Are we a society that no longer has heroes? Have we become so indifferent and cynical that men and women doing heroic things are seldom reported and hardly noticed, and consequently neither celebrated nor emulated? Are we now too sophisticated to become caught up in something so yesterday as a “hero,” while news coverage goes to thugs who shut down a campus speaker and perhaps even destroy property, all while behaving in ways that they themselves consider virtuous and courageous?
So, where did our heroes go?
Admittedly, it’s a stretch to find public officials nowadays in politics or academia whose actions would qualify as heroic. Our Hollywood celebrity culture provides an endless supply of shallow, egocentric, sparsely talented individuals who provide us not only with the fruits of their “craft,” but with their standard, spineless lecturing as their enlightened gift to the rest of us, the great unwashed.
The sporting world has become so soiled with cheating, pampered, self-absorbed athletes and coaches, and so driven by college and professional organizations that devalue longstanding virtues like loyalty and integrity, that past sports giants like Tom Landry, John Wooden, and Vince Lombardi would likely turn away in disgust. In addition, the corporate world has had its share of arrogant industry titans who have lied, bilked, and bullied their way to lifetime riches with astonishing collateral damage to their companies, customers, and stockholders.
There have been eighteen Medals of Honor awarded to American service members during the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and two more for service in Somalia. How many Americans have seen television or print media coverage of these men? How many Americans have seen the photos and heard the stories of all twenty? Or perhaps even two or three? Is this confirmation that we no longer have any heroes?
No, I don’t believe so.
Heroes are still among us. U.S. Airways pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landing his stricken airplane safely in the Hudson River is one of them. So are the 343 New York City firefighters who climbed up those smoky stairwells and perished on that hard, dark September 11th day at the World Trade Center. There was 75 firehouses in New York in which at least one member was killed. Were these not heroes? Or the three young American service members who prevented a terrorist attack on a Paris train?
Americans still pull their fellow citizens from rain-swollen rivers. Single moms hold jobs, raise kids, and sometimes even go back to school. Dads teach their children about faithfulness, kindness, and sacrifice. Cancer patients, both young and old, fight back against their disease, often against overwhelming odds, and still give much of themselves to their families, churches, and communities. They are heroes, all. We are still a nation that needs it heroes, even without the high profile, to provide us with examples to follow, to cause us to remember our past, to give us reason for hope and encouragement.
I am a proud former U.S. Marine who marvels at the story of Corporal Kyle Carpenter, USMC, one of the twenty Medal of Honor awardees referenced above. In Afghanistan in 2010, Corporal Carpenter moved toward an enemy grenade to shield his fellow Marines from the blast. Kyle suffered extensive facial and limb damage and underwent multiple surgeries, not to mention enduring enough physical pain to last multiple lifetimes. And I couldn’t possibly comprehend the mental agony he has also bravely endured. After a three-year hospitalization and a medical retirement, Kyle became a college student. He is a survivor, a fighter, and an inspiration. He is a Marine, by God, in the very best way. And he is a hero.
So, it’s a fact that all the heroes didn’t get up and leave. They’re still here. Just like always.
Look around and I’ll bet you can find one. And when you do, thank them for staying.
For more on Kyle and other Medal of Honor recipients, follow this link.
My interest in the Civil War began in earnest in elementary school in Atlanta, a city with a strong Civil War association. I also developed a particular attraction to Gone with the Wind—first the movie, then the book. After all, Tara was the fictional plantation just outside Atlanta, and GWTW author and Pulitzer Prize winner Margaret Mitchell lived and worked (and later tragically died) in Atlanta. Additionally, on the property of the Atlanta Zoo was the Cyclorama, a large 360-degree painting depicting the Battle of Atlanta in astonishing detail. Twenty miles to the northwest, there was Kennesaw Mountain where the Confederate army attempted to slow the inexorable Union army campaign that had Atlanta in its sights. So, Atlanta had the battlefields, the paintings, and the historical markers from the real, and Gone with the Wind from the imagined.
As a teenager, my mother was among the estimated 300,000 fascinated onlookers who, on Friday, December 15, 1939, stood in the cold and awaited the arrival of Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, and other celebs for the world premiere of GWTW. Twenty years later, the movie returned to the same Loew’s Grand Theater, this time with only a smattering of the original fanfare. It was then that I, as a boy, attended a showing of the film with my mother and grandmother, both of whom seemed to spend much of the movie in tears. The poignant scene of the thousands of Confederate wounded lying in the streets of Atlanta didn’t cause me to join in the crying, but it stayed in my memory as a reminder that war is cruel, ugly, and tragic. More than anything else, that scene is why I remember GWTW the movie.
