In my setting on particular nation is named after a war hero who--as legend has it--lead the nation to a monumental military victory that established peace and prosperity for his people. For the hundreds of year since the people have proudly honored his life with their traditions. By far the most important of these traditions is that they would--about once every generation--appoint one war hero as the literal successor to this ancient hero's name. This man would take on the hero's name, and return to the warfield to fight the nation's battles. These heroes are offered considerable freedom in conduct, but generally bow to the wisdom of the military leaders (warchiefs and later generals).

These war heroes tend to experience lives cut short as returning to the front line isn't exactly advantageous to one's health. Since the nation places extreme emotional importance in these men (far, far more than they do their traditional leaders), their deaths have fantastically horrendous consequences on morale. Entire battlefronts have dissolved when the troops learn that their glorious hero was overwhelmed.

As the nation advances to roughly the technology Earth reached during the first half of the 20th century (1910s-1950s), the nation finds itself finds itself in the greatest war it has fought yet. The populace has become antsy as no war hero has yet been selected for the honorary title, and there are certainly candidates aplenty.

However it's not just the civilians; the military commanders also want to continue this tradition of their ancestors. They, however, realize the reality of the situation, so they also desire to avoid or at least mitigate the fallout from the hero's potential death.

By both societal expectations and their own moral compasses, they are forced to obey the spirit of the tradition of selecting a war hero, bestowing the honorary name on him, and returning him to the front lines to actually fight (placing him in the safety of a bunker to stay put would not fly with the troops, or with the press). As long as they abide by the spirit of this tradition they're willing (and able) to take whatever steps they can to ensure his safety or lessen the fallout when he dies. They possess considerable resources (in terms of finances and manpower), but still have a war to fight. An additional resource worth considering is that they have yet to select the war hero, and can pick a soldier that works the best to this end.

What's their best plan to: protect the war hero on the front lines, and to mitigate the damage his potential death would cause?

  • $\begingroup$ Is the war hero a grunt, or is he/she given some level of responsibility? Officers generally "fight on the front lines" without having to put their own body into the worst locations. Also, is it typical for the hero to die quickly? After all, he's on the front lines. If so, why would there be much fallout? It was an expected course of action. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Sep 22, 2016 at 23:08
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon He can absolutely be promoted to a rank, but if he sees battles from the command tent word will get out and it won't fly (again, either with the troops or the press), so he can only be promoted so high. $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Sep 22, 2016 at 23:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ So that suggests that Heroes either go out in a firey blaze of glory (my candle burns at both ends / it will not last the night), or it suggests that the entire military system of the nation is built around creating easy-victories for the Hero to keep them alive, building morale. Morale is compliated! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Sep 22, 2016 at 23:12
  • $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon As to the fallout, this nation has basically put so much value into the historic figure and his legacy that they basically only stopped short of forming an organized religion around him. It's such an emotional (not logical) topic that his death impacts the people more than the death of any leader emotionally impacted its citizens (that I'm aware of) during the last century here on Earth. $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Sep 22, 2016 at 23:13
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    $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon Hearing that their hero went out in a 'fiery blaze' would go over about as well as a mother hearing that her son went out in a 'fiery blaze.' I don't feel like that is a viable option. As to the second, how would that practically, repeatedly carried out? Would you mind expanding that into an answer? $\endgroup$
    – Ranger
    Sep 22, 2016 at 23:15

4 Answers 4


War is hell.

I've started prefacing a lot of my answers about warfare that way. "War is hell." It seems like an important reminder when it comes to warfare in fictional worlds. We often develop romantic visions of what warfare should be. War is not those visions. War is vicious, dirty, and very very permanent. A real nation will not go to war until it is the very last option because their leaders know that, once war is declared, there will be women whose husbands will not come home. There will be children who will never meet their father. War is not taken lightly, ever.

This makes questions like this an interesting challenge. At first glance, this concept of the War Hero is an absurdity -- a romantic gesture to a kind of warfare that may have never actually existed in the first place. No nation today would ever consider anything remotely similar to a War Hero. This is the crux of the challenge. To make a believable War Hero tradition, we need to build a national culture which is not remotely similar to our own. We need to build a nation such that the concept of the War Hero actually works for them.

