The Warrior Ethos

The Warrior Ethos

Citations for Valor

By Steven Pressfield | Published: March 14, 2011

Chapter 15   Citations for Valor

Decorations for valor, from ancient days to modern, have seldom been awarded for raw bloodthirstiness or the brute act of producing carnage. The feat that inspires witnesses to honor it is almost invariably one of selflessness.

croix de guerre

The Croix de Guerre from WWI

The hero (though virtually no recipient chooses to call himself by that name) often acts as much to preserve his comrades as he does to deliver destruction onto the foe.

In citations, we read these phrases again and again:

“Disregarding his own safety . . .”

“With no thought for his own life . . .”

“Though wounded numerous times and in desperate need of care for himself . . .”

Selflessness. The group comes before the individual.

Chapter 16   “Follow Me!”

During the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War and all of Israel’s subsequent conflicts, casualties sustained by officers have exceeded proportionally by far those suffered by men of the enlisted ranks. Why? Because the primary leadership principle that Israeli officers are taught is “Follow me.”

During the Sinai Campaign of 1956, the commander of an Israeli armored regiment violated orders and attacked down the length of the Mitla Pass, sacrificing numerous men and vehicles to capture a strongpoint that was later given up. Despite public outrage at this act of insubordination, the Israeli commander-in-chief, General Moshe Dayan, refused to discipline the man. “I will never punish an officer for daring too much, but only too little.”

In the historic clashes of the Granicus River, Issus and Gaugamela, Alexander the Great’s order of battle ran like this: allied horse on the left, infantry phalanx in the center, “Silver Shields” to their right, then the elite Companion Cavalry. At the head of this 1600-man detachment rode Alexander himself, on his warhorse, Bucephalus, wearing a double-plumed helmet that could be seen by every man in the army. He led the charge in person and prided himself on being first to strike the enemy.

This is the concept of leading by example. But it also embodies the ancient precept that killing the enemy is not honorable unless the warrior places himself equally in harm’s way—and gives the enemy an equal chance to kill him.

The samurai code of Bushido forbade the warrior from approaching an enemy by stealth. Honor commanded that he show himself plainly and permit the foe a fighting chance to defend himself.

During the North Africa campaign of 1940–43, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel led from so far forward that, three times, he either drove or flew himself smack among the British enemy and escaped only by blind luck and wild daring. Rommel’s aggressiveness was matched by his sense of fair play and honor.

A company of the Afrika Korps had surrounded a British artillery battery and was demanding its surrender. The German captain had captured an English officer named Desmond Young; at gunpoint, the captain commanded Young to order his men to give themselves up. Young refused. At this moment, Rommel chanced to come upon the scene in his staff car. The captain explained the situation, certain that Rommel, his commanding general, would back him up. Instead the Desert Fox ordered the captain to put away his weapon and to cease demanding of his British prisoner that he order his own men to surrender. “Such an act,” Rommel said, “runs counter to the honorable conventions of war.” He ordered his captain to find some other solution, while he himself took the Englishman Young aside and shared with him cool water and tea from his own canteen.

Desmond Young, a few years later, authored Rommel the Desert Fox, the first great biography of the Afrika Korps commander.

[Continued next Monday. To read from Chapter One in sequence, click here.]

Posted in The Warrior Ethos

8 Responses to “Citations for Valor”

  1. marianne
    March 14, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    watch “IP MAN” it is the best martial arts film about honor fighting set in Fo Shan, China during the Sino-Japanese War. IP MAN was also the mentor to Bruce Lee.

  2. John
    March 15, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    I have enjoyed your written works and the current online blog on “The Warrior Ethos.” Rarely do I comment online; however, I feel I must here. I think you need to separate the concept of fighting with honor vs being realistic. You mentioned the Bushido Code and how a Samurai should not approach in stealth and then went right into the honorable deed of Rommel acting nobly against an already vanquished/neutralized enemy… The tactics Rommel used vs what the Bushido Code dictates are at times contradictory.

    As an infantryman who has been wounded in Afghanistan, one thing I have learned is to always strive to never go into a fair fight. By prepping the battlefield and bringing the most devastating assets that you have on line, you ensure that the enemy will have as little of an advantage as possible. I would much rather maneuver in stealth and destroy my enemy before they see my men and myself. Honor? Treat the the civilians and the men around me honorably. The enemy? I’ll kill them in the quickest and most efficient way possible. To do differently puts your fellow Soldiers and Marines in danger in the long run.

    To use concealment is not dishonorable, it is wise. To show yourself to the enemy (unless conducting a feint) you are only setting up to send your own men home in boxes.

    Based upon what I have read of you and how you write, I am pretty sure you saw combat. You know as well I that the Bushido Code can wax on eloquently about giving the enemy an equal opportunity but that is not honorable. That is dumb. Ambush the enemy. If they get hit unexpectedly, they should have learned the principles of war.

  3. cruft
    March 16, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    I believe I’ll use Stonewall Jackson, no more honorable Christian man to ever see battle, who responding to a fellow solider said; “kill them, kill them all!” The aim of war is the annihilation of the enemy both physically and psychologically. How do you think Rommel would have responded if he had come upon the Russians after they had just obilterated Heidemheim?

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