In a recent Facebook discussion, we talked about the value of occupations where people put their life on the line. This of course arose out of a conversation about the currently chaotic situation involving the police and the Black Lives Matter movement. A friend of mind said he leaned towards siding with police because they lay their lives on the line every day. Many people feel this way and it is oft used to not only build respect towards police officers, but also people in the military.
On one hand there is certainly courage getting up each day, knowing this could be a day you die…or rather a higher than normal percentage for the average citizen. Of course the average cop may have as good of odds as the average person who grows up in inner city areas that have a high crime and murder rate. That aside I agree that it still takes courage, but the stress of such a situation is likely not healthy without a good deal of treatment to deal with the stress. That kind of stress is likely to make you more likely to take less chances in any given interaction with the citizenry to protect your own life. Particularly in areas where there is a lot of crime, and for a job which doesn’t pay that well given the cost of your life.
On the other hand, one wonders what compels someone to choose that line of work? Do people say…”I really want to put my life on the line every day and be a cop or join the military, protecting people?” I am sure some of them do. Such nobility does exist. But I am sure there are plenty of reasons that come into play as well. Some may join because they can’t afford or don’t want to go to college. For the military, some may join for the opportunity to go to college, or the job opportunities that will be more plentiful upon graduation. Many join the military simply as a way to get out of poverty. Other factors may come into play, like trying to escape an abusive or dysfunctional household, doing it because your father and/or brother(s) did it. Other less noble reasons could also exist like just wanting the respect that comes with the uniform, picturing yourself as some action hero not even thinking about the consequences of you doing or wanting that instant authority over people. This has always been the trouble I have had with simply thinking of all cops or military personnel as noble heroes for being willing to lay down their life for others, because it’s unclear to me how much of this courage really factors into their decision to do the job.
But they do, do the job. At the end of the day isn’t that all that matters? Perhaps, but if laying down your life, whatever your initial intentions were make you a person with courage then such courage should also be bestowed on all people who have dangerous jobs. And there are such jobs even though they in no way are protecting other people. People who are loggers, fishers, and roofers come in the top 3. Here is a list of the top 20 most dangerous professions per capita (Police come in at 15). We also must then laud all those who lay their life down for a cause. This then includes your rebels, your gangs, your suicide bombers. This people also risk their life, sometimes end their lives for a cause they believe in. I think we can agree that this is not the type of person we want to elevate to nobility. Of course it is the values they hold, the values they fight for, the goodness that they protect. So if we can’t guarantee the motivations of all people who don the uniform, if there are more dangerous professions, and if what makes someone is a hero is the values they represent, it seems to me like “laying down one’s life” isn’t an overly relevant reason to elevate one to a position of automatic respect.
But you may say, “Big talk person with blog, but would you be willing to do the same?”. And I think it’s a fair question to ask and it’s also an important question I think to ask one’s self. “Is there a cause for which I’m willing to die for?” I certainly think I have the courage for it, but I know for me the death part isn’t what would hold me back. If there was truly no other way besides carrying a gun to solve the problem, then it is my passion that would override my fear of death, at least initially. It would simply feel like the right thing to do regardless of the consequences. What I will say is that I am definitely capable of making a mistake, and possibly a deadly one. Dying to me is quite honestly less scary than taking the life of someone who did feel I deserve it. Had I shot Tamir Rice. I would be wishing myself dead, and if they didn’t lock me up, I’d quickly turn in my badge. Because, how are you going to live with that?
When it comes the situation between cops and blacks in the U.S., all I can say is that there is definitely racism in the justice system, and most cops are simply doing their best. They see the worst of society and the see it every day. There is no question this wears on them, and there is no question in changes the brain. But so does poverty and racism. The key is I think is to reach out to all those who need help. You don’t have to lay down your life to support the police and black people. Things have to change or a lot more people are going to die and those are the lives we all need to work together to save.
I was having a discussion the other day with Victoria over at VictoriaNeuronotes about heroes. And how we idolize people and then seem almost shocked when they turn out to be human and with flaws. Sometimes they are deep and serious ones (i.e. Bill Cosby). Maybe it’s not too surprising that we do this since most of us grow up thinking our parents are heroes and only over time become aware of the fact that they too have flaws and so maybe it’s a natural tendency in humans. I’ve wrote about hero worship before, so that’s not what this post is about. But I started to think about what a hero actually is and how odd of a concept it really is.