No nation keeps a wartime ritual which doesn't benefit them for long. If your enemy realizes you have a ritual which doesn't benefit you, they will exploit this as deeply as they can. An excellent example of this is the reign of Shaka Zulu. At the time of his rise to power, the tribes of the region had a highly ritualized form of warfare. There was little loss of life. Shaka turned that all on its head, bringing forth a very brutal form of warfare that the ritual-warriors were simply not ready for. As a result, there are no ritualized wars in that region any more. The rituals no longer benefit them, so they have been purged. You have not specified much of your world, so it's plausible that the other nations have similar rituals. Perhaps it is forbidden to attack an enemy's War Hero directly unless you, yourself, are your nation's War Hero. If so, that would solve your situation. If not, we have to dig deeper.

Your position of requiring the War Hero to inhabit the front lines, where life expectencies are short is quite unusual for individuals whose life brings great morale. Typically these individuals are put on display for morale purposes quite far from actual danger for the exact reasons you are concerned: their death is a brutal moral blow. Thomo raises the fictional example of Katniss from The Hunger Games. Once she becomes a symbol, she is pulled away from danger as much as possible. This sort of behavior has occurred in real life as well. There's plenty of non-fiction about the military career of Elvis Presley, who actually provides a lot of insight into how these morale builders fit into the front lines.

Elvis and his military career is a fascinating topic. I admit to having only done cursory study of his time in the Army, but even the little I have read is amazing. He was given his draft notice on December 8, 1957, and chose to act as a normal soldier rather than an entertainer, just like your War Hero. Perhaps "chose" is a bit too strong of a word. His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had written the government in '56 requesting "Special Services" for Elvis. Special Services was the "celebrity cop out," which let you do basic training for six months, then return to normal life. All you had to do was a few shows for the Army every year. However, Parker had no intention of Presley serving in Special Services. Those Army shows were free, and Parker had no intention of giving up free shows to anyone. Parker knew that Elvis was actually developing a bit of a bad rap, and needed a boost. He convinced Elvis to refuse Special Services, and instead become a normal solder. This refusal of Special Services was intended as a ploy to garner support from those who thought Elvis was damaging the moral fabric of society. Apparently this infuriated Elvis, but this kind of stunt is exactly what you pay a manager for. (It also worked. Elvis came back from the war to a huge new demographic of supporters and fans!)

We can see the first attempts to keep our "War Hero" off the front lines right away. Both the Army and Navy immediately extended offers to simply perform instead of fight. The Pentagon itself actually extended offers of Special Services. But Elvis refused (which was all part of the story Parker was weaving). Elvis announced he was going to be a normal soldier, and that was that. So what's a military to do? They sent him to Germany to fight, like the rest of the soldiers. Once he got there, General Randal offered him Special Services one more time. When he refused, they assigned him as a driver to Captain Russel of the 3rd armored. Driving a captain around is pretty safe work. Generally speaking, the captains know not to put their own lives at risk, so Elvis' life was naturally out of harm's way. This job lasted until Russel got tired of the attention that surrounded Elvis, and transferred him to be the driver for Sergent Ira Jones. Sergeants have to go more in harm's way than a captain, but you still see a level of safety to the jobs handed to Elvis.

Now all accounts suggest that Elvis shirked no duty. He went out there and did his job, like any other warrior of the day. Some even say he did more, trying to prove that he wasn't relying on his fame. But, in the end, I find no records of Elvis being put in especially precarious positions. You keep your stars safe. Maybe you can adjust your War Hero story to align more with Elvis' story. If not, what about another hero, Manfred von Richthofen?

Von Richthofen is most often known by his nickname, The Red Barron. He is credited with 80 air combat victories in his career. It is noted that he, despite being an aggressive fighter pilot, was actually quite careful. Rather than relying on extraordinary flying or taking risks, his focus was on assured victories. He followed Dicta Boelche, a tactical theory by ace Oswald Boelche. The goal was not to win as many fights as possible, but rather to make sure that when you do fight, you don't lose. This kept him alive and well for many years. This sort of mindset would be a very valuable one for a War Hero, and the Red Baron showed that you can do it and stay on the front lines.

