I am doing something a little different this week. I am continuing a specific thread, a theme, which is normally something I do not like to do. It is, of course, about heroes and heroism. How we view them, how we define them, why they are a necessary part of human cultures and civilizations.
I don't believe in heroes exactly. That may be because I was raised in a time where heroes were questioned as to motive, or exposed as frauds, or were denied. Paradoxically, it was also a time where heroes were practically made into saints and surrounded us. I was born soon after the end of World War II. And there were countless heroes in that war; both overseas and at home. Many of them came to be diminished in the eyes of the public.
Let's take Audie Murphy.
Murphy was a genuine war hero. One of the most decorated soldiers of WWII, his awrds included the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award this country gives. He was not a big man. In fact, he was slight of build and short by most standards. He enlisted in the Army illegally at age 16. He had to push hard to become a combat soldier. His superiors kept trying to get him lighter, safer, duty because of his size and boyish appearance.
Murphy excelled on the battlefield. Maybe he was overcompensating. Maybe he was inherently heroic. Whatever the reason, he performed "above and beyond the call of duty" a number of times. It is clear to me that he was driven.
The interesting thing, to me, is that he could have been killed at any time during the events in which he earned his medals. Luck? Divine intervention? Whatever the reason, he avoided death (though not injury), and kept fighting and winning medals. I saw the movie, To Hell and Back (based on his autobiography of the same name), and the one thing that stayed with me was that he acted in a barely controlled rage during those acts of courage.
Someone once told me (or I read somewhere or saw in a movie) that there is a thin line between bravery and stupidity. What that means is the hero is one who does the stupid thing, placing himself in great danger, but succeeding in the task. And that is also what I learned from Audie Murphy. His anger drove him to acts of stupidity but his ability and determination turned those into feats of courage.
After the war, Murphy suffered from depression and what we now call Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome. As he battled through that, financial problems, and a period of addiction to sleeping pills, you could say he still displayed great courage. Some others did not (see Ira Hayes).
When you read about him, you learn that he was a humble man who had a strong sense of duty and responsibility to others. To me, Audie Murphy epitomized the war hero. He also showed great courage in overcoming adversity in his personal life.
Is that what a hero is?
In the 50's, when I was growing up, there were a number of popular figures seen as heroes. We had the comic book heroes: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and so on. I don't see Superman as a hero, though I did then. You see, Superman was invulnerable. Except for Kryptonite, nothing could harm him. And he even recovered from exposure to Kryptonite quickly once it was taken away or he was shielded from it. I don't think it's bravery if you really are as invincible as you think and bullets bounce off. Batman was much braver, I'd say, and even he had some great advantages (brought about mostly by wealth).
I think the heroes of the pop culture of the 50's tainted my viewpoint. And then, of course, there were villains who seemed to have all the qualities of the hero except the wrong motives. Lex Luthor kept coming after Superman, in spite of the fact that he could never defeat him.
You do know that Mao was (and still is) a hero to his people? Same with Fidel Castro. In the 50's, so was Stalin. I am sure that Germany saw Hitler as a hero as much, if not more, that England revered Churchill.
Is it circumstance and perspective that determine a hero?
When I was young, it was easy to recognize a hero. The picture got cloudier as I grew older.
And that is why I ask you for your help in defining the term.
A Night Unremembered
6 years ago