What is a Hero?

March 29, 2010 at 5:44 pm 2 comments

This post is a little different from my other ones. But it is something I’d like to share.
What’s a hero? I was reading about a controversy that is brewing in Canada over the awarding of scholarships – the so called “hero scholarships” to the children of soldiers who were, and will be, killed in the war in Afghanistan. As a former soldier myself, this controversy has me questioning just what is a hero in our contemporary society. Hero is a word that has a lot of mileage on it if we go by the number of times it is used in our media. Webster’s defines a hero as someone who is an illustrious soldier, a person admired for his or her achievements and noble qualities and as someone who shows great courage. First of all, let me narrow the field of who, by this definition, is a hero. It’s not our sports ‘heroes’ or our action heroes. While our sports ‘heroes’ may on occasion play in pain, put up incredible statistics, throw, catch or run with a ball when they know they are going to be hit hard by a 200-300 lbs. human missile, or just demonstrate incredible athleticism, none of this makes them heroes in the sense of our definition. A hero is someone who gives of themselves for the betterment of their group or of society. What sports ‘heroes’ are are incredibly good athletes who are rewarded for their athleticism through money or fame or entitlement or all of the preceding. I don’t know of any athlete who does what they do for the betterment of their group; most of them, particularly professional athletes, seem to be in it ultimately for themselves. It is the media who bestow upon these athletes the honorific description of hero rather than the term that should be used which is idol. The media, and most  sport fans, project our own fantasies of athletic greatness onto those athletes we admire for their incredible skill. This idolatry of athletes can border on outright worship. But that doesn’t make them heroes.
Action heroes are strictly a media creation and we can leave it at that. The Jason Bourne character created by Matt Damon is just that, a created character who, if any of us tried to accomplish just a fraction of what Jason Bourne did, we would be dead.
This leaves us with the emotionally charged issue of contemporary soldiers who die in combat in Afghanistan and are then called heroes. I think it goes without saying that the war in Afghanistan is a mess, a quicksand of a situation that is sucking NATO into eventual submission, however they will disguise that submission. Canadian soldiers are in Afghanistan because that is where they were sent by our government. They did not volunteer to go; as professional soldiers they go where they are told to go and perform the tasks they are told to perform. They really have no say in this except that when joining up they gave up the option to say ‘No’ to going to war. For the most part the war in Afghanistan is a guerrilla war that is not winnable by conventional military means. I think a couple of points need to be made here. First, soldiers on the ground are not fighting for grand geo-political goals like a democratic Afghanistan. That may be the ‘official’ reason presented to us in newscasts and briefings by politicians and generals but soldiers who actually look for Taliban fighters to engage, in the heat of the engagement, fight primarily for their own survival and for the safety of their fellow soldiers. Geo-political goals are for politicians and maybe generals. They are not the main reason why the vast majority of soldiers actually fight the Taliban. Second, most of the engagements in Afghanistan are messy and shifting and most of the casualties come not from actual close quarter’s engagement with Taliban fighters but from IEDs that explode and kill and maim before the soldiers are even aware of what is happening. With IEDs the Taliban are nowhere to be seen. Military vehicles are blown up with the occupants barely having time to realize what has happened or troops walking on the ground are killed or wounded before they know what is happening.   An exploding IED will destroy perhaps one vehicle in a column of vehicles or kill or maim a few soldiers in a line of soldiers. Death in these instances is more a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time than an act of heroism.  These deaths are horrific and tragic. Young lives and all the potential that accrues to those lives are lost forever. This is heartbreaking, painful and distressing. But it is not heroic in the sense of the definition of heroic. It is tragic.
When I think of heroic and hero I think of Romeo Dallaire in Rwanda. Seeing genocide beginning and being orderedby his superiors to leave for his own safety and for political expediency on the part of the UN, Canada and NATO, Gen. Dallaire and his aides freely chose to disobey what they thought was a cowardly, unethical order and stay to try to do something to save people’s lives. He willingly put his own life in danger to save others. He suffered personally from this decision having to deal with psychological demons that tormented him from what he experienced and he literally had to pick himself out of alcoholic despair due to those nightmarish experiences to eventually serve the greater good. That is heroic.
This controversy over the use of the term hero to describe all the dead service people in Afghanistan is caused by the media. I blame the media in Canada for distorting the meaning of the term, applying that term indiscriminately, playing on the raw emotions of those families who have lost sons and daughters in Afghanistan and then fanning the controversy which they themselves created in the first place. I believe this whole misuse of the term is simply a case of poor media ethics. Not every soldier, sailor or air force member killed or wounded in World War 1,WW2, Korea, or on UN Peacekeeping operations was described as a hero. I have to ask the media, why now?

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A Blinding Insight or Did I Choose the Wrong Vocation? Dehumanizing Language

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. hero scholarships  |  June 17, 2010 at 9:27 am

    Hero Scholarship Hero scholarship fund of Philadelphia is a college fund that is meant to help children of police and firefighters that are killed or completely disabled during the line of duty.

    • 2. Philip Smith-Eivemark  |  June 17, 2010 at 1:43 pm

      This is wonderful. This fund is not what my blog entry was about. I was exploring the media’s usurping of the term ‘hero’ for emotional reasons and just who is a hero. The issue of calling these scholarships hero scholarships has caused a controversy here in Canada. Part of the controversy is why just fund young people whose father or mother were killed on active duty in Afghanistan – why not fund every student who needs funding to go to post secondary education?


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