war on the rocks

What the U.S. Military Owes Stan Lee

November 15, 2018

I can’t remember when I read my first comic book, just as I can’t remember learning to swim. My mother was a swim teacher, so she had me in the pool soon after I was born, and my dad was, and still is, the most voracious reader I know. He bought my brother and I comic books long before we could actually read. But we loved the drawings and demanded that Dad and Mom sit and read them to us over and over again. The walls of our childhood bedrooms were adorned with posters of Superman and Batman and Spiderman. My first heroes were, in fact, superheroes.

To this day, my brother and I, and all our sons, still read every comic book we can get our hands on. Many families bond over sports. In my family, we could always have a raucous debate around the dinner table about whether Superman could run faster than Flash, or if he could beat the Hulk in a fight. And, of course, we endlessly debated, but never really settled, the touchstone debate at the root of almost every comic book argument that probably divides America more than shades of red or blue: Which is better, DC or Marvel?

But comic book superheroes were more than just mindless escapism or my dad’s sneaky way to get us to read more. They had another effect on me that I’m not sure Dad quite realized. Superheroes lived in a world of ideals — and quintessentially American ideals at that. They embodied the fundamental optimism of the American spirit. Good would always triumph in the end over evil, and those on the side of right and justice would use their strength to protect the innocent. Superheroes were far from pacifists, but they almost never killed, and when they did get angry, it was because of injustice. It is fitting that Stanley Martin Lieber (a.k.a. Stan Lee)’s first foray into the superhero universe was writing about Captain America, the superhero who wore an American flag and whose first enemy was the Nazis.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, but in my heart of hearts I knew, if I could be anything, I wanted to be Spiderman, one of the X-Men, or the Hulk. Sure, it would be cool to have superpowers, but only if I could use them to help other people. While figuring out how to get bitten by a radioactive spider was pretty difficult, when I decided to join the U.S. military, it was because in the back of my mind I knew that it was the closest I could come to being a superhero. I would get training to fight noble battles defending the weak and the innocent, always on the side of righteousness. Of course, the world is more complicated than a comic book. Still, I can’t help but think that, deep down, so many of the guys I served with, and the kids serving today, are wannabe X-Men hoping that someday they’ll get uniforms as cool as theirs.

When I went off to the Air Force Academy, part of the attraction was all the exciting things I could learn to do there — skydiving, flying planes and gliders, scuba diving. The academy even had opportunities to go train with Navy SEALs and green berets in the summer.  And Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape sounded awesome. If that wasn’t a school for superheroes, I don’t know what is.

Once I went out into the force, being an intelligence officer didn’t quite fit the superhero image on most days. But there were some moments. As a 2nd Lt. in 1988, I volunteered to stand watch in Panama, overseeing all U.S.  base security forces e.g. MPs, in the country as tensions were running high with the dictator General Noriega. On the second or third night I was on duty, we got a radio call that a Special Forces team deployed in the jungle to document hostile activity was taking enemy fire. A green beret chief warrant officer much older than me, who was working the radios looked at me and asked “What do we do Sir?” At first, I thought he was talking to someone behind me. Then I asked, “Well Chief, what do you recommend?” He told me I could deploy our quick reaction force, known as the “Heavy Team.” I asked if I was allowed to do that, and he said “Sir, right now you are Joint Task Force Panama.” I honestly had no idea if I had the authority to deploy the Heavy Team. I was a 2nd Lt. Air Force intelligence officer and as far as I knew I might be starting a war. But I had American soldiers under fire, and they were asking me for help. I didn’t know what the rules of engagement were, and we couldn’t get ahold of anyone more senior than me to ask.

I didn’t know what I should do, but I sure as hell knew what Captain America or Spiderman would do when people were in danger. Screw it, I thought. They can court martial me tomorrow. “Launch the Heavy Team,” I told the Chief Warrant Officer in a voice that I hoped sounded a lot more confident than I felt. Thankfully, by the time the Heavy Team arrived on scene the shooting had stopped and no one was hurt. The general showed up and I debriefed him on what had happened. No court martial ensued. All that Air Force Academy training and it was my comic book heroes that told me what to do when the s**t hit the fan. Thank you, Stan Lee.

Lee wasn’t subtle in the messaging he infused in his work and was open about his beliefs. Lee’s X-Men, created in 1963, were really an allegory for America’s struggles with race during that turbulent decade. The X-Men were mutants, persecuted and feared for immutable characteristics they were born with, not for what they did. From 1965 through 2002, Lee would have a column entitled Stan’s Soapbox. In 1968, he would write,

Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them — to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater — one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately.

In later years, Lee’s comics would address other difficult topics. The X-Men’s arch enemy — Magneto — was a Holocaust survivor. Black Panther and Falcon were African-American characters who would struggle more directly with issues of racism. Northstar, a Canadian superhero who wasn’t a Lee creation but who first appeared in X-Men, was the first openly gay superhero.

So into my young mind, and I am sure millions of other young minds of my generation, Lee poured his many noble ideals. Of course, I don’t have empirical evidence, but I can say anecdotally that I haven’t met too many on active duty who don’t know a lot about superheroes. When I set off to spend a year in Korea on active duty without my family, a contractor from my previous office, a combat veteran navigator and avid comic book nerd, offered to help my family however he could. Little did he know my wife would put my seven-year-old son on the phone with him almost weekly, because as much as she had absorbed, she could still be stumped when he asked how the Silver Surfer stayed on his surfboard or if the Hulk could pick up Thor’s Hammer.

If you’re still doubtful of Lee’s influence on all of us, ask yourself this: Have you ever read any article about the efforts to build an advanced protective and exoskeleton system whose headline doesn’t refer to the military looking for Tony Stark to build them “An Iron Man Suit?”  Those who write for the military know their audience.

So thank you, Stan Lee, for giving us a glimpse of the kind of world where the fights are always noble, the good guys always win, and most superheroes don’t wear capes. There can be no better send-off than your own motto: Excelsior!

Rob Levinson is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force with over 20 years of service as an intelligence officer. He is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and served in Latin America, the Middle East and South Korea as an intelligence officer, foreign area officer, commander and politico-military affairs officer. He currently works as a defense analyst.

Image: David Marriott, Jr.