Are soldiers heroes? And is buying them lunch an appropriate response to what they do?
A friend in the military recently told me a story. He was with a few fellow officers in a restaurant. An elderly gentleman approached them. Calling them heroes, he thanked them for their service. Then he paid for their lunches.
My friend (we’ll call him Rusty) observed that this gentleman knew nothing about them–he didn’t know that one man was cheating on his wife, or that another was under disciplinary action, or that Rusty wanted to get out of the military as soon as his term of service was up. None had seen combat. They were a far cry from Dick Winters in Band of Brothers. But it didn’t matter–because they wore a uniform, they were heroes.
People have nearly always lumped soldiers together into one category, either heroes or villains. In 18th century Britain, when soldiers were usually former criminals; or in America after Vietnam; it was usually the latter. Since 9/11, in America it has been the former. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that this shift has been accompanied by a shift in what we mean by patriotism. We are patriotic because we fly a flag and support (or oppose) wars. Meanwhile, we pile up debt, don’t know our neighbors, and act as though our country exists to serve us (liberals) or stay out of our way (conservatives).
It seems that as flags, songs, and warfare offer an easy way to represent patriotism, the military uniform provides an easy way to represent a hero. Nothing is asked of us, either in evaluating a particular soldier or a particular nation or cause. The contemporary idea of patriotism–really, Rusty thought, a warped form of aggressive nationalism–was about loyalty to an abstraction; an idea; and called for heroes that provided icons for that idea. The response asked of us is to thank them and buy them lunch–not to learn from them, for we know not what to learn. In Rusty’s view, we had cheapened the meaning of heroism by applying it to a symbol that represented something, rather than a person who did something.
But what then, we wondered, was a proper way to understand heroism? We did not ultimately agree on a precise definition, but in the aftermath of our conversation, I had a few thoughts, based around two differing conceptions of heroism–one from the ancient Greeks, one from the Romans.
In the Homeric tradition of heroism, a hero was a warrior who had been favored by the gods with extraordinary skill and success in war. Samuel Richardson lamented that the Iliad and the Aeneid had ruined heroism for all time, by framing it in light of merciless slaughter. Samuel Johnson, in the act of praising Scottish warriors, nonetheless argued “that a man who places honour only in successful violence is a very troublesome and pernicious animal in time of peace; and that the martial character cannot prevail in a whole people, but by a diminution of all over virtues.” Johnson believed we should not, in other words, be like Sparta, which totalized its understanding of heroism under one nationalistic banner at the expense of other loves, loyalties, and virtues.
Anglo-American culture has a long tradition of wariness toward representing heroism merely as guys with guns. This is in part because we have been shaped by a more Roman conception of heroism. In the Roman world, and maybe even more so in ours, heroism was perceived as less about divine favor (a status) than about character attributes (qualities). Great deeds are still expected, and simply putting on a uniform may not qualify someone any more than it would for Homer. But heroes from Rome onward were used as sources of inspiration; you were supposed to want to be like them.
Hence Paul Johnson, in the introduction to his book Heroes (from which the above references are drawn), wisely declined to provide a definition of heroism. Rather, he said, he would approach the subject by example–by looking at specific heroes. Perhaps this is because a culture’s values and its heroes are intertwined. The Romans of the Republic identified as heroes men who exemplified their preferred values of virtue, honor, and courage–but those values were themselves shaped by heroic men.
In this sense, heroism is something we know when we see it, even if we cannot define it–it is shaped by people and their actions. Thus it is not something someone attains merely by achieving a certain status (soldier, celebrity, football star). It involves an interplay of virtues and specific results. Real heroes give us something to aspire to–not their status, but the exercise of their virtues. Aristotle firmly put heroism in the camp of actions, moment by moment, that inspire emulation rather than applause. He wrote: “The beauty of the soul shines out when a man bears with composure one heavy mischance after another, not because he does not feel them, but because he is a man of high and heroic temper.”
Perhaps our culture’s mistakes in this area explain why people tend to have trouble thinking of a hero who isn’t dead. We live in a culture that values abstractions, and loyalties to and admiration for them. Oakeshott observed that we have reduced real traditions and habits of virtue to simple ideologies and sets of principles–and we are too keenly aware of how rarely real people measure up to such standards of perfection, including ourselves.
Thus we are far more comfortable with Homeric heroes–with compartmentalized or professionalized values that, as Will Rogers put it, only ask us to sit on the curbside and applaud. Patriotism that requires us to be good neighbors to real people is too close to home. So is heroism that is exercised in the day-to-day rather than on a distant battlefield (something I wrote about in “Why Men Like Jane Austen”).What would such things look like if they were motivated by a dedication to a place, its people, and its traditions? We aren’t sure, and something about the question unnerves us. So we sit on the curbside and applaud, maybe more often than we should.
Saving the World, Professionalized
Or, is my life a waste if I don’t work for a nonprofit or the government?
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.