On Heroes and Heroism

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: 

Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, on October 25, 2007….

An article about the “focus” of current awarding of the Medal of Honor has appeared here and here with  heated disagreement such as this on the Blackfive Blog here.  The distinction drawn by the author of The Feminization of the Medal of Honor,  Bryan Fischer, contributing editor of The Moral Liberal and  Director of Issue Analysis for Government and Public Policy at the American Family Association is troubling. There are multiple flaws in his logic – questioning whether now the Medal is only awarded for saving of life, vice for actions in attacking and killing the enemy – but the most important is that he simply does not understand the concept of the Medal of Honor, nor the element that links all who have received it.

While it is far beyond me to provide the correct distinction, I believe doing so to be important and that in this controversy lies an opportunity for all of us to reflect and learn. I have found no better discussion than the following  few words from “On Heroes and Heroism,” the January 30, 1991 Forestal Lecture at the United States Naval Academy by James Bond Stockdale, Vice Admiral, United States Navy, Retired, recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions as senior officer while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam:

To the Midshipmen:

By way of your professional education I’ll throw in the fact that the phrase “above and beyond the call of duty,” which must be included in the citation, must be literally true, not just as we hear it in a manner of speaking.  Literally, the phrase means that the act for which the medal is awarded must be beyond the concept of “duty,” an act the recipient could not be properly ordered to perform.  There are some very prestigious medals for heroic performance of duty out there – but this one is reserved only for acts that a person, often without conscious forethought, finds himself doing outside the law (I don’t mean illegally, I mean extra legally, beyond the law), outside the rules of procedure, outside what a decent person would ever feel justified in ordering him to do…

In sociological terms, the society (Congressional Medal of Honor Society) is a diverse group… But to categorize them in what I might call “fitness report” language gets you off on a completely wrong track.  These guys all have one big thing in common:  They will not accept the status quo if it does not meet their standards.  They all have short fuses when predicaments, as they see them, are not tolerable.  For an instant or an hour or a month, each of them has stood up and turned the world around.  “It’s not right that this ticking hand grenade should kill everybody in this foxhole.”  “It’s not right that this company of marines surounded on this mountain top by the Chosin Reservoir should wither and freeze and surrender!  We’re going to break out of here!” “It’s not right that I should bring harm to my fellow prisoners by letting myself be forced to inform on them.”

Nobody gets this medal for his words or his attitude or his consistent high-quality judgement or reliability.  He gets it for a specific act. (And it’s not something he can try to get.)  It all centers on this one impulse:  “No by God,” “Not me,” “Over my dead body.”

 In this sense Sal Giunta’s, Jim Stockdale’s, and Audie Murphy’s act for which they received the Congressional Medal of Honor are in perfect harmony.   Extraordinary and selfless, the actions of these men cannot be parsed as to life saving as compared to  defensive or offensive, or any other distinguisment.  Nor is the medal a linear extrapolation of degree of bravery from the next higest, such as the Navy Cross.  It stands on an entirely different plane. The act, the medal, and the men who receive it are indeed above and beyond.

For more on the thinking of James Stockdale see Wapedia, the Academy of Achievement Interview, the official website, and his book containing the Forrestal Lecture to the Naval Academy Midshipmen. 


16 November, 2010: The Congressional Medal of Honor

Staff Sergeant Salvatore A. Giunta, United States Army



Filed in What Kind of War | Comments Off

Comments are closed at this time.