The New Year marked the end of the centenary of the Great War. Rarely do people think about it throughout their busy working weeks; it’s only when the 11th of November rears its head, a date marked for war stories to be plastered in newspapers and on television. For those who lived through it, however, it will never be anything less than a wound refusing to close. So, to mark the end of 2018, it is only fitting to commemorate those who gave their lives for the war by highlighting the fallen conception of ‘heroism’.
A hero stands, one foot on the chest of the enemy, proudly posing in his uniform. He will be revered and respected by all, never forgotten. Whether he saved a damsel in distress, or a whole country from the clutches of a dictatorship, he is our hero…
The connotations of heroism follow a little like this. Even the charity that endorses the care and appreciation of veterans uses the word. Yet, many men who have been dubbed ‘heroes’ are embarrassed, ashamed, or angry. The stories behind their ‘heroism’ are often intensely emotional and inhumanly difficult; many men who should have been respected and remembered either ended up in a dead-end job – forgotten – or on the streets where no one knew the burdens that they carried with them, or are now rotting in a foreign land, buried where they lie, or returned to their families, mentally broken, frustrated and distanced from who they were ‘before’.
Should not such a word, used often enough to be made obsolete, be saved for comic books, and fairy-tale knights in shining armour? The word originated from the ancient Greek ‘hēros’, which literally meant ‘demi-god’, and was taken on in Latin, traded down the line to middle-English where it was used in fictional terms. Now it is used mainly to describe soldiers – male figures who are apparently fearless and desirable. The modern connotations evidently have many detrimental effects on the confidence of the genders; if you’re male, you must aspire to this ludicrous level; if female, you will never be taken seriously enough to achieve it, but are given the sub-name ‘heroine’; if any other gender, your identity is lost in association.
The most recent piece of literature to come to mind was Somme Mud: the fictionalised diary of Australian infantryman E. P. F. Lynch. Like so many young soldiers of WWI, he set off with feelings of excitement and brotherhood, causing mischief and bantering all the way from Sydney to France. Fooled by liars, they anticipated becoming heroes, and attaining glory. They had no inkling of the reality, or whether the path to ‘manhood’ was worth time in the trenches.
Lynch’s first trench experience was not what he expected, because no-one reported on the dangerous conditions soldiers lived in. He was two weeks waist-deep in freezing mud, learning how to sleep upright against the trench wall or the parapet, how to avoid imperceptible bullets and shrapnel scattered in the rancid air around him. Trench-foot was a constant concern, and a humiliating and potentially disabling ailment to suffer with. As young as eighteen, he was suddenly amidst a kind of chaos he couldn’t hitherto have conceived. Even young boys managed to blag their way to the front, assuming they would quickly be turned into men – a common connotation of ‘heroism’. They valiantly pursued this goal and managed to avoid being shattered either internally by PTSD (Post-Traumatic Shock Disorder, or ‘Shell Shock’) or externally by a bomb, a bullet, a bayonet or any manner of other things. In the name of ‘heroism’, alongside patriotism, and blind duty, they fought, many to their premature deaths.
Where are they now on State-doles, or showing shop patterns
Or walking town to town sore in borrowed tatterns
Some civic routine one never learns.
The heart burns – but has to keep out of face how heart burns.
– Ivor Gurney, Strange Hells
No matter their motivation, be it ‘law [or] duty’, ‘public man [or] cheering crowds’ or even a ‘lonely impulse of delight’ once they arrived they had very little choice. They had to fight, or else be shot for ‘cowardice’ (desertion – the very dichotomy of the concept of ‘heroism’), and they had to fight well, or else risk a brutal death for themselves, or for one of their brethren. If they lived through it, they were often left with life-long mental scars, which made bitter any reference to heroism. Many of these veterans do not wish to be called heroes, many of them struggle enough already with returning to civilian life, and many truly hold in contempt the risks they had to take, the brothers they lost and the pain it caused.
But now I’ve said goodbye to Galahad,
And am no more the knight of dreams and show:
For lust and senseless hatred make me glad,
And my killed friends are with me where I go.
– Siegfried Sassoon, The Poet as Hero
What of the women? Not a single woman who fought (though, overall, not literally) during the Great War has been dubbed either a hero or a heroine. However, they took over the factories that made the machines the soldiers used, they wiped the brows of the wounded behind the battlefield, made clean the ‘hospital beds’ to prevent infection, and soothed all the soldiers who were crying out ‘Orderly!’ and receiving no response. When the men returned home, the women were laid off from their work, and given little thanks. They went back to their households, to take care of children they’d been taking care of, on their own, for years as well as filling in the men’s shoes. Many were left without their husbands, their brothers, their fathers, their friends, after years of writing letter after letter, pouring devotion and hope into every word. Yes, they too deserved the title of ‘heroes’, but, even if I could, I wouldn’t give it to them. Now that the word has been sullied and their memories trodden down beneath the weight of 20th-century progress, ‘hero’ no longer serves to express the enormous selflessness they demonstrated in that period.
The modern usage of the word is itself a proof of its current banality. Enrique Iglesias sang “I can be your hero baby. I can kiss away the pain”, but rather than expressing anything like a heartfelt promise to a lover, for anyone who knows anything of the development and transformation of that word, it’s easy to see that the lyrics are crass, insensitive and illogical even from a figurative point of view. Whatever pain anyone is feeling, cuddles and kisses won’t make you a hero, even if it does help… or maybe it would, given the modern conception of the term. In which case, virtually anyone with a moderate sense of empathy would be able to achieve the title. So save it for special occasions, for masculine superheroes, for knights in shining armour who fight with ‘valour’ and ‘honour’, for use in irony or in reference to the protagonist of a novel – don’t use it to devalue the true bravery and sheer selflessness of real people.