Courage comes in all shapes and sizes. In this issue, we examine two larger-than-life heroes: El Cid, the Spanish knight who smashed the Muslims at Valencia in 1094 (page 78), and Francis Marion, better known as “the Swamp Fox,” the humble American guerrilla leader who bedeviled the British in the Revolutionary War (page 56). The earliest heroics of Cid have been overtaken and obscured by legend. In the thousand years since he roamed Iberia, storytellers, songwriters, and filmmakers have elevated the brave knight and excellent general to superhero status, but there is no reliable record of the first, defining act of courage that set him firmly on that path.
We are luckier with Marion. He has long been called a hero for his brilliant tactics during the Revolution, though there is ample evidence that his formative moment came in the French and Indian War, in the 1761 Battle of Etchoe. Still, we have no sense from his biographers of just what he was thinking when he entered that crucible, a furious clash with the Cherokees in which most of his men were killed or injured, and from which he emerged a hero.
What drove El Cid and Marion, when they were still more or less everyman soldiers, to extraordinary feats on the battlefield?
We are extremely fortunate to have Karl Marlantes provide some answers to that question in an essay (page 66) adapted from his blunt, insightful new memoir, What It Is Like to Go to War. As a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam, Marlantes—author of the acclaimed Vietnam novel Matterhorn—earned a raft of medals. He candidly admits that he initially lusted for glory: “It wasn’t enough to do heroic things. I had to be recognized for it.” But he makes the case that true valor comes from purer motives. In a battle in Quang Tri Province in 1969 that was like so many others in Vietnam, he discovered what it really means to be a hero, charging up a hill in the face of deadly enemy machine gun fire to take out several bunkers, earning, almost incidentally, the second-highest honor bestowed for bravery, the Navy Cross. It’s a searing tale of a young man whose only intention was to do the right thing—to take the hill, save his men, and transcend the horrible life-and-death tableau before him.
And while we will never know precisely what Marion and Cid were thinking as they metamorphosed from soldier to hero, Marlantes gives us a telling hint.