When we think of heroes we tend to think of someone standing alone, overcoming all odds, a man or woman against the world that is solely focused on tearing them down. But isn’t it odd that we should idolize such a figure, given that it never, ever happens that way. Okay maybe not “never”, certainly every once in awhile you have someone walking along who sees someone calling for help from a burning building and is saved, but these heroes are heroes of circumstance. In the right place and the right time, and maybe not heroes at all, just doing what every creature of conscience would do in the same circumstance. For most people we idolize they never really stand alone. Whether it be military, firefighter or police who benefits from the experience of those who trained them, and the coordination and cooperation of their fellow soldiers, fighters, or cops. Maybe it’s Martin Luther King Jr., Ronald Reagan, or Gandhi? Such men while perhaps great could not have accomplished any of the things they did alone. Maybe we could argue that heroes inspire, but when it comes to actually accomplishing what they wanted in life they needed support. And certainly their ability to inspire may also have been because of those who inspired them.
I then began to think about our fascination with heroes in movies and in television. Whether it is superheroes with unique powers saving the world, a cop singlehandedly defeating scores of bad guys, shooting the down one bullet a time, or a vigilante seeking revenge on those that wronged him many are drawn to the lone figure who stands above it all. Is it our fascination that has driven the stories, or the stories that drive us? Probably the former, but either way it is a positive feedback which may not be overall all that healthy. Pop culture here in the U.S. idolizes the individual to a very high level. As I’ve argued before while there is value in individuality, but ultimately we don’t get a sense of self without looking at ourselves in relation to others. We are also an evolved species who survive best when we cooperate and practice reciprocal altruism. We are a social species, and one that has depended on others for our survival and roamed this Earth in groups. The lone person defeating foe after foe is an illusion. Real victories are at the cost and hard work of many, whether they be through physical battle, social change, or intellectual progress. One person may start an avalanche, but it is the avalanche that does that damage.
I wonder where this fascination comes from? Is it deeply psychological, is it only cultural? Most of us face adversity in which it seems there is nothing that can be done, so perhaps the lone hero satisfies our own desire to overcome the obstacles in our own life. Is it a function of an over populated world in which we struggle to stand out from the multitudes? So we love our heroes because of how they stand out from the rest? And yet this is still an illusion and more often than not, when we raise up a hero we tend to cast other people down. Such heroes in movies and TV are usually facing less than complex bad guys, and throngs of incompetent henchmen who are nameless and faceless and easily defeated. Does loving the hero oversimplify their character and cause us to judge people by unrealistic standards, which over time we come to realize that even the hero we’ve elevated cannot meet them? Does our love of that lone hero breed the Dylann Roofs and James Holmes who believe they alone must triumph over the demons in their lives?
I don’t want to imply that there are no heroes at all in this world. I am quite certain that there are, but we can certainly change our attitude on how we view them. Heroes are not perfection. Nobody is. I am also quite certain there are those who face incredible adversity on their own without help from anybody. A single mother who works long hours every day to provide for her children is perhaps just as much a hero as Martin Luther King Jr,, Superman, or any military or police officer. What seems clear is that in reality none of us do everything completely on our own. There is no successful company that doesn’t depend on the hard work of all the employees. There is no rich person who has got to where he or she is all on their own. While I think it’s perfectly healthy to admire and appreciate the virtues of others when we idealize those people we do them a disservice and ourselves. The great people of past and present are likely just as flawed as the rest of us. Maybe all we should be worried about is striving to make the world a better place and maybe that’s all a hero really is.
I’d be interested in hearing others people’s thoughts about heroes.
