Air University Review, March-April 1984
Captain Mark S. Braley
Sing in me, Muse, and through me
THE American military hero, "skilled in all ways of contending"where has he gone? Like Odysseus of old, he seems lost on his own odyssey, borne away on waves of public mistrust cast up by the weapons of mass destruction. And like Odysseus, today's military hero will find his way back to Ithaca only by using his wits and retaining his faith in the gods.
Two recent occurrences turned my thoughts to the question of the vanishing American military hero. First was my re-reading of Homer's epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. When we hear the names Hector, Achilles, and Odysseus, we identify them as men who were heroes. Their names evoke images of bloody battles and feats of physical skill and endurance. Their qualities of leadership, fortitude, and charisma serve to set them apart as giants on the battlefield. And though these mighty ancient warriors are mythological characters, the artistry of the blind poet was such that we seem them as human, with human emotions and frustrations. Their human qualities, beyond their superhuman skills, are why they merit our study and serve as a fair yardstick by which to measure our own successes and failings in the art of heroism.
The second event that sparked my search for our lost heroes was my recent viewing of a film chronicling the destruction at Nagasaki and Hiroshima and discussing the effects of a thermonuclear blast. Scenes in the film depicted people with all the terrible afflictions we have come to associate with nuclear war.
The occasion for the film was my last chemical warfare refresher training, a short course designed to instruct us on the wearing of the chemical warfare ensemble, the different types of chemical agents, their effects, and how to counteract those effects. Man has created quite a smorgasbord of chemical weapons with which to incapacitate his fellow man, from mild lacrimators to blood and nerve agents. It is not enough that one may assail his enemy with projectiles lobbed from a comfortable distance. Now one can give his opponent claustrophobia in the open plain by contaminating the air he breathes or choke him insidiously by means of a substance that creeps through his skin and grabs that space in the blood cell reserved for oxygen. Breaking down the central nervous system has also become an effective alternative. After listening to the recitation on the capabilities of Soviet chemical weapons, practicing donning my mask, and stabbing my thigh several times with a dummy antidote injector, I was in a very reflective mood.
At this point, some people may be wondering "who is this guy?" I am a United States Air Force officer thoroughly committed to supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States. I fully understand and support our U.S. policy of deterrence, the "uncomfortable paradox" as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger has referred to it.2 In becoming an Air Force officer I worked myself through the paradox, reconciling myself to the requirements of an effective deterrent posture. Having done this sets me apart from what I believe to be a majority of Americans who have not worked out in detail what the concept of deterrence requires of us.
In this article, I shall present an image of how the American public might view the military man in the context of the era of nuclear deterrence. I hope that it will provide serving military professionals with an insight into public perceptions. I believe that the better we understand how our people might perceive the military profession under modern, nuclear conditions, the better we can ensure continuing public support for policies that are essential for the security of our nation. In general, I think that the existence and nature of nuclear weapons make it difficult for today's Americans to look to the military profession as a source of heroes. This situation might be changed if certain new forms of technology fulfill their promise.
Before I go any further, I'd better lay down my definition of a hero. I've culled bits and pieces of my hero from the various definitions in Webster's New World Dictionary, so let me quote all five definitions:
1. Myth & Legend: a man of great strength and courage, favored by the gods and in part descended from them, often regarded as a half-god and worshipped after his death. 2. Any man admired for his courage, nobility, or exploits, especially in war. 3. Any man admired for his qualities or achievements and regarded as an ideal or model. 4. The central male character in a novel, play, poem, etc., with whom the reader or audience is supposed to sympathize; protagonist. 5. The central figure in any important event or period, honored for outstanding qualities.3
In characterizing my model hero let me start with Webster's fifth definition. The hero we lack today is the person of truly heroic proportions who history, one hundred years from now, will look back upon and say: "There was a hero." I'm talking about a prominent figure, someone in the public eye. In that way, I'm eliminating all the "Real People" heroes. The guy next door who saves a child by running into a burning house or the soldier who covers a live grenade with his own body to save a friend has certainly acted heroically, but in the long run, who's going to remember Bob Smith from 403 Jackson Street or Lieutenant Joe Jones from Company C?