A bit of irony here: Atlanta’s Loew’s Grand Theater was heavily damaged by fire in 1978, as was much of the same surrounding area in the summer of 1864 during that most unpleasant visit by Union Gen. W. T. Sherman.
Later, I became interested in GWTW the book. I learned about the life of Margaret Mitchell, how she developed the story and characters, and how she handled the remarkable success her novel achieved. In 2014, a Harris Poll found GWTW to be the second favorite book of American readers, second only to the Bible. More than 30 million copies have been printed worldwide. Ms. Mitchell wrote one novel, sold tens of millions of copies, was awarded a Pulitzer, and thereafter lived the life of a celebrity. As a fellow novelist, about the only way in which I can compare myself to Margaret Mitchell is in our common hometown of Atlanta. And while I have recently released a Civil War novel of my own, the chances of That Deadly Space overtaking Gone with the Wind are roughly equivalent to my making the Braves and then winning a major league batting title. But that’s okay. My book’s chances for success are not dependent upon a comparison to GWTW.
With all her accomplishments, however, things didn’t end well for Ms. Mitchell. A speeding automobile struck her as she crossed Peachtree Street at 13th Street in Atlanta with her husband, John Marsh, while on her way to see a movie on the evening of August 11, 1949. She died at Grady Hospital five days later without ever regaining consciousness. Ms. Mitchell was 48 years old at the time of her death.
The Atlanta of Margaret Mitchell’s day is very different from the Atlanta of today. And there are few if any signs of the Atlanta of Margaret Mitchell’s imagination. Still, the connection of Atlanta, Gone with the Wind, and Ms. Mitchell will remain through the ages.
Full disclosure here—I’m a history buff from the South. Certainly I’m not the only one who has wondered how history might have turned had the Civil War ended in a stalemate, which for the South would have been tantamount to victory. Improbable though it may have been, just suppose for a moment that it did happen, and with these possible consequences:
- Robert E. Lee would be elected the second President of the Confederate States of America. Lee would issue his own Emancipation Proclamation and end slavery before slavery ended the Confederacy. Lee would see slavery as the immoral condition it is, not to mention that as long as an economic model of slave labor was maintained, the South would lose its trading partners in Europe, the USA, and much of the rest of the mercantile world.
- Lee would lead the effort to reunite the country and add Yankee capital and industrial expertise into a transformation of the Southern economy.
- President Lee would suffer a fatal heart attack less than a year into his administration, throwing the Confederate government into chaos.
- Mexico, seeing an opportunity, would invade Texas and be soundly defeated in just under an hour. Texas would then annex Mexico and declare itself the Republic of Texas.
- France, seeing an opportunity, would invade New Orleans. Louisiana would appeal to nearby Texas, who would intercede on Louisiana’s behalf. France would then be soundly defeated in a little over an hour. Texas would thereafter annex Louisiana.
- Spain, seeing an opportunity, would launch an invasion of Florida from its base in Cuba.
- Great Britain, seeing an opportunity, would invade coastal Georgia. British troops would claim Savannah, Georgia, and commence their own version of Sherman’s March, but in reverse.
- Florida and Georgia would then appeal for help from the Confederate government. The Confederate government would become paralyzed with uncertainty and discord.
- Italy, seeing an opportunity, would attempt an invasion of North Carolina. The flotilla would become lost and seize Bermuda instead.
- Bermuda would appeal first to the British, who are bogged down in Georgia, and then to the Confederacy for help. The Confederate government would become further paralyzed with uncertainty and discord.
- The bewildered Confederacy would finally appeal to the USA for help. The USA would issue its unconditional terms: Reunion as one nation, the United States of America, with the USA’s national flag, nation anthem, and national currency. And positively no grits permitted in Northern restaurants.
- The Confederate government would reluctantly agree.
- The newly augmented USA military would soundly defeat the Spanish and British in Florida and Georgia in a little under a week.
- Using ships made in Mexico at a lower cost, the Republic of Texas Navy would then sail to Bermuda, expel the Italians, and annex the island.
- During negotiations, the USA and the Republic of Texas would quarrel over the terms of reunion, specifically the national flag.
- The Republic of Texas would eventually agree to give back Mexico, Louisiana, and Bermuda (and by that time, California) and rejoin the Union immediately prior to the outbreak of World War I.
