The New Heroic Ideal

Sunday, October 18, 2015
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Barbara Kelley

In the ancient world, as we know from reading about the exploits of heroes like Achilles in the Iliad, the path to wartime glory was littered with the bodies of one’s slain enemies. The most honored warrior was the fiercest killer. Though the weapons of war have changed over the ensuing millennia, the need for martial prowess to defend one’s country and way of life has not. And the U.S. military is arguably as accomplished as it or any military has ever been in dealing harm to the nation’s enemies.

But something has changed rather decisively over the past half century. Today more than ever, glory in war comes not from fiercely slaying the enemy on the battlefield, but from saving the lives of others, usually one’s comrades in arms. At least this is the conclusion to be drawn from the history of the nation’s highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

Consider the cases of the two Medal of Honor recipients who recently visited Beverly High School in Massachusetts in conjunction with the annual gathering of living honorees, who currently number a mere 78. The visitors at Beverly High were Vietnam veterans Robert Martin Patterson and James Allen Taylor. According to a press report about their visit, they did not talk about the extraordinarily valorous conduct that earned them their awards. This fact will surprise no one who is familiar with Medal of Honor recipients—or for that matter the recipients of lesser awards for valor, whether military or civilian. Boastfulness is a singularly rare trait. But school officials did circulate in advance accounts of what Patterson and Taylor had done. One would hope that students were appropriately awestruck, as high school students so rarely are. The contrasting content of the official citations accompanying the two awards also opens a window on the evolving view within the military—and within our culture more broadly—of the what constitutes the highest form of heroic conduct.

Here is the citation for Patterson, for his actions on May 6, 1968:               

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Sgt. Patterson (then Sp4c.) distinguished himself while serving as a fire team leader of the 3d Platoon, Troop B, during an assault against a North Vietnamese Army battalion which was entrenched in a heavily fortified position. When the leading squad of the 3d Platoon was pinned down by heavy interlocking automatic weapon and rocket propelled grenade fire from 2 enemy bunkers, Sgt. Patterson and the 2 other members of his assault team moved forward under a hail of enemy fire to destroy the bunkers with grenade and machine gun fire. Observing that his comrades were being fired on from a third enemy bunker covered by enemy gunners in 1-man spider holes, Sgt. Patterson, with complete disregard for his safety and ignoring the warning of his comrades that he was moving into a bunker complex, assaulted and destroyed the position. Although exposed to intensive small arm and grenade fire from the bunkers and their mutually supporting emplacements. Sgt. Patterson continued his assault upon the bunkers which were impeding the advance of his unit. Sgt. Patterson singlehandedly destroyed by rifle and grenade fire 5 enemy bunkers, killed 8 enemy soldiers and captured 7 weapons. His dauntless courage and heroism inspired his platoon to resume the attack and to penetrate the enemy defensive position. Sgt. Patterson's action at the risk of his life has reflected great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.

And here is the citation for Taylor, for action on November 9, 1967:

Capt. Taylor, Armor, was serving as executive officer of Troop B, 1st Squadron. His troop was engaged in an attack on a fortified position west of Que Son when it came under intense enemy recoilless rifle, mortar, and automatic weapons fire from an enemy strong point located immediately to its front. One armored cavalry assault vehicle was hit immediately by recoilless rifle fire and all 5 crewmembers were wounded. Aware that the stricken vehicle was in grave danger of exploding, Capt. Taylor rushed forward and personally extracted the wounded to safety despite the hail of enemy fire and exploding ammunition. Within minutes a second armored cavalry assault vehicle was hit by multiple recoilless rifle rounds. Despite the continuing intense enemy fire, Capt. Taylor moved forward on foot to rescue the wounded men from the burning vehicle and personally removed all the crewmen to the safety of a nearby dike. Moments later the vehicle exploded. As he was returning to his vehicle, a bursting mortar round painfully wounded Capt. Taylor, yet he valiantly returned to his vehicle to relocate the medical evacuation landing zone to an area closer to the front lines. As he was moving his vehicle, it came under machinegun fire from an enemy position not 50 yards away. Capt. Taylor engaged the position with his machinegun, killing the 3-man crew. Upon arrival at the new evacuation site, still another vehicle was struck. Once again Capt. Taylor rushed forward and pulled the wounded from the vehicle, loaded them aboard his vehicle, and returned them safely to the evacuation site. His actions of unsurpassed valor were a source of inspiration to his entire troop, contributed significantly to the success of the overall assault on the enemy position, and were directly responsible for saving the lives of a number of his fellow soldiers. His actions were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military profession and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.

Both of these men undertook extraordinary risk to their lives above and beyond the demands even of bravery in the combat situations they encountered. Both of them brought violent death to their country’s enemies. But it’s interesting to note that the character of each citation differs markedly.

Patterson’s actions that day in 1968 resonate with accounts of battlefield valor dating back to the time of Homer’s Iliad. The Greek word for what Patterson wrought was aristeia, a battlefield rampage displaying the best of the fighting spirit. What a charge Patterson put on that day to “singlehandedly destroy by rifle and grenade fire 5 enemy bunkers.” He was as unstoppable as Achilles.

Taylor’s citation has another focus. Its emphasis lies not on a righteous rampage, but on repeated actions of extreme danger to himself undertaken to save the lives of fellow soldiers. In Patterson’s citation, his comrades-in-arms are only mentioned at the end, when it’s noted that he “inspired” them “to resume the attack.” The action in Taylor’s citation begins with his response to five wounded men and continues in that vein.

For my book The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern¸ my research team reviewed all of the Medal of Honor citations since the inception of the award, classifying them on a five-point scale based on the prevalence of the life-saving theme that appears prominently in the Taylor account but is absent from the Patterson account. A score of 1 would indicate no mention of life-saving action on the part of the honoree. A score of 5 would indicate that the sole point of emphasis in the citation was life saving. A score of 3 would indicate equal weight given to the “saving” element and the “slaying” element. In the examples here, the Patterson citation would warrant a 1 and the Taylor a 4. An example of a 5 would be a soldier who dove on a grenade to save the comrades near him.

After reviewing the citations grouped by conflict, we found that the life-saving element has become distinctly more prevalent over time. From the Civil War to World War I, the average rating rose from 1.4 to 2.3, denoting an increase in the number of citations that mentioned lifesaving. The average for World War II was about the same as World War I. Citations for the Korean War rose to an average of just over 2.8. The average for Vietnam-era citations increased still further, to 3.6. Citations for Iraq averaged 4.5.

At least some element of a life-saving narrative has become an all-but-universal feature of contemporary Medal of Honor citations. Even citations describing conduct like Patterson’s in Vietnam now typically at least allude to the life-saving benefits of the honoree’s life-risking activity. The Vietnam War seems to have been the cusp on which the now-dominant emphasis of life-saving emerged.

I think it is of more than passing significance that the type of conduct the military itself recommends for the nation’s highest military honor is life-saving conduct. This is in no way to disparage the military’s important mission of inflicting violent death on the country’s enemies, nor the demonstrable excellence of our service members at this task. But the contemporary prevalence of the life-saving narrative in Medal of Honor citations stands as a timely reminder that battlefield prowess should not be and is not an end in itself even for the most heroic and fiercest of warriors. Those whose conduct rightly covers them with glory, such as Patterson and Taylor, risked their lives not to demonstrate their superiority over others, in the manner of the marauding Achilles, but for others—their country and their comrades at arms.