Musings on Heroism

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.

Related Post:

Saving the World, Professionalized
Or, is my life a waste if I don’t work for a nonprofit or the government?


  • […] words, I’m supposed to join the ranks of professional experts and professional heroes (see my recent article on heroism for more on […]

  • September 19, 2011

    Sean Sullivan

    Great article. It was very interesting and thought provoking article. I think it is important to realize, as you alluded to, that heroes are defined by their cultures. Currently, we live in a society where our view of heroism has been shaped by 9-11. Therefore, those striving against terrorism (soldiers) are seen as heroes. In the example you mention above with your friend and his buddies, it is not their individual actions that cause them to be regarded as heroes, but there position in society as the ones making sacrifices for the good of others. Perhaps, there are various degrees of heroes. There could be a soldier faithfully serving his country and a soldier risking his life to save his squad mates. Both could be heroes depending on how you look at it. Like I said, your article does make one think.

  • September 26, 2011

    David Derby

    Sean argues that soldiers are part of a class of heroes, and worthy members of this class can themselves be considered heroes in addition to the individual heroes. This requires the question: does heroism require noble goals and results? More specifically, must the wars soldiers fight have a noble cause, or a noble result, to make them a class of heroes?

  • September 26, 2011

    Brian Brown

    David, I think we are thinking along similar lines. Sean, you’re definitely right that our view of soldiers (and probably heroes) has been shaped by 9/11. So let’s take a step back from that context, because I think we are on tough ground when we define heroism by membership in a class. (First let me be clear: I’m not talking about whether we should be grateful to people who dedicate a large chunk of their lives to keeping us safe. We can be grateful to somebody and still not think he is a hero. It’s heroism we’re investigating here.)

    Say we’re in 18th-century Britain, one of the examples I referenced. Our army consists of conscripted men, nearly all from the dregs of society, most former convicts who were offered a chance between jail and the army. They are notorious for their behavior toward civilians. Basically, they are scum. Yet, AS A CLASS, they are no different from, say, U.S. soldiers in the Second World War–they too were drafted (most of them), they too swore an oath, they too killed enemies of their country for a living, and they too (though mostly good men) had no morality test to get into the military.

    We could also stop acting as though all servicemen/women are combat infantry, when in reality most members of the military never see combat. Is a paid staff officer who does admin work in a uniform and never leaves the U.S. a hero? Is he any different from a paid congressional staff officer who does admin work in a suit and tie, also serving his country? Or the perpetually underappreciated nonprofit staffer who slaves away to help the poor, on hardly any salary and with no pension promises? If so, how?

    And is doing your duty heroic? Or does heroism require going above and beyond the call of duty (e.g. falling on a grenade to save your buddies)? I can think of a number of people who did great deeds and, when thanked, rejected the thanks, saying they did not deserve accolades for doing their duty.

    Questions like these are why I argue that heroism is–and must be–tied to individual actions, not status or membership. They, too, are why the military itself only awards medals for heroism to people who have, in fact, done heroic deeds. If I use a class-based definition, then in my 18th-century Britain example I can buy heroism by purchasing an officer’s commission–and remain a hero no matter what country I am sent to conquer or how I go about doing so.


  • January 30, 2012


    An intleilnget point of view, well expressed! Thanks!