“The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration that may be awarded by the United States government. It is presented by the President of the United States, in the name of Congress, and is conferred only upon members of the United States Armed Forces who distinguish themselves through conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” So goes the official description of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Stephen Lang’s powerful performance in Beyond Glory tells the stories of eight of the more than 3,400 men—and one woman—who have received the Medal of Honor since its establishment during the American Civil War. Lang is no stranger to stories of the military, having played, among others, Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Maj. General George Pickett. As strong as was his rendition of these well-known commanders, Lang’s portrayals of these veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam succeed on a deeper level.
American history is replete with tales of military valor and triumph, and as a society we rightly honor those who put themselves in harm’s way through military service to our country. Yet too often that history, that process of shaping a public memory of such events, smoothens the jagged edges of pain, wipes away the blood, to a point where those who served, who fought, cannot recognize the stories as their own. For example, when Saving Private Ryan, the dramatic rendition of members of an Army Ranger company in the days following the Normandy Invasion in World War II, was released in 1998, I saw an interview with two veterans of that Ranger company. The interviewer asked the two men, who had just viewed the film, what they thought. They said that it was the first film they had seen that even came close to capturing the complexity of combat, in all its horror and exhilaration. When the interviewer asked what they thought of earlier films about World War II, the two friends looked at each other, then said, “we watch them when we want a good laugh.”
To turn these stories into simple morality plays, easy tales with simple characters and neatly resolved conflicts, obviously dishonors men and women like these two, who risked all on our behalf. But such portrayals—whether in by the news media or in television and film—also risk making it easy for us to discount or disregard the experience of service in combat. Less than one percent of the U.S. population serves in the military, one of the lowest levels in our history. The burdens of service rest on fewer shoulders, meaning multiple deployments, with greater strains on the families. Combat service, and its aftereffects, is something that happens to “other people.” It makes it easier to commit the blood of our young men and women. Support for veterans and their families becomes an afterthought, an easy item to cut in times of fiscal constraint.
While art can sanitize and glorify war, it has also been important in keeping the trauma of war before us. Painters, musicians, novelists, and playwrights and actors like Stephen Lang, have forced us to confront these experiences since the days of The Odyssey. They help us to have some sense of what it means to “see the elephant,” to experience combat, in a term long used by American soldiers. In Lang’s work, we catch some small glimpse of the great courage and the great brutality of combat itself, and the even greater burden of surviving when one’s comrades did not—to live “beyond glory.” If you take nothing else from this moving performance, resolve to never take those who stand for us for granted.
by Clarence Wyatt
Special Assistant to the President, Chief Planning Officer, and Claude D. Pottinger Professor of History
Clarence Wyatt is professor of history at Centre College, where he holds the Pottinger Distinguished Professorship of History and is Special Assistant to the President and Chief Planning Officer. Wyatt also serves as a consultant to the office of College Relations. Wyatt began working for the College in development in 1979 and joined the faculty in 1990.
Wyatt is a scholar of recent U.S. political, diplomatic, and cultural history, with a particular focus on American involvement in Vietnam. He is the author of Paper Soldiers: The American Press and the Vietnam War, an acclaimed book about U.S. press coverage of the Vietnam War, published in 1993 by W.W. Norton and issued in paperback by the University of Chicago Press. He co-edited The Vietnam Era, a digital collection of essays and primary sources, published by Primary Source Media in 1999. He has also contributed chapters and essays to several collections on the Vietnam War, including The Human Tradition in the Vietnam Era in 2000 and The War That Never Ends in 2007. He most recently co-editedMedia and Propaganda in Wartime America, a two-volume encyclopedia published by ABC-CLIO in 2010. In addition to his scholarly publications, Wyatt has published opinion pieces or provided commentary in a range of outlets, including the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, Newsday, The Los Angeles Times, theChicago Tribune, The New York Times, the Mutual Broadcasting System, and National Public Radio. Since 2000, he has served as the election night commentator for the ABC Television affiliate in Lexington, Kentucky.
Wyatt has also spoken at conferences on a wide variety of topics related to American politics, diplomacy, journalism, and the Vietnam War. Among these are the Centre for Conflict Studies at the University of New Brunswick, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the Popular Culture Association, the New Jersey Vietnam Educational Center, the United States Military Academy, the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University, and the American Historical Association. His most recent conference appearance was April, 2010, when he was the session keynote speaker at the Conference on War, Journalism, and history, co-sponsored by the University of Edinburgh and the University of Kentucky.
An energetic teacher, Wyatt teaches courses on the Vietnam War, U.S. diplomatic history, the American Civil War, the American Revolution and early national period, U.S. history since World War II, as well as introductory courses in U.S. and East Asian history. He has also regularly conducted study experiences for Centre students in Vietnam and Cambodia since 1995. In 1992, he was a member of the first group of American academics invited to visit Vietnam by Vietnam’s Ministry of Education.
Wyatt’s scholarship and teaching was most recently recognized with his being awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. In his project, Wyatt taught Vietnamese and U.S. history at Hanoi University in spring 2012, and conducted research for a book on the shared histories of the U.S. and Vietnam since 1975. He also worked at the request of the president of Hanoi University to review and revise the university’s international studies curriculum.