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Commentary: The social side of Darwinism

This article first, appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 14, 2009 - Jan. 8, 1945, was a Monday. Most of the people alive today had yet to be born, and many of the people alive on that date have since departed this mortal coil. One member of the latter group is Technical Sergeant Russell E. Dunham, who lived in the metro area for most of his life.

When T/Sgt. Dunham passed away last month, the Post-Dispatch reprinted the official citation for his Congressional Medal of Honor, an excerpted version of which appears below. According to Army records, here’s how he began that particular work week:

"At about 1430 hours (2:30 p.m., civilian time) near Kayersberg, France, T/Sgt. Dunham single-handedly assaulted 3 enemy machine guns.

"Wearing a white robe made from a mattress cover, carrying 12 carbine magazines and ... a dozen hand grenades…, T/Sgt. Dunham advanced in the attack up a snow-covered hill under fire from 2 machine guns and supporting riflemen … Dunham crawled 75 yards under heavy direct fire toward the timbered emplacement shielding the left machine gun. As he jumped to his feet … and charged forward, machine gun fire tore through his camouflage robe and a rifle bullet seared a 10-inch gash across his back sending him spinning 15 yards down hill…

"When the indomitable sergeant sprang to his feet to renew his 1-man assault, a German … grenade landed beside him. He kicked it aside, and … shot and killed the German machine gunner and assistant gunner. His carbine empty, he jumped into the emplacement and hauled out the third member of the gun crew by the collar.

"… T/Sgt. Dunham proceeded 50 yards through a storm of automatic and rifle fire to attack the second machine gun …, destroying the gun and its crew …

"Although his coat was so thoroughly blood-soaked that he was a conspicuous target against the white landscape, T/Sgt. Dunham again advanced ahead of his platoon in an assault on enemy positions farther up the hill. Coming under machine gun fire from 65 yards to his front … he hit the ground and crawled forward.

"At 15 yards range, he jumped to his feet, staggered a few paces toward the timbered machine gun emplacement and killed the crew with hand grenades … Killing 9 Germans, wounding 7 and capturing 2, firing about 175 rounds of carbine ammunition, and expending 11 grenades, T/Sgt. Dunham, despite a painful wound, spearheaded a spectacular and successful diversionary attack."

Reading words like these, a decent person can’t help but feel humbled by the awesome debt that the many owe the few. Here’s a young man wearing a mattress cover as improvised camouflage against the snow, fighting wounded in a land alien to him, who single-handedly takes out 18 enemy troops in one violent, heroic burst of adrenaline to free his platoon from withering machine gun fire.

Considered in Darwinian terms, you’ve also got to wonder why heroism hasn’t died out as a behavioral trait. People who perform like T/Sgt. Dunham obviously have a much greater chance of dying than their less assertive counterparts who stay “in the rear with the gear.” At war’s end, there should be far more slackers to go home and procreate than there are surviving heroes.

America’s most decorated WW II veteran was 1st Lt. Audie Murphy. When he returned home, an admiring reporter referred to him as a “hero.” The always modest Texas farm boy corrected him, replying tersely, “The real heroes are all dead.”

Yet, despite a daunting mortality rate, the case can be made that heroism is actually thriving. Remember that many of the men who served in the wars of the last century were drafted. But the young Americans who’ve been fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq for the past 6+ years are all volunteers. How can the incidence of a trait increase when so many of its practitioners perish?

The solution to that riddle is a matter of perspective. People who attempt to apply evolutionary principles to social progress usually do so to explain and justify vast inequities in wealth and status.

Social Darwinists argue that the fittest individuals are entitled to the greatest rewards and that attention to social welfare is a waste of time because it only serves to subsidize the less able. It thus becomes permissible that coal miners pay income tax while those who “earn” their living through inheritance are exempt.

The trouble with the “hurray for me, screw you” point of view is that it ignores the fundamental interconnectivity of the human condition. Humans are social animals and none of us can survive on our own. Each individual depends on his fellows for personal survival. Given that fact, altruism becomes comprehensible in evolutionary terms. Nobody ever stormed a machine gun nest because of his admiration for the 14th Amendment. Men fight and die because of the ancient bonds to clan or tribe — the “band of brothers” to which they belong.

We honor the outrageous bravery of T/Sgt. Dunham not as an example of personal aggrandizement, but precisely the opposite: his willingness to sacrifice self on behalf of his brethren. As John Donne knew, “no man is an island.” We ultimately prosper or perish as a member of the social collective.

Charles Lindbergh is remembered as an icon of rugged individualism. His solo flight across the Atlantic won him global fame and the appellation, “the Lone Eagle.” Yet, when the Lone Eagle wrote his autobiography, he entitled it “We”…

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.