The other day, I came across the 2009 HBO film, “Taking Chance.” Watching the movie based on a true story, I spent a riveting hour and 17 minutes, deeply moved by the way how Americans treat their fallen soldiers in war. It occurred to me that we should learn from the movie how to honor our soldiers killed in action.
The movie unfolds the story of Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, a US Marine Corps officer who volunteers to escort the body of PFC Chance Phelps, who died in the Iraq War, back to his home in Wyoming. At the airport, the airline upgrades Col. Strobl to a first-class seat as a courtesy. As he goes through the airport security, Col. Strobl refuses to put Phelps’ personal items into the X-ray scanner because the protocol instructs that he always carry them. He also refuses to take off his Military Uniform Jacket before he goes through the metal detector because it degrades the uniform. The TSA agent respects his demands.
In the plane, Col. Strobl declines alcoholic beverages because he is on duty. A flight attendant gives him a crucifix, presumably to pay homage to the fallen soldier. When the plane touches down, the pilot announces that all passengers should remain seated until Col. Strobl deplanes first to render honor to the unloading of the casket of the fallen soldier. When the casket has to stay at the airport overnight for transfer, Col. Strobl decides to stay beside the fallen soldier all night, instead of checking in at the hotel.
Finally, he arrives at the home of PFC Phelps. He assures the soldier’s parents that everybody has treated Phelps with utmost dignity and honor during the entire journey. Then, he hands over to them Phelps’s personal items, a letter from his platoon leader praising his valor, and the crucifix from the flight attendant. Phelps receives a funeral with full military honors. His parents, too, receive an American flag presented to them “on behalf of the President, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and a grateful nation,” honoring their son.
“Taking Chance” reminds us of the many fallen soldiers during the Korean War, the Yeonpyeong Battles and the Cheonan Warship incident. Did we treat their bodies with utmost care and dignity? Did we offer them a funeral with full military honors? Did our presidents, our military commanders, and our nation sincerely honor them and appreciate their sacrifice? How many of us remember the names of those who died for us in the Yeonpyeong Battles and the Cheonan Warship incident? Do we know the number of the fallen soldiers in the two incidents, not to mention the number of those KIA during the Korean War? If we hesitate to say, “Yes,” we do not live in an advanced country yet. We should be ashamed of ourselves.
Recently, I also watched an episode of the American TV series “NCIS” titled, “Call of Silence.” In the episode, an old US Marine veteran Corporal Ernie Yost visits the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to confess that he killed a fellow Marine in Iwo Jima in 1945. Considering his age and behavior, NCIS agents suspect that the old Marine veteran is probably suffering from a guilty conscience stemming from post traumatic stress disorder.
Then, the investigators find that Yost is a recipient of the Medal of Honor. Suddenly, the NCIS agents become extremely polite and treat him with the utmost respect. In this drama, the power of the Medal of Honor is beyond description. Even the Navy SP, who have come to arrest him, salute the Medal of Honor with the position at attention when they see the medal on Yost’s chest.
The episode beautifully depicts how much Americans respect the Medal of Honor. Of course, the Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest honor that decorates a soldier for his valor. Nevertheless, it is quite impressive and admirable that Americans genuinely esteem the medal and its recipient, which is the tradition of a country that values valor, honor, and sacrifice. At the end of the episode, Yost’s confession of murdering his beloved military partner turns out to be untrue. A decorated Marine would never do such a disgraceful thing. A man of high moral standards, Yost has suffered from unnecessary guilt for the death of his beloved friend in war.
Watching the drama, I asked myself if Koreans had the same respect for the medal bestowed by the National Assembly. I wondered if we would truly esteem those decorated by the government with a medal. I also wondered if we would really value the bravery, integrity, and gallantry symbolized by the Medal of Honor. It would be a shame, indeed, if we would not respect those qualities that the medal emblematizes.
Taking Chance and “NCIS: Calling of Silence,” edify us about how to properly appreciate fallen soldiers in war and respect the highest values of human beings such as courage, sacrifice, and honor.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.