- Bermuda would become known for its pizza parlors and barbeque joints.
- All would end well.
Yeah, right. Cheers.
(Note: My new Civil War historical novel, That Deadly Space, is available at this Amazon link.)
The Civil War still matters to a great many Americans, even with the passage of more than 150 years since Robert E. Lee’s surrender to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in April, 1865. An estimated 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died during the conflict, giving their last full measure of devotion in a war whose cost in lives and property was unimaginable at the start. The death toll went on to claim 2% of the population, which in today’s terms would equate to six-million battlefield dead.
So why does the war still matter?
Civil War historian Shelby Foote said that before the war, our representatives referred to the country as “these” United States, but afterwards it became “the” United States. The war established who we are as a nation, and what we are. Likewise, it established what we are not. Millions of immigrants flooded to America based upon the values that the nation nurtures and embodies. Freedom. Opportunity. Self-determination. Self-sufficiency. They still come. They become Americans. In addition, they learn about the connection of the Civil War to the freedom of all citizens.
Slavery was abolished, and the South’s economic model of a slave economy was forever eradicated. President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a 273-word masterpiece that ranks as one of the nation’s most important speeches, referred to the “unfinished work” that would be needed to guarantee “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.” That work remains unfinished with regard to race relations, even though significant progress has been made. Our journey as a nation and as a people continues, albeit imperfectly and sometimes slowly.
At the brutal war’s end, Lincoln and Grant extended generous surrender terms to the defeated Confederates—an important first step in unifying the country. Years later, the U.S. was magnanimous toward the defeated Axis nations at the conclusion of World War II, very much akin to the standard established at the end of the Civil War. Thus, Germany and Japan became important post-war allies as a result.
There is still great interest in the war, from the well-preserved battlefields to the many fascinating figures of the era. Leaders and commanders such as Lincoln, Lee, Grant, Jackson, Sherman, and Forrest are still written and read about widely. Clara Barton and Belle Boyd are also appealing characters. Such Civil War topics as infantry tactics, weaponry, logistics, communications, and medicine are still studied by historians and military professionals.
Since 1865, this nation has freed the slaves, produced the American Century, won two world wars, birthed the Greatest Generation, cured diseases, become the “shining city upon a hill,” and landed men on the moon. Our history, like our present, is far from perfect, but America’s greatness is unquestionably linked to the sacrifice of those 620,000 men in bringing the nation to the place it now occupies.
Yes, the Civil War still matters.
And always will.
Gerald Gillis is the award-winning author of the Civil War historical novel That Deadly Space.
That Deadly Space, my new historical novel concerning the Civil War, is now available in paperback and Kindle with this Amazon link.
Below is a brief description of That Deadly Space:
The Civil War has begun in earnest. Conor Rafferty joins the Confederate army as a young infantry officer against the wishes of his father who, in his Irish anger, is adamantly opposed to a war with the North. Conor soon finds himself in many of the war’s most consequential battles, leading from the front and risking all inside that deadly space. He serves with distinction in General Robert E. Lee’s celebrated Army of Northern Virginia as it seeks the crowning victory that will end the war and stop the carnage. Along the way, Conor becomes a protégé of fellow Georgian John B. Gordon who eventually rises to command a Confederate army corps. At the conclusion of each chapter, the narrative transitions to the now aged Conor who answers the probing questions of his grandson Aaron, himself a captain in the U.S. Army and scheduled for duty in Europe during World War I. The grandfather and grandson thus spend a week together—a week of sharing, learning, and bonding. That Deadly Space is a compelling tale that portrays the drama, heroism, romance, and tragedy of the Civil War.
For the Civil War aficionados among you, you may recognize the Don Troiani cover. I was delighted to be able to use it with this novel.
For those of you who are intent upon purchasing That Deadly Space, I say thank you. And for those who have supported me in the past with my other novels, a heartfelt thank you, as well. As always, book reviews posted on Amazon are always appreciated by authors, this one included.
Once again it is the occasion of the U.S. Marine Corps’ birthday, and I often think about this officer when I consider the Corps’ rich heritage. His name was Michael P. Ryan. In 1973, I was about to complete my obligation to the Marines and would soon leave Okinawa to return home to my wife and two young sons in Atlanta. By chance, I happened to be in the Officers Club one night when Gen Ryan, the Commanding General of the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force, dropped by as a guest of our Battalion Commander. I introduced myself to Gen. Ryan and informed him that I would soon rotate home and separate from the Marine Corps.
