Special Report

Villains and Valor

Fighting, dying, and honoring on Veterans Day.

By 11.15.04

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NEW YORK -- The Marines like to refer to civilians as "silly villains." It's not exactly a term of endearment, but a playful note of tolerance seems to be mingled with the disdain.

On Veterans Day in New York, flocks of silly villains were on hand to greet the troops as they came up Fifth Avenue -- reserves, honor guards, veterans, marching bands, and every other conceivable affiliate of the mightiest military the world has ever known. On a stirring fall day with clear blue skies, it was heartening to see the troops hear warm applause on Manhattan streets.

But sometime during Veterans Day, America lost Lance Corporal Justin Reppuhn, 20, Marines, of Hemlock, Mi.; Corporal Theodore Bowling, 25, Marines, of Casselberry, Fl.; Staff Sergeant Sean Huey, 28, Army, of Fredericktown, Pa.; Corporal Peter Giannopoulos, 22, Marines, of Inverness, Il.; Specialist Thomas Doerflinger, 20, Army, of Silver Spring, Md.; Staff Sgt. Theodore Holder II, 27, Marines, of Littleton, Co.; 2nd Lieutenant James Blecksmith, 24, Marines, of San Marino, Ca.; and Lance Corporal Kyle Burns, 20, Marines, of Laramie, Wy.; all in action in Iraq.

Though it is not always apparent from the debris of our popular culture, Americans have not forgotten the troops. This was clear from the crowds on Fifth Avenue and the national response to a recent photo of a Marine in Fallujah that seems destined for iconic status. Most Americans were behind the military during the Vietnam War, too, contrary to popular mythology; many more people hated the protesters than hated the troops.

I'll go out on a limb and guess that today, Michael Moore would finish light years behind the Marines' Marlboro Man in any national poll.

Even now, the treatment America's warriors received from some in the '60s and early '70s seems like the mark of Cain for an entire generation, a curse worthy of eternal visitation. For 36 years since, American voters have been demonstrating what they learned from that aberrant age, and there may not be any more enduring lesson than this one: support the troops and their cause, because one is meaningless without the other.

If you want them to come home alive, root for them to win. We can settle the rest of the arguments later.

"I think the war is just and so did he," Lance Corporal Repphun's father said of the fighting in Iraq. "I just want President Bush to do what he is supposed to do so my son's life isn't wasted -- Free Iraq." The late Marine's mother feels differently: "The war means nothing to me anymore. The only people who know what it really feels like are the mothers and fathers who have lost their children."

On Veterans Day in Chicago, near neighboring Inverness, which was home to Corporal Giannopoulos, veterans spoke of this generation's sacrifices in war. "Let no one tell you we aren't doing good things there," one of them said. "We are standing up for what is right. This is our next greatest generation."

In Silver Spring, Maryland, Specialist Doerflinger's father Richard, deputy director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, released a statement with his wife: "Our son Thomas … understood the risks of his chosen path and gave his life doing what he had committed himself to doing -- standing against those who have no respect for human life. Even as we grieve for our loss we honor the ideals he stood for and ask others to do the same."

"I think the thing I'll miss most is his antics," said 2nd Lieutenant Blecksmith's father, a Marine who served in Vietnam. He told of how his son dressed up as Saddam Hussein last Christmas with pieces of a Halloween wig stuck to his face. "He was a tough kid, to do what he did, but he also had a loving side. He knew when to be a tough guy and when to be a real gentleman."

On Sunday, the Fallujah offensive seemed near completion, with losses so far totaling 38 troops (275 have been wounded). All things considered, it is an impressive conclusion to a fierce and bloody week in which the terrorists have opened up smaller fronts of violence elsewhere. That we have finally taken the gloves off in Fallujah, and met with at least temporary success, is grounds for hope, if not necessarily optimism.

Meanwhile, back in the pop culture, the week concluded with Scott Peterson's murder conviction, eliciting the usual blizzard of cable news coverage.

Titillation and scandal have always had their place in the public appetite, but I have never understood the obsessional coverage of the Peterson case. In times like these, when so many good men are dying, it's difficult to be tolerant of the networks and the viewers who keep such a tawdry story going.

Silly villains? The phrase seems far too kind.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.