Aristotle wrote that war ennobles man. The modern position is that war debases us. That’s so much easier to defend and it serves the purpose of excusing us from sacrifice, patriotism or even inconvenience. But an honest person will have to acknowledge that we live in a Hobbesian world and there are forces which would do us great harm. We depend upon special people to emerge to deal with that threat. We call them heroes.
A hero doesn’t plan to be a hero. He doesn’t seek out heroic opportunities usually but neither does he avoid them. He seldom will tell you he is a hero either before or after the events. America has been fortunate to have many heroes over the life of our republic. It may be time to wonder whether we’ve used up our supply or whether heroism is still possible in a confusing world.
There are no typical heroes. Some live heroic lives and some have but one opportunity to make that transcendental leap into the pages of history. It takes doing something beyond oneself. It takes courage and capability. Heroes often exhibit leadership even when they aren’t responsible for leading at that moment. When a leader is also a hero you’ve got something special.
America seems in need of heroes now or possibly we are in need of revising our thinking to once again value heroes. You can’t detach “Support Our Troops” from supporting our mission or our war. If you wish to remain a free nation, you need to be prepared to go beyond diplomacy when the challenge arises and then you will want those special individuals that somehow emerge to become heroic.
Robin Olds is a stellar example of leader and hero. He didn’t seek out heroic opportunities but rather welcomed the test of his skills against an adversary in defending his country. Known most prominently for his leadership during the bombing campaign against North Vietnam, he could easily have been acknowledged as a hero without ever having been to southeast Asia.
He was an All-American football player at West Point and is enshrined in the National Collegiate Football Hall of Fame. Noteworthy but not classically heroic.
He became a P-38 fighter pilot upon graduation from the Academy and got to Europe a few weeks before D-Day. In nine short months he rose from new Lt. wingman in his squadron to squadron commander with 12.5 air-to-air victories. That would be heroic by most standards.
At war’s end he entered the first US jet fighter squadron and became part of the first jet demonstration team that fostered the Thunderbirds. Along the way he set speed records and was runner-up in the Thompson Trophy Race. In a twist befitting a war hero and dashing jet pilot, he met and fell in love with movie star Ella Raines. That tumultuous union would challenge him for the next 25 years.
When the air war in Vietnam was blundering along with severe losses from inexperience and lack of coherent direction, Robin grabbed the reins of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in Thailand and demonstrated that leaders get out in front to set the example for their troops. In the process he established the traditions of the fighter force that cause young pilots today to don a small tab on their flight suits, usually on a Friday afternoon that simply says WWRD. It’s a play on the religious theme, but it reflects a standard of skill, leadership and behavior for their future.
Those few achievements merely scratch the surface of what the man did during his lifetime. He wasn’t the only hero of the period and he would be quick to point out exaggerations to the record when he would hear people recounting “Robin stories.” He was hardly humble but he was never arrogant. It was a thrill for a younger pilot to have Robin throw his arm over your shoulder, embrace you and simply say, “Warrior!” You knew you had arrived.
Will there ever be another Robin Olds? It’s harder to be heroic today. We’ve become too politically correct, too reluctant to simply say that our goal is victory. We benefit from the technology that reduces the risk of flying combat and increases the effectiveness of our weaponry. We seldom face an enemy that comes to the arena to challenge us in battle. Today the battle is waged by terrorist acts and propaganda. We criminalize and demean the heroes and simultaneously enable the miscreants who seek to destroy us. We may never see another Robin Olds.
Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus compilation of memories and writings of Robin Olds will be released on April 13, 2010. “Fighter Pilot: Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds” from St. Martin’s Press, New York NY, 2010.