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Heroism, Cowardice, and the National Tragedy of Hidden Guilt

Charles Hayes: Today I feel very differently about the Vietnam War than I did in my youth, but my own feelings of guilt during that time give me a unique kind of insight into the psychology of courage and commitment. America has never had a shortage of courageous citizens willing to take up arms and fight to the death for reasons and causes beyond their own understanding. Arlington Cemetery in Virginia serves as proof. But my sense of the decades since the end of World War II is that America has and is experiencing a courage crisis of shameful origin and of tragic consequence.

Earlier this year, Scott Morrison’s The Energy Caper got me to thinking about the Vietnam War. In this highly entertaining novel of alternative history, that war never happened. Then, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s emotionally exhausting miniseriesThe Pacific reawakened my interest in World War II. Together these works have reignited my curiosity about the psychology of war in general.


As a Marine in the early 1960s, I served two 13-month tours on the island of Okinawa. Although I was familiar with Marine Corps history, and the battle of Okinawa in particular, I had little appreciation for the horrific nature of what it had taken to wrest the island from Japanese occupation in 1945. Now I regret not having asked the residents ofOkinawa who lived through that war what it was like for them, since everyone in their twenties or older in those days would have had vivid memories of the mêlée.

To delve deeper into these issues, my summer reading this year has included With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, by E.B. Sledge, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes,Bare Feet, Iron Will by James G. Zumwalt, War by Sebastian Junger, and The Sorrow of Warby Bao Ninh.

Still very much a part of my own memory of the war in Vietnam is the guilt I felt during the Tet Offensive in the winter of 1968. I was a police officer in Dallas, Texas, at the time, having been discharged from a four-year hitch with the Marines in February 1964, about six months before enlistments became automatically extended. I felt guilty because I was missing action that I had trained for. I wrote a letter of resignation to the police department and began the reenlistment process. I was single at the time, but I owned a home and the mortgage payment alone represented nearly a month’s wages in the Marine Corps. So, unable to sell my home and afraid to try to rent it out and be an absentee landlord while serving overseas, I gave up reenlisting and kept my job.

In hindsight, I believe the guilt I felt was due to an unspoken cultural expectation that has always existed and that will continue to exist for as long as we continue to call ourselves Americans. In a nutshell, it is the belief that in a time of war, able-bodied men will come to the aid of their country. No one has to spell this out; young men sense it, indeed cannot escape it. Reflecting on this feeling of responsibility after reading the above list of books and having thought about this subject for many years, I’ve developed a perspective about the psychology of war that I believe reveals a catastrophic mistake in American foreign policy—a mistake because we should know better.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker takes carful notice of how deeply the need to be a hero is a part of human nature, especially for the males of our species. Becker discusses in depth the need to stand out, to be noticed, to truly matter as an individual. This fundamental need, he suggests, is so much a part of our psyche that if we were to be truly honest with ourselves and admit this reality, it would be “a devastating release of truth.”

Becker says, “To become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life.” And, “This is why human heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog. In the more passive masses of mediocre men it is disguised as they humbly and complainingly follow out the roles that provide for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms—but allowing themselves to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head and shoulders.” This may sound a bit over the top until you take a hard look at the historical record and start to learn about war, not from pundits and politicians, but from the genuine experience of combat veterans.

Today I feel very differently about the Vietnam War than I did in my youth, but my own feelings of guilt during that time give me a unique kind of insight into the psychology of courage and commitment. America has never had a shortage of courageous citizens willing to take up arms and fight to the death for reasons and causes beyond their own understanding. Arlington Cemetery in Virginia serves as proof. But my sense of the decades since the end of World War II is that America has and is experiencing a courage crisis of shameful origin and of tragic consequence.

The authors mentioned above provide vital revelations about war, and when you add to the mix Ernest Becker’s examination of the anxious human need to matter, a stunning insight emerges. The courage crisis, as I see it, began as a deficit of commitment, the reasons for which range from outright cowardice to the narcissistic conceit of exaggerated self-importance. The result has been a continuous roar of bellicose bluster put forth as a smokescreen by individuals whose sole contribution in wartime was, and is, big talk. You see, Becker left something out, something important.

Becker spoke of mediocre individuals who go along grudgingly, often taking the safest path possible to avoid personal injury, but he didn’t dwell on the shirkers who do whatever is necessary to hide in plain sight, escape combat, and then roar loud enough to distract attention from their lack of living up to their own convictions.

