An open letter to a dead hero

Dear Ardie Copas,

You can’t read this letter, because you’ve been dead for 44 years. I’m really writing it for people who, like me, were moved by the reports of your being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military decoration, for your heroism in Cambodia in 1970.

I am happy for your relatives and their friends, who campaigned to have you awarded that medal, and the newspaper reports make it clear that they are pleased.

Others might think it’s all a bit late. I share that view. Even the Distinguished Service Cross that they awarded you 44 years ago was too late: you were dead and never got to see it.

Of course, your sacrifice wasn’t made in the expectation of being rewarded with a ticker tape parade. Did you do it to save your mates? from a sense of patriotism? because it seemed like you were done for anyway, and what the hell? None of us can ever know why, but doing it made you a hero.

But I want to disagree with the politicians like President Obama and the generals who are using your sacrifice and medal to push the idea that following their orders and marching off to war whenever and wherever they want to wage it is a good idea.

The reality is that your sacrifice was like the sacrifice of a Confederate soldier at Vicksburg in 1863 or a German soldier at Stalingrad in 1942. If your commanders had won the war in which you died, the world would be a worse place than it it now. When Richard Nixon sent you and other US forces into Cambodia, that was a war crime and a crime against humanity.

That is not your fault, and it detracts nothing from your heroism. The government that sent you into Cambodia never asked whether you thought that that war was a good idea. And the current US government, preparing for wars in Syria, Iran, Africa, Korea or wherever else it decides, won’t give the cannon fodder any choice either. It will just tell them: be prepared to give up your life, like hero Ardie Copas: don’t ask, just do it!


Sergeant Ardie Copas died during the May 1970 US invasion of Cambodia, three and a half months short of his 20th birthday.

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