Monday, March 09, 2009

Wry on hero.

Prime-time had barely begun Sunday and already I'd seen Chesley Sullenberger's hangdog mug flashed on-screen three different times on three different shows, capped off by Andy Rooney's latest slightly senile bit on heroes and heroism. Chalk it up to negativity if you must, but I'm so tired of hearing the people involved in any traumatic situation that ends welland even some situations that don'tdescribed automatically as "heroes." A civilian who runs into a burning building to save a child is a hero. A fireman, in the normal course of events, is not a hero. A bystander who disarms a crazed gunman as that gunman is about to lay waste to dozens of churchgoers is a hero. A cop who simply shows up and shoots the guy (or even gets shot while trying) is not a hero. Cops, like firemen, are paid to put their lives on the line. Now you might argue that it's heroic to sign on to be a cop or fireman in the first place, and I might entertain that argument. But I don't think the prospect of heroism is what attracts many young men and women to those lines of work. I think good benefits and pension plans, a certain sense of camaraderie and evenin the case of cops especiallya decided machismo* has at least as much to do with it. Though I do think the average cop and/or fireman enjoys providing a public service, providing a public service does not, in and of itself, make you heroic. My postman provides a valuable public service, too. I much appreciate her daily arrivals. I don't consider her a hero.

I don't particularly think of old Sully as a hero, either. After all, he
was on the plane, sitting in the cockpit, when those birds elected to meet their maker. What was he gonna do instead? Eject? Yes, he apparently did a very competent job. He was cool under fire. Why can't we leave it at that? (And if a dozen or so people had fallen out of the plane and drowned or frozen, would that have made Sullenberger any less competent or cool under fire?) Rooney spent most of his allotted five minutes last night talking about heroism during time of war, and I definitely believe it's possible for people to do heroic things in wartime. If you and your comrades are pinned down by hostile fire and you shout "Damn the torpedoes!" (or whatever people shout in such circumstances), jump up from behind your cover and run straight into the path of fire in a noble effort to take out the enemy machine-gun nest, that's pretty heroic. (It may also be pretty stupid. But it's heroic.) I do not, however, think the mere fact of being involved in a war makes you a hero. To be sure, sitting behind a barricade and picking off a sniper who's been shooting at you doesn't make you heroic; it just makes you a good shot. And of course, it's a lot easier to end up doing things labeled "heroic" when you're thrust into a setting where life and death are at stake.

Do you
remember, prior to the first Gulf War, how many young men and especially women who'd volunteered for the Army or National Guard were appalled at the prospect of actually having to deploy in a war zone? The mentality seemed to be, "Hey, I volunteered because they promised to send me to college. I didn't expect to have to fight anybody!"

* Yes, among female cadets as well.

12 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

"you shout "Damn the torpedoes!" (or whatever people shout in such circumstances), jump up from behind your cover and run straight into the path of fire"

I think you'd find that the more common phrase uttered immediately prior to an act of "heroism" would be, "Oh, sh*t!" It's what you say when you realize that you have alternatives from which to choose, but that the most logical choice (or the only one you can live with) will likely result in some rather unpleasant consequences.

It is also true that a significant percentage of "heroic" acts are actually the result of a poor sense of direction or the failure to even consider the consequences of your action. While the latter may well be considered an act of bravery, it is usually a near-synaptic response to immediate circumstances, when the pace of the situation precludes analytical thought.

This by no means diminishes the valor of those whom, facing terrible choices, act selflessly. But we would do well to avoid cheapening the meaning of the word "hero" by applying it to everyone who finds themselves in a dangerous situation.

Sully's actions were heroic, in that those actions saved a lot of lives. And to those whose lives he saved, he is a hero. In his own mind, however, and in the minds of others similarly trained to handle such situations, he was merely professional and competent. Sadly, we as a species have lowered the bar of behavior to the point where competent professionalism qualifies as heroic. But what would you expect from a society that bequeaths celebrity status on someone simply for having been born wealthy and caught having sex on film? :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Sadly, we as a species have lowered the bar of behavior to the point where competent professionalism qualifies as heroic.

I think that's the takeaway here, or at least 50% of it. The other 50% is that we're so desperate for inspiration that we have to imbue all of life's events with some transcendent meaning. I see this as part of the fallout from the likes of the self-esteem movement, which sought to put "excellence" within everyone's grasp--even if the only way we could achieve that is by redefining excellence so that it applies to anything and everything that happens in life. That's why, today, celebratory pizza parties that used to be reserved for students doing "A" work are now open to any student who merely finds his way to school most of the time. We're all heroes now.

Cosmic Connie said...

Great points on heroism, or lack thereof, but I'm especially pleased to see your announcement of John Curtis' "Scammy Awards." I got an email about that a couple of weeks ago and have been meaning to mention it on my blog as well. Boy, do I have some great candidates for the Scammies...

Sarsabu said...

To use the film (movie) analogy of previous topics - Harry Callahan did not consider himself a hero. QED.

Interesting stuff on the early Hudson River posts on pprune re whether heroism or not involved in the Sully incident.

(Incidently my favourite films(movies) are Aeroplane, Aeroplane 2 and Top Secret).

Anonymous said...

I agree that, like heroism, excellence is devalued currency.

Ironically, few things diminish self-esteem more than universal excellence, due to what I call the Gilbert and Sullivan Effect, which is:

"If everybody's somebody, then no one's anybody."

That is why I despise EGO (Everybody Gets One) awards . . .

Steve Salerno said...

Sars: If you're a true Top Secret fan, then you'll recall my all-time-favorite sight gag, which is the German jeep just barely grazing the back of the Ford Pinto, and...

Case said...

“…fallout from … the self-esteem movement, which sought to put "excellence" within everyone's grasp”

Heros, “A” Students, Ribbon Winners. When are we going to realize that training everyone to feel like a winner causes more harm than good. If a person is trained to only take on challenges that are winnable, how will they ever learn how to push forward when there is no chance of success. Pushing forward when there are slim chances of winning, I would argue, is one the key skills needed to achieve something truly great.

Sarsabu said...

Luckily about the third time I watched it there were some fine Americans in my company who explained that one to me.

.......the train station pulling away......the learn German tape......the E. German national anthem.....the E. German women's Olympic team.....Omar Shariff and the fake doggie poo poo...
and that is only the first three or so minutes!

Chad Hogg said...

Ah, I beat you to this topic by about a month, and used much of the same language to describe it. See the third part of http://sigaserver.dyndns.org:8765/~chad/wordpress/?p=222

Steve Salerno said...

Chadd: Well, I guess I have to give you that one (though I was thinking it as soon as it happened...wink. And I could swear I commented about that with regard to his Super Bowl appearance, though I can't seem to find it now). But on the other hand, I've been writing cynically about the hero-worship connected to 9/11 and related matters almost since 9/11, both "formally" and here on SHAMblog. So I don't know whether that's to my credit or debit, but I've never been shy about calling it as I see it, even when it's impolitic. And believe me, that hasn't always worked to my advantage, professionally or otherwise.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, if you start calling yourself a maverick, I'm gonna have to get a rope! :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Not only that, Ron, but I can see New Jersey from my house...