By 1918, von Richthofen was actually enough of a hero that the government of Germany worried about the morale impacts of his possible death in combat. He was offered a ground job, but refused, arguing it was his duty to fight in the air. He held this attitude until shot down on April 21, 1918. My research does not show whether the feared morale hits actually took place in Germany, but it does show that he was burred by the Allies, who recovered his body, with full honors.

The Red Baron's story is pretty much only possible because of the novelty of air combat in the day. This was a strange time where one person really could make a difference in a war, because there simply weren't many pilots out there flying. Perhaps you can give your War Hero one of these new fangled machines of war. If you can't find a good new tool for him to use, we have to get our hands dirty. We have to make a culture. All the easy solutions are gone.

So you have a culture that really needs the War Hero to go risk their lives, even though everyone knows its a huge morale bust when they die (as they inevitably do). How do you make this a reality which doesn't become just another ritual removed from service after it failed to be useful. We need to find a way to create a culture such that the benefits of the War Hero outweigh the costs. Naturally, the only way this happens is if the War Hero's morale bonus outweighs the pain of his loss. The War Hero needs to provide a substantial benefit while he's alive, or we need to be able to reduce the pain of his death.

We're going to need a culture where a front-line soldier can be important. This is unusual. Typically front-line soldiers are sent to the front lines because they are less important than those who have spent more time learning military science, like officers. We need an army structure where a front-line soldier's opinions can matter, but typically don't matter. If they always mattered, nothing would be special.

At this point, all that can be done is brainstorm. What follows is one idea which might work, one of many. As long as you follow the principles of the War Hero doing more good than harm, any idea can work. This is simply one that I can see occurring in some societies.

I'd suggest a culture with a very strong hierarchical structure to it. There should be a strong suppression of creative solutions from the front-line soldiers. This culture should have a strong "this is how we've always done it" vibe. They should have methodical solutions that they follow to a fault. This sort of lack of creativity is typically a strong determent in warfare, but it may stem from how the society has developed in times of peace.

This opens the door for the War Hero to be a repressed front-line individual who is given an opportunity to have people listen to him or her for the first time. As long as the existing solutions are working, a War Hero is pointless. One just follows the solutions they always followed. However, when the old solutions are failing, a War Hero might be this society's way of breaking free of their mold.

In this approach, the War Hero is given the opportunity to describe how he or she wishes to be used. This gives them an opportunity to demonstrate a new approach to combat that the officers simply aren't trying.

This might actually be very effective against an opponent. If you know that this culture isn't creative in their solutions, relying on the same tactics every time, you may get lazy and reliant on them to do the same thing. Suddenly this War Hero may topple your theories, and win several victories.

In this mythos, the War Hero would have two phases of existence. While the War Hero is alive, we get to see how well they can stay alive. A good War Hero will stay alive long enough to show everyone what new fangled ideas about warfare he or she has. Presumably you would pick one which has this potential. They then show everyone a new way of doing combat until they die. When they die, people mourn the death of the War Hero, but the second phase of their existence begins. Now it is the solemn duty of the officers who observed the War Hero to incorporate their novel thinking into their strategies. In this way, while the physical War Hero dies, their legacy lives on as the culture's entire approach to warfare adapts to incorporate this thinking.

Now this is a pretty extreme solution. Most modern cultures are smart enough to accept new good ideas more than once per generation. However, if you craft your culture correctly, this unusual pattern may be very reasonable. If you see this highly polarized approach to innovation in normal peaceful life, then it would be reasonable to see the military adapt this style into their combat.

Its simply up to you to create a culture where this War Hero approach isn't absurd. Good luck!

