What Makes a War Hero, According to History - OZY | A Modern Media Company

What Makes a War Hero, According to History

What Makes a War Hero, According to History

By Jack Doyle


Because you shouldn’t mess with war heroes.

By Jack Doyle

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.

Even soldiers who failed to distinguish themselves in combat have had their legacies transformed by their time as POWs.

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Chief Gall (Phizi), Hunkpapa Lakota leader and one of the commanders in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Source Public Domain

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. Look no further than Winston Churchill: The great statesman’s initial fame came not from his military or political prowess, but from having been taken prisoner — and waging a daring escape — as a journalist during the Boer War.

Even soldiers who failed to distinguish themselves in combat have had their legacies transformed by their time as POWs. In Britain, men like Roger Bushell, who orchestrated the “great escape” from Stalag Luft III during World War II, received posthumous awards for their dedication, courage and ingenuity. Although the massive escape Bushell organized ended in tragedy, it mobilized thousands of German soldiers and civilians, diverting their attention away from the war effort.

For many European veterans of World War I, historian Adam Luptak explains, disabilities and time spent as POWs were the deciding factors in what made a hero and “granted privileged positions in their postwar societies.” Some even “pointed to their injuries as evidence of heroism and manliness,” Luptak says — not solely to proclaim their military service but “because their actual injuries and experiences caused them so much pain.” This idea certainly applied to World War II POW Louis Zamperini, whose story of suffering — left adrift on the Pacific Ocean for over a month only to be captured by the Japanese and subjected to unimaginable torture — was told in the Oscar-nominated film Unbroken.

In an era of drones and torture, heroes and villains are no longer black-and-white concepts. But the idea of the war hero still resonates with combatants and civilians alike. For soldiers, imagining the battlefield in such mythical terms can make fulfilling their duty more bearable and logical. For politicians, heroes can bring morality and legitimacy to a compromised political combat zone. 

Warfare is changing, and the word “hero” is adapting along with it. And, as Trump discovered after slighting McCain, soldiers still enjoy a unique social currency, one they’ve had since Homer’s day. “War hero” may not be a term everyone can agree on, but no matter how you define it, it remains one hell of a force.

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