After presiding over the defeat that doomed the Southern cause for independence—a defeat for which he took full responsibility, offering to resign his commission—Robert E. Lee rode past Cemetery Ridge, the site of the most furious fighting at Gettysburg. A Union soldier lying wounded on the ground recognised Lee and shouted, “Hurrah for Union!” As the soldier remembered,
“The General heard me, looked, stopped his horse, dismounted and came toward me. But as he came up he looked down at me with such a sad expression… that all fear left me, and I wondered what he was about. He extended his hand to me, grasping mine firmly, and looking me right into my eyes, said, ‘My son, I hope you will soon be well.’ There he was defeated, retiring from a field that had cost him and his cause almost their last hope, and yet he stopped to say words like those to a wounded soldier of the opposition who had taunted him as he passed by! As soon as the General had left me, I cried myself to sleep there upon the bloody ground.”
Crafted by a veteran newspaperman, Real Men is a miniature modern version of Plutarch’s Lives featuring many poignant anecdotes about the ten neglected American heroes profiled in its pages. But this one stood out in my mind because in just one scene it showcases the virtues of one of America’s greatest heroes: the courage, humility, and charity that were the hallmarks of a Christian gentleman who sacrificed everything save his honour. It is no rhetorical stretch to contend, as does the author, that Lee “is the standard against which any man should measure himself.”
The other nine present challenging standards, too. Indeed, their profiles are inspirational to the point of making lesser mortals dwindle in recognition of their own shortcomings. This should be met not with despair but with the hope of becoming better human beings by following their examples.
There is a grave drawback to this book, however, yet through no fault of its own.
For once upon a not-too-distant time most of these ten men were esteemed, their deeds recounted in school history books and celebrated in popular culture. (Walt Disney featured two of them, Davy Crockett and Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion, in hugely popular films of the 1950s.) Many boys dreamt of emulating them, and some succeeded to the benefit of their countrymen.
Today, however, these ten have been erased from the historical conscience of the nation’s young through outright neglect; or, if remembered at all, as figures deformed by falsehood. The admiration this book evokes is offset with anger at the deliberately orchestrated demise of its heroes.
The cultural Marxists who took the helm of academe in the 1960s made it their mission to destroy great Americans, a mission continued by the acolytes replenishing their greying ranks. And mission successful. The typical brainwashed product of the public school system might associate Lee with racism. (Even if Southerners fought merely to keep slaves, which is untrue, charging Lee with racism is an outrageous calumny.) Or the deluded youngster might associate the most decorated hero of World War II, Audie Murphy, with… Audie who? Is he Eddie Murphy’s brother or something?
There is hope, however. Like the examples of these great men, this predicament presents a challenge: Those who love their country’s great men are duty-bound to correct this cultural crime by speaking truth to error. And R. Cort Kirkwood has done his duty.
Most of the ten he profiles were military men, at least for part of their lives. This should come as no surprise. The exigencies of war are such that only full measures, of either valour or cowardice, are remembered. All of these men, however, displayed virtue in all of life’s arenas. Character may be encouraged by circumstance, but never circumscribed.
Most of the militarily distinguished heroes lived long ago: the Swamp Fox, Davy Crockett, Lee, “Wild Bill” Hickok, and General, later President Andrew Jackson. (Jackson’s inclusion is debatable because his virtues were as extreme as his faults, a Scotch-Irish predilection.) The others lived in the last century, the most recent being Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace.
Rocky who? Exactly. If his exploits occurred earlier in US history, his name at least would be up there on the shelf gathering dust with the others.
An Army adviser in South Vietnam, the handsome and wholesome West Pointer had decided to become a Maryknoll priest upon his discharge. But two weeks before his second tour in ’Nam was up, he was thrice shot and taken prisoner by the Viet Cong. Versace endured horrific torture and deprivation, rejecting good treatment by refusing to denounce his country for Communist propaganda. Reduced to skeletal emaciation, his hair turned white, he nonetheless encouraged his fellow prisoners to keep faith in God and country. The last they heard of him, he was bellowing out “God Bless America” at the top of his lungs—a song cut short by the report of the executioner’s pistol. President George W. Bush awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2002, Rocky having been the posthumous victim of bureaucratic ineptitude.