Gen. Ryan graciously thanked me for my service. I noticed the Navy Cross medal he wore, the highest decoration the Naval Service can award for combat valor, second only to the Medal of Honor. In addition, I remembered from my study of Marine Corps history that he had served with great distinction at the bloody World War II battle of Tarawa in November 1943.
“General,” I asked, “what’s the one thing you remember most from Tarawa?”
Gen. Ryan replied without hesitation, “The salute.”
The battle of Tarawa was the first U.S. offensive in Central Pacific. To get to Japan, the Americans needed to take the Marianas; to take the Marianas, the U.S. needed to take the Marshalls; and to take the Marshalls, it was necessary to take Betio, on the western side of Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.
Tarawa was the first U.S. invasion that was opposed at the landing beaches. Planners had expected a rising tide to provide a five-foot depth over the reef, but the depth was only three feet. The Higgins boats ferrying the Marines from ship to shore needed four feet of depth. Consequently, Marines had to wade ashore under murderous fire, greatly slowing their progress. “Situation in doubt” was communicated to the top U.S. commanders.
Casualties in first waves were shocking. It was a scene of utter chaos and destruction. Still, the young Marines kept advancing.
Then-Maj. Mike Ryan landed his company to the west of the main landing areas where he consolidated the stragglers from units that had been obliterated on the beaches. Suddenly, out of the smoke comes an old staff sergeant, dragging a wounded hip, who sought out Maj. Ryan and asked what he could do to assist. When Maj. Ryan explained the situation and suggested a leadership role for the sergeant, the man straightened, voiced a resolute “aye-aye, sir,” and gave a crisp Marine Corps salute.
The attack was a success and provided pressure on the enemy’s right flank, which eventually broke. The battle turned on Maj. Ryan’s audacious gallantry and inspiring leadership. The Japanese commander had said before the battle that it would take a million Marines a hundred years to take Tarawa. It took Maj. Mike Ryan, a shot-up old staff sergeant, and 5,000 other leathernecks 76 hours.
Mike Ryan never saw the old NCO after the battle, so he never knew whether the man had survived the battle or the war. He only knew that, of the tens of thousands of salutes he received in a long and distinguished military career, the sergeant’s salute at Tarawa was the one he cherished the most.
On this the 241st birthday of the Marine Corps, I salute the Marines of the past who made our Corps into the finest fighting organization in the world. And I salute the Marines of the present who have maintained those core values of honor, courage, and commitment.
I herewith support the election of Denny Crane, Esq., for President of the United States. Consider the following:
Fact: Except for the Mad Cow, Denny is in overall good health.
Pro: Good health is a prerequisite for being president.
Con: Denny Crane may not always remember what he said. But c’mon, which is worse: not remembering or remembering what you just said is patently false?
Fact: Denny co-founded and is a named partner in the successful law firm of Crane, Poole & Schmidt.
Pro: He understands the private sector and the legal system.
Con: There are already too many lawyers (and law professors) in Washington. True, but c’mon, Denny’s an outsider. A real outsider.
Fact: Denny Crane has been married and divorced 9 times.
Pro: As is obvious, he strongly supports traditional marriage.
Con: He may be viewed as an unreliable partner. But c’mon, Denny’s a little impulsive, that’s all. Who among us???
Fact: Denny’s an unwavering advocate of the Second Amendment.
Pro: Denny Crane carries. He was a Marine sniper. Or was it a pilot? He can’t remember which.
Con: Guns kill people. But c’mon, that’s sort of the point, right? Climate change won’t kill the terrorists.
Fact: Denny’s a winner.
Pro: His courtroom record where he was the first chair is 6,043- 0. He’s unbeaten.
Con: Incessant bragging about being a winner might not get a candidate any votes.
Fact: Denny Crane is viewed by some as being an aging buffoon.
Pro: How many aging buffoons are 6,043-0?
Con: None. Take a look around Washington and tell me what you see.
Fact: Denny enjoys a cigar and a drink.
Pro: See the above about Denny’s overall good health.
Con: It upsets the proponents of the Nanny State. What should he do then? Have a super-sized soda and chew some khat? Nope, not cool either. Well screw it, then. Pour, light, puff.
Alan Shore: “You ever wonder if you and I are la-la?”
Denny: “Don’t be ridiculous. We’re flamingos. And good ones.”
Denny Crane. I rest my case.
General Louis H. Wilson, Jr. , the 26th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and a recipient of the Medal of Honor from World War II, read this poem at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, Camp Lejeune, N.C. on 10 November, 1978:
The wonderful love of a beautiful maid,
The love of a staunch, true man,
The love of a baby, unafraid,
Have existed since time began.
