In uncertain times, we look to heroes to come to the fore.
Writing the biography of a Second World War deserter made me question my understanding of what makes a hero. Our notion of heroism has changed over time, but the extraordinary exploits of the men and women in the two world wars still largely define notions of heroism in British society. The idea of the stoic soldier, fighting for freedom against oppression and displaying physical bravery, while maintaining a sense of humour, perseveres. The heroes of the battlefields of the twentieth century looked for inspiration to heroes from Ancient Greece. By examining what we admire about our heroes from the recent past and their heroes from the ancient past, and exploring criticisms of both, it may be possible to identify a different form of heroism, one not rewarded with medals of valour, but which takes as much courage and can be just as heroic.
Alan Juniper served in North Africa for over a year, through defeat and chaotic retreat, before developing PTSD and walking away from the frontline. After serving time in a military prison, he volunteered to fight again. In the Allied advance up the mountainous central spine of Italy, during an intense bombardment in the hills surrounding Perugia, he deserted again. A broken man, he was taken in by the people of the small Tuscan village of Lacugnano and became part of the community: despite having fought the Italians—and perhaps even the villagers’ own sons—only months before.
During my time in the military, the ideal of heroism was based on the virtues of physical strength and endurance, the opportunity to be brave in the face of physical danger and loyalty to the men and women to the left and right of you. Moral courage was considered mostly in the context of following orders under difficult circumstances. To most, Alan is not a hero, even when his prior service and likely psychological injury are considered.
During my research, I came across people like Colonel Vic Turner and Sergeant Charles Calistan, who are considered heroes. At the Battle of El-Alamein, their position received heavy and prolonged fire, causing their armoured support to pull back, leaving their infantry battalion to continue the fight unsupported. Another Allied unit saw that their position was surrounded by enemy tanks and, presuming it was a German position, heaped a load of friendly fire upon them (they dispatched their intelligence officer to the unit in question to politely ask them to desist). As Axis tanks advanced, Calistan waited until they were just 500 metres away, before destroying five of them with his anti-tank gun. He was left facing three more with just two rounds left. Turner and a couple of others used a jeep to attempt a resupply under heavy fire. Ten metres short of Calistan, the jeep caught fire and Turner had to cover the final metres on foot, carrying the shells for the gun. Calistan managed to hit the advancing tanks when they were just 150 metres away. Turner was hit in the head during the action which, according to the Battalion War Diary, meant that he “had to have a sit down.” Calistan took advantage of a lull in the action to use the bonnet of the burning jeep to boil a kettle. Turner later claimed it was the best cup of tea he had ever tasted. For withstanding repeated attacks and destroying over thirty-five enemy tanks, Turner was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Stoic Wit of the Soldier Hero
There are common themes to the situations the heroes I came across found themselves in, and the ways in which they approached them. Like Turner, these heroes often found themselves outnumbered, backs to the wall, fighting for their lives against a foreign enemy, as we found ourselves doing as a nation in the darkest days of 1940. They knew what they were fighting for. In their response to these situations, our heroes often reacted stoically. The ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism—particularly the Stoicism of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius—has long been popular among military leaders. The US military teaches its soldiers Stoicism. They teach them to focus on what they can control and to become comfortable with what they cannot—the central message that the former slave and early Stoic Epictetus emphasised. Negative emotions, such as anger, are a temporary madness, and are to be suppressed and replaced by dispassionate acceptance. In war, it’s rare that you can control the situation, but you can control your response to it. Calistan’s tea-making is an example of this. The heroes we admire remain calm and unflustered whatever the situation. When you are overwhelmed by uncertainty, those who appear to be an oasis of calm amid the chaos can appear attractive. They display great determination and endurance, which people especially admire when they are questioning how long they can go on for.
Often, the heroes I came across approached situations with a dark or understated humour. In the military in which I served, such a sense of humour was still much admired. Humour helps you cope with traumatic or stressful situations. It can stop you feeling scared, helpless or isolated—all things that war zones can make you feel, and all things we want our heroes to stop us from feeling. The heroes I found were at their best when our situation was at its worse. They were often plucky characters, who succeeded by ignoring higher command and just getting on with it. Some were eccentric officers, who rebelled against convention and against an incompetent, isolated bureaucracy far from the front. Even the aristocratic Churchill is remembered more as a maverick outsider. Have the stories of these heroes given us a readiness to accept other stories that paint the rest of the world as against us? We recognise and readily accept the narratives we grow up hearing.
