46 pages 1 hour read

Tom Wolfe

The Right Stuff

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1979

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Single Combat

Chapter 5, “In Single Combat,” describes the introduction of the Mercury Seven to the American public in April 1959. According to Wolfe, single combat is “one of the ancient superstitions of warfare,” a practice that was common in pre-Christian societies from ancient China to the Old Testament of the Bible (96). Single combatants were the most prized and prestigious warriors of a people or nation. In wartime, single combatants from opposing armies would often agree to fight one another prior to, or even instead of, engaging in a full battle. Single combat could thus be employed to spare both sides in a conflict from the complete destruction of total war.

Though honored for their bravery, Wolfe claims that the unparalleled glory showered on single combatants also had a strategic function: to motivate fighters to risk their lives in place of others. “Archaic cultures,” he writes, “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” (97).

For Wolfe, the notion of single combat applies to the Mercury Seven and helps to explain the immense outpouring of public support given to the astronauts. Just as a single combatant is given the rewards due to him or her “up front,” that is, before battle, so too have the Seven been crowned American heroes before the first Mercury mission.