The posts in this series so far have all been about valuable qualities for a human to have. I have tried to stress the importance of each quality, that none should be forgotten, and that we should work to exemplify them in our daily lives. As a passive reader, perhaps you have taken it all in, perhaps you have thought to yourself, this blogger has some good things to say and I agree with him. While it is great to keep wise thoughts and words in your head, as long as they remain just in your head they are useless. They must be actionable. This is the importance of courage. Courage is all about “doing”. Nobody goes around saying “I’m courageous”. You would simply be seen as a boaster and probably a liar if you went around saying this everywhere. People expect you to show it. It is something that cannot be proven by words alone. As a result courage is as important as any other quality in a good human, and because it is about doing some might consider it to be the most important.
So what is courage? For many courage is about physical courage. They apply it to soldiers, police, firefighters, etc. These are people who still do their duty or job at great physical risk to themselves. And I have no doubt that many of the men and woman exemplify courage that do these jobs, but there are other moments when many other people may show physical courage. Trying to finish a marathon when your body feels like it can’t move another muscle could be considered courageous. Courage is not only defined by overcoming physical threats, there is also moral courage; a courage to act rightly, do as your principles guide you, and being true to who you are, despite what opposition, shame, or discouragement you may face. In either case we can see that courage is about overcoming the fear that prevents us from acting on what we think is right. Whether we value doing our job and duty putting out a dangerous fire and trying to save lives, or whether it is fighting unfair laws, coming out to your family and friends as gay, coming out to your family and friends as atheist, making yourself vulnerable to someone you love deeply, forgiving someone who has hurt you, or ending a relationship that you know isn’t right for you. And in many cases displaying moral courage can incur physical harm also, as I am sure many LGBT people can tell you once they came out of the closet. It is important to remember also that while courage is a matter of degrees it is often difficult to judge how much courage one has for any particular action. Someone who is afraid of the water may exhibit just as much courage taking that first step into the pool as a soldier takes taking his or her first step on to the battlefield.
For most of us, including myself, there are many things that we think are important and yet we’ve done very little to show they are important. I think we’ve all had times where we knew something was important and right, but didn’t act on it. This is a surefire way to build regrets in your life. So it’s one thing to agree and say “yes play is important, I need to incorporate more of that into my life”, but if you aren’t putting that idea into something actionable it isn’t going to be much help to you or anybody else. Gandhi famously said “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. If you can’t exemplify the things you think are important, this, in my opinion, is due to a lack of courage. I know this sounds critical, but I am probably far more critical of my own lack of courage than anyone else. While I think I am a decent person, I want to always grow and become better, and I know that part of the reason why I wrote this series and put it out there is because I want to make sure I hold myself to the standard I am setting. I also understand fear, and how paralyzing it can be. There are very real reasons to be afraid of the consequences of our actions even if they are the right ones. What if a good friend of yours committed a crime? Would you report them knowing that what they did is wrong? Would it depend on the severity of the crime? Would it depend on how much history you have with that person? How much you loved them? What about the repercussions of other friends or family in the circle? It may also be your principle to protect the people you love no matter what, and for you keeping them out of jail might be what you consider protection. Therefore doesn’t it also require some courageous to fight that inner conflict and stick by your decision though it may be hard to forgive that person for the crime they committed? Our morality is often fraught with conflict and so doing what is right is often difficult. Courage isn’t always about doing the right thing in an absolute sense, but may also be just doing what you think is right. Of course at times we can be not just wrong, but very wrong.
But even if we do have it wrong, acting on what we think is right is in most cases not a bad thing, because courage also implies taking a risk. As I’ve blogged about before taking risks whether a success or failure, teaches us something about ourselves. It gives us new information which we can build on moving forward. If you never left your country and were nervous about doing so it takes courage to overcome that hesitation and have that brand new experience of travel and being somewhere totally foreign. You may find that you love it and find something new and exciting to add to your life. Or you might have gotten robbed and had a horrible experience and decide that maybe travel isn’t for you. Either way you’ve learned and you can focus what new experiences you seek elsewhere. Courage asks us to put aside our instinct to simply stay safe. At times staying safe is sensible, but dwell there for too long and we let fears rule our lives, we fail to grow, learn and become stagnant.