Pertinent to this discussion are the following names of politicians, celebrity pundits, clergymen, litigators, Supreme Court Justices, and former vice presidents who all have something in common: Elliott Abrams, Ken Adelman, Roger Ailes, John Ashcroft, Bob Barr, Gary Bauer, Bill Bennett, John Bolton, George W. Bush, Andrew Card, Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay, Jerry Falwell, Steve Forbes, Newt Gingrich, Phil Gramm, Dennis Hastert, Brit Hume, Tim Hutchinson, Trent Lott, Mitch McConnell, Don Nickles, Alan Keyes, Rush Limbaugh, Ted Olson, Bill O’Reilly, Richard Perle, Karl Rove, Antonin Scalia, Michael Savage, Ken Starr, Mark Souder, Clarence Thomas, Dan Quayle, George Will, and Paul Wolfowitz. If you are middle age or older, you may be aware of the significance of this list: These individuals are all saber-rattling hawks, and yet every last one of them avoided combat in Vietnam. Their excuses run the gamut from college deferments to boils on their butt (as was the case with Rush Limbaugh) to simply fearing for their very lives.

From my summer’s reading it’s crystal clear that real warriors—men and women who have been in the thick of prolonged battle—seldom afterwards view war as a viable way to settle differences, any kind of differences. We don’t hear our front-line combat veterans beating war drums and raising hostile rhetoric to hide their shame. To the contrary, most of the men and women who have lived through intense ground war feel shame of a different sort, sometimes that of having survived when others didn’t.

In HBO’s ThePacific, E.B. Sledge, or Sledgehammer as he was called during the war, felt shame seeing the grimace of a dying Japanese soldier he had shot at close range, followed by a sense of embarrassment that such a maudlin sentiment might be an act of betrayal to the members of his own unit. Sledgehammer compared war to a disease or something insane that would forever rid him of the need to appear brave in the eyes of others. War left him with the feeling that his humanity had been degraded; thereafter his distaste for killing would cause him to give up a favored pastime of hunting.

Matterhorn, by Marine combat veteran Karl Marlantes, was the highlight of my summer reading. It is perhaps the best war novel I have ever read. Marlantes brings to the fore the pettiness of personal ambition and the psychological need to be a hero in battle, demonstrating that the consequences of self-serving motives in war lead to death so egregiously outside the bounds of honor that words fail to capture the angst that many readers of the novel are bound to feel. Reading Matterhorn is an emotionally exhausting experience, and even though the book is fiction, it may result in letting some air out of the war- mongering rhetoric so common among people who have never experienced war first-hand.

Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese soldier and author of the award-winning The Sorrow of War, was one of only 10 survivors of what had been a brigade of 500 men. Although the major thrust of his novel is to focus on the devastating effect that war has on human relationships, Ninh tells of unforgettable, earth-shattering carnage in an area he and his fellow soldiers called the Jungle of Screaming Souls. The sky rained arms, legs, and unrecognizable body parts as artillery shells burst around them, leaving the smell of flesh singed with napalm.

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Sebastian Junger spent 15 months embedded with a U.S. Army platoon in easternAfghanistan. In his account, simply titled War, he chronicles the feel of war in an uncommonly revealing examination of the psychological costs of combat. Junger shows the effects of battle fatigue on the psyches of individuals who, after spending so much time in what can only be described as full-throttle stress, get hooked on adrenalin rushes of the intensity that only war can satisfy. Yet, on another level, they learn to hate the very thing from which they derive purpose. The movie The Hurt Locker offers a clear demonstration of this phenomenon.

I understand, in part, what it’s like to get hooked on adrenalin from my experience as a police officer, so I can readily appreciate how veterans of extreme combat become psychological causalities, regardless of whose side is said to have won a war. Veterans of extreme combat experience a time warp in which the recent past is too painful to remember, while the future is degraded for the simple reason that they may not have one. This leaves an exaggerated present where hyper-vigilance is necessary just to stay alive. After a time, combat becomes vital to keep memories of the recent past in the past and the prospect of no future at bay, even though engaging in combat is a great risk. And thus, it becomes an addictive cycle of needing the very thing one needs to escape.

Ernest Becker also pointed out, as have many others, that we humans can only bear so much reality. Posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, would appear to be an overdose of reality. PTSD is an example of what happens when the security that we assume comes from the sanctuary of our culture is overwritten with a foreboding and unrelenting expectation of chaos, and once the psychological refuge is gone, it’s hard to recover. The tragic result is that the present suicide rate of American service men and women now rivals the number of casualties in actual combat.

