Heroism – What Is It?

In trading blog posts with me recently, fellow blogger Captain Anson Burlingame used the phrase, “heroic military leadership”, and he mentioned possibly applying it to General Franks, a man who planned and executed the invasion part of the Gulf War in

Army version of the Medal of Honor

Medal of Honor (Army), via Wikipedia

outstanding fashion, but who was criticized by some for poor management of its aftermath.  (I have more reading to do before I can comment on that judgement.) We were discussing the nature of war and how it has changed over the years and he remarked on the scarcity of that quality since the days of WWII and before.

What is heroism? I tried looking it up and it’s kind of hard to pin down.  The word is associated with other words like courage, guts, fortitude, resolution (as in determination), tenacity and nerve.

When speaking of high-ranking officers it is hard for me to use the term, “heroic” because

NYC - Metropolitan Museum of Art: Washington C...

Image by wallyg via Flickr

Generals and Admirals’ jobs seldom put them in physical danger.  The exceptions to this are pretty few, but when they occur they are often career-enhancing.  General MacArthur prominently exposed himself to enemy fire in WWI and Teddy Roosevelt’s exploits charging up San Juan hill are legendary.  Certainly General George Washington often put himself in danger.

As Anson and I seem to agree, military heroism seems more rare these days and maybe that is partly due to the changing nature of warfare, its being more technological.  I note that there has been only one Medal of Honor awarded to a living recipient since Vietnam, Army Staff Sergeant Giunta.    That was this year.  Interesting that it took almost 3 years

to be reviewed and approved.  I’m wondering if the inglorious Pat Tillman affair had some effect on that.  Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for combat against the enemy, but his death was later found to be from friendly fire.

Awards for heroism in war have a variable history.  The criteria for the Medal of Honor

Naval ensign of the Imperial Japanese Navy and...

Image via Wikipedia

were lower in its early years and have evolved with the times.  Sometimes the rules have been bent badly, as when LBJ saw that LCDR Richard M. Nixon, USNR, was awarded the Silver Star for being a passenger in a transport plane that was fired upon by a Japanese plane.  But clearly the vast majority of medals awarded were earned, and earned well.

Some famous WWII medal-of-honor recipients include Audie Murphy, Eugene Fluckey, and Howard Gilmore, the last two being

USS Barb “The Submarine that sank the most ton...

Flucky's boat, USS Barb, via Wikipedia

submariners, which is why I am more familiar with them.  Flucky’s daring foray into Tokyo harbor  is legendary in the submarine force, probably the most inspiring I have ever read.  If anyone ever exemplified heroism, it is him, IMO.  Another famous example, breathtaking in its audacity and risk, is the Doolittle Raid of April, 1942.  Those fliers were immensely heroic.  They knew the danger and they were all volunteers.

Then there is a different kind of heroism, that shown under incredible stress and under

Navy File Photo: Newport, R.I. (1979) - Portra...

Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, via Wikipedia

appalling conditions as prisoners of war.  These include Captain James Stockdale and Commander Lloyd Bucher.   Commander Bucher, the Captain of the USS Pueblo, a virtually unarmed intelligence ship during the Korean war, served courageously as a POW but never received recognition for it.  His superiors sent him on a dangerous mission while refusing to approve his request for backup protection and  materials and explosives  to destroy his ship and classified material in the event of capture. Bucher, severely injured in the attack, was pilloried by the Navy brass for not sacrificing his virtually-unarmed ship and crew to cannon fire instead of letting it be captured.  I believe the Pueblo Incident was a miscarriage of justice. None of his superiors were ever held accountable.

What people have done to earn military medals is highly variable.  Here is one true story, the facts of which I did not personally witness but confirmed from more than one source.

United States Purple Heart.