  • $\begingroup$ So, this was originally intended to be a simple discussion of how to make a society where your War Hero made sense, but I found some of the real-life examples I researched in the process so interesting that the answer sorta changed. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Sep 23, 2016 at 5:32
  • $\begingroup$ Points for effort, Cort. Your real life examples got me thinking about two more side tangents. The first, is a modern real life example. Prince Harry is an active member of the British armed services, and has done numerous tours of duty in Afghanistan. $\endgroup$
    – user19252
    Sep 23, 2016 at 5:42
  • $\begingroup$ The second tangent is about the effects it can have on a culture. Warhammer 40,000 has the Tau faction, and it consists of castes. One of their options is a member of the Ethereal Caste who, while alive, boosts the Leadership of the whole army. Should it die, however, the army suffers a blow to morale and sometimes will fight back harder in an effort to 'reclaim' the body. (Fluff and Crunch differ slightly, but that's the reasoning). $\endgroup$
    – user19252
    Sep 23, 2016 at 5:44
  • $\begingroup$ Prince Harry did one full tour as a helicopter co-pilot/gunner and a shortened one due to security issues as a forward observer, not exactly numerous. It's a trope of all the WH40k races that they have leaders that effect their units morale, Orc Warbosses, Imperial Guard Commisars etc. $\endgroup$
    – Sarriesfan
    Sep 23, 2016 at 11:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Thomo For a historical example, see the death of Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Lützen in 1632 $\endgroup$
    – Kys
    Sep 23, 2016 at 20:06

Given the technological constraints of 1910's-1950's, and that war would have evolved from a set of decisive battles on a single field (ala Azincourt) to a series of fronts (ala WW I +), the easiest way is simple:

Spin. Run a massive PR campaign.

The hero is selected and sent to an unspecified 'front line' location (unspecified for Operational Security reasons, of course). Given the spread out nature of the war, the Hero is always "over there", and the population would be relying on news reports, press releases and propaganda to give them their information - so give it to them:

  • Limited footage of the Hero firing his weapon and storming out of a trench
  • Raising a flag over a captured enemy position
  • "leading" a "glorious charge" to recapture lost ground
  • "rescuing" captured prisoners (after the special forces have cleared resistance)
  • moving shots of the Hero walking through blasted city streets, sitting on top of vehicles etc.
  • Stories and reports of the Hero in action that are suitably hard to verify but realistic enough to be plausible.

The Hero is a figurehead, a symbol, there solely to inspire people. It's no longer about tradition and warfare, it's political. It's less about the Hero BEING heroic as much as it is about the Hero now APPEARING heroic.

  • $\begingroup$ Read the glorious story of Comrade Ogilvy, brother. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Sep 23, 2016 at 2:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides - thanks, I wasn't happy with the Hunger Games comparison. $\endgroup$
    – user19252
    Sep 23, 2016 at 2:17
  • $\begingroup$ Drop the first sentence in the last paragraph and this would be an answer I'd be happy with. What you're describing in the opening question is more of a Captain America figure (Katniss was a rebel against the state, Captain America is a state sanctioned hero), but without the figure. You don't really need a specific person, you just need the idea, the propaganda... $\endgroup$
    – user10945
    Sep 23, 2016 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Pete exactly. It's actually almost the opposite of Captain America... well it is what they wanted Cap to be before he went out and actually was heroic. $\endgroup$
    – user19252
    Sep 23, 2016 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ Read the book Flags of Our Fathers, or watch the film of the same name, about the men in the photograph of the American Flag being raised at Iwo Jima. Those men were then used as propoganda tools on tour of the United States to raise money for War Bonds. $\endgroup$
    – Sarriesfan
    Sep 23, 2016 at 11:54

Have multiple "heroes-in-waiting" ready to step in. Even better, have some of them be part of the hero's troop. I can see a government naming the sole survivor of an attack that killed a hero, the new hero, complete with a heart-rending story. In this scenario, they might hastily recruit the mess cook from the dead hero's unit if they have suitable footage. (Which could be fun).

Basically, make sure you have footage of everyone remotely connected with the hero who is going to be in war with him. Then use it when it's needed and create a narrative.

Find other potential heroes elsewhere, scout them out. Somebody runs the PR machine. This is what they do.

Also, treat him like a King on the chessboard. Can't move much, protected by powerful pieces. If he really is a hero, he might chafe under that and sneak out to do some heroing.

  • $\begingroup$ While I like Cort Ammon's answer, yours is just as good, for one important reason: you actually covered what to do if the hero dies. Your first idea in particular would be good for any story that involves a war. $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Feb 24, 2021 at 22:33

Since you defined the WWI/WWII time, there is one frontline-fighting place which is actually pretty secure (as long as you keep him away from any bad tactical situations): just build a heavy tank and put your war-hero in it! something like this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiger_I


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