Military Heroes: The Homeric Ideal in Vietnam, Iraq, and the American Media
Good morning. I would like to begin by thanking the Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis Lecture Series, John Sitilides, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for hosting this event. In keeping with the theme of the lecture series, I am going to discuss elements of classical thought that ought to serve as guides for the present. The classical work upon which I will focus is Homer's Iliad, a book that enthralled me when I first read it in junior high and which continues to provide me with new inspirations each time I reread it.
Homer's Iliad marks the beginning of Western civilization's praise of military service and heroism, and it is this aspect that I will address today. In the Iliad, he who obeyed duty and fought bravely was the quintessence of a man. He who shirked duty or cringed in battle was a contemptible creature. We can see it best in the contrast between Hector, greatest of the Trojans, and his brother Paris, whose theft of the beautiful Helen brought the Greeks with their spears and swords to the shores of Troy. Hector fights boldly and relentlessly, even though he hates Paris for starting the war with his foolery. Paris, on the other hand, shrinks from fighting the war that he caused.
You may remember that when Menelaus, the original husband of Helen, confronts Paris on the battlefield, Paris turns and runs into the ranks of Trojans, at which point Hector skewers him with words of scorn. Hector's rebuke has often been watered down in translation. I prefer the recent translation by Stanley Lombardo, which is most concerned with conveying meaning rather than rhythm. Hector declares, "Paris, you desperate, womanizing pretty boy! I wish that you had never been born, or had died unmarried. Better that than this disgrace before the troops.... You're nothing but trouble for your father and your city, a joke to your enemies and an embarrassment to yourself. No, don't stand up to Menelaus: you might find out what kind of man it is whose wife you're sleeping with. You think you're lyre will help you, or Aphrodite's gifts, your hair, your pretty face, when you sprawl in the dust?"
At a later point in the epic, Helen confides to Hector her wish that she had married someone better than Paris, a man like Hector. She beseeches him to sit down, so that she may assuage the woes that she and Paris have caused him. But unlike Paris, Hector puts martial duty before romance, and fidelity to comrades and wife before self-gratification. In his reply to Helen, Hector says, "Don't ask me to sit, Helen, even though you love me. You will never persuade me. My heart is out there with our fighting men. They already feel my absence from battle."
As most of you will remember, Hector later dies at the hands of Achilles. After Hector's death, his father King Priam produces a most compelling comparison of Hector with Paris. Gathering Paris and his other remaining sons, he barks, "Come here, you miserable brats. I wish all of you had been killed by the ships instead of Hector. I have no luck at all. I have fathered the best sons in all wide Troy, and none is left.... Ares killed them all, and now all I have left are these petty delinquents, pretty boys, and cheats, these dancers, toe-tapping champions, renowned throughout the neighborhood for filching goats."
The United States has not had a Homer, but we have had some profound advocates of military history and the military hero. One of the greatest was Theodore Roosevelt, and as someone who was well versed in the classical world he is particularly relevant to this discussion. After his turn as the President of the United States, T.R. became President of the American Historical Association. The historical profession was vastly different then. Today the American Historical Association would never let a politician of pro-military sentiments attain a position of power. In fact, they would probably not even let him speak at one of the innumerable panels at its annual meeting, which tend to focus on the radical and the bizarre and which are of so little interest to the wider world that only close family members normally attend. Here are a few examples of presentations at the most recent American Historical Association Conference.
• The Translocal Queer Tropics: Latino Cross-Dressing and Cultural Space in Late 1960s San Francisco
• Confronting the Culture of Militarism: Women's Struggles within the American Radical Pacifist Movement
• Recipes for Revolution? Food, Gender, and Nation in Cuba
In the early twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt grappled with historical controversies that people today often assume originated in the 1960s. He fought against historians who thought, like many academic historians currently do, that history must concentrate on the ordinary man rather than the extraordinary man. Historians, he argued, must study and recount the heroic, for, he said, "Great thoughts match and inspire heroic deeds." If written in an effective literary style, Roosevelt said, such history "may yet possess that highest form of usefulness, the power to thrill the souls of men with stories of strength and craft and daring, and to lift them out of their common selves to the heights of high endeavor."