Just like it takes courage to act on the qualities I’ve discussed in this series, so do those qualities help our courage. Since we often fear what we don’t understand curiosity can help us make acts of courage not so daunting. But no amount of knowledge can ever really erase our fears. Even if what we learn is 100% correct it is human nature to experience something to really overcome our fears. I am sure the person who is hydrophobic would gain little from reading books about the safety of water. Our curious nature can also help us learn so that when we would do show courage we are acting not just what is right for us, but is also right for others and causes the least amount of harm. Courage, by itself, is largely a matter of perspective. Those who are more nationalistic put the courage of soldiers above all others. Terrorists in Al Qaeda probably think that those who died crashing their planes into their targets during 9/11 were also courageous. I am sure those who are strongly racist think that Roof was courageous for striking a blow against African-Americans. Except in an extreme crisis it important to think before we act. Courage being an action word implies that we must also think deeply about our principles. But without courage just thinking is not enough either. If this post or any other in this series so far has made you think then you are ready for the 8th and final quality to be posted in the not to distant future.
I was reading a little note in history this morning that sparked my thinking. It was the story of how Washington D.C. was born; a place that didn’t belong to any state, and was federally controlled. Apparently it all started because of unpaid bills; particularly because a large majority of the soldiers in the revolutionary war never got paid. In one military camp in 1777
George Washington (a general at the time) wrote that more than a quarter of the 10,000 men stationed there were suffering from malnutrition and did not even have shoes. Not surprisingly they died. The stories of how much the soldiers from the revolutionary war suffered are startling really. Many of them used their own money initially because they weren’t getting paid and by the end of the war many were destitute and sometimes in debt themselves. Once discharged from the army many of them faced debtors prison. So a group of soldiers from Pennsylvania mutinied and marched to Philadelphia to demand their wages from congress. The state of Pennsylvania refused to use the state militia to defend congress and sided with the mutineers. The mutineers joined with troops in Philadelphia and surrounded Independence Hall 400 strong demanding their wages. Though angry they never opened fire or killed anyone. Congress refused to submit to them, considered them dishonorable and instead congress simply fled. Eventually they decided that they wanted congress to convene in a place that did not have to depend on the states for their safety. Thus Washington, D.C. was born.
In addition to finding this historical fact interesting, it made me realize that we haven’t changed a whole lot in regards to our attitude towards those who fight for us. Although I am a pacifist, I am also compassionate. I wrote a blog post before about how I don’t really understand why anyone would choose to have someone else tell them who they should kill, that doesn’t mean I think soldiers deserve to be treated inhumanely. And the fight for independence from an oppressive state is a just cause to fight. But I look at the 40 years of history and see how soldiers were treated after Vietnam and after our most recent and ongoing conflicts and it is clear that there is a fundamental disregard towards the soldiery who do make great sacrifices. And don’t get me wrong, I am not one to believe that all military are heroes or that there aren’t people who aren’t heroic in other walks of life. This disregard I speak of is not the rhetoric of clueless hippies who would spit on a veteran or jeer at them and call them killers, but I am talking about the disregard from those who would get them to fight and yet not suffer the same fate that many of the soldiers go through. Soldiers going without proper nutrition, proper equipment, proper medical care after or during their service should be the shame of any civilized nation (and don’t worry I’m sure the U.S. is not alone in the treatment of soldiers).
