What Makes a War Hero, According to History

tags: election 2016, John McCain, Trump

Jack Doyle is a Connecticut Yankee turned expatriate who has been pursuing the academic life in the U.K. since 2010. Originally from Hartford, she currently resides in Oxford, where she researches aerial combat in WWII, makes use of her training as a Shakespearean actor, enthusiastically supports Manchester United and attempts to finish several novels.

We’re getting used to Donald Trump peppering his presidential campaign trail with hair-raising remarks. But last year, when he said John McCain was no hero “because he was captured,” the real estate mogul raised more than a few eyebrows on both sides of the aisle. Trump is entitled to his opinion, but it’s not just politicos who raised a stink. Being a “war hero” has strong political and social connotations in American culture, often associated with familiar narratives — ranging from characters as far apart as George Washington and Rambo.

Disruptions to some of these stories have been known to make headline news. Many criticized the movie American Sniper, for example, for portraying the late U.S. Navy sniper Chris Kyle as a hero despite his role in killing civilians overseas. Did Kyle’s unparalleled kill count make him a hero, or a monster? That debate may never be resolved, but it’s worth pointing out that kill “scores” have not always been associated with history’s great warriors.

Throughout early American history, killing didn’t even play into the creation of war heroes. Among Great Plains Native Americans, including the Sioux, Cheyenne and Blackfoot peoples, “counting coup” was the highest possible achievement for a warrior. In the midst of battle, men would try to touch enemies with hands or weapons, not to wound or kill, but to humiliate opponents and gain prestige by coming away unscathed. Lakota Sioux leader Crazy Horse was widely respected for setting up situations where less experienced men could count coup rather than kill their enemies — he recognized that the ritual provided a necessary confidence boost to young warriors in the heat of battle.

Beyond the U.S., other cultures also had definitions of military success that transcend Trump’s interpretation. In 19th- and early-20th-century Germany, for example, military officers with vicious dueling scars were considered more honorable, ferocious and even fashionable than other soldiers. During officer training, young men would practice fencing — without blunted weapons or protection. The winners of these duels weren’t necessarily the best swordsmen, but their ability to endure pain and permanent disfigurement made them heroic in the eyes of those they commanded. 

Elsewhere, specific acts — from the time-honored to the bizarre — have made people stand out in war. In The Iliad and The Odyssey, Odysseus makes his name as a great warrior by trickery, not battlefield brawn. For Maori warriors before the colonization of New Zealand, killing the first opponent in a battle, known as the mataika (“first fish”), elevated a fighter’s status. Across medieval Europe, knights’ bloodiest, most hard-won victories could be invalidated if they disregarded specific codes of chivalry. In a long tradition dating from the days of the samurai to the end of World War II, Japanese soldiers, especially officers, were encouraged to kill themselves before being taken captive. 

And yes, Donald, even prisoners of war have become heroes for having spent time in captivity.  ...

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