“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a HC2c. with Battery D, 2d Battalion, at Phu Loc 6, near An Hoa. During the early morning hours, an estimated battalion-sized enemy force launched a determined assault against the battery's position, and succeeded in effecting a penetration of the barbed-wire perimeter. The initial burst of enemy fire caused numerous casualties among the marines who had immediately manned their howitzers during the rocket and mortar attack. Undaunted by the intense hostile fire, HC2c. Ray moved from parapet to parapet, rendering emergency medical treatment to the wounded. Although seriously wounded himself while administering first aid to a marine casualty, he refused medical aid and continued his lifesaving efforts. While he was bandaging and attempting to comfort another wounded marine, HC2c. Ray was forced to battle 2 enemy soldiers who attacked his position, personally killing 1 and wounding the other. Rapidly losing his strength as a result of his severe wounds, he nonetheless managed to move through the hail of enemy fire to other casualties. Once again, he was faced with the intense fire of oncoming enemy troops and, despite the grave personal danger and insurmountable odds, succeeded in treating the wounded and holding off the enemy until he ran out of ammunition, at which time he sustained fatal wounds. HC2c. Ray's final act of heroism was to protect the patient he was treating. He threw himself upon the wounded marine, thus saving the man's life when an enemy grenade exploded nearby. By his determined and persevering actions, courageous spirit, and selfless devotion to the welfare of his marine comrades, HC2c. Ray served to inspire the men of Battery D to heroic efforts in defeating the enemy. His conduct throughout was in keeping with the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.” 1
Most people would call this heroism. The above is the citation for the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to Hospital Corpsman Second Class (HC2) David Robert Ray for his actions on March 19, 1969.
It is also important to realize that HC2 Ray could easily have served the duration of his commitment in a hospital safely behind the front lines or even on American soil but had requested duty with a Marine combat unit.
It would be difficult to consider any of the actions of HC2 Ray as self-centered. He consistently showed concern for others above himself; both in putting himself in combat status and in repeatedly risking and then sacrificing his life for his patients/comrades. Most people call this altruism.
In fact, war is inherently altruistic. The the risks taken by combatants rarely benefit the actors. The reward to the soldier for success in combat is further combat with an increasingly desperate opponent. The benefits of this combat are reaped by individuals and institutions remote from the action who rarely are in any immediate danger themselves.
Let us look further in the medical world. Paul Farmer went to Duke for undergraduate study in anthropology and then Harvard for further studies in anthropology and concurrently in medicine and upon licensing, rather than working as a physician for six figures, embarked on a career with essentially no monetary compensation throughout the global South. He has contributed to transforming the way medicine thinks about infectious diseases, particularly in impoverished populations, insisting on a preferential option for the poor. 2
Finally, the world of personal wealth. Bill Gates worked tirelessly beginning in the 1970’s to change the way the world accesses and uses information. By 1995, he was the world’s wealthiest man. Yet in 2008, he stopped working for Microsoft to devote himself to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation seeking to alleviate worldwide poverty rather than personal wealth. 3
All of these individuals’ altruism is heroic.
Why is it then that when it is suggested that people consider others’ well-being in their financial lives they are ostracized as socialist, communist, or in some other way lacking personal ambition or a moral compass? Heroes realize that the well-being of all is of equal or greater import than the interests or wealth of the individual.
How can we praise the self-sacrifice of people’s lives yet decry the suggestion that everyone has a right to survival and health in the most affluent society in the history of the world? Why do we praise altruism on the battlefield yet chastise it on our own streets? We codify and mandate altruistic death on the battlefield in the Uniform Code of Military Justice yet sabotage it in the halls of congress, the media and on the streets throughout the world dominated by American culture. How does this phenomenon embody any of the finest traditions of the United States or of humanity?
Do we vilify financial altruism, often called socialism in American society, because it accelerates the decay of American society? Is it simply a reflex carried over from the Cold War mentality that communism is evil? Or is it that seeing people live out the idea of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self is taxing on the conscience of those who do not have the moral fortitude or integrity to do so themselves? Perhaps if we peeled away these labels and looked at the underlying values of these actions, individuals and ideas we might be able to agree on what is right and human.