat lack clarity and are embellished with overblown commentary, such as this one on Marine Gunnery Sgt. Justin LeHew: "Knocking out enemy fighters with an impressive display of lethal accuracy, LeHew and his boys blasted away at every place they saw fire." The tone of such writing can make the service members appear more like caricatures than real people.

Surprisingly, the authors demonstrate a lack of basic military knowledge. Throughout one chapter, for instance, a tank is described repeatedly as a Bradley-- which is an armored personnel carrier -- or, in more than one case, as a "Bradley tank." The authors also interject uninformed opinions about specific events during the spring 2003 invasion of Iraq that are simply wrong -- I know because I was there. They call the Army National Guard "weekend warriors," a term most Guard members can't stand.

The book further detracts from these otherwise compelling stories by framing them with claims that the mainstream U.S. media and, to a degree, the public have turned against the troops themselves. The authors cite the controversy over today's wars and imply that it extends into opposition to those who serve. They contend, with little evidence, that the U.S. media are "intensely hostile" to those who serve and have turned "their rhetorical guns on the men and women of our armed forces" and that they and the public "oppose the sacrifices being made by America's armed forces."

"A nation that ignores or, worse, attacks its heroes erodes and disparages its own ethos," they say in the afterword. On the contrary, statements by military leaders and returning veterans, as well as public opinion polls and countless gestures of gratitude, strongly suggest that Americans -- including members of the media -- are appreciative of the sacrifices not only of medal winners but of all those who serve, regardless of their views on the wars.

Tyson covers military affairs for The Post.