But the greatest of loves,
The quintessence of loves,
Even greater than that of a mother,
Is the tender, passionate, infinite love,
Of one drunken Marine for another.
On 10 November of every year, Marines across the globe celebrate the Marine Corps birthday. This year marks the 240th anniversary of the founding of the Corps, the original location of which was Tun Tavern in Philadelphia. Marines have always taken a special pride in tracing their historical origins to a recruiting station inside a tavern. Do you suppose a Leatherneck veteran of the Revolutionary War, sitting on a barstool in Tun Tavern in 1780 and enjoying a brew, would have any idea that nine generations later Marines would be fighting a War on Terror? “Terror?” he might ask. “Is that a place or an army?”
“It’s neither,” we might answer. “It’s an, uh, well, I suppose it’s sort of a thing.”
“Then how can you fight a thing?”
Good question. But I digress. Back to the birthday celebration.
There will be birthday balls at Marine posts all around the world. Marines will arrive decked out in dress blues, the ladies in gowns. There will be speeches, and a solemn moment of remembrance for those Marines who have given the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the nation. That number, by the way, is 44,500 Marine battlefield deaths, with another 220,000 wounded, from the Revolution to Afghanistan. The Tun Tavern Leatherneck might wince in astonishment at such numbers.
There will be elaborate cakes, often several layers high, ceremonially sliced with a sword. The traditional passing of cake from the oldest to the youngest Marine will demonstrate the passing of the honor, experience, and heart of the Corps to the next generation of Marines to carry on.
Then there will be toasts.
The stirring Marines’ Hymn will be played, bringing everyone in the house to their feet. “From the Halls of Montezuma . . . “
And more toasts.
The Marines know how to do a lot of things. They know how to fight and win (and yes, they’ve adapted to learn how to fight a “thing”). They know how to be innovative in tactics and equipment. They know how to maintain their rich traditions. And they certainly know how to throw an annual birthday bash. Nobody does it better. And I happen to know that for a fact.
Happy 240th, Marines!
And by the way, thanks to my Tun Tavern Leatherneck for not only helping to save our country, but for helping to start a Corps of Marines.
Today marks the 86th birthday of one of golf’s most iconic figures, the incomparable Arnold Palmer. Arnie is referred to as The King in golfing circles, largely because of his status as golf’s first superstar in the television age. With his humble beginnings in Latrobe, Pennsylvania and his tenacious, stouthearted play, Palmer transformed golf from the pastime of the upper classes to a sport accessible to middle and working class Americans. He won often, and often dramatically, and his legion of loud, loyal followers became known as Arnie’s Army.
Palmer recorded 95 professional wins, and included among his 7 major championships were four Masters victories. By 1967, he became the first golf professional to reach one-million dollars in career earnings on the PGA tour. He adorned the cover of most sports magazines during the Sixties, and he was frequently seen on commercials as one of the most popular and recognizable figures in all of sports.
Palmer found success away from the golfing world, as well. He became equally formidable as a businessman and spokesman, selling lots of golf shirts with the umbrella logo, pushing Pennzoil, Coca-Cola, and Hertz rental cars. He was also involved in the founding of the Golf Channel. Arnie even has a lemonade-flavored iced tea named after him. He flew his own jet to business meetings and golf tournaments, and he began Arnold Palmer Charities to assist with several causes dear to him. Golf course design also came into his family of businesses.
Arnie was married to Winnie Palmer for 45 years, and who passed away in 1999.
Palmer was the first golfer to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2004), and the second golfer to receive the Congressional Gold Medal (2009), along with Byron Nelson.
For many years I have enjoyed seeing Arnie, Jack Nicklaus, and Gary Player become the honorary starters for the Masters Tournament. They were once fierce competitors and they are now fierce friends, still with the competitive spark that made them such compelling and admired figures for many years. Jack and Gary have likewise done much for the image of their sport, but none more than Arnie.
Arnold Palmer’s story is quintessentially American—he started modestly in life and through his own guile, determination, and tireless hard work, he became successful beyond his wildest dreams. He has been the friend and golfing partner of several American presidents. He is admired by the public and adored by the golfing community. He has set a standard for how a professional should behave toward not just his fellow competitors, but the general public as well.
Arnold Palmer is most assuredly an American treasure. He is indeed The King. Long live The King.
Happy birthday, Arnie!