Arthur I. Cyr: Medal of Honor recognizes combat veterans’ courage — and patience
Two combat veterans of the Vietnam War are now receiving the Medal of Honor, which they fully deserve. Army Green Beret Gary Michael Rose was the lone medic on Operation Tailwind, a 1970 secret special mission deep into Laos by South Vietnamese and United States troops. Though badly wounded, Rose nevertheless helped to ensure all the soldiers on the mission came back alive.
James McCloughan is another U.S. Army medic and Vietnam War combat veteran who demonstrated exceptional courage under fire. In 1969, he was a combat medic with C Company, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry, in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division. Over two days of heavy fighting May 13-15, he courageously rescued and aided numerous injured comrades, despite his own severe wounds.
McCloughan received his Medal of Honor on July 31 from President Donald Trump. Rose will receive his from the president on Oct. 23. Both men were decorated previously, but not with the Medal of Honor.
Operation Tailwind is distinctive for an intense controversy nearly two decades ago resulting from media allegations that the U.S. forces involved used poison gas — sarin — to kill American defectors along with others. Poison gas is a particularly terrible weapon.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein. Earlier, however, the U.S. supported the same regime in the long war with Iran. This occurred despite the fact that Iraq used poison gas in attacks against the Kurd population and Iran forces in 1988. The history added credibility to later false allegations about Iraq’s weapons.
Poison gas, a grotesque killer, has a distinctive as well as disturbing history. In World War I, gas was employed by both sides. The resulting agonizing and horrific mass deaths, combined with unpredictably of winds, has served generally to deter using such weapons since.
In World War II, Italy and Japan used gas in Ethiopia and China, but Nazi Germany did not bring this weapon to the battlefield. Adolf Hitler had direct exposure to poison gas during combat in the trenches in World War I. This further underscores the horrific evil of the Holocaust, where poison gas was used for mass murder on a vast scale.
The long Vietnam War highlights the extreme uncertainty that can accompany allegations about poison gas. After withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Hmong were targeted for ruthless retaliation in Laos as well as Vietnam. These fierce warriors had been loyal allies of America.
In 1975, reports began to surface that Soviet poison gas was being used against the Hmong. U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig in 1981 charged lethal T-2 mycotoxin was the agent. Independent scientists, however, testified naturally occurring bee defecations were responsible for incidents of toxic “yellow rain.”
In 1998, a widely touted CNN/Time report alleged use of poison gas by U.S. troops in Operation Tailwind, the special operations strike that included Rose. The lurid and implausible story stated that a main target was a group of American renegade defectors. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen immediately investigated. As a result, CNN and Time retracted the story, and CNN personnel lost their jobs. U.S. forces in Vietnam did employ nonlethal CS tear gas.
Many Americans have wanted to put the Vietnam War out of mind. Minimizing the heroism of our veterans has been one unfortunate consequence, ignoring accurate lessons of that war has been another. Honoring Vietnam heroes provides one antidote.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.