Leadership, valor, mentorship, vision logoInherent vision, inherent valor

by Michael Kolton
Special to Army Communicator

�War is a realm of danger; therefore courage is the soldier�s first requirement,� wrote Prussian military thinker MG Carl von Clausewitz. �Courage is of two kinds: courage in the face of personal danger, and courage to accept responsibility, either before the tribunal of some outside power or before the court of one�s own conscience.�

American society and culture values courage as Clausewitz defined it. Poets, newsmen, citizens and soldiers place valor on a level of admiration parallel with concepts like honor and duty. In addition to our adoration of moral courage, portrayals of physical courage permeate our literature and our minds. The analects of American combat also vividly depict the bravery Clausewitz illustrates.

If there�s one lesson-learned of the stories from literature and combat, it�s that great leaders � whether military or civilian � possess the qualities Clausewitz describes: physical courage, moral courage and another trait called coup d�oeil. Clausewitz�s definition of a great leader is personified in MG Charles Evans Kilbourne Jr., one of the Signal Regiment�s five Medal of Honor recipients.

What makes a great leader: physical courage

During the Philippine Insurrection (Feb. 5, 1899), then-1LT Kilbourne acted in heroism beyond the call of duty. His 1905 MoH citation records the day of bravery; Kilbourne, �within a range of 250 yards of the enemy and in the face of a rapid fire, climbed a telegraph pole at the east end of the bridge and, in full view of the enemy, coolly and carefully repaired a broken telegraph wire, thereby re-establishing telegraphic communication to the front.�

This deed of physical courage certainly ranks with those of other honorable American soldiers who risked their lives in combat beyond the call of duty. Yet Kilbourne�s leadership characteristics didn�t consist of physical courage alone � there�s something unique about this Signal officer who later continued his military career in another Army branch. The more in-depth one analyzes Kilbourne, the more one sees the traits of moral courage and coup d�oeil � traits that reach more deeply into the soul of a great leader than physical courage does.

The scope of moral courage

Many soldiers remark that when in combat situations, men fight not for their country or commander but for �the buddy next to them.� If someone read the 3,400-plus MoH citations, that person could see the ultimate importance of camaraderie among soldiers. Astonishing accounts of valor describe fatally wounded men destroying enemy fortifications, vehicles and personnel to save their fellow soldiers. The accounts portray soldiers who took the brunt of bullets, mines and grenades for their comrades.

These depictions describe physical courage and selflessness to a degree worthy of the utmost respect. However, in addition to these awe-inspiring soldiers, there are a select number of incidents that show a valor contrary to the notion of fighting for the buddy next to you � a valor with a more distant inspiration. Such valor � moral courage � is also seen in Kilbourne.

Although Kilbourne takes his rightful place in the ranks of men who risked their lives (physical courage), he shows a quality that sets him apart. When he climbed the telegraph pole under direct fire, he didn�t do so to save his men (the buddy next to him). He didn�t take down any enemy positions; in fact, the danger to his troops wasn�t immediate and didn�t require his extraordinary exposure to enemy fire.

Kilbourne climbed that pole for the sole purpose of completing his mission. This quality of mission-oriented motivation originates from the same spirit that led Kilbourne to his military success as commander and citizen-soldier. It�s this mission-oriented trait, required of all great leaders, that drew Kilbourne to expose himself to death so he could re-establish communications between the command and fighting units in the Philippines.

The philosophy �fighting for the buddy next to you� joins in common the acts of enlisted soldiers who have been awarded medals for valor. Yet the separation between a man loyal to his comrades � even to the point of death � and a great leader is the leader�s ability to see the necessity of completing a mission.

Clausewitz wrote about this sense of duty in his second concept of courage: the moral courage of taking responsibility. Kilbourne wouldn�t have been thought less an officer if he hadn�t climbed the 40-foot pole in the middle of crossfire. Yet the �court of [his] own conscience� begged him to do the duty since he subscribed to the intrinsic values of honor and selfless service to the nation. These traits proved an integral part of Kilbourne�s soul on that day in 1899.

The vision of coup d�oeil

Yet it�s not simply the trait of unswerving devotion to completing a mission that motivates a man to take point of his unit and risk death. Clausewitz also described another motivation. An intrinsic part of great leaders � in addition to both physical and moral courage � is a quality at the root of a leader�s soul. Napoleon Bonaparte first described this quality, coup d�oeil, when he wrote, �There is a gift of being able to see at a glance the possibilities offered by the terrain � one can call it coup d�oeil and it is inborn in great generals.�

Despite Napoleon�s specificity about terrain, Clausewitz furthered the explanation of coup d�oeil, �inborn in great generals.� �Stripped of metaphor and of restrictions imposed by the phrase [coup d�oeil], the concept merely refers to the quick recognition of a truth that the mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection,� Clausewitz clarified.

