Likely you have seen the news item with a Civil War connection which broke yesterday. If not, let me be the first to tell you that 151 years after his death, Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing will receive the Medal of Honor for actions on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg. There is no doubt that Cushing’s actions that day were courageous. Under our present day criteria for the award, Cushing more than qualifies. There is no argument there.
Some will ask why it took so long for him to receive recognition. Others will discuss the nature of the award in its Civil War guise, and how it was different than today. Myself, I look at this and ask, “Does the medal make him a hero?” As I read the article on Cushing, I thought to a passage from Colonel David Hackworth’s “About Face.” Please pardon the language in this citation (which I’ll censor a bit to retain my PG rating):
[PFC James Aguda] stood up. He didn’t go prone like the rest of us. He just walked to the forward slope and started mowing down the attacking Chinese ranks like John Wayne in the Sands of Iwo Jima. His BAR was singing as he fired magazine after magazine. And the whole time he was screaming to the Chinese, “Come down, you [Chinese], come and get me!” I yelled, “Get down! … Aguda, get down!” But he just kept firing and reloading, firing and reloading – the perfect killing machine. Slugs were snapping all around him. I knew he was going to be killed. Then I could see he as getting it. In the leg, in the arm, then two more in the legs. But he just kept shooting and screaming, and I kept yelling for him to get down. Finally he took one in the chest. It spun him around and he dropped. KIA.
Hackworth goes on to relate the importance of Aguda’s sacrifice. He broke a Chinese counterattack and saved the platoon, known as the Raiders. For that, a man should get a medal, right? Well in the military awards system, medals require documentation. Hackworth related how that was gathered when the platoon went into a reserve position for rest:
Reserve was where the heroes were recognized and legends were born and nurtured. It was also the time when award recommendations would be submitted. Normally, Company would call and ask for recommendations. We’d scratch them out in a crude fashion on C-ration boxes, cardboard from ammo cartons, or whatever writing material we could scrounge. “Hey, brother, how do you spell ‘machine gun’?” we’d ask one another – there were few Hemingways at platoon level. We were just a bunch of [dummies] trying to articulate a comrade’s courage, as in the case of Aguda.
All the old 3d Platoon guys wanted him to get the … the Medal of Honor…. we wrote it up as best we could: “We recommend PFC James Aguda for the Medal of Honor. James Aguda was a brave soldier. He shot a lot of [Chinese] and saved [us] on Logan. Aguda was a good man. He deserves the big one.” This recommendation went back to the rear, to a very literate captain … who determined who got what by reading our statements. With Aguda’s he probably said, “So what? ‘He shot a lot of [Chinese]’ – well that’s what we’re here for! He was a ‘brave soldier’ – well, we’re all brave soldiers!” So James Aguda got the Silver Star posthumously, and not the Medal of Honor he deserved.
Later, Hackworth reflected upon this and how it tainted, somewhat, his view of military awards. Jaundiced by the handling of Aguda’s case, he just didn’t submit many recommendations.
It was only much later that I realized my own idealistic policy regarding decorations for the Raiders had been wrong, too. For myself, especially after Aguda, decorations had lost most of their meaning. But for the others, my prejudice meant that so many deserving fighters would grow old with nothing to show for their extraordinary gallantry with the Raiders – or just one tin medal for the last hurrah.
The should have had one for every damn time they suited up.
In these three passages, Hackworth provides a vignette which aptly summarizes the military awards system – benefits and ills. And having looked at my share of Civil War Medal of Honor documents over the years, I dare say the forms that were filled out might have changed over the decades, but the nature of the system remains… as it probably was during Napoleon’s time. The worst of those ills is, unfortunately, that many deserving soldiers do not receive due recognition in the form of an award or medal.
Combat is not a race where clearly defined winners are given medals for their placement in the contest. We cannot judge a person’s courage simply by the number of ribbons on their chest. We, distant from the battlefields, get fixated on particular statuses conveyed by those physical devices. Heroes are made, not by way of the ribbons and medals, but by how others relate and recount their actions.
Cushing didn’t need a Medal of Honor for us to recognize him as a hero. Over the years, monuments, books, and countless battlefield guides have reminded us of his deeds. He was a hero before anything was approved or signed.
Aguda doesn’t need a Medal of Honor to be a hero. It is the story, passed onto us by Hackworth, that made Aguda a hero.