Of politics and
Commentary by Pat Murphy
The late Sen. Barry Goldwater died four
years and 11 months ago, which partly explains why no geographic landmark bears
the name of Arizona’s best-known human icon.
The Arizona’s Board of Historic Names and
the U.S. Board of Geographic Names require five-year waiting periods before
memorializing a deceased person in geography. Arizona, in time, will dutifully
honor its five-term senator, presidential candidate, father of modern political
conservatism and Air Force Reserve general by naming a landmark.
But—poof!—Arizona tossed out its five-year
rule last week and made an exception by renaming a Phoenix mountain "Piestewa
Peak" after Lori Piestewa, a 23-year-old Hopi killed in an ambush in Iraq a few
weeks ago and regaled as a hero.
In the ensuing controversy created by
Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano’s push to waive the five-year-rule—and
threatening to oust the chairman of the board for refusing to heed her
demands—the real motive was obvious.
For years, Phoenix politicians have been
arguing about changing the name of the mountain—Squaw Peak—to end criticism by
Native Americans about the word "squaw," which many regard as a vulgar slur on
So, although Lori Piestewa didn’t actually
perform feats of extraordinary gallantry in Iraq, was in a maintenance unit that
turned on to a wrong road, and hadn’t met the five-year rule, she became an
expedient "hero" for ridding Phoenix of a name that had become an embarrassment.
The end justified the means.
Meanwhile, three other Phoenix area GIs
killed while actually fighting Iraqi forces in shootouts are relegated to
passing mentions in accounts of the "hero" name attached to Piestewa Peak.
Lori Piestewa isn’t the first military
person to be exploited by politicians.
Consider the shameless spectacle in 1995
when President Bill Clinton, in urgent need of approval by the military, ordered
a full-scale Pentagon welcome for Scott O’Grady, the F-16 pilot shot down by a
missile over Bosnia and who huddled in underbrush awaiting rescue six days later
by daring U.S. Marines.
Although O’Grady did little more than
survive his ordeal by hiding, his "heroism" led to speaking tours, a book deal,
membership on the National Rifle Association board and talk of a movie, in
addition to presidential honors and Pentagon brass turning out in their finery.
Meanwhile, O’Grady’s Marine rescuers, who risked death, were never even
The word "hero" has been cheapened over
time. It now often simply means celebrity, but requiring no distinguishing
gallantry or sacrifice.
History is sprinkled with genuine
heroes--explorers plunging across uncharted frontiers, aviation pioneers who
died perfecting technologies, firefighters and police giving their lives
protecting others, and, yes, military men and women doing the impossible.
The sad reality is that some real heroes
often must wait for honors.
Only recently has the U.S. military gotten
around to finally bestowing medals for genuine gallantry on black Americans of
past wars who were ignored because of their race even when performing acts of