Sometimes it’s easy to offer vague words of appreciation for military personnel and veterans. When details of their service emerge, though, that vague appreciation can turn to awe.
On this Veterans Day, it is well worth considering lessons from two books, both published this year, that indeed help turn appreciation into awe. In one of the books, the stories are 60 years old; in the second, they are as new as the “war on terror.” In both, heroism reigns.
In Damn Few: Making the Modern SEAL Warrior, by Rorke Denver with Ellis Henican, the heroism is perfectly in tune with today’s zeitgeist: High-tech supermen wipe out the bad guys and then have their exploits celebrated in action movies. The strength of character described in the first book, Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea, by William Clark Latham Jr., is the grim, slow heroism of men who refuse to let victimhood and deprivation defeat them.
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Damn Few aims to flesh out the account of SEAL life portrayed in the hit movie Act of Valor, in which Denver famously played a leading role. By now we’ve all been treated to copious stories of successful SEAL missions, so Damn Few doesn’t really add much to our appreciation for those feats of derring-do. Where this book fully captivates is in its description of the process of creating a SEAL in the first place. We may know, intuitively, that the training (and winnowing-out process) is incredibly arduous, but the details still astound.
Despite Denver’s assurances that SEAL training stays just on the right side of “the fine line between tough and torture,” his descriptions of “the random acts of instructor violence” — “more random and more violent every day” — are enough to give pause to any reader. Forced swims in 52-degree Pacific surf, on next to no sleep after days of physical abuse, “sand and salt water in your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth,” followed by paddling sea races so intense that participants hallucinate: It’s enough to make one cringe just to think about them.
To read about this training, and then to read about the missions for which the training prepared the SEALs, is to understand that the warrior’s life is not one of video-game glamour but of grit and pain — pain borne, as Denver goes to great lengths to emphasize, by real human beings with real fears and real families.
At least Denver’s SEALs experience triumph, and plenty of it. The Korean War POWs in Cold Days in Hell never chose their purgatory and never have been feted by Hollywood. They haven’t even been afforded the retrospective appreciation the popular culture rightly gives to Vietnam POWs such as John McCain, Jeremiah Denton, and James Stockdale. Worse, those who did survive Korea were greeted at the time with false but widespread suspicions that vast numbers of them had collaborated with their Communist captors. One Army psychiatrist, utterly exaggerating the numbers of those who had psychologically succumbed to horrendous torture and abuse, concluded that far too many soldiers “fell far short of the historical American standards of honor, character, loyalty, courage, and personal integrity.”
Latham, a retired lieutenant colonel with the writing skills of the West Point English instructor he once was, demolishes this calumny in 244 heartbreaking, painstakingly researched pages. The privations suffered by many of the POWs matched some of the horrors of World War II’s Bataan Death March. In one particularly horrific incident, a Korean major nicknamed “the Tiger” summarily executed a lieutenant, Cordus H. Thornton, for the offense of having too many of his men “fall out” of a forced march because of severe exhaustion, grievous injuries, and rampant dysentery.
In one prison compound, “typhus, hepatitis, and pneumonia spread throughout the camp, and the doctors soon found themselves treating more than 350 cases a day, with very limited success.” Day after day, more would die, with one historian writing that “here were the bodies of America’s finest young men, covered with filth and lying in stacks in a hostile country.”
In the midst of these horrors, numerous incidents that Latham recounts involved heroic acts of mercy and courage: men carrying each other despite Korean (or Chinese) orders to abandon them; other prisoners sneaking around camp, at mortal peril if caught, to forage for extra food or medical supplies for the wounded.
Chief among these heroes was a chaplain, Father Emil Kapaun, whose ministries to the sick and suffering, despite his own serious infirmities, went far beyond the ordinary call of duty. Indeed, it was Latham’s additional research for this book that led, 60 years posthumously, to Kapaun’s being awarded the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony this past April.
Particularly riveting was Latham’s description of Easter Sunday 1951:
Kapaun openly defied Communist ideology by celebrating an ecumenical sunrise service in the ruins of a burned-out church. Holding a makeshift crucifix, Kapaun wore his priest’s stole, as well as the purple ribbon signifying his pastoral office, and recited the Stations of the Cross. Most of the men in the officers’ compound attended, including Catholics, Protestants, Jews and atheists. While the Chinese guards watched nervously, Kapaun ended the service by leading the men in song; “America the Beautiful” echoed from the surrounding mountains, still blanketed by snow. The officers sang at the top of their lungs, hoping the music would reach the other prisoners at Pyoktong.
Two months later, Kapaun was dead.
Our veterans, the dead and the living, are a treasure. Whether they struggled just to survive wartime, as did the POWs in Korea, or whether they sought and destroyed the bad guys, as our SEALs are so justifiably famous for doing — or, indeed, whether, although never facing enemy fire, they knew that just by enlisting they had made themselves subject to such duty — they all have served as the vanguard and the guarantors of American freedom. We cannot do enough to thank them. We can, though, use this special day each year to thank God for putting such men and women in our midst.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. William Clark Latham Jr. and Ellis Henican are personal friends of Hillyer, who makes no pretense of a disinterested review of thir books but writes about them only in service of the broader goal of honoring our veterans.