Although not a shocker it really hit home, that with but a few exceptions, politicians are the true cowards. Whether the conflict be just or not, they move the soldiery like pawns to where they want and then, fight the battles that they deem important (whether supported by the general public, or sometimes they lie to the general public to justify the conflict) while never depriving themselves of any of their needs. I think back to those congressmen fleeing Philadelphia, never having to worry about their pay, their nutritional needs, despite the debt they had racked up for the fledgling country. And nothing has changed since the country’s inception, including the fact that we still rack up massive amounts of debt for these military ventures. John Fogerty’s song “Fortunate Son” is an excellent reminder about how even the children of those in congress were protected from going to war, while those that are poor are considered expendable and cannot get out of the draft. I will never understand how
those we elected to serve the people enjoy so many more privileges than those who they send to fight the wars that they deem necessary. Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time understanding why someone would join the military because who wants to fight for a group of politicians, who for the most part demonstrate less honor and nobility than they expect you to have as you kill for your country? Why should one sacrifice their one existence on this Earth for somebody who is unwilling to do the same, but is happy enough to send you to fight their battle? Either way it seems to me that we should be taking care of our veterans properly. Those politicians who treat the soldiers like pawns are easily replaced. In fact that’s kind of the point of democracy is that politicians can and eventually will be replaced for one reason or another and the country will go on. Thus there is no additional value to their life than is there is to the soldiers and vets. And on a final note, let’s do something about the large amount of poverty, income inequality, weakening education system and deteriorating infrastructure so that those soldiers can at the very least feel like they fought for something. I am not taking sides politically, I think the issue of taking care of those who need it the most is one that crosses party lines. I am exhausted watching politicians speak rhetoric, distort the truth, outright lie, and play games while the world burns around them only to see them get pay raises, most of their expenses paid, receive kickbacks from lobbying groups and essentially walk away from Washington far richer than when they walked in. So you can be mad at the Michael Moores or the Seth Rogens for their comments about the military (of course those comments are misinterpreted) but the ones that truly don’t really care about those that fight their battles for them are in Washington, D.C. – the city built to absolve themselves of responsibility to their military.
I know this post will be very unpopular with some people I know, but I write it not as someone who means to offend, but simply as someone who wrestles with ethical principles all the time and this is a subject I’ve though a lot about. I guess I was inspired to share my feelings about this after reading an article that talked about the dangers of automatically associating heroism with anybody who is in the military. I’ve written about heroes before and how there are a lot of people in this world worthy of being called a hero, but most people don’t know about. In this country it seems that if you’ve joined the military and are deployed you are a hero; plain and simple. In fact usually when someone joins the service they are automatically seen as honorable and brave. Adopting any attitude that is in opposition to glorifying the soldier is seen as treasonous by many. The only narrative we are allowed to accept is one that paints the recruit as someone who nobly has joined to serve their country and defend American freedom (this turns out to not be the reason, most people join the military). To think otherwise, it means you don’t appreciate the fact that soldiers died for your freedom. You are ungrateful and you don’t understand the cost of being free. I’ve always taken offense to this generalization, and it seems to me that many people who say things like this experience nationalism in the same way that the devout experience religion.
It’s not that I don’t think it takes a lot of guts to join the military, knowing that one day you may be placed in a situation in which people are trying to kill you. In the middle of combat it is either kill or be killed and to come out of such a situation alive requires
some pretty good team skills and awareness in an extremely stressful situation. There is certainly something to applaud and be amazed by such people. Many of us perhaps would not be able to face such an extreme situation. The question is, does that quality mean that this is their only defining quality of character? And do we not have the right to complain about the context in which these soldiers are placed to take part in this very dangerous combat? People often criticize us peace-lovers if we don’t support the war, and say we are not supporting the troops. But I can think of no better way of supporting the troops than wanting them home and safe and not fighting in a conflict for which we have no business being part of. If your child wants to do something that could get them killed, for which you don’t think there is any valid reason for them to be doing, if you don’t want them to do that are you being unsupportive? Perhaps you just value their life more. And when you don’t support a war, many consider you unpatriotic. Most of those people have no problem criticizing Obama and his policies, so why is it unpatriotic to criticize a decision to go to war?
Often, of course, these things come down to your point of view. If the act of joining the military and the willingness to put yourself in harm’s way automatically makes you a hero, and a brave and honorable person, then every member of the military anywhere must also have such qualities. It may even include rebel forces, or terrorists. Such people believe in their cause just as much as anybody in the military. In some way this would make war even more horrible if the most brave and honorable of men and women are always being killed, it seems to me a terrible way to solve a problem. The
problem is that we tend not to see just any soldier is honorable, but only the ones that fight for us, our allies, or causes that we agree with. To say that a Nazi soldier was as honorable as any allied soldier would not go over well. And of course in order to justify killing the “enemy” we must dehumanize and make them less than they are. When they kill civilians they are the scum of the earth, and when we do it, it’s an accident in the course of an honorable fight. Was every Nazi a Jew-hating genocidal maniac? That seems unlikely. Many were perhaps simply fighting because they had been recruited, because they wanted to provide for their family, because the country was destitute at the time and thought the fight was a cause that could improve the German standard of living. There are likely many other reasons, but how easy would it be to kill someone if he was no different than you, but just happened to live in a different country?
