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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.