01 September 2006

Honor and Engineers

It's not our duty to die for our country, it's our job to make them die for their's.
-General Patton

Soldiers often win prestigous medals for doing brave things that save their buddies lives and get them killed. This war has been no exception.

Consider Navy SEAL Marc A. Lee, who was awarded a Silver Star posthumously for the events in Iraq that led to his August 2, 2006 death:
Petty Officer Lee and his SEAL element maneuvered to assault an unidentified enemy position. He, his teammates, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Abrams tanks engaged enemy positions with suppressive fire from an adjacent building to the north.

To protect the lives of his teammates, he fearlessly exposed himself to direct enemy fire by engaging the enemy with his machine gun and was mortally wounded in the engagement. His brave actions in the line of fire saved the lives of many of his teammates.
Army Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith won a Medal of Honor posthumously for doing something quite similar on April 4, 2003 near the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq:
Fearing the enemy would overrun their defenses, Sergeant First Class Smith moved under withering enemy fire to man a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a damaged armored personnel carrier. In total disregard for his own life, he maintained his exposed position in order to engage the attacking enemy force. During this action, he was mortally wounded. His courageous actions helped defeat the enemy attack, and resulted in as many as 50 enemy soldiers killed, while allowing the safe withdrawal of numerous wounded soldiers.
Both men deserve to be remembered as heros. But, both of their deaths also owe a great deal to sloppy engineers in the defense industrial complex.

Large .50 caliber machine guns should be designed so that using them doesn't directly expose the operator to enemy fire requiring the operator to disregard his or her own life to use them. The whole point of a .50 caliber machine gun is to allow the operator to mow down large numbers of armed people who want to kill you and your unit, and may greatly outnumber you. This makes the operator a natural target for enemy fire. Yet, too often, these weapons were designed with little or no protection for the operator, and the predictable result was that the United States was left with a few more heros. Unsurprisingly, for example, the guy most likely to get killed in a tank crew in Iraq has been the guy whose job it is to operate the machine gun outside its armored shell, a post not provided with a gunner's shield until well into the war, when upgrade kits were provided.

Heroism is a fine and honorable thing when it is necessary. But, the point of war isn't to display heroism. It is to get the job done. Frequently, the flip side of heroism is the bad planning or bad engineering that made that heroism necessary. Almost every Silver Star or Medal of Honor is a testament to somebody else's big mistake of some kind or another.

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