In Roosevelt's day, Americans learned about the American heroic tradition during their youth, but that is much less true today. If students learn about founding fathers like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, it is only of their political exploits, not their noteworthy military deeds, that they read. Other military heroes of that war, like Daniel Morgan and Nathaniel Greene, have disappeared from the American history books currently used in high schools and colleges.
Every American youngster used to know the story of the Alamo. They could tell you the names of at least a few of the heroes—Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis. They knew that Travis drew a line in the sand with his sword and asked every man to cross it who would stay and die with him, at which point 188 of the 189 present chose to step across. But now our textbooks mention the Alamo in only the most cursory fashion. The same holds true for the Civil War. They may mention Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant in passing, but you will not find other great heroes like John Singleton Mosby, whose daring cavalry raids into the North always eluded Union forces, or Philip Sheridan, who single-handedly turned a retreating army around to vanquish the Army of Northern Virginia in 1865. Or look at World War II. Audie Murphy, who won the Medal of Honor and 32 other medals, and John Basillone, who held off a massive Japanese force at Guadalcanal after all but two of his fellow Marines had been killed, have also been chopped from the history books, to be replaced with subjects like queer studies and the radical pacifist movement.
Why have military history and military heroism suffered such a loss of influence in American education? I would argue that the primary cause is the Vietnam War. Millions of young Americans served dutifully in the military during that conflict, some because they volunteered, others because they were drafted. Large numbers of other Americans did not go. Those who served in Vietnam seldom became journalists, filmmakers, or professors; those jobs went almost entirely to those who chose to avoid military service. In times past, American society and other Western societies valued those who fought above those who did not. But the generation that evaded Vietnam, which found self-preservation and self-gratification more compelling than nationalism, succeeded in turning the tables and making themselves into the heroes of the generation. Using their influence in the media and academia, they depicted the Vietnam War as unwise and immoral, and portrayed those Americans who served in Vietnam as suckers or baby killers. What was ostensibly principled opposition to the war was in reality often self-defense against charges of cowardice for not serving; note that after the war these individuals completely forgot about the Vietnamese people whom they had professed to champion, leaving them to suffer in huge numbers at the hands of the Vietnamese Communists. This process of self-justification produced a large group of American elites that dislikes the military and patriotism.
Military history and military heroes were natural victims. In the last few decades, military history has virtually disappeared from American higher education. As remaining military history professors retire, their jobs are usually converted to non-military fields or given to cultural or social historians who have studied a cultural or social subject related in some way to war. The antiwar protesters of the 1960s became the dominant force on campus and they decided that anything having to do with the military should be shunned. Lacking substantial contact with the military, many academics have not understood that nations benefit from studying war, just as they benefit from studying poverty or the environment, especially nations often drawn into wars regardless of which party is in power and regardless of whether or not military subjects are taught at their universities. Many have also been unaware that humanitarian and nation-building operations, which academics more readily support than combat operations, must often be carried out entirely by military organizations because civilian organizations typically refuse to work in areas where they might be abducted or killed.
The rejection of the military and the military hero, it should be mentioned, has not meant a rejection of the hero as a general concept. Every human has a longing for heroes and possesses some awareness that a few superior individuals can spell success for huge numbers of others. It is true even of people who claim to disdain heroism and greatness, and those who try to downplay individual achievement in order to exalt the collective. The French Revolution produced Robespierre and Napoleon. The Russian Revolution brought Lenin, and the Chinese Revolution brought Mao, both of whom for many years were honored with something approaching religious reverence. The Baby Boomers who avoided Vietnam and rejected military heroism created their own heroes—such as Jim Morrison, Peter Fonda, John Lennon, and Ron Kovic. Paris replaced Hector as the hero. Now it was pretty boys, womanizers, and avoiders of combat who received the praise of the literati.