United State Purple Heart, via Wikipedia

In 1969 the heavy cruiser USS Saint Paul (CA 73) made a foray into Haiphong Harbor, firing her nine 8-inch guns at Vietnamese shore batteries.  The batteries shot back and managed to hit the ship.  In addition to various shrapnel damage topside they blew a large hole in the middle of the hull, destroying the ship’s wardroom (officer’s mess).  Because the ship was, of course, at General Quarters (battle stations), no one was in the wardroom at the time.  In fact, there was only one casualty, a junior officer (ensign or lieutenant, j.g.), who, contrary to standing orders had broken battle-quarters integrity and was inexplicably topside when the ship was hit.  His wounds were minor.  He was the only crew member, out of approximately 1,000 men, to receive a Purple Heart.

Veterans (with honorable discharge) all deserve credit for serving their country, whether volunteer or draftee.  They passed their training requirements, followed orders and did their jobs.  But do not be deceived into thinking that all veterans are equal, or that their opinions are necessarily wiser because of their service, even the old ones.  Sadly, some are even false veterans.  The truth often resides only in the individual human heart.

I believe there is an additional moral to my little essay here.  With all the emotion flying around in current politics, all the negative charges and countercharges, be aware of the use of emotional, religious and patriotic demagoguery.  Skepticism is a virtue, IMHO.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Armed Forces, U.S. Armed Forces, War. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Heroism – What Is It?

  1. ansonburlingame says:


    I suspected we might get off on this tangent about “heros”. Recall I also said “winners”. But in BOTH cases I was refering to senior leaders most of whom were never exposed to enemy fire. In my view courage in high places may well be equal to the courage of those under fire and thus the term, always in quotes, used to question such “heroric” leadership.

    Examples begin of course with Lincoln, perhaps the most “heroic” President ever to serve in that office. On the field of battle how about General Lee, assuming he never exposed himself to enemy fire. His generalship was about as “heroic” as any that I have studied. How about Eisenhower bearing the full burden of the Normandy Invasion without every being exposed to German fire at least directly.

    Some my use of the term in this case is for superb leadership in the face of adversity (but not physical danger) and the “heroic” courage to persever in the face of such adversity. Said another way it is “political courage” of the highest sort. AND in using such courage one (or a small group) must also WIN. In other words their perseverance must be proven by history to be the RIGHT perseverance to endure.

    So I suppose General Lee comes off of that list in that he in the end, lost. But I still think of him as a great man that should be revered by all Americans.

    NOW, in terms of the use of military power directed by political leaders since WWII, show me ONE “hero” of the sort I attempt to describe above. General Franks comes as close as I can “find”. He developed a battle plan that was almost revolutionary in scope and indeed accomplished HIS mission as directed by the President.

    Who knows what would have immediately followed in Iraq after “mission accomplished” following the successful overthrow of Hussein had Franks remained in command?

    So at least as I am trying to use the term “hero” it takes great vision, the RIGHT vision, to begin with, then the courage to face adversity to achieve that vision and once the vision is achieved the resulting “victory” to improve the human conditions of AMERICANS.

    FDR (with Trumans final help in authorizing nuclear weapons use) during WWII, Eisenhower following FDR’s “guide”, and a few others as well (Maybe Nimitz in the Pacific) fall into that catagory.

    I can think of none since that time, can you? And it is the absence of such “heros” that among other things seem to be erroding American power and leadership and thus degrading the human condition of Americans, at least in terms of exercising our military power to achieve or improve our national security.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      I really think the term “heroic” is a misnomer in the context as you explain it. Perhaps a better term would be “charismatic leader”? In any case I want to read Woodward’s previous book on the Iraq war before commenting on that one and General Frank. But, how’s this for a nomination – Michael Bloomberg.

      Michael Bloomberg.

      However you cut it I hope you will agree he’s an interesting guy. His Wiki page describes him as the 10th wealthiest American and yet he’s passionately involved in serving his country. He is pragmatic, tough, hard-working (probably how he got rich). He often crosses party lines on issues and is not afraid to take unpopular positions on controversial issues. I have seen him in television interviews and he comes across not only as a patriotic American but as someone who tackles hard problems, cuts through red tape and gets things. Most recently he unveiled a program to rid the NYC school system of sugary soft drinks! Talk about courage! Mayor of NYC is no job for a pansy and Bloomberg, IMHO, is handling it about as well as anyone I can picture.