And then there is Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, the “storied terror of the skies and Medal of Honor recipient in World War I, race-car driver, aviation pioneer, and airline chieftain.” His greatest exploit, however, happened in World War II with the Captain Bligh-like feat of keeping alive a crew of men who crash landed in the Pacific during a secret inspection of air bases.
Rickenbacker’s private pursuits were likewise heroic, though without the dramatic backdrop of bombs and bullets. He was the model for the ethical CEO. Of the Enron-like raiders he would have nothing but righteous disdain, righteously earned through an ethic of hard work and honesty. When in 1960 he retired from Eastern Airlines, which he rescued from bankruptcy and ran at a profit since the 1930s, he still earned his original annual salary of $50,000… and he never accepted a dime of government money.
Audie Murphy, the diminutive Texan, also gets his due.
Kirkwood succinctly recounts Murphy’s rise from dirt-poor sharecropper to the cover of Life Magazine in 1945. He was barely old enough to buy a beer at war’s end, but his scores of enemy kills ensured the survival of untold numbers of his comrades. This consolation did not keep him from having nightmares until his death in a plane crash in 1971, however. And the same courage that drove a wounded Murphy to mow down waves of Germans from atop a burning tank allowed the middle-aged hero to beat a prescription drug addiction by locking himself in a hotel room and going cold turkey.
Two of the remaining ten were sports heroes. Sporting, after all, is the (relatively) peaceful equivalent of warfare.
Lou Gehrig, the “Pride of the Yankees,” never missed a game, never let stardom go to his head, and never complained when he was stricken with the fatal disease that now bears his name. Shortly before his death, a packed Yankee Stadium paid him tribute. And nary an eye was dry when the frail Gehrig declared that he truly was “the luckiest man alive on the face of the earth”.
Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, was a tough Italian-American and daily communicant who commanded the respect of his players unlike any other coach in football history. This truly loving man remains famous for his pithy quotes. (Kirkwood fleshes out his and other profiles with quotes worth writing down and sticking on the wall). For example: “Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit”; “If you aren’t fired with enthusiasm, you’ll be fired with enthusiasm”; “Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is”; and “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence.”
The most interesting—as in questionable—inclusion is William Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, best known for being shot in the back by a cowardly boy in Deadwood. After reading his profile, however, one cannot argue with his place among the ten. This gallant soldier (distinguished in the American Civil War) and later lawman had his faults (he was a drinker and a gambler), but he was remarkably honourable toward friend, foe, and every woman he met (God save the man who assaulted a vulnerable woman in Hickok’s presence!). Animals also being vulnerable, he never countenanced their abuse. As a young man working on the railroad, he tossed his boss in the river for mistreating a team of horses. Although this Cavalier of the frontier put many a bad man in his grave, he was a gentleman and would have preferred not to. His opponents rarely being men of his calibre, however, they often fell before Wild Bill’s .44 Colt.
Appropriately, Kirkwood saves the best for last: the golden standard of manhood in any age, especially one as benighted as ours, Robert E. Lee. This man really could not have been so noble, but for one caveat: He simply was. As great as his near relation George Washington, he lacked only Washington’s vanity.
Real Men features a superb introduction by historian Roger McGrath, perhaps the best storyteller among contemporary historians; but speaking truths not always politically correct, lacking popular recognition. In the afterword, Kirkwood surveys the degraded cultural landscape that makes his book so necessary.
By reminding us of a few gallant men who made America great—and whose examples are worthy of universal appreciation and emulation—Mr Kirkwood has made a small but sure step toward redeeming our time. Yes, he has done his duty.
Matthew Rarey writes from Washington DC. He can be reached at MatthewRarey00@yahoo.com.