From definitions three and four my hero becomes a man (or woman) whom others admire and wish to emulatethe ideal. At the same time, we sympathize with that person, or rather, we empathize with him. We can project our personality into his and understand him because, like us, he is human.
Definition two: courage, nobility, exploits. The person has done something. For the military hero, that necessarily means wartime acts of greatness. The key word here, though, is nobility. Nobility implies integrity, honesty, and a moral and ethical purity.
Finally, the first definition, though seemingly unsuited to my purposes, rounds out the qualities envisioned in my hero. This hero is "a man of great strength"a physical hero who loves the feel of the fight. And this hero, half-god, like the gods of the Greeks, is able to stand back and look at the skirmish from a distance. He is aware of the true order of things and where man's petty squabbles fit in.
With this view of heroes in mind, let us now consider two scenes. The first is an excerpt from The Iliad. The Akhaian forces are hemmed in against the shore, valiantly trying to stave off the Trojans led by Hector, who are making a powerful surge to reach and burn the Akhaian ships. Akhilleus, angered at the Akhaian commander, Agamémnon, has withdrawn from the battle, but now sends his close companion, Patgróklos, wearing Akhilleus' armor to try to turn the tide.
|And Patróklos cried above them all:
O Myrmidons, brothers-in-arms of Pęleus' son,
fight like men, dear friends, remember courage,
let us win honor for the son of Pęleus!
He is the greatest captain on the beach,
his officers and soldiers are the bravest!
Let King Agamémnon learn his folly
in holding cheap the best of the Akhaians!
Shouting so, he stirred their hearts. They
Certainly, this is a scene in which any American can recognize the heroes.
Compare that scene with this admittedly unlikely scenario: Soviet officials have seen their hard-earned superiority in nuclear forces seriously threatened as the NATO alliance prepares for the deployment of advanced medium-range ballistic missiles in Western Europe. In addition, U.S. plans for deploying the MX missile in hardened Titan missile silos have been completed. The Soviets, confident of their ability to win a nuclear conflict and convinced that no time will be better, launch preemptive nuclear strike against the United States. In response, the President orders the launching of U.S. missiles. Now there is nothing for each man to do but "keep an eye out for retreat from sudden death." But there is no retreat.
Again, this scenario is unlikely and oversimplified, but specific scenarios are beside the point. More to the point is the fact that many Americans can envision a possible nuclear war, but they probably cannot see the possibility of an American hero emerging from such a war. They cannot envision a U.S. military leader going home after it's over (provided he still has a home) and being greeted by his smiling wife with a kiss and the words, "My hero!" On the other hand, wouldn't it seem perfectly natural for Patróklos to return home to a wife proud of her man who has fought so hard for a just cause? I'm assuming, of course, that any war fought by the United States will be a just one. Would it be possible to lionize an American military leader as a hero after a nuclear exchange between the two superpowers? I think not.
From many quarters today, one hears expressions of public concern. From the no-nukes movement to the letter from the bishops of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church calling for a halt to the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear arms, more and more Americans are questioning their nation's nuclear arms stance. The fact that the issue came up for debate in Congress, even though the result was a pale shadow of the original resolution, shows that the nuclear question is a genuine concern for the U.S. public.