The only American Vietnam veterans considered worthy of the term "hero" were those who turned against the war, and even for them hero status was combined with victim status. Ron Kovic is among the most famous examples. Kovic, who was paralyzed by a bullet wound, is portrayed in Born on the Fourth of July as a naïve young patriot who became disgusted with the war upon learning of its horrors. He was so haunted by his accidental killing of another American that he confessed the act to the man's family, and while protesting against the war he was beaten in his wheelchair by the police. Yet Kovic's story, like those of so many other hero-victims, was fraudulent and was misused by those seeking to disparage the war. Author B.G. Burkett discredited Kovic in a book called Stolen Valor, the best book ever written on Vietnam veterans. Burkett showed that Kovic, far from being naïve, had volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam. An investigation concluded that Kovic likely did not kill a fellow American, and Kovic never made a confession to this person's family. There was no police violence against Kovic at the place and date mentioned.
Burkett's book revealed an incredible number of the hero-victims to be complete frauds. One set of these individuals actually appeared in a book that sought to compare Vietnam veterans to Homer's Achilles, which was entitled Achilles in Vietnam and written by Jonathan Shay. According to Shay, war caused rage, loss of character, and post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam veterans just as it had in Achilles. The book had obvious problems, such as the fact that many other warriors in the Iliad did not respond to combat in the same way as Achilles, which further suggests that one should avoid presuming that all people in any war react the same way. What Burkett showed was that Shay's small sample of supposed combat veterans with Achilles-like symptoms contained a large number of fakes, some of whom made the most outlandish of statements about American atrocities and post-combat problems. Elsewhere in Stolen Valor, Burkett argued persuasively that opponents of the war grossly exaggerated the psychological problems of Vietnam veterans—in fact, Vietnam veterans did not suffer from drug addiction, suicide, unemployment, and other problems with greater frequency than non-veterans of their generation. Most of their psychological difficulties resulted from the ingratitude and scorn they encountered when returning home from the war.
Three very influential journalists who covered the war—David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Stanley Karnow—were able to make themselves seem the heroes of the war while at the same time failing to report on the heroism of American servicemen. During the war, the one American military officer whom they greatly admired was John Paul Vann, a sharp critic of the war effort in the early years. In 1988, in the book A Bright Shining Lie, Sheehan revealed that Vann was a man of low morals who had repeatedly deceived the press corps, leading Sheehan to proclaim that Vietnam was a "war without heroes." In my own book, Triumph Forsaken, I go much further in criticizing Vann, showing that Vann lied more than Sheehan realized and that the media's entire vision of the war was therefore skewed.
During 1963, in contrast to later years, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Stanley Karnow, and other leading American journalists favored American involvement in Vietnam. They also believed, however, that South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem had to be replaced before the war could be won. Ignorant of cultural differences, they wrongly faulted Diem for refusing to afford dissidents—and American reporters—the same freedoms they enjoyed in peacetime America. Brazenly attempting to influence history, Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow gave Diem's opponents in the U.S. government negative information on Diem in print and in private, most of it false or misleading, thanks in part to their heavy reliance on a Reuters stringer named Pham Xuan An who was actually a secret Communist agent. They duped Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge into accepting their reports in place of much more accurate reports from the CIA and the U.S. military, spurring Lodge to incite a coup. In addition, through articles suggesting that Diem had lost his principal ally's confidence, they made the South Vietnamese generals receptive to coup plots—the Vietnamese elites generally misinterpreted American press articles as official U.S. government statements.
Because the war went very poorly for the South Vietnamese after Diem's overthrow, the journalists soon faced accusations that they had helped wreck the South Vietnamese government. The American press, in truth, had never done so much injury to its own country. Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow dealt with this problem masterfully. Based on a few pieces of bogus evidence, they asserted that the South Vietnamese war effort had been wrecked before Diem's death rather than after it, something that they had not claimed at the time. The journalists were thus able to convince the American people that Diem had ruined the country and that the press had been right in denouncing him. While working on Triumph Forsaken, I discovered that a multitude of previously untapped American and Vietnamese Communist sources show that the South Vietnamese war effort actually was thriving until the very end of Diem's life, and therefore the American press corps was complicit in a foreign policy blunder of the highest magnitude.
