True heroism can’t be found in the absence of risk

I discovered Admiral (US Navy – retired) James Stavridis as an author at the beginning of the pandemic two years ago. This warrior-intellectual always amazes me by the depth of his thought and the finesse of his writing style. His last book, To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision (Penguin Press) depicts nine characters – 8 men and 1 woman – who left their mark on US military history.

You can almost hear the lyrics of the US Marines hymn and its reference to the shores of Tripoli when you read about Lieutenant Stephen Decatur’s expedition in North Africa to save US Navy comrades detained by pirates and you want to watch Captain Philips with Tom Hanks another time after completing the chapter devoted to Rear Admiral Michelle Howard who was in command of the successful rescue operation in the Gulf of Aden.

But my favorite – by far – was Cook Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller. If there is one chapter I would love to see the author expand in a whole book, the life and lessons of that exceptional warrior would be my choice. Think about it for a moment. You’re an African-American and you enlist in the US Navy to better support your family, seeking advancement out of the segregationist South. But you must still endure sanctioned racism. Admiral Stavridis reminds the reader that “the high-tech specialties of communication, gunnery, navigation, and engineering were closed to African Americans; in fact, the only jobs they were permitted to do were cooking, cleaning, and serving as valets for the senior officers in the ships.”

Not much of an incentive to fight for Uncle Sam. But Dorie Miller was not cut from an ordinary cloth. On the morning of December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes tore apart the blue sky of Pearl Harbor on a beautiful Hawaiian Sunday morning, “the gentle giant” could have run for safety, but he did just the contrary. He rushed to help others, before loading and manning anti-aircrafts guns to defend the USS West Virginia. That man was made of the steel of which lasting heroism is forged.

We live in a society where the smallest of grievances comes to consummate so much of our vital energies. A simple look at the way people lift theirs fists at the drop of a hat is enough to convince. Now think of that man who set aside any slight he might have endured through the scourge of segregation to shed his blood for his brothers on a warship and give the burning steel of bullets to the attackers. This is a powerful antidote to any form of selfishness.

None of the 9 individuals profiled by Admiral Stavridis chose the safe way. Just think about Captain Brett Crozier who chose the safety of his sailors over his career when he denounced the “lack of effective solutions” and called for help in an unclassified email sent to his superiors after an outbreak of Covid-19 on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt – “[…] one of the worst places to combat a virus [like this pandemic].” He dealt with the cards he had in his hands and his case will be debated for years to come but choosing willingly to block your own professional future is not a decision taken lightly.

All those stories come to life in a very engaging manner because the author has the unique capacity of intertwining the wisdom of a Roman proverb from Tacitus – “fortune favors the prepared” – with the lessons of great movies like The Godfather, Greyhound and Game of Thrones. It is also enjoyable to encounter the great Theodore Roosevelt – a pivotal figure in the history of the US Navy, among many other things – every now and then between the covers.

I have been watching the news from the battlefield in Ukraine since the beginning of the war provoked by Russia last February. The images of those courageous and selfless defenders were always on my mind while I devoured the chapters of this book. It made me reflect that the ethos of heroism captured by Admiral Stavridis is not about to disappear. Quite the contrary.

With the increasing presence of threats clouding the safety of the world, characters like those evoked in To Risk It All will be even more crucial and important to meet the challenges in a world where a long period of geopolitical tranquility has come to an end. Those who will make crucial decisions on the battlefields of health care, technology and military affairs are now developing the mettle that will make them instrumental in the fate of humankind.

Naturally, this discerning book will find a place of choice on the bookshelves of military enthusiasts, but it should also be read by anyone who seeks to navigate the shoals of life with the confidence that true heroism can’t be found in the absence of risk. One could even say that you can only reach it through the ordinary and almost mundane capacity to be prepared to face adversity in whatever form it presents itself. Hence, the title of this book, which is another literary success under the pen of Admiral James Stavridis.


Admiral James Stavridis (USN, retired), To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision, New York, Penguin Press, 2022, 352 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Supipi Weerasooriya of Penguin Random House Canada for kindly providing me with a copy of Admiral Stavridis’ book and to Sam Mitchell of Penguin Random House for his generous collaboration with this blog.

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