Courage in Combat

Valor in battle is determined by camaraderie and fear management. But do genes top character in steeling the bonds of battlefield brotherhood?

June/July VFW Magazine: by Peter Maslowski and Don Winslow

Editor’s Note: This article is a section from Chapter 7 of Looking for a Hero, a biography of Joe R. Hooper, a Medal of Honor recipient and widely acclaimed as the Vietnam War’s most highly decorated soldier. Details on the book appear at the article’s end.

How does God differentiate between cowards and heroes?

That was what Civil War veteran Robert J. Burdette asked in “The Coward,” a chapter in his memoirs. Based on his extensive combat experience, Burdette agonized over questions having no easy answer because “courage” can be enigmatic and malleable.  One of Burdette’s fellow soldiers repeatedly ran away from combat but whenever the next battle occurred he moved forward with his unit, intent on performing courageously, only to flee once again in terror. Was this man a coward because he fled? Or was he courageous because he kept trying despite the demons that made him quail in the face of danger and the personal disgrace he experienced as he sped from the fighting?

Other questions concerning courage are equally difficult to answer. Was Audie Murphy courageous? In the sense of doing incredible battlefield deeds, of exhibiting physical courage, the answer was obviously yes. But Murphy admitted he was deficient in moral courage. Sometimes he refused to act sensibly because “I lack[ed] the guts to take being thought a coward.” He was so fearful of cowardice, of being shamed, that he did “brave” things.  Vietnam veteran and novelist Tim O’Brien knew he went to war only “because I was embarrassed not to”; not going meant shame for himself, his family and friends.  Acting bravely because an individual feared disgrace or ridicule hardly fulfilled the heroic image of valor. Aristotle thought shame-inspired courage was far less commendable than pure courage, of being courageous because it was a wonderful thing to do.

On the other hand, it took guts for a man to reject society’s pressure to conform, to say, “No, I will not go to Vietnam. Consider me a coward, call me a sissy and a faggot. Send me to federal prison. But I will not go.” Here you had a fearless coward. Perhaps more men would have been “cowardly” if they had had more courage.  This article is a section from Chapter 7 of Looking for a Hero, a biography of Joe R. Hooper, a Medal of Honor recipient and widely acclaimed as the Vietnam War’s most highly decorated soldier. Details on the book appear at the article’s end.

http://www.vfw.org/index.cfm?fa=news.magDtl&dtl=1&mid=5056

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