  2. ansonburlingame says:


    You keep straying on me. I am searching for an example since WWII of GREAT LEADER in the national security arena in our country, preferably one that rose to such “heroic status” during a war.

    Probably more than any other political event, war tests the soul of a leader. His choices are truly life and death.

    That is not intended to glorify war but to point out how truly difficult it is. Name any “great” American President that is considered such but was not tested by war? And many of the “not so great” ones were considered so because of their failure to protect and defend the national security of our country. Carter and the Iranian Hostage Crisis comes to mind as such. In the long run, which was worse, inflation at 20% or the hostage situation. We recovered from inflation but the world still sees “yellow ribbons” when they think in terms of Islam’s battle with America, today.

    I wonder what color ribbons will be displayed when Iran achieves “nuclear” status?



  3. Jim Wheeler says:


    “Any great Am. president, NOT tested by war.” OK, but who wasn’t tested by war? Kennedy, if you omit Bay of Pigs, Cold War and initial advisors to Viet Nam. Too much, too much betrayal of his wife and too short a term. Gerald Ford, a nice man but hardly great. A place-keeper president.

    If you are looking for near perfection I fear it will be in vain, as I said before (somewhere). All men (in the generic sense) have feet of clay.

    Reagan. An actor. So much for basic job requirements. Acted the part of president really well and actually had brains. Not a good accountant though – almost bankrupted the country but outspent the USSR in the end.

    Clinton. Superb politician and actually did some things Republicans should admire, but couldn’t keep his pants zipped and didn’t mind lying. But, Bosnia, etc.

    Sorry, can’t think of one, and maybe that’s your point. If so, I agree.

    In this context, speaking of leaders, I ask you to consider the stark difference between two different kinds of leaders, military and political. The military leader’s most powerful tool is his control over the careers and promotional chances of his subordinates. Sure, a good military leader’s results are far superior to that of a poor one – no argument. But the administrative power sets the bar firmly between obedience and rebellion, or at least recalcitrance. I know this because I was an XO when the draft was still in force.

    The political leader’s job is far different. He too leads by example, but also has to lead by persuasion and, hopefully compromise. And do most of it in the full glare of the public spotlight with critics on all sides. It’s a different animal altogether.
    I submit that even Abe Lincoln would have trouble doing business with today’s media watching and sniping.

    A good president needs more than guts. He needs wisdom, patience and nerves of steel. My advice: give Obama a chance. I don’t see anyone else in the wings right now. Of course there’s always Sarah Palin. You betcha.



  4. ansonburlingame says:


    Actually, Kennedy would “make my list” had he not been killed and continued to govern as he started out. The Cuban Missile Crisis was probably the biggest single military confrontation in our history. Had he not resolved that Crisis we could have a nuclear wasteland in some east coast cities today. His strength and resolve and the effective employment of a naval blockade brought “them” to their “knees”. I also do not believe we would have escalated in Vietnam in 1965 had Kennedy still been alive, but that is only a guess for sure.

    Kosovo was more of a NATO operation than U.S. And as a result of going to the aid of Muslims in SE Europe look where we are today? It is Clinton’s failure to respond to Al Qaeda that bares the brunt of my disdain for his national security leadership, or lack thereof. Clinton indeed avoided “war” of the sort seen today. Did such avoidance on his part at least contribute to 9/11. You bet your “bippie” it did in my view. Do your research on Able Danger and consider what might have happened (actually NOT happened) had that programed been pursued with great vigor before 9/11.