In Bare Feet, Iron Will, James G. Zumwalt, a retired Marine infantry officer and son of Elmo R. Zumwalt (Commander Naval Forces Vietnam) writes about the tenacity and self-sacrifice of our former enemy, the North Vietnamese Army and of their legendary resourcefulness. Most Americans have no earthly idea what hardships the North Vietnamese experienced during the war (we dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than were used in the Pacific Theatre during all of World War II), but still they prevailed. Zumwalt’s book reveals something terribly important but missing from an American perspective: to all living Americans, war is something that happens elsewhere. With the exception of Pearl Harbor our collective memory of war on our shores died with the last veterans of the Civil War, which means that those in our midst who are quick to advocate war know little of what they speak.

The crisis of courage America has been experiencing since the war in Vietnam is due in no small part to the bellicose belligerence of individuals whose tough talk is both a conscious and subconscious effort to cover their own loss of face over having ducked out when their conscience told them they should do otherwise. (Although accusing some of these individuals of having a conscience may be too generous, others no doubt thought they were simply too good for war or too important.) If you are too young to be aware of the role that the above list of combat-shirkers has played in setting the tenor and tone of America’s foreign policy, a bit of googling will make it clear. In total, their collective influence is hard to overestimate, and their rhetorical contribution to the build-up to the war in Iraq in particular is more than enough to make the point.

If I felt guilty about not reenlisting during the peak of the Vietnam War, then you have to wonder what gnaws at the individuals who took whatever string-pulling actions were necessary to avoid combat without declaring a political stance against the war. Outspoken protest would have taken courage too. No, these people are courageous only when it comes to risking the lives of others but not their own, and they are still blowing smoke to compensate for their lack of valor.

Here is the psychological kicker: not to participate in a war thought by oneself to be just, is to give up one’s chance to be a hero. The Bill O’Reillys and Rush Limbaughs of the world are doomed to a submissive task like that of Sisyphus, but instead of pushing a boulder uphill they have to shout warrior-like bravado loud enough to drown out the roar of their own self-disgust for not stepping up when it was time to walk their talk. Now, it is their ill-fated ignominy to have to appear tough every time public discourse begins to touch on subjects that reveal weakness—weakness of any kind (recall the termfeminazi?) because such discourse has the potential to reveal their hypocrisy in present-day conversation.

These people are amped up to talk war at the drop of a hat, and when they get together they frequently appear to try to up the ante of their daring. In late July 2010, for example, in a speech at an American Enterprise event, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich advocated attacking Iran and North Korea to follow through on former President Bush’s Axis of Evil declaration. So, the real tragedy is not their lack of war-time contribution, but rather their perpetual bluster, because eagerness for war reveals a dark human weakness: war fever is contagious. War is a bonding mechanism like no other. It takes an extraordinary amount of courage and character to show restraint as nationalistic enthusiasm for war escalates into a frenzy of misguided patriotism.

A greater misfortune, however, is the fact that the general public does not see through war-mongering bluster for what it is: a desperate effort to distract attention and move the subject along while catching a metaphorical ride with war-talk on the heroism of people with whom they are unfit to be associated. Worse still, is the existentially heartbreaking thought that a psychological camouflage for the spinelessness of the chicken-hawks is the actual reason our troops are in Iraq today: to hide the shame of this splinter group of hypocrites eager for others to voluntarily sacrifice themselves in battle so that they may appear today as super-patriots instead of cowards.

The underlying psychological motivation of the hunt for “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq was for all practical purposes an exercise of exhibiting pseudo-patriotism. The effort was most strongly championed by those with a need to turn the spotlight away from their own cowardice and to share in the heroism of real service men and women, as if their belated bravado would be of equal worth.

I believe the Iraq War will someday be considered one of the biggest blunders in the history of American foreign policy. That our combat troops have left Iraq is a hopeful step, but the economic and foreign policy fallout from our actions will take decades to unravel. Moreover, the iron will of the North Vietnamese is a lesson for Afghanistan because any culture capable of demonstrating a strong sense of honor will likely never submit to a forceful occupation in their homeland. They will resist longer than we are prepared to persist simply because they are home while our troops rotate. The French learned this in Vietnam, as did some of us Americans, while many others obviously did not. The Russians learned the futility of occupation in Afghanistan while we looked on, and yet, despite all of our historical experience, we have shown little signs of understanding the psychology of war.

Charles Hayes

In an epigraph at the beginning of War, Sebastian Junger quotes Lord Moran in The Anatomy of Courage, where he writes, “By cowardice I do not mean fear. Cowardice ... is a label we reserve for something a man does. What passes through his mind is his own affair.”

Oh, if only it were true, for surely what passes through their mouths has weighed on their minds.
Charles D. Hayes

Cross posted with Self-University Newsletter.