WHERE HAVE ALL THE HEROES GONE?

January, 2004 

History is replete with instances of clashes of ideology, objectives, needs and wants. When resolution of such clashes by non-violent means has failed, people have fought each other. Groups, tribes, nations and coalition of nations have gone to war. In such encounters, the baser qualities of Man have been brought to the forefront and they have prevailed. Murder, rape, loot, pillage, death, destruction, havoc, mass killings have been resorted to as Man has desecrated God’s finest creation, Man. Yet, within this death and destruction, there have regularly been instances that remind us of the finer attributes of Man. Amidst wanton acts of human abasement, there are examples of individuals performing heroic deeds. There are those, who, amidst the ravages of war and the atrocities of conflict retain their sense of values and behave in an exemplary manner. They fight with courage, with valor, fairly, morally and with dignity. While most remain unrecognized; some are fortunate to have their actions recorded for posterity.

And thus, are heroes born.

Every conflict gives birth to these icons that are destined to be honored in history books and their tales are handed down from generation to generation. Even the enemy recognizes their acts of valor and acknowledges them with grudging admiration. Heroes are made on ground, in the air, on water, underwater. They are created as much in boardrooms, in back shops and on factory floors just as they are on the killing fields. Man, pitted against Man, a hero emerging when one performs an act above and beyond that expected, an act that defies logic and reason and one that usually carries substantial personal risk; an act that could result in the loss of ones’ own life. Valiant men facing fearful odds, some losing their lives in the process but earning a place in history. Each conflict creates its own set of heroes; each nation has them.

America is no exception. In World War II alone, the proud nation awarded 440 Medals of Honor for outstanding acts of valor, 250 of them posthumously. Each Service shared these tokens of recognition, the Army, Navy, Air Force, each had their heroes, earning their place in history in unfamiliar locations with strange sounding names. Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Iwo Jima. Heroes were made in campaigns across the globe; in North Africa, Italy, France, Belgium. Later, in another place, in another land, more American heroes emerged. In Korea and in Vietnam, brave men and women died fighting fearful odds. They laid down their lives for flag and country.

Things are different now. In the recent campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan, the military imperative has been the use of overwhelming force, shock and awe tactics, the employment of horrific firepower and the use of devastating weaponry. Against AK 47 toting Afghans, the most powerful of conventional weapons were used and when these were found wanting as in the Tora Bora mountains, the United States seriously considered using tactical nuclear weapons. Against the hapless city of Baghdad, obscenely powerful conventional bombs were dropped. All these actions were watched across the globe by millions in real time, in full color, stereo sound, background narration, in wonder and amazement. Depleted uranium, thermobaric bombs, fuel-air explosives were the weapons of choice and as these horrific weapons were used with gay abandon, the fact that these stunning campaigns did not produce any heroes of note was obscured.

This was to be expected. The fact is that whenever such tactics and such weaponry are used, the need for heroism disappears. When a retreating army is carpet bombed on a Highway to Hell, when the response to a lone sniper is a combination of mortars, tanks, armed helicopters, F-16s, JDAMs, LGBs, precision and area munitions followed by a company level assault by NBC protected, night vision enabled shock troops, the possibility of any hero emerging or indeed, the need for any heroism is made redundant.

But a nation still needs heroes. It needs folklore. It needs pride. Perhaps, most pertinently, it needs something to convince the taxpayer who is footing the bill for the expensive weaponry that his or her money is well spent, on noble causes by noble individuals. The nation then resorts to creating heroes. Instead of noble and brave individuals creating nations, the reverse happens. The nation fabricates such individuals.

And therefore, not unnaturally, the spectacular coalition onslaught on Iraq, Operation Enduring Freedom, too has created its heroes and a pliant media has made us aware of the heroes of this magnificent war. Thus far, this costly misadventure has, to the best of my determination, provided the United States of America with two heroes.

The first one whose picture and citation have been released by the Department of Defense is K-Dog, a bottle-nose dolphin. The citation states that K-Dog, with no regard for personal safety or its life, located 4 submersed mines in the waters of Umm Qasr between March 26th and 27th, 2003.

The second is a 5’ 5” tall, petite blonde, Private Jessica Lynch, the driver of a water tanker, ambushed along the banks of the Euphrates near Nassiriya. She drove a truck which was part of a maintenance support unit which apparently had been positioned in a wrong place at the wrong time through ineptitude and demonstrably poor military skills. Jessica drove into an ambush. A firefight ensued in which she did not take part but was injured. Private Lynch became a POW and her captors took the wounded soldier to an Iraqi hospital where she was treated for her combat related injuries. A “courageous” Iraqi informed the Marines of her location and received his due reward in the form of a US green card and relocation package. Jessica’s rescue team arrived in the dead on night in armored vehicles with helicopter support and a complete filming crew. The soldiers stormed the hospital, guns blazing although there were no Iraqi soldiers or any weapons in the hospital. As they rescued the pretty country girl from West Virginia, the Department of Defense camera crew recorded the entire episode.

