On Heroes and Heroism
We hear the word ‘hero’ a lot these days and that set me to thinking. Last week, I attended a dinner hosted by the Naval Special Warfare Foundation at which there was much talk of heroes, referring to the actions of some of the SEALS in the War on Terrorism. I happened to sit with Radm Ed Winters, currently the commander of all the SEALS in the US and responsible for training and deploying all SEALS, Special Boat operators and other Naval Special Warfare operators. He told me that the best thing about being in the SEAL Teams is that he gets to work with heroes every day. Over the course of the evening, we heard moving remarks about SEAL Ryan Job, who having been blinded by a sniper’s bullet, subsequently attacked life as a blind man, finishing college, developing new business skills, becoming a father, getting a job with a good company, but who unexpectedly died three weeks ago following surgery to address complications from his wounds. We heard a video-taped presentation by Lt Jay, whose now-famous sign on his door at Bethesda Naval Hospital read “Attention to all who enter here. If you are coming into this room with sorrow or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received I got doing a job I love, doing it for people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love….” Lt Jay talked about his struggle to NOT be a victim and to get back into the fight and continue to serve. And we heard about Lt Dan, former captain of the Navy Triathlon team, who recently lost both his legs above the knee to a land mine in Afghanistan. The similarity between this Lt Dan to the Lt Dan played by Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump ends with their shared first name and that they both lost their legs. This new Lt Dan does not feel like a victim –his doctors have been amazed by his positive attitude. When Radm Ed Winters visited him in the hospital between surgeries, all Lt Dan asked of his admiral was – “Is there any way I can stay in the (SEAL) teams?” And during the various speeches during the evening, there was reverential mention of the heroism of Petty Officers Marc Lee and Michael Monsoor, and Lt Michael Murphy – all killed in battle while striving to save the lives of their comrades.
These are heroes by anyone’s standard, and certainly within the military culture. But most of us will agree that heroism is not found only or even primarily in military combat. One of the keynote speakers at the NSW Foundation dinner was Karl Rove, who while honoring our military heroes, also told stories of different kinds of heroes, to include a Harvard summa cum laude graduate who chose to teach High School in an inner-city school rather than rake in the big bucks on Wall Street, where he had all the credentials necessary to get on the ‘stairway to heaven.’ And he told a story of a 62 year old father who petitioned President Bush for an age waiver so that he could become a military doctor, giving up his lucrative medical practice to honor his son who had been killed in action in Iraq.
I recently read a book entitled Leading Quietly in which the author, Joseph Badaracco, stresses the importance of NON-heroic leadership. His point is that organizations function well or not, based on small, non-heroic steps and decisions taken every day by people at all levels of an organization. He emphasizes that good and tough, but not dramatic or ‘heroic’ decisions at many levels of an organization are key to avoiding crises and the necessity for dramatic, or ‘heroic’ decisions later. This phenomenon has its analogy in military operations as well: Every combat veteran knows that near perfectly planned and executed missions (as seldom as they are) garner few if any awards for ‘heroism.’ While in no way de-valuing the heroism required when a crisis arises, Badaracco underscores the ‘heroism’ of small and competent decisions that prevent crises, and avoid the need for heroic action or decisions. Is it ‘heroic’ to do one’s job very competently? Professor Jim Evans used to remind me of the ‘heroism’ of the working class fellow who works his whole life, raises a family, pays his bills, pays his taxes and essentially fulfills his duties as a citizen.
So, what is a ‘hero’ and what is ‘heroism?’ Does it necessarily involve facing physical danger? Most of us would agree that it does not; we would not be willing to exclude from the ranks of heroes those brave souls who show ‘moral courage’ by fighting the system and risk career, friends, and social standing in the pursuit of justice. Can it be ‘heroic’ to simply keep promises and commitments? Perhaps, especially if and when that is indeed extraordinary. Most of us would consider ‘heroic’ any extraordinary action which risks significant sacrifice, and is intended to serve a greater good, from which the hero may or may not benefit. In other words, we might define heroism as stepping up to the plate at some personal sacrifice when most others would not, to serve primarily others rather than oneself. Does that make sense?
This definition begs a number of interesting questions: Does it make heroes of people who are serving causes which we (or history) consider misguided or even evil, such as Hitler’s great commando Otto Skorzeny, or Japanese Kamikaze pilots, or Palestinian suicide bombers, or even Al Qaeda 9-11 terrorists? It also makes me ask whether one act of heroism makes one a ‘hero,’ or is it a pattern of behavior over a lifetime? And what about the supremely competent but non-heroic work that ultimately avoids the need for heroic action, such as ensuring that the ‘O’ rings on the space shuttle do not fail, or persistent negotiations to avoid war in the first place? Also, I wonder, how extraordinary does action have to be to be heroic? Is there something to Professor Evans putting the hero’s mantle on the working class, tax-paying family man? Or is that overly diluting the concept of ‘heroism?’ Is heroism like pornography, impossible to precisely define, but we know it when we see it? Or is it entirely in the eye of the beholder?
I’ll leave these interesting questions for your consideration and discussion, but I might add that there is no widespread agreement on answers. I’ll conclude this little essay by referring to one of my favorite poems, attributed to Mother Theresa, which may provide some different guidelines for being a hero in any environment:
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered; Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies; Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you; Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous; Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow; Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough; Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.