The Influence of the Ancient Greeks
But, if we still get much of our understanding of heroism from those generations, where did they get their ideas? During the world wars of the twentieth century, it wasn’t the Stoics that people turned to. According to classical scholar Elizabeth Vandiver, the First World War poets looked to the foundations of western literature and the heroes of the Trojan War. They turned to The Iliad and The Odyssey for solace. If the names of the fallen Greeks and Trojans were remembered thousands of years later, giving them a form of immortality beyond the decay of their mortal flesh, then maybe the incomprehensible numbers lost on the battlefields and in the skies of the twentieth century would live on too, as part of something great and lasting. Contemporary writers T. E. Lawrence and Robert Graves both translated The Iliad after the war. The endless parade of slain men in the pages of that epic must have taken them back to the bloodstained mud and sand of their war. But they were not the first soldiers to take an interest in Homer’s work. Alexander the Great slept beside a copy annotated by his tutor, Aristotle. Literary critic Christopher Benfey claims that we shouldn’t be surprised that European readers looked to The Iliad in times of war, noting that, as early as 1935, Jean Giradoux’s play Tiger at the Gates compared France to Troy awaiting invasion.
The period of history described in the Homeric poems, with their vivid depictions of war and peace, honour and disgrace, was known as the Age of Heroes. Many key moments in The Iliad depict battles of hero against hero. These heroes became models for later soldiers. Poet Patrick Shaw Stewart re-read The Iliad on the way to Gallipoli thousands of years later. He probably wrote his only war poem, “I Saw a Man This Morning,” during leave on Imbros, an island overlooking Troy, in 1915. The last line of the poem gave Vandiver the title of her book: Stand in the Trench, Achilles. The narrator appeals to the great hero to stand in the trench and fight for him.
What Made a Hero in the Age of Heroes?
Yet the story of fierce Achilles and dutiful Hector raises interesting questions about the nature of heroism. Achilles displays great brutality in pursuit of glory. He is no Stoic. His excessive pride and anger drive much of the narrative. Both heroes live short but glorious lives and choose eternal fame over their loved ones. Hector leaves behind a wife and a young son. Despite belief in an afterlife, the Greeks believed that the soul would lead a meaningless existence after death. Your glorious deeds would live on, but you would not. The afterlife was a shadow of the lived life: souls in the underworld were referred to as shades. But Hector chooses death over life because of his understanding of what it takes to be a hero—duty and honour mean more to him than his family.
Greek scholar H. D. F. Kitto has examined the motivations of these heroes:
What moves him [the Homeric hero] to deeds of heroism is not a sense of duty as we understand it—duty towards others; it is rather duty to himself. He strives after that which we translate “virtue,” but is in Greek arête, “excellence.” And what Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel about is not simply a girl: it is the “prize” which is the public recognition of his arête.
Critics of The Ancient Idea of Heroism
To Aristotle, the goal of life was to fulfil your potential, maximising happiness by living as virtuously as possible. However, he believed that the pursuit of honour was not about living virtuously as an individual, but about trying to embody one’s perception of what a hero looked like, according to the fashion of the time. A true hero acts virtuously because it is the right thing to do, rather than trying to live up to others’ expectations of the heroic ideal. To Aristotle, courage was one of the key virtues to live by, but a key Aristotelian idea is that there is a mean amount of each virtue to which the virtuous should aspire. This mean is worked out using your natural reason. For Aristotle, courage occupies the middle ground between cowardliness and rashness. Unlike the Stoics, he felt that even supposedly negative emotions are indispensable to a healthy psyche, in the right amounts. In extreme times, however, maintaining this mean can be a difficult task. As you witness the death and desecration of the battlefield, maintaining the mean amount of anger or desire for revenge can be an almost impossible feat. Your ability to use your reason to make decisions amid the chaos is severely tested. Enemies are dehumanised and demonised and rage and revenge perpetuate cycles of violence.
French philosopher Simone Weil was sceptical about the agency of the heroes of The Iliad. She argues that,
The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad, is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.
She defines force as that which turns anyone subjected to it into a thing—and, at worst, a corpse. For Weil, force is dangerous not just to the victim, but to whoever controls it: it intoxicates, numbing the senses of reason and pity. Force can turn even its possessor into a thing—an unthinking automaton, driven by rage or lust. This would have been anathema to Immanuel Kant, who believed that you should never treat another person as a means to an end, and you cannot make exceptions for yourself, whatever the ends. For Kant, to allow your emotions to override your reason and lead you to turn a person into a thing is unequivocally unethical whatever the situation. One counter philosophy to Kant’s is utilitarianism, which assumes that we use reason to make decisions, but that the consequences of our actions are all that count—how you achieve those consequences is less important. The military, with its focus on its mission, is essentially utilitarian. The military’s way of operating encourages an the-end-justifies-the-means approach. The more extreme the situation, the more likely people are to default to this approach. In the extremes of war, when the ends are a matter of life and death or the survival of your way of life, the means you are prepared to engage in can become increasingly extreme. The dropping of nuclear weapons on Japan in 1945 is evidence of this.
