On Medals, Prizes, and Honors

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, in a piece titled “The Truth About Being a Hero,” Karl Marlantes writes about his time in the Vietnam War. The excerpt is from his upcoming book, What It Is Like To Go To War. I encourage you to read the whole thing. My biggest takeaway was Marlantes’s view on what it takes to get a medal (and how much luck is involved):

Medals are all mixed up with hierarchy, politics and even job descriptions. What is considered normal activity for an infantry grunt, and therefore not worthy of a medal, is likely to be viewed as extraordinary for someone who does the same thing but isn’t a grunt, so he gets a medal and maybe an article in Stars and Stripes.

I got my medals, in part, because I did brave acts, but also, in part, because the kids liked me and they spent time writing better eyewitness accounts than they would have written if they hadn’t liked me. Had I been an unpopular officer and done exactly the same things, few would have bothered, if any. The accounts would have been laconic, at best, and the medals probably of a lower order. The only people who will ever know the value of the ribbons on their chests are the people wearing them—and even they can fool themselves, in both directions.

He goes on to say: “I was eager for medals early on, but after a while I was no longer so anxious to get one of any kind. But the same phenomenon of being taken over by something, or someone, still seemed to operate.”

Now, compare Karl Marlantes’s words to those of Richard Feynman, my favourite scientist:

In the above video, Feynman explains how he doesn’t much (or at all) care for prizes. The true prize is the pleasure of finding things out, the observation other people are listening and using your discovery. As Feynman notes, those are the real things; the honors are unreal.