Hero-crats: From faceless to famous

By Carl M. Cannon

October 22, 2001

As a boy, Miles Parsons loved to dress up and play army, usually pretending to be a GI in World War II. After getting his college degree, he enlisted in the real Army. "I wanted to fight bad guys and protect the USA," he says, smiling, but without irony. Today, Miles Parsons--that's a pseudonym--really is fighting bad guys, but he's doing so from behind a computer screen in an office of a government agency he isn't allowed to name, 6,000 miles from the shooting front in the new war on terrorism. "You won't get a Medal of Honor, a movie deal, or a political career out of it," he says. "But you still might save innocent lives, and you can definitely get some bad guys. You can't be a cowboy, but you can be a hero." But can a faceless, behind-the-scenes bureaucrat really be a hero? Can heroes actually be anonymous? Or does that undermine the very purpose society has in proclaiming heroes: to encourage bravery on the front lines and to sustain both soldiers and civilians as they bear the costs, the hardships, and the pain of war? These are only a few of the questions posed by the nature of the first great war of the 21st century. But war historians and American scholars call these questions crucial. Imagine for a moment that all Americans could go back in time to 8:45 a.m. on September 11. Imagine that the horrors that occurred in the next hours didn't happen, that the twin towers still stood, that the Pentagon was undamaged, that all four tragically fated airline flights took off and landed safely. Then imagine that the murderous attacks were thwarted by the efficient work of airport security personnel or the prescient actions of a few dedicated federal law enforcement officials. And, finally, imagine that even though all of that carnage was averted, Americans could somehow understand what could have happened. Or imagine another great save. Suppose that a vigilant Customs inspector or border guard had somehow intercepted the stocks of anthrax now being mailed around the country in what appears to be the second wave of attacks on the United States. What honors a grateful nation would bestow on these saviors! Think of the ticker-tape parades, the Presidential Medals of Freedom, the television appearances. These men and women would be proclaimed from the Oval Office and from every mountaintop as the truest of the true American heroes. Well, such people already exist, and did so before September 11. It's just that most Americans didn't bother to learn their names. Diana Dean, a Customs official in Port Angeles, Wash., is that kind of hero. So are her colleagues Mark Johnson, Carmon Clem, and Mike Chapman. They are the U.S. Treasury Department employees responsible for stopping a 32-year-old Algerian--trained in a terrorist camp run by Osama bin Laden--from bringing a car full of explosives into the country just two weeks before the millennium celebrations. The plan was to blow up an airport in Southern California. Charlie Harger is a hero, too. A state trooper who was on patrol on Interstate 35 near his hometown of Perry, Okla., in April 1995, Harger noticed a speeding motorist in a yellow Mercury Marquis and fell in behind. The car was missing a license plate, so Harger pulled it over. When the driver reached for his wallet, the trooper spotted a bulge in his windbreaker. Harger drew his service revolver, held it to the driver's head, and made him get out of the car. The bulge proved to be a firearm--a fully loaded Glock semiautomatic .45-caliber pistol. In this way was Timothy McVeigh apprehended and prevented from committing more mass murder. Both Dean and Harger had their 15 minutes of fame. Dean came to Washington and received a Treasury Department medal from then--Secretary Lawrence Summers. But the events of September 11 have underscored just how much this nation owes those government employees. Their names are at least knowable. So are those of Todd Beamer, Thomas Burnett Jr., Mark Bingham, and Jeremy Glick, the brave men who fought on the morning of September 11 to regain control of United Airlines Flight 93 after they realized what the terrorists had in mind for the hijacked plane. But many others will not be, and this is one of the problems of the new war. In the days since September 11, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have themselves hinted at one of the disquieting realities of a war on terrorism: Americans won't be allowed to even know about many of the victories of this war, let alone get to know the heroes who made them possible. But they'll surely know about the defeats, and this paradox could create a morale problem. "People need exemplars of their virtues," says Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. "In wartime, the trait most often associated with heroism is remarkable physical courage.... What sticks in my mind today is [New York City Mayor] Rudolph W. Giuliani's description of the New York firemen--that these people run toward fires while the rest of us are running away from them." Five days after the September 11 attacks, Giuliani presided at a promotion ceremony for the New York Fire Department; so many of their line officers had been killed that the mayor had to promote 160 of them to keep the FDNY functioning. In his stirring remarks, Giuliani compared the situation to the battlefield commissions awarded in the U.S. Navy during World War II. And, before telling the firefighters that all of them were his heroes, the mayor quoted Winston Churchill, who told the English people, "Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it's the quality which guarantees all others."