    No doubt there is a big difference between military leadership and political leadership. In the first case the “system” is stacked in the favor of the “leader” while the latter is a free for all. BUT, and again IMHO, the characteristics of a good leader in both cases are the same. Show me any traits of a “good general or admiral” and compare them to a “good President”. My bet is they share great similarities.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Regarding Kennedy and the Missile Crisis, those few days could have gone either way as I see it. He was firm in the spotlight, but things were shaky behind the scenes, from what I read. I would also urge you to acknowledge the Bay of Pigs as a major error of judgement on his part. The facts were all there if he had dug for them but I think Kennedy let his sense of adventure and inclination to risk-taking override what should have required painstaking analysis. Maybe he would have learned from it, but it might also be a trait that could have led him further into Vietnam too. As you say, we’ll never know, but for these reasons he doesn’t make my list.

      As to leadership qualities, certainly both kinds of jobs share many of the same. But, I suggest that the good political leader’s job is more complex and requires a different temperament from that of the good military leader. Consider MacArthur and Truman as an extreme example. Mac, breathing fire and determined to win at all costs, wants to nuke China. Truman, man of the people and former haberdasher but with a strong sense of history and common sense knows what he has to do about it. Or consider General George Patton compared to just about any statesman. Similarities, sure, such as intelligence, iron determination, wile, knowledge of the job, good judge of people. I submit that a good president needs more charisma, a better understanding of history, and a better understanding of political subtleties than the admiral.

      I think we probably both agree though that no one leader is perfect. Thus the founders’ wisdom of our system of checks and balances. Pretty smart fellows, those old boys. Rules and principles that still govern in the nuclear age. Kinda takes one’s breath away.

      P.S. To required presidential qualities I would also add compassion and empathy, implying a sensitivity to the plight of the less fortunate. Would that that category of citizenry didn’t exist, but they do and they must be considered. Example: Bush I, a good, kind family man, obviously, but one who famously had little or no direct knowledge of that category.

      Good discussion, Anson. Thanks.



  5. ansonburlingame says:


    Don’t get lulled into the Patton model of a great military leader. Remember he worked for Ike and almost got fired.

    Now for compassion. Any military leader without that quality is going to be a “good killer” perhaps but rarely a good leader. If one sends men into battle without compassion and careful thought……….

    One of my greatest single moments of huge challenge occurred the day we deployed for a long period at sea against ….. I was excited and the crew was pumped. About three hours before departure I received a phone call from the Florida State Police. The wife of one of my junior officers had just been killed in a bicycle accident. I will never forget the trauma of that day, personally for me, the pall that settled over the whole ship and of course the tragedy for the young man.

    At least in peacetime it is events such as that that make one recognize what is really important.

    And then of course there were the routine, almost, occassions deciding whether a family situation was reason why a sailor should not HAVE to go to sea on another long submarine patrol. I made 10 SSBN deployments as such and had at least 5 or 6 such cases before me as a department head to decide one way or the other.

    Each case had to be decided based on the merits of each situation. No compassion and a “get your seabag and get on board” would have been terrible. However allowing any sailor with a wandering wife to avoid deployments would have not at met the needs of the service as well.

    Any flag or general officer that has not “adjudicated” such cases early in his career is headed for trouble later on without significant compassion as well as very keen judgment. Consider a battle group commander keeping the carrier and all others at sea for nine months or the JCS and theater commander ordering such sustained deployments. Such leaders could have the “compassion” of a Zumwalt and have a mutiny on their hands or the tenacity of a Patton and half the battle group AWOL before going to sea.

    It is a very fine line requiring the absolute BEST judgment, military or civilian.


  6. Jim Wheeler says:


    Sounds like agreement to me, for the military context. But politicians, who must ultimately achieve a public consensus, have to work social compassion issues on a batch basis. Like it or not, in the 21st century government is in the social justice business to stay. Social Security and Medicare may change, but they’re not going away. The Ascent program is outstanding – for the 10% with mettle. Then there’s the other 90% that must be dealt with, if for no other reason than the glare of the media spotlight. The difficulty of doing that I thought was well highlighted by Duane’s recent comments about the Globe’s endorsement of Blunt being inconsistent with other editorials about “pork”.

