Friday, April 08, 2005


It was late and I was tired. Not just a little tired, very tired. I couldn’t sleep, though, too much was on my mind: work, money, family; the usual things that can keep us pre-occupied in the small hours of the morning when we should be sleeping.

I was watching the news and they were showing the Pope’s funeral live on television. There were masses of people and the ceremony was very beautiful. A cardinal read a prayer in Latin. Actually, he was singing the verses and received a reply from the choir: Alleluhiah. Now a prayer and the crowd replied, “Amen”.

While I’m watching this, a few other things are going through my mind. Things like the story I read over at the Rottweiler about a soldier who received the bronze medal for distinguished service. The commendation was posted. When I read the story, I realized that this was the stuff of legends, of heroes, of movies and books.

And, every day, it’s happening around us in places near and far away.

It reminded me of a post by a miliblogger Questing Cat. A bomb went off and wounded a soldier in their unit very badly. His Combat Life Saver training kicked in and he saved this soldier’s life. He wrote the story, not to tell us about his great deed, but because it was still on his mind. He wondered if he’d done everything right, if he had really saved the guy or just done enough to keep him at that moment. He kept questioning himself. His squad leader said he was putting him in for a commendation.

Like all good heroes that came before him, he wanted to refuse the commendation. In his eyes, he hadn’t done much, maybe not enough. He was still shook up about the situation.

Many of the commenters on his board congratulated him on the recommendation, told him he’d “done good” and some even called him a hero.

As you might imagine, he was taken aback by that word: hero. He posted several times that he wasn’t a hero. He was just a guy doing what he was taught to do in a situation that just happened to happen where he was working. He also informed them several times that he didn’t want that praise for his posting, it was just about getting the episode off his chest and the online journal was his way of relieving the tension.

But the people on the comment section insisted that he was just that: a hero.

He seemed to be very confused about why they kept saying that. They didn’t understand him, why he was opposed to applying that word, how he just needed to talk about the frightening thing that happened to him. After thirty or so posts going back and forth, I finally made a comment:

The word “hero” isn’t about you or for you. The word “hero” is for us.

I tried to explain it then. I don’t know if I will explain it any better here.

You see, we all just doing our “thing” every day. We get up, go to work, go to school, feed the kids, try to make the money stretch, etc., etc., etc. As the days go by, we don’t always dwell on it, but every once in awhile, we ask ourselves, “Is this it? This is what we are?” Then we go on, doing what we always do, but that thought is still there, lurking around, waiting for a quiet moment to come out and prick our conscience again.

Are we ants in an ant farm and this is our assigned role? This is all we can be?

Then you read stories like the one at the Rottweiler.

It’s this kind of story that reminds us that we are NOT ants in an ant farm. We are humans. We are fallible, fragile and frustrating sometimes, but we can be more.

That’s why we call people “heroes”. It’s not really about validating them, though validation they deserve, it’s about validating “us” and reminding ourselves that this isn’t all there is, there is more and we can be more.

We can be more.

Heroes are not perfect, but “hero” is not really about being “perfect”. Heroism is in the imperfection, in the struggle, the ability to go on and reach the goal, the top of the mountain, the next mile, even when everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, when you feel like there’s nothing left to give, when you know the ending has better than 50% chance that you won’t even live much less reach the goal, that’s heroic.

The modern age with it’s modern revolutions and wide spread technology gave people the ability to examine every detail of a person’s life and, in finding failings, flaws and weakness, judge them not as “heroes”. Rather we try to weigh their deeds against one another and often find them lacking, not living up to our mystical idealistic “perfect” “hero.”

We deconstruct our heroes for two reasons: some people want to look at them and see what it is that made them behave “heroically”, to understand, to find out if they have that “thing”, too. Others do it to prove that “heroes” aren’t different, aren’t better and are really nothing more than “just some guy”, maybe not even a “good guy” much less “heroic”. In essence, destroying the hero.

It’s in that destruction that there is danger. Once the heroes are gone, that’s when the anti-hero arises, the demagogue that thrives off of what is left in society when there are no more heroes: fear.

It’s happened through out history: Robespierre, Stalin, Hitler, Mao Ze Dung, Pol Pot. When the heroes are gone, all that’s left are the destroyers and the destroyers, realizing people’s psychological need for “heroes”, often pose as just that: heroes saving the day.

