Medal of Honor Controversy
The Medal of Honor (MoH) is more than just an award. The recipient’s life and actions become aspirational for the rest of us that are humbled by selfless acts of physical and moral courage in the face of imminent mortality. A powder blue ribbon designed to transcend politics, yet offer commentary on the most political of moments, war. Awarding of the medal is a message to the nation, that’s the ideal. Even when the award itself becomes controversial, the ideal is always intended. Most recently, Secretary of Defense James Mattis channeled George Marshall’s treatment of Douglas MacArthur’s 1942 Medal of Honor award when he approved two latest Medal of Honor packages.
When retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski of SEAL Team Six received his Medal of Honor on May 24, 2018, and Air Force Technical Sergeant John Chapman’s family receives his later this year, the fog of a different kind of war will hang over each ceremony. The Medal, despite its idealism, is often no match for service rivalries. Both men will receive the nation’s highest honor for their actions as members of a team code-named Mako 30 on the summit of Takur Ghar on March 4, 2002.
The riveting details of the battle on Takur Ghar have been well documented by Newsweek, The New York Times and Task & Purpose. In the midst of a harrowing attempt to rescue Petty Officer Neil Roberts, who fell out of their Chinook following a failed insertion attempt, Slabinski withdrew his small team of SEALs. Chapman, an Air Force Combat Controller, was left for dead, or at least that is the view of many in the Air Force.
As evidenced by Mattis’ acceptance of the Air Force’s request to upgrade Chapman’s Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor, he wasn’t. Chapman fought on alone for hours. He only succumbed to enemy fire as he exposed himself to provide cover for a quick reaction force of Army Rangers.
As special operators, Slabinski and Chapman are the faces of nearly two decades of war. In the public mind, they are the elite. So when infighting between the SEALs and Air Force Special Operators came to light, it risked tarnishing the MoH’s ideal. All the angst of the post 9/11 era should have been soothed by the ideal of America’s super soldiers. If they can’t work together, how can the citizenry be expected to?
Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall understood the award’s power. December of 1941 found Lt. General Douglas MacArthur attempting to hold the Bataan Peninsula against Japanese forces. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall promised MacArthur reinforcements and supplies, despite knowing this to be a broken promise. MacArthur, still, went so far as to publicly inform his men that help was coming. By February 1942, President Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to evacuate the Philippines, as his army surrendered to an overwhelming Japanese force.
Once safe in Australia, MacArthur began to bitterly complain in private about Marshall and his “cabal” in Washington DC. It was no World War One grudge that irked MacArthur, but the sense of abandonment after all of Marshall’s telegrams promising support
George Marshall could have retaliated. Firing MacArthur would have been popular in America’s high command. The entire affair could have descended into an ugly incident. Instead, Marshall not only recommended MacArthur for the Medal of Honor. He wrote the citation himself. Dwight Eisenhower was opposed to the move. Even MacArthur himself had reservations. He accepted, “as a recognition of the indomitable courage of the gallant army which it was my honor to command.”
Secretary Mattis, today, is appealing to the spirit of George Marshall. Marshall had a knack for seeing beyond the immediate and superficial, but rather the ideal. Success would come from a team effort. Whether or not MacArthur deserved the Medal of Honor, he was going to play a pivotal role in the war effort. Rivalries and personal animosities had to be set aside in the name of teamwork. The country and other generals needed to see that. Slabinski and Chapman were a team, both more than deserving of the country’s highest honor. Mattis is right to honor that.
Kyle Gaffney received his Master’s Degree in History from William Paterson University. Follow him on Twitter at @citizenGaffney.