The Old-Style War Heroes

For Americans in the 20th century, the image of a war hero came to be personified by two Medal of Honor winners, young infantrymen of humble backgrounds, who went to Europe to perform improbable feats. The first was a World War I draftee named Alvin C. York, a quiet, religious U.S. Army corporal from Fentress County, Tenn. The other, a slightly built teenage orphan from Texas, was a World War II volunteer named Audie L. Murphy. They were both products of their eras, and just what the nation required at the time. "The nation needs heroes because in a time of war, leadership itself is so critical," says Robert Schmuhl, professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. "We look not only to public figures, but we look more broadly, across the culture, for the kind of values that we think are important during a time of crisis." To Schmuhl, it's no accident that while two patricians, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, were occupying the White House, the two most famous war heroes were infantrymen--not officers--of very modest backgrounds. Alvin York became a household name in this nation following the events of October 8, 1918. On patrol that morning in France, York's squad of 16 men came under fire from German machine guns. Ten of the Americans were cut down. While the other six men kept down, York, an expert marksman, began picking off German machine gunners with his rifle, until nearly 20 of them were dead. A German officer ordered a seven-man detail to charge York with bayonets. York drew his seven-shot .45-caliber Colt sidearm and shot them one by one. The rest of the German company, apparently believing they were at a numerical disadvantage, surrendered to York, who marched his prisoners into the 82nd Division headquarters in Varennes. "Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole damn German army," said Gen. Julian R. Lindsey. "No, sir. I only got 132," replied York. In New York City, York, then a sergeant, received a parade, a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, and numerous endorsement offers. Trading on the stock exchange was halted when he visited, and the traders hoisted him on their shoulders. Years later a movie was made--Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper--but York turned down the endorsement offers. "Uncle Sam's uniform," he drawled, "ain't for sale." In World War II, the United States had boatloads of heroes, but none who captured the public imagination more than Audie Murphy. He tried to enlist in the Marines in 1941, after his mother died. Doubting that he was really 17 years old--Murphy was only 5 feet 6 inches tall, 112 pounds, and baby-faced--the Marine recruiters didn't take him. Neither did the Navy. It was their loss. On June 30, 1942, the Army accepted him, and he went on to become the most decorated GI in the war. In France on January 26, 1945, Murphy's unit, Company B, 15th Infantry, 3rd Army Division, was attacked by six Panzer tanks and waves of German infantrymen. Murphy, by then a second lieutenant, ordered his troops to withdraw to the woods while he remained forward, directing artillery strikes. When a U.S. tank-destroyer was hit, its crew sought cover in the trees. Murphy ran to the burning vehicle, jumped on top of it, and raked the Germans with its .50-caliber machine gun. Surrounded on three sides, he killed or wounded 50 German soldiers. The German tanks, lacking infantry support, withdrew. Murphy held his ground until he ran out of ammunition. Wounded but refusing medical treatment, he gathered his company together and led a counterassault. For the way he fought this battle, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, but Audie Murphy always fought this way. Years later, Bill Weinberg, a retired university administrator who had served with him, recalled that the day before the attack, B Company was advancing across a field when a German machine gun pinned them down. "Murph walked up and asked what was happening," Weinberg recalled. "We told him. He just said, `Cover me,' and he trotted up to the bunker where the machine gun was, shooting as he went, and killed all the Germans there. I don't know how he did it. They were shooting at him all the time." By the war's end, Murphy had fought in nine major battles, killed an estimated 240 Germans, and imprinted his credo--"You lead from the front"--on the U.S. Army for the rest of the century. He was not yet 20 years old. For his generation, Murphy was the new Sgt. York. In Hollywood, he went York one better: He played himself in a picture about his life--To Hell and Back--and went on to star in another 43 movies, most of them westerns.

The New `Soldier-Citizen'