The difference between the poser destroyers and the real heroes is in the actions. But, once you’ve destroyed all the heroes, leveled their achievements against their failings over and over again, the measuring stick of true heroism disappears and the ability to tell the posing destroyer from the hero becomes difficult if not impossible.

For this very reason, the hero destroyers believe that this is why all heroes should be destroyed. If we have none, if we believe not, then these posers cannot arise. Yet, they fail to see they perpetuate the problem, circular in occurrence. It is the final destruction of the hero, the idea of “hero” that leads to the demagogue demi-god.

There was a time when people actively sought out the idea of the hero. They looked for it in the people they believed in; peoples from history; from mythology; in the characters of a book, even in the movies. Today, when we hear or read about somebody being “heroic”, along with the short tale of their deed, we get a long list of their life, complete with the failures. When I hear the list of their life, I am left wondering if we are supposed to understand that they are a hero “despite” their life? Or, this is their life despite being a “hero”?

These questions have left me wondering these days, are we a heroic culture or are we a culture of hero destroyers?

I see a heroic culture struggling to survive the destruction. I see heroes in every walk of life. I worry that, one day, we will have destroyed the heroes and, in doing so, will have sowed the seeds of our own destruction.

Maybe, heroics are an illusion. Maybe it’s an idea that can’t exist in our modern world of instant information.

I think it should. It’s why I seek out the miliblogs and the military websites. It’s why I choose to read about certain people in history and read about heroic mythological characters. Not as panacea against everyday life, but as a reminder that there is more, that we can be more.

If it’s an illusion, I’ll keep it, thank you very much, along with my idealism about America, freedom and democracy.

I don’t need illusions, but I do need something to believe in and I prefer to believe in the good.

If we can’t believe in the good and the heroes, what remains except nihilism, the black existence of nothing to strive for but the end of nothing?

Isn’t that what we are fighting against today? The anti-hero?

It’s about time we started giving attention to the heroic in this country and stopped trying to destroy it lest we wake one day to find the anti-hero standing before us, no hero in sight, not even an illusion that can remind us that we, too, can be heroic.

We need people like SGT. Smith and Sgt Jennings.

We need them to remind us that there is something more.

We can be more.


riceburner147 said...

Kat: I agree, every guy i ever spoke to who did something that deserved a medal, always said he/she didnt deserve it.

AFSister said...

A most excellent post!!!!

Tom said...

"I don’t need illusions, but I do need something to believe in and I prefer to believe in the good.

If we can’t believe in the good and the heroes, what remains except nihilism, the black existence of nothing to strive for but the end of nothing?"

ugh. Such an empty existance is about the most terrifying thing I can think of.

And there is so much good. Our society and country are full of heroes, all we have to do is look for and recognize them.

Last year when I had a day off work I went uptown to see a few things on the mall (one of the nice things about living near Washington DC). One of the things I did was to take the tour of the Capitol building. Around the rotunda are many paintings and statues of great and famous Americans. The tour guide was absolutely fantastic, giving an incredibly moving talk about the heros shown in the paitings and statues around us.

Your post made me recall that moment. Thank you.

Kat said...

Hey all. Sorry for the long absence. Had connection problems.

But, I'd say I've met very few real heroes who want the word and that makes them true heroes. Because the doing of the deed wasn't for personal recognition, but to improve something make it better, save somebody's life and, in walking away refusing the recognition, they are made even more.

I was reading about the medal of honor winners and the guys that raised the flag at Iwo Jima. The relentless recognition on top of the terrible things they saw actually made the flag raisers lose something in their life. One of them drank himself to death.

that's the tragic hero, no less a hero except that we should remember, heroism deserves recognition, but it should not destroy the hero.

Tom, I want to walk there again, on the mall, look and remember. Every once in awhile, we need it up front. These past two years have shown that we are still looking for heroes in the increased veterans day attendance and memorial day services.

There was once a time when those were important to us, important celebrations. Today they may become some what again, but we are still jaded and full of ennui.

The culture of heroics, of days when children saw police officers, firemen, astronauts and soldiers as something to aspire to needs to be reborn again.

Today, it's all about making these people "real" and the realism has taken the shine off the post. That's what I worry about.

I don't want to live in that world either.