It�s coup d� oeil that birthmarks the souls of great leaders. The ability to recognize on a strategic level the importance of position in a tactical-combat situation is a �truth� Clausewitz vividly paints. Coup d�oeil isn�t common � in fact, it�s uncommon enough to warrant the connotation of legend. However, the trait�s existence is proved by the success of American commanders in every war.

Kilbourne�s visionary understanding of terrain is credited with affecting the course of World War II. As Kilbourne�s Distinguished Member of the Regiment biography describes, �Kilbourne began constructing an elaborate defensive-fortifications system on Corregidor Island. These fortifications were to significantly affect the course of world events. In fact, the British credited Kilbourne�s construction with saving Australia by delaying Japanese advances at the beginning of World War II. (His efforts were finally completed in 1932 when, as a brigadier general, he commanded all of Manila�s harbor defenses.)�

From coup d�oeil springs forth a great leader�s ability to assess situations and draw conclusions that result in consequences beyond the scope of immediate circumstances. It�s this quality Kilbourne demonstrates in 1899 and in 1932. Coup d�oeil comprehension is also the foundation of words that American soldiers esteem: the seven Army values (loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, personal courage). These are the values of truth. The intrinsic understanding of truth � Clausewitz�s definition of coup d�oeil � to which soldiers adhere sets apart leaders of character who are willing to die for their country to complete a mission.

Leadership and the 7 Army values

Consequently, Clausewitz�s redefinition of coup d�oeil dictates that Kilbourne�s life should demonstrate all seven Army values. Kilbourne�s loyalty and respect to the nation and for his men were exemplary. His sense of duty, honor and integrity can be seen throughout his career as an officer and by his personal courage Feb. 5, 1899. His love for America can be witnessed in his lifetime of selfless service to the nation � both as a soldier and after he retired from active duty, when he became superintendent of Virginia Military Institute.

Kilbourne can be defined by a sense of honor stemming from the same spiritual characteristics that gave him the ability to lead soldiers, conceptualize terrain and risk his own life for the mission. All these qualities are rooted in coup d�oeil, a visionary understanding of the truth � the truth that gives a person the integrity to see right and wrong.

As a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, I pray to see the same truth that gave Kilbourne the steadfast courage to fight and to serve with honor. Specifically meaningful to me is this excerpt from the Cadet Prayer: �Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice, and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy.�

Although I do not aspire to kill, I aspire to be honorable. Soldier or not, all people will face a day where doing wrong � which is often easier � entices one to sacrifice one�s integrity. However, there�s nothing greater than the ability to discern right from wrong, draw a conclusion and then have the moral courage to choose the harder right. There�s nothing more beautifully majestic than the coup d�oeil of great leaders � men who saw the truth in their very own souls as well as on the cold, deadly space of the battlefield.

Cadet Kolton, 19, is a member of West Point�s Class of 2005. He describes himself as an Army brat, with both parents serving in the Army. He wants to be an airborne-infantry officer like his father, also a West Pointer (Class of 1976). He fights in the 132-pound weight class on the Army�s judo team and wishes to major in mechanical engineering at USMA.�I passionately study foreign cultures as well,� he said. �I participated in a homestay exchange program to Japan when I was 16, and I desire to continue working in the area of Asian studies. Some of my other activities at West Point include Genesis, a cadet fellowship and Bible-study organization, and Navigators, an international Bible-study organization. In my spare time, I also play piano.�

CPT Kevin Romano, Kolton�s calculus instructor and a Signal officer, noted that Kolton � an outstanding student � studies advanced history, rare for USMA freshmen, and he likes history research and writing as a hobby.

More reading

On War (original German: Vom Kriege), Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz is often cited as the most important among the major strategic theorists. Although he�s been dead for 171 years (he lived 1780-1831), he�s probably the most frequently quoted, most controversial and most modern of the military philosophers � for instance, many of today�s business professionals adopt his words as business philosophy.

See also the MoH database on-line at http://www.medalofhonor.com or from the Army�s Center of Military History, accessible through the Army homepage at http://www.army.mil.

Kilbourne�s Distinguished Member of the Regiment biography is also on-line at hhttp://www.gordon.army.mil/ocos/rdiv/dmr/kilbrne.asp.

Acronym quickscan
MoH � Medal of Honor
USMA � U.S. Military Academy

dividing rule

Back issues on-line | "Most requested" articles | Article search | Subscriptions | Writer's guide

Army Communicator is part of Regimental Division, a division of Office Chief of Signal.

This is an offical U.S. Army Site |


This is an offical U.S. Army Site |