Such were the heroes of yesteryear. But the nature of the current war makes such exploits less likely to emerge from the mountains of Afghanistan. There are several reasons for this. The first is that even if American military commando units such as Delta Force or the U.S. Army Rangers achieve success in their hunt for Afghanistan-based terrorists, much of what they do is shrouded in secrecy. This secrecy is necessary for their effectiveness, and it has become part of their culture. "There could be another Audie Murphy over there," says Mark Salter, chief of staff for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "But we might not get to know his name." McCain himself--whose heroism arose not from traditional battlefield exploits (his plane was shot down) but from his resilience and patriotism while a prisoner of war in Vietnam--serves as a living reminder of another fact of modern warfare: Much of it is done from the skies, at great altitudes. In today's armed forces, teamwork, technology, and long-range missiles do much of the fighting. It may be effective, but it is not at all glamorous. Even less exciting, but just as crucial to today's war on terrorism, are FBI accountants and CIA financial analysts who use their computer skills to track terrorists' bank accounts around the world. Likewise, diligent public servants at the National Security Agency use their fluency in foreign languages to eavesdrop on terrorists' phone calls. The best of these interpreters may overhear the next plot to attack the United States, thereby saving hundreds or thousands of American lives. Meanwhile, at the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA, map experts pore over satellite photos every day looking for the enemy. The most skilled may spot a newly dug cave in the Afghan mountains and help the Army eliminate the most wanted man in the world. At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, clinicians ignore family considerations to work round-the-clock in an effort to trace the sources of anthrax being mailed to locations across the United States. "You'll still have snake-eaters on the ground doing very brave things, but more and more of the work of this war will be waged from behind computer screens," says Kim Holmes, vice president of the Heritage Foundation. "But [such people] are sometimes described as `unsung heroes,' and there's a reason for that. True war heroes traditionally were those who were able to overcome danger, those for whom their true character came out under stress, who showed grace under pressure--under fire--and I'm not sure you find those qualities behind too many computer terminals." Holmes has accurately described the dilemma. And yet, the nation now knows what happens when those anonymous civil servants "behind the computer terminals"--or everyday Americans, for that matter--aren't vigilant. Last summer, instructors at the Pan Am International Flight Academy Inc. in Eagan, Minn., were alarmed by a stocky Arab man with a French accent named Zacarias Moussaoui. He wanted to train on a 747 simulator, even though he had never flown anything bigger than a single-engine Cessna. The man seemed to concentrate only on learning how to turn the plane--not on how to take off or land--so prudent flight instructors notified the FBI. Much has been made of the fact that Justice Department lawyers refused the request of the FBI's Minneapolis field office to issue a warrant to search the hard drive of Moussaoui's computer. But the other point is that he was in custody at the time of the September 11 attacks, instead of where he planned to be. FBI investigators suspect Moussaoui intended to be on one of the hijacked airliners, presumably United Airlines Flight 93, the only one with four, instead of five, hijackers--and the only one not to reach its target. In Pennsylvania, there is talk of erecting a monument to the brave passengers aboard Flight 93. That's a fitting tribute, but perhaps they should be awarded combat ribbons or Purple Hearts. Five days after the attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that the 69 civilians killed at the Pentagon that day would receive a newly designed medal that is equivalent to the Purple Heart. The Defense of Freedom Medal features a bald eagle holding a shield, to represent the principles of freedom and the defense of freedom. The engraving on the back reads: On Behalf of a Grateful Nation. "Those Department of Defense employees who were injured or killed were not just victims of terror," Rumsfeld said. "They were combat casualties, brave men and women who risked their lives to safeguard our freedom. And they paid for our liberty with their lives." In his speech to a joint session of Congress, Bush acknowledged the heroism of those aboard Flight 93 by paying homage to Lisa Beamer, the widow of one of the men who almost certainly saved many lives and perhaps the U.S. Capitol or the White House. Beamer's husband, Todd, a devout Christian and Sunday school teacher, told a GTE operator over the air phone that the passengers had decided to try to take back the plane. He asked the operator to say the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm with him. The last words she heard him say to his fellow passengers were: "Are you ready? ... Let's roll!" Let's roll is reminiscent of Audie Murphy's casual cover me--but the men on Flight 93 were not armed. Many of them were big and strong, however. Beamer, 32, and Thomas Burnett Jr., 38, of San Ramon, Calif., were well built and physically fit. "I know Tom's a fighter," his wife, Deena, said later. "So I'm not surprised he planned to save everyone's life." A third citizen-hero, 6-foot-5-inch Mark Bingham, played rugby at the University of California (Berkeley); a fourth, 31-year-old Jeremy Glick, was a strapping collegiate judo champion. Speaking to his wife on the phone before the plane went down, Glick summed up the meaning of heroism as nicely as Alvin York did: "If we're going to crash into something ... let's not let that happen. Our best chance is to fight these people, rather than accept it." When asked whether America needs a new kind of hero for a new kind of war, John McCain replied: "I think we already have them. The Mark Binghams of this world went after the hijackers knowing it meant they would probably die. It's very rare in American history to have a `noncombatant' engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. And these men had no training. They need to be honored exactly the same way as if they had charged a machine gun at Iwo Jima. [Historian] Stephen Ambrose talks about the American `citizen-soldiers' of World War II. Well, these were `soldier-citizens.' "

`He Was That Kind of a Guy'

