Monday, January 19, 2015

AC Gets Hungup on the Concept of Herosim

Foreword: I hesitate to post these musings in case they are seen as anti-military, but that is not the intention. It's really and only some thoughts about the use of the word, hero.


It has been almost three months since a shooter took the life of Corporal Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa.

For those who don't know the story, here it is in brief. A lone terrorist ambushed the reservist, Cirillo, who was given the honour of standing on guard at the the National War Memorial. The assassin then got back in his car, drove the short distance to the parliament buildings, entered and began to roam the halls looking for more victims before he was shot to death. It was covered on all of the news outlets, and you can read the summary here on Wikipedia.

The soldier, Nathan Cirillo, who was killed, was frequently called a hero in various media accounts, and this led Andrew Dreschel, from Cirillo's home town and a columnist for the local paper, to post his thoughts. He was examining the concept of heroism, and his opinions struck a raw nerve with many. Basically, his point was that heroism is defined as someone showing remarkable courage, so that Cirillo could not be classified as a hero just because he was killed on the job.

If you read the article [sorry, link apparently removed] carefully, I think it is plain to see that he was not downplaying the tragedy at all but was examining the concept of heroism and opining that it did not apply in this case.

I think Dreschel's timing, coming just a week after the event was unfortunate. People were still raw and emotional, and there was much negative online reaction to his piece. One dominant idea that I came across on Facebook was that just being a soldier who would be willing to defend one's country qualifies someone for hero status.
The notion that anyone who enlists to defend her or his country must be a hero by default is a powerful one, but I am not quite on board with it. I have no difficulty in thinking that most people in the armed forces must be brave men or women, and I am thankful that they are willing to do the job. However, I am reluctant to name someone a hero until she or he performs a specific heroic act in the line of duty.

People join the armed forces for a variety of reasons. I once taught several boys who got very involved in army cadets, liked that environment, and went on to enlist in the military. It was a path they got into and, coincidentally, one that provided many opportunities such as free training and education plus early pensions and the opportunity for a second career. These were all very fine young men, but I would hesitate greatly to call them heroes or say that they enlisted for heroic reasons because, really, they just really dug army life and were not exactly into it for the idealistic purpose of defending our democracy. Let's face it, jobs can be hard to come by, and the armed forces do provide a living now and training for later in life, and that's a bigger consideration for many than the noble desire the defend one's country.

The other part of the argument of those who hold that all soldiers are heroes by default is that it takes a hero to be even willing to defend one's country. Once again, this is a powerful point, but then I wonder, from a North American perspective, when our borders were last defended. I cannot come up with much. Soldiers are sometimes sent to foreign realms to engage in some conflict or other, but I am not sure that qualifies as "defending one's country."

I will use the latest Iran conflict as an example of an aggressive war that was waged based on misinformation at best and on greed at worst. What it defended, aside from economic interests, I am not sure. What I am sure of is that many heroic deeds were performed by soldiers sent to that conflict and others, but I can't bring myself to call someone a hero just for being unlucky enough to be sent to such a conflict.

So, as you can see, being a sort of guy who likes words, I don't prefer the all-too-easy application of the word, hero. It's a special word that should be reserved for special people performing special acts above and beyond the call of duty. Perfectly good alternative words are available to talk about the military: brave, courageous and fearless come to mind.

I don't take this stand to demean anyone. The unfortunate Corporal Cirillo may have had the makings of a hero and, likely, would have acted heroically given the opportunity, but I don't see that he was given the chance being ambushed like that.


Linda Kay said...

I can tell you of one hero from the Iran conflict, my SIL who is a surgeon doing repairs in the green zone on the young men who were injured in battle. He wasn't fighting the war, just saving those who had the misfortune to be there. I consider all of them heroes for being on those front lines to defend whatever our country deemed necessary. All wars are kind of like that, right?

TexWisGirl said...

i understand your point. it might seem like you are splitting hairs for the sake of word definition, but i get it. in this case, maybe he was more an unwilling martyr.

ADRIAN said...

I can comment my friend. We live with these homicidal lunies and have done for my sixty years.
I love what I see and hear of Canada. Just carry on. Just train your police better.

The USA sponsored IRA terrorism here for decades.

He was a soldier and soldiers live or die by their training or incompetence.

He was a wee lad that thought carrying a gun was important. Pity he hadn't been trained to use it.

Anvilcloud said...

I knew this would happen. :)

Linda, as much as I tried, perhaps I didn't make my point well enough. I was not tossing a metaphorical grenade at soldiers but trying to say that in my eyes simply doing your job doesn't automatically make you a hero.

