Best Defense

Why today’s readers can learn from a new book about WWI hero Rickenbacker

Why today’s readers can learn from a new book about WWI hero Rickenbacker

Tom Ricks: OK, why another book about Eddie Rickenbacker?

John Ross: The vast majority of material written on Rickenbacker falls under either hero worship or the idea that he fooled us all, because at heart he was a mean-spirited, self-absorbed jerk. The truth, of course, is far more complex — and ultimately far more interesting.

He’s one of those men who invites strong feelings. He liked everyone to focus on his remarkable deeds, not on him as a man. He became quite adept at deflecting personal questions. He built quite a Teflon veneer around himself as the great American hero. It’s so easy to just buy into any one of the myths: rags to riches, shining knight of the skies, the unkillable man, that sort of thing. I’ve had to be careful of becoming blinded myself by the brilliance of his hair-raising exploits.

His real story turns out to be more remarkable than the myths.

Biographies of the past have missed essential truths because of all this. I found some strong primary source material that helped me to penetrate his character more deeply, I think, than others have.

TR: What do today’s audiences need to know about him?

JR: There are a handful of Americans who exhibit the nature of courage that he did. I call it “enduring” courage to differentiate it from the hot blush of courage that often occurs when we’re confronted with danger. It’s where experience, wisdom, and guts merge — and greatness occurs. Washington had it. So did Grant and Lincoln. Eisenhower exhibited it in spades at D-Day.

We need to be reminded that this kind of courage built this country. Too often these days, I hear a lot of whining, people making excuses. It’s important to know about people like Rickenbacker and how they lived their lives. It gives us context to understand what we are capable of as well as who we are as Americans.

TR: Also, what does your book tell the reader about World War I, and especially American involvement in it?

JR: There are lots of good books now coming out about World War I as the centennial approaches. They tend to be large looks about the complex relations between nations and how they came tragically into terrible conflict. One of the big stories is that World War I was not the warm-up to World War II, but actually the signal event of the century, laying the foundation for everything to follow, not just World War II, but the Cold War all the way up to the formation of the European Union and beyond.

My book is a little different than these others in that it offers a glimpse of the war through one man’s life. I think readers will be shocked at the level of anti-German hatred directed at him. I also think that Enduring Courage gives some valuable insight into the difficulties America faced entering the war so late, but also what a critical role we did play. The world map would look very different if not for our timely intervention.

TR: Did you enjoy writing this book?

JR: Yes, very much. What a treat to spend so much time getting to know the young American flyers of World War I through their letters and journals. Though long dead, they became so real, almost like friends to me. Coming up with new insights about Rickenbacker and the time he lived in was intoxicating.

TR: What is next for you?

JR: I’m not done writing about the role of courage in American history, so I’m currently researching several interesting figures, one of which, I hope, will be the subject of my next book.