Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff provides a lens through which his readers can see into the world of Air Force fighter pilots and astronauts. Successful pilots, those destined to achieve great accolade for their piloting prowess, possess “the right stuff” — the indefinable moxie that inspires awe in all and, consequently, distinguishes them from the average individual. Perhaps it is one’s inability to pinpoint exactly what compiles the “stuff” that encourages the unanimous fascination with the trait (even pilots adhere to an unwritten code, which forbids them to speak of it). In a time when Cold War tensions spurred competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, the country’s quest to conquer the heavens before the Integral took precedence above all else. NASA’s priority became selecting those individuals with the most “right stuff” from among those already-qualified fighter jocks; only the most-competent, most-conditioned, and most-courageous pilot could guide America into the realm of outer space. Wolfe paints the original seven men chosen to participate in Project Mercury, most notably the illustrious Al Shepard and the all-American John Glenn, as contemporary manifestations of the single-combat warrior, an archaic concept that seemed to die with the creation of the modern organized army.

In single combat the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for a pitched battle between the entire forces. In some cases the combat would pit small teams of warriors against one another. Single combat was not seen as a humanitarian substitute for wholesale slaughter until late in its history. That was a Christian reinterpretation of the practice [p. 101]

The single-combat warrior sacrifices his safety in a heroic tour de force against the opposition: his bravery and doggedness represent the physical strength and commanding presence of his people. Society champions its combat warriors, envisioning them to be the essence of selflessness and self-sacrifice. In the case of Wolfe’s text, the Mercury astronauts embodied the combat warriors of the United States. Charged with the task of pioneering the heavens, these men “naturally” achieved heroic status in the eyes of the American people — a reaction that proves historically consistent.

Naturally the brave lads chosen for single combat enjoyed a very special status in the army and among their people (David was installed in the royal household and eventually superseded Saul’s own songs and became king). They were revered and extolled, songs and poems were written about them, every reasonable comfort and honor was given them, and women and children and even grown men were moved to tears in their presence. Part of this outpouring of emotion and attention was the simple response of a grateful people to men who were willing to risk their lives to protect them. But there was also a certain calculation behind it. The steady pressure of fame and honor tended to embolden the lads still further by constantly reminding them that the fate of the entire people was involved in their performance in battle [pp. 102-3]

Not only did combat warriors face potential death in the face of dangerous enterprises, they also bore accountability for “the fate of the entire people.” History has shown that bearing the fate of a nation on one’s shoulders merits fame and honor, the likes of which the American people showered upon the Mercury astronauts.

Questions

1. Wolfe expounds upon the tendency of archaic cultures to receive “honor and glory . . . before the fact,” or before they attempted anything high-risk:

At the same time — and this was no small thing in such a high-risk occupation — the honor and glory were in many cases reward before the fact; on account, as it were. Archaic cultures were quite willing to elevate their single-combat fighters to heroic status even before their blood was let, because it was such an effective incentive. Any young man who entered the corps would get his rewards here on earth, “up front,” to use the current phrase, come what may [p. 103]

Does rewarding a single-combat fighter for his heroism prior to his success, or lack thereof, devalue his achievements? Does he deserve such reward “up front” even though the possibility of failure is high? or does his willingness to risk his life merit such reward regardless of the result?

2. Hans Gao ’14 comments in “Foolhardy Heroes” on the “glorified casual recklessness” of the fighter pilot culture:

In any other profession, a worker who risked not only his own life but also million-dollar machinery and the lives of others because of a late night out would be considered irresponsible and immature. But at the airbase this attitude is so pervasive it has been worked into the bureaucracy, practically institutionalized

Do these “revered and extolled” single-combat warriors deserve the accolades of the American people if they practice “foolhardy” behavior behind closed doors, hidden from public view and adverse judgment? Does Wolfe’s commentary on their imprudent behavior affect how readers perceive the pilots? Does the reader, subsequently, have a lesser respect for the pilots than the people of 1960s America?

3. In the first quoted passage, Wolfe emphasizes that “single combat was not seen as a humanitarian substitute for wholesale slaughter until late in its history. That was a Christian reinterpretation of the practice.” What does he mean by “Christian reinterpretation”? What, then, is the fundamental difference between original single combat and contemporary single combat? Why does Wolfe feel the need to mention the distinction?

References

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Bantam Books, 1979.


Victorian Web Overview Tom Wolfe

Last modified 7 April 2011