The belief prevalent among dissenters (whose numbers seem to be growing) is that nuclear weapons are excessively destructive. In the minds of these dissenters, the extensive collateral destruction and death that would be associated with general nuclear war conflict with the West's basic Judeo-Christian ethic, which states "thou shalt not kill" and tells us to turn the other cheek.5
Given this turbulence in public perceptions, the circumstances just do not seem right for a military hero to step forth and claim lasting recognition. But, just as Odysseus probably said to his companions as they huddled together in the Cyclops's cave, we can now declare: "There is a way out." As I noted at the beginning, we must use our wits and rely on our gods. The stone in front of our cave is the atomic bomb. However, we must not be so naive as to think that we can simply dismantle our nuclear weaponry and then go marching into the arena of world conflict to snatch the victor's spoils. Unless the Soviets can be convinced to follow suit, that avenue would be not only foolhardy but probably suicidal. If we refer again to our Homeric model, unilateral disarmament would be equivalent to Odysseus' killing the Cyclops, Polyphemos, before the giant moved the stone, leaving Odysseus and his men trapped within the cave. Similarly, just as Odysseus used Polyphemos to gain freedom for himself and his men, we must maintain our nuclear deterrent and let it work for us by earning valuable research time.
As one looks back through history, the normal pattern in weapons development is readily discernible. A weapon is created by one side and copied by the other. Then follows a stage of refinement until one side, seeking to gain the advantage, develops a new weapon that renders the old weapon obsolete. The process repeats itself down through the ages. Finally, mankind has arrived at the present stop-offthe nuclear era.
Many Americans see nuclear weapons as the end of the line. They believe we have created the ultimate destructive force that negates all other weapons. We have reached the stage of final refinement. What a despairing attitude! How un-American is that defeatist attitude which says we have reached our limit! To a people who have placed a man on the moon; to a people who can hurl men and women into space as easily as David let fly his deadly stone, and then greet those space fliers exiting their craft as though they'd been on a cross-town bus trip; to a people who can build an artificial heart or defeat a cancerous growth; to a people who celebrate the words of John Paul Jones, "I have not yet begun to fight!;" to all who take pride in our country's achievementshow it must grate to hear their compatriots say: "I give up."
One person has not given up. Yet if many of today's press editorials are to be believed, he is the most unlikely of sources for a solution. President Reagan has toed the hard line on almost every nuclear weapons issue. He has pushed for higher defense spending since his first day in office. In pursuit of strategic force modernization and effective arms negotiations, he has backed the MX, the cruise missile, missile deployment in Western Europe, and the B-1B bomber; in short, he has pushed for everything that will make our country stronger and deter Soviet expansionism. He has offered realistic arms reduction proposals to the Soviets in an effort to curtail further arms buildups. The Soviets have not responded in a positive fashion. Because of this, Reagan is the name on all the signs carried by protesters marching across the United States and Western Europe. Yet he is right. Despite the public's fear of nuclear war, we must be strong or we shall see our allies fall prey to the Soviets while our own security is severely threatened. In light of this, it is ironic that this man who is so unpopular with protesters and who has led our nation in the modernization of her deterrence forces should be the first to put his shoulder to the stone; he has taken the initial steps to lead us out of the cave.
On 23 March 1983, President Reagan delivered a speech calling for intensified research into the development of missile defense technology. We now stand at the brink of phase three for weapons development, when a new weapon system explodes upon the scene to send an older weapon to the museum. In this case, explodes is the wrong term, since the next generation of weapons will serve to defuse an already explosive situation. An expanded research and development program should speed up this replacement processa process that will be accompanied by a concomitant shift of public perceptions.
We can now look to the possibility of being able to neutralize a nuclear attack through the use of weapons employing laser and particle-beam technology. This idea is doubly thrilling. The extreme satisfaction one gets from overcoming a problem through human ingenuity is coupled with the relief and joy anticipated with the lifting of the nuclear yoke. Seemingly the trend of modern warfare will be reversed. "After all," says Michael Walzer, "it might be said, the purpose of soldiers is to escape reciprocity, to inflict more damage on the enemy than he can inflict on them"6 In this case, we will be using our wits to "escape reciprocity" by preventing damage to ourselves. Rather than a reversal of military thought, new defensive technology will reaffirm the traditional U.S. military stance. Our weapons will be truly defensive rather than retaliatory. War will cease to present a possibility of leading to an unthinkable and unwinnable nuclear exchange but will return once more to the chess-like profession of move and countermove. When that day comes, it will be as though the umpire had shouted, "Play ball!" after watching the clouds break that threatened to rain out the game, and those of our "fans" in the American public who had left the stands will be able to return.
