The news of the four men who thwarted an assault weapon-wielding terrorist on a train bound for France has thrilled the free world, because we don’t get a lot of victories over terror these days.
Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos of Sacramento and Chris Norman, a British businessman, are rightly being described as heroes. French President Francois Hollande pinned the French Legion of Honor on their chests, and the quartet is now eligible for a free lunch, beer and a parade anywhere they travel. More power to them. Thwarting this terrorist attack brought me to thinking about the nature of heroism itself, a little-understood phenomenon.
A child once asked President John F. Kennedy how he became a hero. He replied, “It was simple. They sank my boat.”
My father was in the Korean War. He was a 20-year-old kid from Minnesota and a radio operator in the First Cavalry Division. He was somewhere in Korea for seven months, which he hardly ever discussed. One day, his platoon came under fire by Chinese troops, and they managed to shoot down the telephone wires he had strung across a field, “breaking the vital lines of communication,” as I recall his Bronze Star medal citation reading.
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So what did he do? He ran back out and restrung the wire. When they shot it down, he ran back out and did it again, under fire. I once asked him why he did that, and he laughed and said, “Because I was young and stupid.”
Well, he may have been young, but he wasn’t stupid. He did it because his fellow soldiers needed that telephone wire strung up so they could stay alive. That’s a pure motive, and I sincerely doubt he was thinking, “Oh boy, maybe I’ll win the Bronze Star and be heralded as a hero.” He was probably thinking, “Oh boy, I can hardly wait to go back to Minnesota and go deer hunting.”
Lots of my friends had fathers in World War II and Korea. I’ll bet none of them would describe themselves as heroes, either.
My Uncle Hal, an Army engineer, landed at Normandy on June 6, 1944, and helped build the massive floating dock in a day. My Uncle Harvey flew a PBY Catalina over the Aleutians, won the Distinguished Flying Cross, and never brought it up. Not once. None of these men referred to themselves heroically, and all would say they were fortunate survivors.
True, but they also saved the world from Hitler. Heroes to me.
The word “hero” is sometimes a bit overused, and it’s hard to define heroism. I think it’s about putting your life on the line for someone else, or your reputation on the line for a cause greater than yourself, even if no one is shooting at you.
I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a potentially heroic situation. I have been in frightening situations, but none called for heroism. Mostly people aren’t called upon to be heroes, and when someone is, we often find they’re ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Sometimes heroism is just impulse, and that’s OK.
I think heroism is often applied to athletes who aren’t endangering themselves in any manner whatsoever except for their right ACL, and there are precious few elected officials who qualify for that title, either. There are many politicians who act courageously or altruistically, but that’s not heroism. That should be their job description.
We should probably just reserve that word for the guys who grabbed the gunman on the train.
We’re buying, guys. We needed a win.