    Balancing the overall public interest with manipulation of sound bites is a skill few possess. IMO, Michael Bloomberg and Bill Clinton are among the best at it. Bush I famously visited a grocery store and remarked about a bar-code scanner. He had never seen one before! Kinda sealed his image as an Ivy-league elitist. George Patton, as you say, would be, make that WAS, a dud in the compassion department, but if you want to win a tank battle, he’s your man.



  7. ansonburlingame says:


    We have agreement on the need for compassion. BUT, I suspect little agreement on “the good of the service” aspect of governing. In my view it takes a whole lot of both to be a good military or political leader, a whole lot.

    Take my personal experiences as a young LCDR trying to balance the “good of the service” and the plight of a family leading up to a deployment. Yes they were very personal choices for me, as a young leader and the sailor with a family problem. Inevitably by the time the family situation got to me the sailor had already decided that his or his families needs outweighed to “needs” of his shipmates and ship when they would go “port and starboard” on the watchbill if the sailor did not deploy. Thus some balance had to be achieved and it was not a “batch” decision. I like that term, “batch decision”.

    Not so with the Battle Group Commander preparing for a nine month deployment. He does not get down into the grass of individual problems but still must recognize and deal with the “batch” choices being made. Same with political leadership, at least at high levels.

    Now take Obama. Show me anytime in his career where he had to deal with the INDIVIDUAL “good of the service” needs. I see little or no experience. As a commuity organizer he dealt with batches, particular social batches, but batches nonetheless. I wonder as such an organizer how often he really got down to grass roots and tried to solve individual problems, WITHOUT calling for more from government. I see little evidence of such.

    At the individual level, regardless of positions in society there are needs, some great needs. Take the rich man in the depths of despair or depression or the poor man in the same mental state. BOTH are in need of something beyond themselves from time to time.

    Of course a libral will say the rich man can go buy his help. BS I say in some cases. How about the platitude that money cannot buy happiness for starters. Sometimes only compassion can jump start the recovery from despair of any man or woman and it seldom comes from government, particularly when dealing with bureaucrates dealing only with batches.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      I’m surprised and disappointed you think I could have made O-5 with 22 years of service in the Navy and don’t understand “the good of the service” aspect of governing. If you think that I don’t have similar experiences as what you describe, you are wrong and I find your comment condescending. I don’t know how to convince you of that other than to simply state it. And just because I state that a politician must show empathy with the poorer segment of society is separate from HOW to deal with issues like poverty.

      What I thought we were discussing in my previous comment was the difference between the politician’s and the military leader’s respective jobs, specifically that a politician who wants to succeed in today’s America, whether it be Bloomberg or Obama, needs to project empathy with all classes of voters and also needs to administer existing programs wisely, even welfare. George W. Bush is an all-in-one example. He excelled at this image in the aftermath of 9/11 but failed at it following Katrina. And while I think the media misrepresented the true causes of Katrina consistently, I also think the recovery was mismanaged by both federal and local politicians. And don’t think I didn’t notice that one of the best “politicians” in the mix there was an Army guy, LtGen. Honre’, which just might prove my point. You can’t just assume one kind of leader can’t do the job of the other.

      I have not read Obama’s book and have no direct knowledge of his job experiences. (Have you?) You may well be right about his lack of experience dealing with individual tough experiences, but does that justify assuming he couldn’t or wouldn’t make such decisions and make them well? I say not, as in the example of Honre’ above. The things I hear him say lead me to think he could and would, but you obviously require more than that. That’s fine.



  8. ansonburlingame says:


    Your view is that political leaders have a greater challenge than military leaders, primarily, I think, because they must deal with issues with greater empathy. I tried to counter that point by showing personal an dbroader examples of military leadership requiring huge empathy or compassion. In attempting to make that point you say I have beend condescending towards you.

