True Heroes: A Rare Breed Indeed

“HERO: a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability b: an illustrious warrior c: a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities d: one that shows great courage” ~ Websters.

What is a hero? According to the American media it’s almost anyone who finds themselves in an unusual, potentially dangerous situation, and manages to survive – though it’s not mandatory – to tell the tale. In fact, so often is this descriptive noun misused by the media it appears that virtually the only criteria necessary to function as a hero, is to be an American.

Have you noticed how few heroes there are from elsewhere in the world?

In this country, the word has come to be used almost as a rallying cry, like ‘patriot’, or ‘flag’, or ‘freedom’, as though designed to “……stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood……” as the English king, Henry V, is reputed to have cried before leading his troops into battle against the French at Agincourt.

In times of conflict the US military, en masse, become ‘heroes’. The glorious brigades march off to war in true Hollywood style fighting for their country’s right to……something? Exactly what, is becoming more and more difficult to clarify?

At this juncture, it’s possible to feel the hot snarl of patriotism at one’s back; the sneering response demanding respect for those prepared to die for the concept of freedom and liberty. But, no-one’s suggesting war doesn’t occasionally become necessary, just that those who have to fight it shouldn’t automatically be awarded ‘hero status’ just because they’re on ‘our’ side.

Take the present Iraq war as an example. American soldiers are hailed as heroes by their countrymen back home, and ‘invaders’, ‘occupiers’, or even, ‘butchers’, by many of the Iraqi people. Of course, the Iraqis are wrong, aren’t they? ‘Our lads’ could never be any of those things. After all, they’re heroes, aren’t they?

Suppose the coin is flipped over. Are the Iraqis, those fighting for their freedom from American oppression, heroes? They should be, after all they’re doing exactly the same job as the American soldiers; killing their ‘enemy’. One set of heroes killing another set of heroes. The winners are the side with most heroes left standing at the final whistle.

Ah, that’s it, then? It’s all just a game, after all.

Truth is, war is inglorious, filthy, and dishonorable. It’s about killing people – blowing them into lots of bloody little pieces that lie around in the sun and turn putrid, smell disgusting, and are eventually eaten by rats or other vermin. It’s not a place for heroes. The definition, “an illustrious warrior”, emanates from those, “……days of old, when knights were bold……”, and ‘good’ and ‘evil’ were simply defined. If you wore black armor, it was assumed you were bad, and fair game for the noble warrior out to save a convenient fair lady from the evil Black Knight, or fire-breathing dragon, or……any other mythological demon that might happen to impale itself upon his trusty sword.

For mythology is exactly what it was, and nothing has changed today. Except, that is, for the weaponry. Now, the AK47 has replaced the sword and ‘Islamic terrorists’ are the evil Black Knights, fire-breathing dragons, or whatever…….

Heroes are those who risk their lives to save others. It’s about preserving life, not slaughtering on a battlefield. Of course, that’s not to suggest heroism cannot exist on a battlefield. There have been many documented cases where a soldier has risked his life to save a friend or comrade, – even, an enemy – but to automatically label all troops ‘heroes’ is frankly rubbish.

Were they heroes, those perpetrators of the Abu Ghraib scandals, simply for wearing the US uniform? Heroism is not something that can be taken away. By its very virtue, once earned, it is for life. The Abu Ghraib soldiers were not heroes before the scandal, then demoted, as though heroism is a badge on the epaulet to be ripped off by a court martial.

A soldier’s job is the dirtiest on earth. He’s the garbage collector with an AK47 slung round his neck. He (or she) is not paid particularly well, and most learn a trade hoping to God they can get out before the politicians pick another fight and pitch them in at the deep end. Soldiers don’t join the army to fight wars. Most are in it for the money, the career training, or just because it’s the only job they’re suited for. Some join for the comradeship. Many, increasingly, are misfits that cannot find work as a civilian. If a war comes along, they are given no choice but to go and fight, but generally – in peacetime – it’s not their primary motivation.

Soldiering is a job, like any other. The soldier sells his expertise for a wage and other benefits, just as a bus driver, a miner, or a steel worker. A soldier is to be respected for doing the job well and, given its nature, should receive far greater reward than is generally the remuneration.

Perhaps the politicians just consider it saves money to label them all ‘heroes’? After all, one virtue of a hero is that he’s uncomplaining.

Heroes have their base in mythology, and as the remarkable American writer, Ambrose Bierce, once remarked of mythology:

“Mythology: the body of a primitive people’s beliefs, concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later.”

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3 Replies to “True Heroes: A Rare Breed Indeed”

  1. I once read that violent crime in America goes down when we are at war – that many aggressive and sociopathic people join up. I thought that was interesting.

    As to the word “heroes”, we throw that around so easily. We never call “whistleblowers” “heroes” (the ones who truly deserve the praise for speaking up for justice). How many people can name the man who put a stop to the My Lai massacre or the reporter that uncovered the CIA involvement in the “crack” trade, or know who Joe Darby is? A hero is someone who stands up for what is right, no matter what the personal cost.

    It even bugs me when they call cancer survivors “heroes” and say they valiantly fought the disease. They did nothing but be unlucky and accept treatments that may or may not have worked.

  2. Flimsy – ah, I’m not alone! I squirm every time the word “hero” is used in connection with cancer, or any serious illness or injury. Do they think ordinary mortals are just going to lie down and whine till they die? These so-called ‘cancer-heroes’ act no differently from any other sufferer from serious illness. Instead of “battling” with their bodies they might learn to love them more.

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