The Medal of Honor is the highest award the United States bestows on members of its armed forces. It tells you something about the nature of the decoration that of the 246 Medals of Honor given during the Vietnam War, 154 of them had to be pinned to body bags. The citations of the 92 survivors make clear that what spared them was little more than dumb luck: bullets that barely missed their livers and hearts; feet that somehow danced around landmines and booby-traps; and on one occasion, a North Vietnamese grenade that just fizzled out harmlessly, while one extremely fortunate sailor lay on top of it, waiting for it to blow up, and hoping that his body would shield the others.
Bravery and luck are uneasy partners. A “good” person, according to our mothers, is one who makes the right decisions, even when they are hard ones. Being brave feels like it should be the same as being good: in a garden of forking paths, the trail that looks dark or deadly is often the morally correct one. Brave people take the right path, and what makes them brave is their mental state when they choose it. To say that luck is involved seems to violate the spirit of bravery. Indeed, the intuitive view is that the only thing that really determines whether an act is brave is whether you think the right path is the treacherous one, and take it anyway.
The exalted status of the Medal of Honor serves as a curious test case for our collective intuitions about bravery. And it turns out the intuition above is a confused one. The view that the Medal is something you get by being a brave soldier, and that bravery is a state of mind, has led veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq war to wonder why they have won only seven Medals—one every year and a half, compared to one every few weeks in Vietnam and one every few days in the Second World War. There will soon be an eighth: last week, the White House announced a forthcoming Medal of Honor for Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta, who ran through enemy fire to rescue a wounded comrade. Giunta will be the first living Medal of Honor recipient since Vietnam.
Combat bravery is not exactly rare, so why is it so difficult to merit the Medal of Honor? In practice, to earn the Medal you have two methods at your disposal: the hard way and, well, the other hard way. Call them Hard Way #1 and Hard Way #2.
Hard Way #1 is to commit a multi-part act of near comic-book-style heroism (see here or here, or Giunta’s case) and, more often than not, die. Pentagon committees then convene to determine whether your valor merits an award traditionally given for acts so brave that no one would have even thought to complain if the soldier had neglected to do them.
Hard Way #2 is a faster and surer method of winning the Medal: smother a grenade with your body and save the lives of your fellow servicemen. This method nearly always wins the Medal—some 70 times in Vietnam, and three times since September 11—but the catch is that you almost always die.
Almost. In May 1968, Donald E. Ballard was serving in Vietnam as a Navy medical corpsman. His job meant that he had to run into extreme danger constantly, since casualties were often too badly wounded to come to him. In Quang Tri province, after a North Vietnamese Army ambush, Ballard leapt on what he thought was a live grenade. The grenade did not go off. According to his citation, he lay on the weapon for a few instants, then “calmly arose from his dangerous position” and kept on treating casualties. Ballard went on to a commission in the Army and distinguished service in the Kansas National Guard, retiring last year as colonel.
The standard intuition about Ballard’s situation is that he deserves the Medal as much as the seventy-odd men who smothered grenades that detonated and killed them. Ballard didn’t even get scratched. But how could Ballard know the grenade was a dud? If the mental act of jumping on a grenade is bravery, then his actions do qualify.
The case gets trickier when you pose a few hypotheticals. What if the North Vietnamese soldier had thrown not a grenade but a bar of soap carved realistically to look like one? Would the nation have decorated Ballard for jumping on a bar of soap? What if it was not a grenade at all, but a piece of fruit that fell from a tree, and that in the heat of combat Ballard mistook for a grenade? The alternate-universe Ballard who jumped on a bar of soap or a piece of fruit had the same mental state as the Ballard who threw himself upon a dud grenade. Can you get the Medal of Honor for jumping on a mango?
Philosophers such as Bernard Williams have confronted this problem before, generally from the direction of vice rather than virtue. If two equally drunk drivers go home, and one kills a child, but the other arrives home safe because there was no child for him to hit, which driver is more culpable? If we say that the killer has sinned more profoundly, we are admitting what we are loath to admit about bravery—that what makes us brave is not just our mental state, but facts about the world that are totally out of our control. In the case of Ballard, there was no way he could have known the grenade wouldn’t kill him. And so his act seems at once shockingly courageous, but also strangely tainted. If you believe in “moral luck” (which is what philosophers call the grace that the homicidal drunk driver had, and the other one lacked), then you might say that Ballard was lucky to be alive, but not morally lucky. A morally lucky person would have a brave mental state and be in a situation that required bravery.
I called Ballard and asked if anyone had complained about his having won the Medal for jumping on an object that, in retrospect, had the lethality of a piece of tropical fruit. He said an officer processing his recommendation called back to his unit and questioned whether a Medal could be given for an incident that did not even injure him. Ballard’s commanding officer responded with a threat to lodge his combat boot in the backside of anyone who whined about moral luck, or who dared to question the bravery of a young man who had risked his life for the lives of others, and whose mental state had been one of unalloyed bravery. Presumably the boot would have ended up lodged in Bernard Williams, if the great old philosopher had ever made it to the Officers Club in Danang.
(Ballard told me that the citation omitted a few other interesting details. Before he ever lunged for the grenade, he said, he had been playing hot potato with North Vietnamese grenades for some time while trying to tend to casualties. The grenades were close enough to be bouncing off his helmet, and to save himself and his casualties, he flung them back. When he covered the fateful grenade with his body, he realized after a split second that he might have a chance at survival after all.. When he threw it away, it finally detonated, harmlessly, in midair. No one was there to see it explode, he said, because they were too busy being shot at and blown up by the North Vietnamese. So the question doesn’t arise: the grenade was no dud, and it certainly wasn’t a bar of soap. Ballard’s act of heroism is whole and unblemished, any way you look at it.)
It’s rare that a matter of public policy requires thinking through a question as tricky as the nature of bravery. Indeed, outside the military, “bravery” is not a word often used in government, except to describe acts of pseudo-bravery, like casting a vote on principle during an election season. And it’s therefore striking to see how uncomfortable we are with the idea that our moral life is in some ways beyond our control, that time and chance happen even to our mental states, and that choosing the right path is not enough to earn medals. Best intentions are probably necessary. But having the mental state of bravery, as the many serving soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq have, might not be enough to be brave in the morally lucky sense: to win the Medal of Honor, and to be in the most rarefied companies of heroes and angels.
Originally appeared at Big Questions Online.