In Henry V, one of the well-known scenes from the play involves King Henry disguising himself as a common soldier and walking through his troops on the eve of a big battle. His troops are tired, sick and will be outnumbered the following day. At one point the King questions one of his men about whether or not they should trust the king, that
what if his reasons for this fight are unjust and is just leading them all to slaughter. A soldier gets angry at this and says that he fights for King and country and that if the King’s reasons be unjust that that is a crime he will have to answer for when he dies and that it is something for the King’s conscious to deal with, and not the soldiers. This seems to be the ultra-nationalistic mentality that many in this country subscribe to. If there is an afterlife then perhaps this is true, but even if there is some supernatural judge up their making us answer for our crimes, does that morally justify leading men to their slaughter even if their loyalty leads them to be willing to do so (although at least in King Henry’s time the King fought along side his men instead of sitting thousands of miles away)? Just because someone is willing to die for you, should they? Is it not even more morally wrong to take advantage of that loyalty for an unjust cause? It seems that context is important. When it comes to killing shouldn’t we need more than simply, “this is just what our government wants, so we have to do it”? Shouldn’t we make absolutely sure that our cause is just? Shouldn’t we also really make sure that other means of solving conflict aren’t a better option?
For the most part, honor and courage being automatically associated with the military mystifies me for a couple of reasons. First I find it very uncomfortable to surrender my choice about what causes I fight for. Would I have enlisted to fight Nazi’s in WWII. I think that’s likely especially given what they were doing in concentration camps. But would I have happily then gone to Korea 5 years later? Absolutely not. And while I realize on some level a military probably wouldn’t work if we got to pick and choose which conflicts we wanted to fight in, when it comes to pointing a gun and killing somebody else I think I should believe in that cause, not do it because someone else believes in the cause. I want to live a moral life. The Nuremberg trials even set the international legal precedent that “just following orders” cannot be used as a defense for committing atrocities and absolving guilt, but only lessening the sentence. I simply don’t want to be put in a position where I am asked to fight and kill others unless I think it is the best and only course of action. I don’t find any honor in simply killing or dying for someone else’s cause.
Secondly, many people will question your lack of courage when you say you don’t want to be a soldier, or say at least that a soldier has more courage. I’d like to say that I am not afraid of dying for a cause I believe in. Dying is a pretty easy thing to do after all. Many people have done it, and you only have to do it once. What I am afraid of is killing. My grandfather fought in WWII. He didn’t talk about it much and I admired the courage it takes to get through such a terrible conflict in which so many, including his brother, were killed. I never asked him how many people he killed though. He was a good man. It was hard to imagine him killing, and if I were to guess, I think he is the type like many who would have carried the weight of those he killed. Even in a cause he believed in. He would have wondered, “what kind of man was it that I killed? In different circumstances could we not have been friends, shared a shot of scotch whiskey and kept each other laughing all night?” I know such questions would plague me. I know the average person loves his/her family, is kind to his/her neighbors and would help those in need. And perhaps it is come to the mind of many in the military, “Perhaps that soldier’s leaders have taught him/her dehumanize me in the same way I had been taught to dehumanize them.” Maybe they have doubts. I certainly would. Like, what if my bullet misses and hits some civilian or my own comrade? What if we were told to attack the wrong target and it was a school instead of a military hideout? If I choose an action that could end my own life, that is my choice, but ending someone else’s life is another matter altogether. From a psychological point of view, one could easily argue that putting yourself into a situation in which you give up your right to choose the causes you fight for, and are willing to kill people you really don’t have a problem with, can be seen as mentally unsound as opposed to a decision filled with honor and courage.
