“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The always cranky but often right Andy Rooney once suggested American soldiers in Iraq should not be portrayed as heroes, saying not all of them are "gladly risking their lives for us sitting comfortably back here at home.
"Treating soldiers fighting their war as brave heroes is an old civilian trick," he wrote, "designed to keep the soldiers at it...[o]ur soldiers in Iraq are people, young men and women, and they behave like people – sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes brave, sometimes fearful. It's disingenuous of the rest of us to encourage them to fight this war by idolizing them. We pin medals on their chests to keep them going. We speak of them as if they volunteered to risk their lives to save ours, but there isn't much voluntary about what most of them have done. A relatively small number are professional soldiers."
As I was reading his article, what popped into my mind was what mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote about mythic heroes -- all of them, in every culture, had a flaw, sometimes fatal. Think Achilles and his heel, whose flaw was fatal.
Closer to home, think of the myth that is Star Wars, which was very strongly influenced by Campbell's writings. Luke Skywalker had the same flaw as his father -- his potential for overwhelming hate. The flaw of the hero Anakin Skywalker turned him into Darth Vader. Luke overcame his flaw, and succeeded where his father had failed. And at the end, Vader repented and atoned, although it cost him his life.
There is another deeply flawed mythic hero, who repented and atoned. This one is Hercules.
Contrary to what most people think about Hercules, he wasn't an ideal hero. In a fit of insanity he slaughtered his entire family. Then he did something that all criminals should, but few rarely do -- he repented of what he had done, and atoned for it. That's what his Twelve Labors were -- his atonement, to relieve his guilt.
The point of the myths about all heroes is that anyone who is one has a deep flaw. I am reminded of Audie Murphy, who when he returned home after World War II, often slept in the garage with the light on. Or, think of the movie Born on the Fourth of July, in which the "hero" came home a paraplegic permanently confined to a wheelchair.
Another thing: how can someone be a hero when drafted to fight? Granted, the draft no longer exists -- at least when people enlist. When they try to leave, they find they can't. Their enlistments are extended. And as far as I'm concerned, if you can't leave, then you're drafted.
Slave as heroes, being used to cane some liberty into the wogs. What is this, The Twilight Zone? But I digress.
Some people, and most especially the propagandizers in the government, try to idealize soldiers and glorify them as heroes. They're not telling them the truth, about the possibility of coming back broken in body or mind.
The true myth of the hero is instructive. All “heroes” are flawed. If they do something terrible, they have to repent and atone for it. They have to forgive themselves for what they have done.
But the false myth of the hero -- the one promoted by the State -- is about a soldier who is cheered, indeed glorified, and who is conned into believing he is defending his country when in reality he is fighting for the criminals who have political power. But if he does something terrible in war -- murders, mutilations -- will those same criminals be there for him, if he wants to repent and atone? Hardly. The odds are he will scapegoated and put on trial by the people who enslaved him and told him lies about what a hero really is, about what war is really like.
J.G. Ballard, in his autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun, wrote about the years, from age 11 to 14, that he spent interned in a Japanese camp in China during WWII. He thought the Japanese were the bravest soldiers he had ever seen. He idolized them and thought they were heroes. He found their heroism didn't matter, when the American Mustangs came in waves. He found there were no heroes.
What does true myth tell us about heroes? They don't exist. Those who want to be heroes are deeply flawed. Those "heroes," deeply flawed, sometimes commit atrocities. If they do, they must repent and atone for them. And they can't expect much help from the people who lied to them and glorified them as heroes.