What Attributes Are We Attracted to in Times of Peril?
After the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, psychologist Jeff Greenberg and his colleagues found that Americans rallied around leaders who reasserted the greatness and strength of the US. Polls of 10 September put George W. Bush’s approval rating at around 50%. By 21 September, it was 90%. Studies since have helped to explain why this happened: in times of peril, when people become more aware of their own mortality, they are drawn toward leaders who convey the worldview that their group is great, that good and evil exist and that their group is destined to triumph over evil. This quells anxiety, as it helps people feel that they are significant contributors to something great and lasting: a cause, nation or deity. According to Greenberg, the problem with this worldview is that it can lead to violence against those designated as evil. There is an alternative worldview, which acknowledges that one person’s good can be another’s evil. This view stresses tolerance and the validity of different views of the world. This makes it a more uncomfortable view to hold and it seems that we do not hold those with such a worldview in as high esteem. But this kind of worldview encourages less hostility toward other groups.
A More Empathetic Hero
The Iliad is full of hostility. For most of the story, Achilles is certain of his greatness. But the story ends with Achilles’ conscious decision to refrain from using force against Priam, King of Troy. He sees past his rage and recognises the man sitting opposite him as a person and a grieving father, rather than his enemy. Priam asks Achilles to think of his own father. This forges a momentary bond. Achilles knows that he is fated never to return home. His own father will suffer what Priam has suffered. We are told that, “Both men in contemplation found rest for their eyes.” The gods had advised Achilles to return Hector, but he goes further than that: giving Priam the eleven days required to mourn and bury his son. To me, this is when Achilles finally becomes a hero. Achilles is driven by pride and a selfish desire for personal glory, but, in the final lines of the book, he is shown to possess sympathy for others. Philosopher Rachel Bespaloff, who also turned to The Iliad as a “method of facing” the Second World War, has argued that, “He seems to come to himself and be cured of his frenzy.” After Achilles sees Priam as a man and a father, he finally acts virtuously.
Two Types of Hero
During my research, I came across two types of hero, who typify two different worldviews. There are those who received awards for their fearlessness, self-sacrifice and daring. Those like Turner and Calistan. They took the side of good against an evil enemy and prevailed. The certainties of the Second World War—by contrast with the ambiguity of more recent conflicts—explain its greater hold on the public imagination and prompt questions as to how veterans of more recent conflicts will be treated and remembered.
Then there were those like the New Zealand soldier who arrived in Lacugnano and discovered Alan. The soldier, seeing the state he was in, agreed not to say anything about is desertions. He was due to return home and was passing through London on his way. He promised that he would go to Alan’s mother’s house and let her know that her son was all right. The Kiwi kept his promise and passed on the message. A photo taken by someone from the village shows Alan, several villagers and this Kiwi soldier. Following a media campaign in New Zealand, the soldier was identified as William “Bill” Frazier. The people of Lacugnano fall into the second group of heroes. Despite the times, they saw Alan as just a fellow human being. Amid the failure of humanity that is war, they still recognised his humanity and treated him as an end rather than a means.
My Type of Hero
Today, we face a fight against a global pandemic. The frontline will be in hospitals, rather than on the battlefield. But we can still learn from yesterday’s heroes. We can learn from the determination and courage of men like Turner and Calistan. Their Stoicism led them to focus on what they could control and become comfortable with what they couldn’t. We can emulate the way they focused on their response to the situations in which they found themselves and kept their sense of humour as they did so. But we can also learn from people like Bill, the people of Lacugnano and the Achilles of the final lines of The Iliad. In a society where it is more important to know whose side you are on than to recognise the person you are engaging with as a rational agent or acknowledge the nuances of the debate, we can learn from their example. In war and extremis, they saw others as ends, not means, as people with whom they had more in common than not. As the current pandemic continues, their example may become important. Some leaders will seek to blame “others” as this crisis continues. Those who embody Aristotle’s ideal of the mean amount of virtue and show restraint even during the height of war deserve our praise. If we blindly accept those who provide us with certainty and fail to examine what it is that we admire, we are in danger of valuing heroes whose sense of duty is to themselves rather than to others, and who aim to achieve high positions and earn honours because they want public recognition and to flatter their own egos, rather than desiring the public good. We should be wary of Greeks bearing gifts. We should also be wary of those who worship the Greeks without checking what it is they so admire about them.