None of what I have written on this issue should be meant to indicate that there are no heroes out there. Certainly, I think one of the factors that makes our American polity so vulnerable to jingoist calls to war is the myth of the military hero. A casual student of history (like me) would note that almost all of our wars–excluding perhaps, WWII (but not forgetting the history of US and European empire building that sowed its seeds)–have been about capital and real estate. If there are heroes from those conflicts–or more accurately, invasions–it is those men and women who risked their lives for others once they had already been sand-bagged into service. Or those men and women who were critically injured or mentally damaged by the war they had been forced to fight, and still found a way to lead productive lives in their communities, to survive as loving humans with dignity. I don’t mean to take anything away from those people, I honor them.
I don’t think I’m different than most people in my gut definition of heroism–someone, who when called to serve others by circumstance, gives their all up to and beyond personal and great sacrifice. But to that definition, one that creates an impression that heroes are created by accident, I would like to add another, perhaps just as important. Those men and women who lived lives of sacrifice by design in order to serve and help others with little or no personal gain.
Certainly a few names in this latter trend come to mind. But I think that as a corollary to that definition, I would necessarily exclude anyone who ever got famous for doing so. As an example, I would provide again the Petraeus Myth, the man who, three days after being shot in the chest, secured his release from the hospital by doing 50 push ups. You just won’t convince me of crap like that. Almost anyone who becomes well known for anything quickly becomes a caricature of the human beneath the hype, and will so fail at the most important part of being hero; providing an example for the rest of us.
So, in the first category of heroes called upon by circumstance, I’d like to offer all those people in our history who lived a life of sacrifice when called upon to make this a better country. Those tens of thousands of men and women who fought American Apartheid during the civil rights era of the 50’s and 60’s by simply insisting on dignity; the thousands and perhaps millions of men and women who have walked off the job during labor strikes, even when the strike was not theirs; the men and women, few as they may be, who took off their uniforms and went to jail or worse to protest killing other peoples; those who assumed the mantle of society’s ‘degenerates’ and would not debase themselves by being ashamed. And so many others in so many struggles that we, as a people, have simply forgotten about and exclude from our national narrative.
In the second category, I offer the social equivalent of a tomb of the unknown soldier to those countless people who elected lives of social sacrifice, and were often persecuted in obscurity for it. Those who strove to set examples for the others in the first category of heroes, who endangered their own well being to win rights for others, who broke unjust laws, and took the risk and responsibility of urging others to follow them. In these forgotten fights, much of what these heroes did was illegal, and often considered immoral, and they did it anyway, with no choice but to accept the unjust consequences. Most importantly, they were often the first, at least in their communities, to make these choices, without even knowing if their friends, family and loved ones would support them. Though they are responsible for the eight hour day, the end of segration and our still-broadening inclusion of citizenship, one thing these heroes did not gain was acclaim or fame.
Many have died, of course, but perhaps even more are still here, all around us, though we may never become aware of them. If you want to believe in heroes, look no further than the subway or bus or streets of your city.