When the war became unpopular in America during the late 1960s, Halberstam, Sheehan, and Karnow stopped expressing support for the US defense of South Vietnam. They ridiculed the principal American rationale for war – the so-called domino theory, which predicted that the fall of South Vietnam would lead to the fall of the other countries in the region. In my book, I argue that the domino theory was actually valid—North Vietnam and China did want to push into the rest of Asia, and the rest of Asia would have been very vulnerable had South Vietnam fallen. Halberstam, Sheehan, Karnow, and many other American journalists believed that reports of Americans performing well under fire could increase support for the war in the United States and therefore it was best to avoid such stories. We have them, as well as academic historians, to blame for the fact that the pantheon of American military heroes is empty for the period from the end of the Korean War in 1953 to the present.
In reality, heroism could be found in Vietnam as often as in other wars. One of the things I did in Triumph Forsaken was to tell the stories of a few of the many Hectors in Vietnam. By showing specific instances of military heroism, I intended to show that the real American heroes of the 1960s were marching through jungles and firing M-16s in Vietnam, not holding up signs and smoking marijuana on American college campuses. I'll provide one example here, Marvin Shields.
Construction Mechanic Third Class Shields was a Seabee stationed at Dong Xoai, a South Vietnamese district capital, when the Viet Cong launched a multi-regiment attack on June 10, 1965. The Viet Cong quickly overran most of the defensive positions, but Shields and a handful of other Americans and South Vietnamese kept them from taking the government's district headquarters and a nearby U.S. Special Forces compound. In fighting the far larger enemy forces, Shields repeatedly exposed himself to fire in order to deliver supplies to comrades, help the wounded, and fire back at the enemy. He continued even after he was shot twice, including one shot that tore out much of his mouth. At one point in the battle, another heroic American by the name of Charles Williams decided that a newly placed enemy machine gun had to be destroyed to preserve the defensive line, so he resolved to move to another location and fire a 3.5 inch rocket launcher at the machine gun. The rocket launcher required two people to operate it- one to load and one to fire—so he asked for a volunteer to go with him.
Shields had never loaded this weapon before, but he agreed to go along as the loader. They ran through enemy fire until they reached a favorable firing position, then took the machine gun out with a few well-placed rockets. On their way back, Shields was struck and fell to the ground. Other Americans were able to pull him to safety, and they continued to hold off the enemy for several more hours. But by the time helicopters arrived to evacuate the defenders under fire, Shields had succumbed to his wounds. Shields was awarded the Medal of Honor, and the U.S. Navy named a frigate after him.
Countless others did not win the most prestigious medals but nonetheless demonstrated heroic qualities. Another engagement I discuss at length in the book is an attack on the provincial capital of Song Be, where again a small group of Americans and Vietnamese came under attack by a much larger Viet Cong force. Employing two battalions with eight heavy weapons companies, the Viet Cong bombarded the defenders with continuous howitzer, mortar, recoilless rifle, and machine gun fire but failed to dislodge them. After four hours, the Viet Cong ran low on ammunition and had to scale back their use of the heavy weapons. A South Vietnamese regiment eventually arrived by helicopter and drove the VC from the town. Credit for the successful defense of Song Be belonged not only to the men who faced the attack but also to a host of others who performed in the best traditions of this country, such as the medics who treated the wounded, the observers who guided the air strikes, and the advisers who worked with the South Vietnamese relief forces.
The Vietnam-era journalists began a tradition that today's press consistently upholds. We hear very little from most large press outlets about American heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan, men like James Coffman Jr., Danny Dietz, and Christopher Adlesperger, or about our military successes there. Instead of associating such names with these wars, Americans associate the words they hear most often from the press, like Abu Ghraib and Haditha. Hector is not derided publicly today to the extent he was in the 1960s, but he is still disdained by many in the intelligentsia. And we continue to see the praising of Paris. You need only turn on the TV or look at a magazine rack to find that the media is mostly concerned with men like Justin Timberlake, Tom Cruise, and Leonardo DeCaprio.