In the end, I can’t subscribe to the idea that those who join the military are the best example of bravery and honor. There are people in the military who have done terrible things. Rape in the military is a huge issue right now. Where is the honor there? Of course we want our military to be honorable, and there are many who are. But there are also many honorable people in different facets of society. If we are going to celebrate heroism let us not only do it for the glorification of war. There are many people who have courage and face difficulties and adversity everyday. Sometimes it takes more courage to live than to die. Let us at least bestow the label of honor, courage and heroism to wherever it applies and not apply it blindly. Such things prevent us from having honest conversations about important issues concerning conflict, war and violence. I bear no ill will towards soldier, and appreciate the sacrifices that they go through. Particularly because I know many of them did not join the military because they wanted to fight in a war. And maybe I don’t understand or am a coward, but personally I’m glad that we have found better ways to deal with conflicts and that there are a smaller percentage of people dying in wars today than in our past. It gives me hope for the future.
Recently Jon Stewart had a man named Andrew Harper on the show who works for the U.N. in a refugee camp in Jordan. The area of course is flooded with refugees from Syria. Jon talked about how much of a hero this guy is for doing this every day. It can’t be easy.
An interest concept to me is the idea of a hero. It feels like to me that those we laud as heroes are often not the ones we should. Maybe this is cultural and is not true everywhere. Is there such a thing as a true hero or is it always subjective to a particular person or culture? I am sure most would agree that the latter is more the case. Although I always find it interesting how much people want to get you to appreciate what they consider a hero. Maybe it’s the same sort of mentality that convinces someone to push a belief system on you.
The subjectivity of a hero made me think about military heroes. I find this to be the be a bit paradoxical at times. In the U.S. there is a strong emphasis over all others to consider those in the military as heroes. It occurs to me that an enemy to a warring nation has their heroes too, so can the person that kills Americans be a hero and also the American who kills the enemy be a hero? Who has the moral authority? The one that wins the war? Of course each side would not consider the other to have heroes even though arguable both fighters would be brave, adept, strong, etc. There is also a strange dichotomy between those in the military and then the larger context of the war itself. There is no doubt in my mind that the men and women are brave and heroic for being willing to put their life on the line. But what if the war is unjust? I am sure Nazi Germany had their heroes; ones that were elevated to hero status for killing the most allied soldiers or even killing the most Jews. In the context of their fight those people were heroes. We of course would not view them as such.
In Shakespeare’s Henry V, King Henry pretends to be a soldier and walks among his men to gather their mood. At one point he questions one of his men, well what if the cause be unjust? The man simply responds that if the war is unjust it is matter for the conscience of the King who leads them into battle and not the responsibility of the soldier. This idea makes me uncomfortable, and of course was not supported during the Nuremburg trials, and probably with good reason. And though it makes me uncomfortable I still find some merit to it. It must still be a difficult choice though, to know you will be jailed, possibly killed for not supporting your country’s cause. In a democracy perhaps we are all responsible for fighting an unjust war. So perhaps the soldier is a hero, since in a way many are responsible for giving that soldier the motive even if it is not a just motive.
Of course heroes are someone that we connect with. Some people connect with military heroes, I perhaps do not connect as much with them as those who take part in humanitarian efforts. It bothers me that these people are not celebrated in the same way we are asked to celebrate those in the military. Support of our troops does make a difference to their morale, so shouldn’t we also support the tireless efforts of those who bring humanitarian relief to people who are struggling? There is a lot of it in this world and these people also work long hours, in less than ideal conditions to provide aid and relief to others. Do their tales not deserve the spotlight are they not the source of inspiration?
And how often do we praise the everyday heroes? What about people who volunteer in soup kitchens, good cops, firefighters, or teachers, doctors and nurses who go the extra mile? What about a single mom who works hard every day to support her children and give them a chance for something more in life? Should we define heroism only by the level of danger that one faces? It seems like this is the most commonly used criteria. The one thing that seems clear is that true heroes do what they do because they are driven to do so, and not to be elevated by society at all.
Many heroes have their flaws too. I am sure there are bad days when they want to give it all up. They may be extremely good at what they do for people, but as a result neglect other parts of life and thus not live up to our elevated expectations of morality. Nobody is perfect, not even heroes. Perhaps the best we can do is try to be heroes ourselves while at the same time never forget to celebrate all those who demonstrate the best in human virtues. They are all equally as important. A person who is willing to die for our freedom should be at least as important as one who is willing to live for our freedom.