Try as hard as I can, I am unable to figure out the heroism displayed either by the dolphin or the unfortunate truck driver. Nor indeed did the SEAL rescue team display any act of valor as it assaulted an undefended hospital with its military might. For Jessica, it appears that getting captured was sufficient to qualify her as a hero. (heroine)? This is mind boggling. Indeed it is both scary and sobering. If such acts are acknowledged as heroism, then other individuals would be sorely tempted to emulate the 19-year-old private. Wander out into the Iraqi countryside and get captured. Collect a hero’s welcome complete with a drive through the hometown with the local population waving flags, cheering, clapping. Complete with book and movie rights, interviews on prime time television, speeches, appearances, a meeting with a grateful President.

Perhaps the date of the Jessica Lynch rescue tells it all. 1st April 2003.

The sad truth is that in the American concept of modern warfare, there cannot be any heroes. The reasons are obvious. Bravery and heroism must take a back seat when the two forces involved in conflict have grossly disparate structures. In fact, none of  the higher moral traits are necessary. They are out of place in conflicts that are orchestrated at a distance with the aid of supercomputers and super smart weapons. In such a situation, the human interface can actually be quite pedestrian, subscribing to baser values, shallow beliefs. And while the technologically superior side does not have the need, the opposing side does not have the opportunity to display any heroism. When Daisy Cutters and Bunker Busters are used against cave dwellers, when a random mortar shell evokes a devastating thermobaric response, when armored columns target stone throwing teenagers, when Blackhawks and Apaches rain down death from above a protesting crowd, bravery and heroism must fall by the wayside. Individual acts have now given way to corporate actions. Overwhelming force, Shock and Awe tactics and Massive Firepower. These enable impressive gains and victory but sadly they are transient in nature and work only in the short term. It is Man’s nobler traits that endure and it is they that instill permanence. It is they that ensure enduring victory.

And Enduring Freedom.

Authors Note. In researching this article, I came across some very interesting sites on the Internet. Two are worth mentioning. The first apparently belongs to some military enthusiast. It’s owner has an interesting perspective on heroism. According to him, “I think that anyone that joins the Armed Services of the United States of America for the purpose of defending this country and doing something for this country and then dying, whether it be by attack or stupid mishap while on assignment for this country is a hero”. Fair enough. Enrol, Die. Become a hero. The Department of Defense requirements however, are not so stringent. One doesn’t have to die. The second site belongs to a renowned news agency. The page carries the emotive header “In every war there are acts of extraordinary courage where an individual, military or civilian, goes beyond what is expected to avert conflict, save lives or otherwise achieve an extraordinary mission. This special section highlights the acts of a few individuals who — through feats of courage, nobility of purpose or life-risking situations — have become “Heroes of War.” There are quite a few “acts of extraordinary courage” listed there. Each carries an interesting citation. Here are extracts from two.

  • Taking a break from handing out water bottles, Sgt. Gary Hughes realized the young Muslim woman was pregnant. He slung his rifle on his back and swooped her into his arms. “It all happened so fast,” said Hughes, the physical training instructor for Britain’s 2nd Royal Tank Regiment. “I ran to the hospital as fast as I could — about 200 meters.” That’s roughly the size of two football fields.
  • Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, showed restraint and intelligence. He yelled to his troops: “Smile, relax.” Then he commanded his soldiers to take a knee and point their weapons to the ground. Hughes drew praise from President Bush for his “skill and honor.”

Welcome to the new world of asymmetric warfare. Asymmetric weapons, Asymmetric tactics, Asymmetric rules and, not surprisingly, Asymmetric heroes. Dolphins, Lost truck drivers, physical trainers doing the 200 meter dash, an American Lieutenant Colonel showing restraint and intelligence! And finally this, a truly heartwarming act. As some soldiers attempted to sell photographs of Jessica Lynch cavorting with them in the nude before she departed for Iraq, Hustler Magazine stepped in and bought the photographs for an undisclosed sum “to keep them out of circulation”.

Welcome to the New World Order. Asymmetric Warfare, Asymmetric Morality. Hustling Soldiers, Patriotic Hustlers.