Of course, in this new war, not all of the heroes are men. Diana Dean is known around Port Angeles as a by-the-book, no-nonsense agent who wears the epaulets on her U.S. Customs Service uniform just right, and whose hunches about people are unerring. It was late in the afternoon of December 14, 1999--the last ferry crossing of the day, in fact--when Ahmed Ressam showed up in a rented Chrysler from Vancouver, Canada. Dean noticed him right away, noticed that his hands were shaking a bit when she asked for identification, noticed that his itinerary seemed circuitous, noticed that as she asked him questions, he became more agitated. She motioned for backup, and when two other agents joined her, they decided to pat him down. With that, Ressam bolted, running right out of his overcoat. The agents drew their guns and gave chase. Ressam was captured. What FBI agents eventually discovered--and what Ressam has confessed to--was a plot to blow up Los Angeles Airport or the airports in Ontario and Long Beach, Calif., as backup targets. "The arrest of Ahmed Ressam undoubtedly saved countless lives," said former U.S. Customs Service Commissioner Ray Kelly. And in this war, not all of these female heroes--or "soldier-citizens"--are even Americans, even though some of them have saved American lives. Aida Fariscal, for example, was a precinct captain in the Philippines on January 6, 1995, when a report came in of a minor fire in a Manila apartment complex. Fariscal went to the apartment herself for a closer look. "I had a sixth sense," she said. What she discovered was that there had been an explosion, not a fire, inside the apartment. The apartment turned out to be a terrorist staging area, complete with nitroglycerine, fuses, bomb-making material, fake passports, pictures of Pope John Paul II (who was due to visit Manila the next week), maps of the papal route--and a cache of the ever-present Casio watches used by Al Qaeda as timers. Abdul Hakim Murad, one of the three Middle Eastern men who lived there, showed up and tried to flee. With help from bystanders, including a taxi driver, Fariscal captured him. The suspect offered her a substantial bribe to let him go. It didn't work with Fariscal: The 55-year-old widow of a slain police officer had been named policewoman of the year in 1983 for single-handedly arresting three murder suspects on Mindoro Island. Under the kind of brutal interrogation not legal in the United States, Murad, a 26-year-old Pakistani, admitted that one of his roommates was Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, wanted for planning the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Murad also revealed that he'd been sent to the Philippines to kill the pope. The plot entailed a suicide bomber dressed up as a priest. Murad also related a harrowing bin Laden-backed plan to destroy a dozen American airliners in midflight by bombing 11 of them and crashing the 12th into the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Fariscal's instincts foiled the grisly plot, kept the pope alive, and resulted in the arrest and 1997 conviction in New York City of Yousef. Capt. Fariscal received a promotion and her country's Civil Service Award from then-President Fidel Ramos, plus a bonus of 20,000 pesos-or about $770. Yet her name is unknown in this country. The commander in chief of our nation seems to have an expansive concept of what constitutes heroism in this nerve-racking war. Two weeks after he introduced the nation to Lisa Beamer, Bush underscored this point during a visit to a first-grade class at a New York City public school. "There's a lot of talk about heroes in our society," Bush told the children. "A hero is somebody you look up to, of course. And the teachers of New York City were very heroic. They were not only heroic in taking boys and girls your age out of the buildings and helping them find places to stay at night, or making sure nobody got hurt; they're heroic today. You know why? Because they love you, and if you've got any worries about what took place at the World Trade Center, they want to help you." That's not a bad working definition of heroism in the new war. The whole world now knows, as Giuliani said, that as tens of thousands of office workers rushed out of the Twin Towers, several hundred New York-area firefighters rushed in to help them--and to their deaths. But among those office workers, many were, to use the President's definition, trying to help others--and as a result they did not make it out of the rubble alive. For instance: At 8:50 a.m., minutes after the first jetliner hit the north tower, Thomas Glasser, a partner at the Sandler O'Neill investment banking firm, was on the 104th floor of the south tower. He phoned his wife, Meg, who urged him to leave the building. Glasser didn't do so right away--those in the office had apparently been assured that there was no danger to their tower--and by 9:03 a.m., it was too late. Sandler O'Neill lost 66 of its 171 employees that day, including Glasser. Mark Sichel, his best friend, believes that Glasser lingered in the tower in an effort to help others and to get everyone else to leave with him. It was only after Glasser's death that Sichel learned that his friend had set up a scholarship program for the sons and daughters of police officers in the New Jersey town where he lived. "He was that kind of guy, a quiet hero." In the days since the attacks, The New York Times has been running daily profiles of the dead--some 300 so far. Last Sunday, in an editors' note about the profiles, the paper explained something that its readers had already noticed: "It reads, at first, as a map of loss. We see the houses left unfinished, the pregnancies that will never be carried to term, the engagements abruptly ended.... But these profiles also offer a map of fulfillment. The bonds of family ... are palpable in every story. The patterns of community service jump out. The generosity, the selflessness that emanates from these stories, is remarkable, and it makes the heroism of that day seem less surprising." That is why Mark Sichel and Meg Glasser think that Tom Glasser, a man who sat at a desk with a computer, would have been making sure everyone was safe on the 104th floor of the south tower before he himself ran down the stairs--because that's the kind of person he was. "Here was a well-off guy who set up a college fund for kids from modest economic backgrounds," said Sichel, who speaks daily with Meg, trying to help her ease the grief of her two sons, Lukas and Dylan, who are 2 and 3. "We tell the boys their dad was a hero."


By Carl M. Cannon

October 22, 2001

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