The media and its advocates will counter charges of ignoring heroism by claiming that they simply report what will sell the most newspapers or attract the most viewers, and that negative stories sell better than positive ones. I disagree. The press has often used its power to undermine the Bush administration and the military because it is generally hostile to both. It is definitely not true that military heroism does not appeal to the public. Outside of this country's elite circles, millions of Americans still respect "Duty, Honor, and Country," to use the immortal phrase of Douglas MacArthur. If CNN ran a story on heroism in Iraq once a week, I guarantee you that their ratings would go up. When Hollywood occasionally overcomes its anti-military bias and produces a movie showing Americans behaving bravely under fire, such as "We Were Soldiers" and "Saving Private Ryan," they usually have a bonanza at the box office.
Let us talk about a hero of Iraq, James Coffman Jr., a man whose name is known to shamefully few Americans. Let us also praise him. Most of my colleagues who study history shy away from praising military heroes. They will claim it is unscientific and subjective, though that does not normally stop them from writing gushing pieces about Che Guevara or Betty Friedan. While it is true that praising heroes can lead to embellishment, it doesn't have to. Americans continue to exhibit much real virtue on the battlefield, and in age in which the highest medals require numerous witness statements we have more documentation of the truth than ever before.
In November 2005, while an adviser to an Iraqi commando brigade, Coffman accompanied his Iraqi counterparts as they went to rescue a besieged police station in Mosul. When the reaction force neared the police station, it was ambushed by a large group of insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, mortars, and AK-47s. The commandos hunkered down. All but one of the Iraqi officers serving alongside Coffman was killed or seriously wounded during the next half hour, disconcerting many of the other Iraqis. Coffman stabilized the defense, and moved from one Iraqi commando to the next under fire to provide direction and distribute ammunition. They held off repeated insurgent attacks. One enemy bullet shattered Coffman's hand and destroyed his M4 rifle, but he bandaged his hand, picked up AK-47s from incapacitated commandos, and fired with his other hand until each rifle ran out of ammunition. After four hours, he was down to four bullets, and there was only one commando with him who remained unscathed. He later explained what kept him going at that time: "I was not going to be on TV with them cutting my damn head off. I would eat a grenade first. I was going to go down fighting." Just as the enemy appeared to be preparing for the final attack, reinforcements from the U.S. 4th Infantry Division arrived in Stryker vehicles. Coffman refused to be evacuated and continued to lead the Iraqis in battle and direct air strikes. Afterwards, Coffman received the Distinguished Service Cross.
The police station that Coffman helped save was the last functioning police station in Mosul at that time. Its preservation helped future efforts to restore order in Mosul, which today is substantially more secure. Imagine what would have happened had Justin Timberlake been there instead of James Coffman.
Can we do anything to make the American public aware of the James Coffmans? The press obviously can. While the press does serve a very valuable function as a watchdog over the government, I think that the American people are entitled to expect that the press will maintain a certain level of professionalism and respect for their country in a time of war.
Members of the military can also help get the word out, via the press. Although certain elements of the media will never be friendly to the military, some top journalists who spent their college years and early careers denouncing the military have been converted to a much more favorable view of the military, thanks to the efforts of skilful military officers. Those officers cultivated strong individual relationships with them and showed them that military service is a much more noble occupation than Hollywood or college textbooks had led them to believe. Their bosses, many of whom protested against the Vietnam War, have not been thus influenced and they are sometimes suspicious of those who are becoming more favorable to the military. This problem may improve, albeit slowly, as the younger generation moves higher up the corporate ladders.
Publicizing American heroism is essential today for three reasons. First, it permits a nuanced view of Iraq and Afghanistan, one which cannot be discerned from the daily stories of sectarian murders and the photos of American troops who have just been killed. Second, American troops and the American people become more courageous and resolute when they hear of their countrymen's military heroism and success, past and present. Third, the retelling of heroic deeds bolsters the national culture, at a time when the national culture is eroding. Americans cannot be expected to die for one another without bonds of national culture, and there is nothing that strengthens national culture better than national heroes, be they ancient Greeks or Americans of the 21st century.