Surely you have to do something that is above and beyond what the job would normally entail. If everyone is a hero, what do we call the person who performs a truly heroic act: one that goes beyond normal expectations such as pulling a wounded comrade from a vehicle that is under fire? An extra heroic hero?

It's a serious point on my part. When we alter the traditional meaning of a word, we may be left with nothing to replace it.

That being said, we are all free to define hero as we like. I have offered my thought that it takes a special person performing an especially brave act to qualify, but if everyone else wants everyone to be a hero so be it.

Ginger said...

AC, I'm totally on board with you. By calling someone a hero simply because they are present in some difficult situation (for whatever reason), we devalue the word. Being courageous is much more common, in my thinking. Being heroic should be a rare label reserved for people who set self aside and do things that are almost superhuman. There should be a word for the latter, and "hero" is it.

Ginger said...

P.S. I had the sad experience of hearing one of our students, Matthew, speak (in Washington state, when I was VP of a university there) about his experience as a "hero" in Afghanistan. He told of how he went with visions of serving his country and of fulfilling that image of the strong soldier. It was more of a lark and an ego-booster for him, than some idealistic mission.

One night Matthew and his buddies were following up on an assignment to eradicate some Taliban who had been identified as being in a house in the countryside. Matthew and his buddies were up on a hill, and used the skills they'd been trained with, to launch a rocket, which landed squarely on the little house. Through their night vision scopes they saw it hit the target, and celebrated with hoots and hollers on the hillside. Then they had to go down to verify at close range that they had accomplished their assignment. Matthew broke down in front of the classroom full of people as he told of seeing the shredded bodies of women and children in the rubble. It shattered his life and his worldview, completely changed his life. He would tell you that joining the military and going off to other countries to fight does not automatically make you a hero, by definition of the word, and that the use of the word "hero" for that is very troubling.

Anvilcloud said...

Thanks for sharing that poignant anecdote, Ginger.

Tabor said...

I think we confuse heroes with bravery. Also there are those in such situations that should just not be there! The fear is that we come to worship war as a solution to resolving problems with our enemies.

Hena Tayeb said...

I see your point and I agree.. i found your point interesting.. you expressed yourself and your point perfectly.

Mage said...

I saw a brave man taking action. It was good.

Thanks so much for your notes.

KGMom said...

Of course, in classical mythology, heroes could be very petty and anti-heroic. Think of Achilles sulking in his tent.
Maybe it's the definition of hero that causes the difficulty--some of us want to think of any soldier as a hero; some of us question that premise and are aware that some soldiers do awful un-heroic things.
We recently saw the movie "Unbroken" which dramatizes a portion of Laura Hillenbrand's marvelous book of the same name. Louis Zamperini was a hero, and even heroic, in his perseverance staying alive and helping his mates in the raft to survive, as well as enduring as a prisoner of war.
As I watched some of the portions of that movie, particularly when the airmen were flying bombing missions and were trying to evade enemy fire--I was awed. Here were young men, barely adult, flying monstrous difficult to fly airplanes--bombing the enemy country. But they were also very ordinary flesh-and-blood people who would not have seen themselves as heroes. They were simply doing their duty.
And of course, that was Corporal Nathan Cirillo was also doing.
Maybe in an age when too few people have a strong sense of duty, one person doing his duty seems heroic.
So back to the definition of hero: "a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities."
Thanks for raising some good questions, AC.

Gail Dixon said...

Hmmm...after reading your thoughts, I tend to agree with you on what defines heroism. Such a tender subject, though. I commend you for airing your views.

Beatrice P. Boyd said...

You have tackled a difficult word in terms of its meaning to people. Many, including myself, may define hero as describing a selfless act of courage. I agree with your well-taken point that the word has been over used in many instances,including the incident you referenced.

EG CameraGirl said...

You are a deep thinker, AC. And I think I get your point, which I agree with if I have interpreted it correctly.

Understanding the true meaning of words is not something most people like to explore or think hard about. We interpret meanings within the context of our own experiences, and it's really a miracle that any of us understand anyone else at all. (Maybe we don't, actually, but just think we do.)

Now that I'm getting older, I'm becoming more and more frustrated with how word meanings are changing over time. Languages evolve. Maybe the meaning of the word "hero" is evolving.

Hope this was clear. :)

Hilary said...

I hear what you're saying and don't disagree.. for the most part. The definition is interesting though because it would seem that a hero is also defined by the eye of the beholder. Label someone who we might deem a hero and they'll deny it and say they were just doing their job.. or what anyone else would do.

Pearl said...

yeah, heroism is bigger than that.

and he wasn't a terrorist. he was a mentally ill man who didn't get appropriate treatment in time who was shot instead of treated with politicians holding up spears like caveman and congratulating each other for responding to their fears with violence.