    Well if I was, I apologize for such, for that surely was not my intention. I wrote of personal examples in my military career trying to show how compassion was needed but IN NO WAY intended to imply that YOU had not found the same situations in your military career.

    Personal experiences aside, yours and mine, my assertion is that a balance between compassion and the “needs of the service” (Ok, needs of the country) is REQUIRED by ANY leader. Based on what I know of Obama he has failed to adequately consider the true needs of the ENTIRE country in his agenda.

    Given his background as I view it and explained in the “Obama and Me” blog, that does not make him a BAD MAN, at least in my view. But I challenge with great vigor his LEADERSHIP on many fronts, Obamacare, unemployment, Afghanistan, Cap and Trade and many others.

    You have every right to DEFEND his leadership as you see fit. And if I sound or actually become condescending in my rebutal then I have failed in such rebutal. And remember if you will, I also think Obama has tried very hard to do that which he thinks is right. No doubt in my mind on that point and he has shown some courage in doing so (except for his cheap shots during the current campaign and always blaming everything on Bush for now two years).

    But unfortunately in my political view trying hard to do the “wrong” thing (for ALL Americans) puts anyone in the bad leader catagory in my book.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      OK, I think I get it now. I do not think one kind of leader needs to show “greater” empathy. That implies a difference between the two kinds of leaders in their capacity for empathy. Instead, what I meant was a difference in how empathy might affect their job responsibilities. As you so well pointed out in your example, the military leader’s need for empathy is sharply limited and defined by the requirements of the mission, including specific regulations and guidelines. The politician’s job is more vaguely defined by political considerations (promises, pledges, agreements, platforms, etc.) and, hopefully, by his own conscience and a sense of history. It also occurs to me that the discussion led me, and I think you, to picture the military paradigm as a CO, but the politician as a president. On those two levels the same man with the same moral makeup would, IMO, still be guided by empathy but might appear to make decisions differently. In other words, the job has a lot to do with defining the decisions.

      BTW, I found it fascinating, Anson, to hear on last night’s ABC News that Great Britain is on the cusp of “massive cutbacks” in spending. The reporter told me something I was not aware of: In GB their parliament does not control the budget! The PM and his finance minister control it and they have decided, unlike U.S., to cut all kinds of things because of their “mountains of debt”. The Queen is cut 14%. They are mothballing a brand-new aircraft carrier. Thousands of civil servants are to be laid off, and on and on. We are about to see starkly different approaches to the financial cliff being played out in real time by two of the world’s top economies! The news item didn’t mention healthcare, but as I listened I was wondering, in the context of our blogging on that subject, if they are also cutting that.

      As Betty Davis famously said, “Fasten your seat belt. It’s going to be a bumpy ride!”

      I’m glad we resolved the misunderstanding and thanks for your comments.



  9. ansonburlingame says:


    A last point on military and political leadership. I rose only to responsibilites as a CO, never a battle group flag or a 4 star. But I tried to show how such very senior military leaders must encompass the traits of empathy at higher levels of leadership than i achieved in the military. War and Peace decisions at the 4 star level while not equal to that of a President, sure come reasonably close. And the EXECUTION of such wars bears a heavier burden on a 4 star than even the President, IMHO.

    As for Great Britain, I did not see the newscast but it does not surprise me at all. And in my view that is exactly where we are headed IF the Obama Agenda prevails. We have lagged behind Europe in trying to meet the needs of ALL and thus are farther from the cliff than they are for the time being.

    But if we don’t apply the breaks to the Obama Agenda, we will soon catch up. Then watch out. Our “streets” are much bigger than theirs (or the French streets now filled with concern of raising the retirement age from 60 to 62) and our people and the way they express themselves goes beyond typical British restrain both in practice and the laws that allow such practices.

    And I believe but do not know for sure that health care cuts in social medicine are very much part and parcle of the overall British cuts being enacted or at least proposed.



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