Expressing himself in Latin about 2,000 years ago, Horace is the fellow who once opined that it is “sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.”
The Roman poet notwithstanding, the citizens of the American republic draw basic distinctions today when it comes to patriotic sacrifice. Honorable though it may be to die for one’s country, the public currently is insisting that Capt. Scott O’Grady’s decision to contrive to survive and thrive is sweeter and more proper still.
The 29-year-old aviator from Spokane who saw the F-16 jet he was piloting disintegrate around him at 26,000 feet over northwest Bosnia earlier this month - only to face and evade a Serb manhunt for six days after having parachuted to Earth - is a genuine hero.
Yet, O’Grady’s story is about individual valor. To be sure, the Clinton administration has a right to bask temporarily in his reflected glory. But it would be wrong for the White House to use that glory as justification for this or that policy.
Clinton should be profoundly grateful to O’Grady and his rescuers for sparing his administration the ordeal of a protracted hostage situation. A White House lunch was a small price to pay for O’Grady having pulled the administration’s political chestnuts out of the fire.
If there is a persuasive argument to be made for increasing U.S. involvement in Bosnia, it should be made straightforwardly on its own merits.
As for O’Grady, now that the celebratory cigars have been extinguished, the administration must be held to account.
Exactly how and why did this pilot come to be placed in the biggest predicament of his young life?
The armed forces’ chief of staff, Gen. John Shalikashvili, has answered that there was “absolutely” no intelligence beforehand that Serb surface-to-air missiles were in place near Bihac, where O’Grady’s jet was shot down.
That, of course, avoids the question of whether any commander should ever relax security measures on the assumption that enemy missile batteries might not be present. Military doctrine suggests that combatants always should prepare for the worst, not the best.
“We shouldn’t have sent airplanes in there without anti-missile support,” U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, said flatly.
Johnson, a veteran of the Korean War, was shot down and captured in Vietnam in 1966 and held prisoner until 1973.
Now, even Shalikashvili’s information turns out to have been false. U.S. intelligence did have knowledge of surface-to-air missile sites.
So, the question becomes: In an era of instantaneous global communications, how is it that O’Grady was not informed?
Directing pilots to fly solo over Bosnia smacks of the administration’s incompetence in Somalia. There, its failure to assess dangers realistically resulted in the deaths of 18 American troops in Mogadishu.
The thoughtless endangerment of service personnel can lead to unforeseen consequences. Just as forces can be pulled out, so, too, can they be sucked in.
Shortly after getting out of his parachute and hiding, O’Grady heard Serb soldiers firing their weapons nearby. “They were trying to kill me,” he said later. The thought of Serb soldiers trying to gun down a lone American airman after having shot down his jet could lead to calls for retaliation.
There is one last reason for taking patriotic pride in the rescue of Scott O’ Grady that is relevant to the question of how deeply the United States should become involved in Bosnia. No one should ever forget that it was he and his comrades in the U.S. armed forces who pulled off a near miracle.
Given the convoluted and ever-changing orders under which the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization operate, it is uncertain that U.N. peacekeepers and NATO elements could have saved their own personnel, much less any member of the U.S. armed forces.
Which brings us to the real issue at hand. The Clinton administration has given evidence, on more than one occasion, that it cares more about the international politics of military deployment than it does about the lives of those Americans whom the White House has ordered into harm’s way.
Horace might have understood, but the American people will not.
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