Tuesday, December 13, 2016

On Heroes...and Their Perils

John Glenn in his Mercury Rocket spacesuit, public domain from Wilipedia.

Greetings All:

A few days ago, Senator John Glenn passed away.  He was 95 and to put it mildly, had lived an amazing life.  This son of Ohio became a true son of America.  Raised in a small town, steeled in adversary through The Great Depression, he went on to fly combat missions in both WWII and Korea.  A test pilot, he grabbed the brass ring of the early astronaut program.  Yet it was there where he had his most bitter disappointment.  He wanted to be the first man in space (well, for the good guys at least.  I think the Soviets beat us to that punch).  It didn't happen.  However, he did get a nice parting gift:  Being able to orbit the Earth three times in 1962.

There have been chorus of obituaries sung to his life, his accomplishments, and rightfully so.  Here is a link to my favorite one from The Pittsburgh Post Gazette, "Godspeed John Glenn."  I will not hesitate to call him a hero, especially in the American sense of the word. 

Glenn's parade after his 1962 orbit, public domain, from Wikipedia.

Yet even John Glenn's life did not have that storybook ending.  His bid for President in 1984 (an election I am proud to say I volunteered for in 1983 as a kid) ended early.  Then there was the Charles Keating scandal where Senator Glenn, along with four (I believe) other Senators met with a savings and loan executive whose intentions were far from pure.  As an aside, this would be such a small and laughable scandal by (ahem) today's standards, but it devastated him.  

As I was working on this post, I thought about the hauntingly accurate quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:  "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy."  Sadly, there's a bunch of truth to those lines he scribbled in his notebook.  (For those of you who want to jump in the deep end of the pool, here's a link to a short, yet thought-provoking article on Aristotle's definition of a hero.)  

My point is this:  Often times those we elevate to hero status either:  

A., Did not want it in the first place; 
B. Realized after they had achieved such a status it caused more grief than joy; 
C.  That heroism, like most bright and shiny objects, fade over time, leaving the owner feeling sad and unappreciated; and
D.  All of the above.

If you picked D., DING-DING-DING-DING!!!  You're correct.

One of my personal heroes is Raoul Wallenberg.  I've written and spoken about him in the past.  In summary, he was a Swedish diplomat who in Hungary in 1994 and early 1945 saved thousands of Jews from almost certain death.

His reward?  He died in Soviet captivity.  The Soviets did not buy his "mercy mission" story.  They thought he was an American spy and were NOT going to allow him to be available to impede their grand plans for post-war Eastern Europe.  

Photo of Raoul Wallenberg, public domain, Wikipedia.

I encourage everyone to learn more about his story.  Here are a couple of links to his life story at Wikipedia ( please don't judge, it's accurate, IMHO) and The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Sometimes heroes suffer a fate not even fitting for a villain. 
Here is another example, more recent and far less tragic.  Last week, euphoria broke out across wide spaces of social media with the announcement that President-elect Trump had selected Retired General James "Mad Dog" Mattis for his Secretary of Defense.  GEN Mattis is beloved by Marines for his four-plus decades of service to the nation and The Corps.  Others, myself included, deeply admire both his warrior skills and his deep intellect.  As Ryan Holiday wrote in his book, The Daily Stoic, Mattis carried a copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations with him on his many combat deployments.

He's known for his salty language, such gems as:  

"Be polite, be professional and have a plan to kill everyone you meet."

And my personal favorite:  "I come in peace.  I didn't bring artillery.  But I'm pleading with you, with tears in my eyes:  If you fuck with me, I'll kill you all."  (Source, Politico)

Yes, The General has a way with words.  And it is easy to see why he is beloved by his Marines and many others.  Yet he has his critics.  Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Jason Amerine has leveled a most damning charge against General Mattis:  That he failed to send assistance to his men while in need.  In short:  Mad Dog left men to die in the field.  You can read the story here.  

There was an investigation and no wrongdoing was found.  Mattis was subsequently promoted three more times and selected for Central Command/CENTCOM.  If there had been any grave errors on his behalf, it would have certainly come out along the way.

Not that it does not weigh on him, I suppose.  I did not know that after retiring Mattis visited graves and the families of the fallen.  This was done out of the glare of the media and on his own dime.   Here's a link to a story ABC News did on this trip.

I suspect that GEN Mattis does not consider himself a hero.  He's a Marine, a leader, a scholar and the Secretary of Defense Nominee.  His record of service is extraordinary and worthy of high praise.   Yet I would caution anyone who would place him upon the mantle or pedestal for his exploits.  

And I level this admonition particularly at any of those "Call of Duty" game console warriors out there.  The saber rattlers who have never spent a day in uniform are also included.  There's an old Texas saying I recently learned:  "The littlest dog barks the loudest."  It is particularly applicable at those who are so giddy to go off to war yet have no clue as to the true and brutally high costs of it.  

Yes, Mattis' exploits have heroic tendencies.   However, these tendencies, however nobly undertaken and free of any culpability for fatalities under command still have death attached to them.  Death of our enemies and death of our fellow countrymen.  

Mattis understands this better than almost anyone.  He also knows that while it is a heart-breakingly high price to pay, it is better than the alternative, as eluded to in the below photo.

A quote and photo of GEN Mattis, from Facebook, public domain/fair use claimed.

My point with this post is this:  Yes, let us celebrate those among us who have done things, brave and noble, worthy of acclaim.  Yet let us also be wary of elevating any person especially while possessed of life and power to "hero" status.  When we do, we're allowing someone else to solve our problems or be so much bigger and better than us that we're off the hook.  "I'm not as _____ as _____, the hero, so why even try?"  The answer is we should try because within all of us is the potential to act heroic.  

And there is no peril is aspiring to that goal.

R.I.P. Senator Glenn.  As I mentioned on Facebook Friday night, while the view you had in 1962 was terrific, something tells me the view you're currently enjoying is simply spectacular.  

Be well my friends,