What does all this mean in regard to today's and tomorrow's American military hero? For one thing, it means that our military leaders must seize this opportunity to try to shed the nuclear yoke in favor of the new generation of defensive weapons. This is a great chance to get the public, whom we serve, to understand that we all abhor the possibility of nuclear war, and thus to begin a shift in public perceptions that will again lead Americans to look to the military for heroes.
Some may be tempted to say that the new technology will signal the beginning of the end to war. All true soldiers hope and pray for that result, but it is not likely. As William James once wrote, " war-taxes are the only ones men never hesitate to pay, as the budgets of all nations show us."7 Far more likely, war in the era of these new defensive weapons would be a more tempting alternative without the threat of the ultimate calamity. For this reason, the American military man, if he aspires to the title of hero, must also, as I stated metaphorically, rely on his faith in his gods. By that I mean that he must be guided by his belief in things superhuman, whether the Christian God or simply a value system that says there is such a thing as an ultimate good. The risk of uncontrolled destructiveness, so great with nuclear weapons because of their potential for spilling over upon the innocents of war, will be reduced or eliminated with a return to more limited forms of warfare. The military hero will again be free to display his nobilityto choose the right path without the risk of Armageddon, to fight for the just cause, and, when the situation warrants it, to show compassion.
The removal of the nuclear risk will roll away the stone from the mouth of the cave at least temporarily and allow Odysseus his triumphant return to Ithaca. Our hero will be able to climb from his hole lined with buttons and return to the battlefield and the physical "feel" of the fight. His courageous deeds and noble leadership will again be apparent.
The way has been opened, and we must take it. Short of worldwide nuclear disarmament, the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demand it. For us in the service of our country it represents a return to the traditions that link us to the heroes of Homer.
In that vase, Akhilleus, hero, lie your pale bones mixed with mild Patróklos' bones, who died before you, and nearby lie the bones of Antilokhos, the one you care for most of all companions after Patróklos.
We of the Old Army, we who were spearmen, heaped a tomb for these upon a foreland over Hellę's waters, to be a mark against the sky for voyagers in this generation and those to come You perished, but your name will never die. It lives to keep all men in mind of honor forever 8
Travis AFB, California
1. Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fitzgerald (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1961), p. 11.
2. Address, delivered at Fordham University, New York City, 28 April 1983.
3. David B. Guralnik, Editor in Chief, Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (Cleveland and New York: William Collins & World Publishing Company, 1974), p. 657.
4. Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fitzgerald (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1974), p. 385.
5. For a recent discussion of the Judeo-Christian influence on American views of nuclear deterrence and nuclear war, see Donald L. Davidson, "Religions Strategists: The Churches and Nuclear Weapons," Parameters, December 1983, pp. 19-29.
6. Michael Walzer, "Moral Judgement in Time of War," in War and Morality, edited by Richard A. Wasserstrom (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1970), p. 56.
7. William James, "The Moral Equivalent of War," in War and Morality, p. 5.
8. Homer, Odyssey, pp. 411-12.
Captain Mark S. Braley (USAFA) is an AFIT student at Stanford University. While a cadet at USAFA, he had several poems and a short story published in the cadet creative writing magazine. He graduated as Outstanding Cadet in English for 1979 and was then assigned as an English instructor at USAFA Preparatory School. Later he served as a Maintenance Officer on C-5s at Travis AFB, California. In 1982, he wasa awarded the Airlift Association Young Officer Leadership Award and was named the 60th Military Airlift Wing Junior Officer of the Year. In 1983, Captain Braley was recognized as the California Air Force Association Company Grade Officer of the Year. His article is first-prize winner in the third annual Ira C. Eaker Essay Competition.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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