Last week on Most Heroic, I wrote about the career and life of Diamond Dallas Page to show how, in my opinion, he can and should be viewed as a hero. This week I aim to examine a more philosophical concept: do heroes even exist at all? This is a very interesting question, and it’s been one that I’ve questioned for a few years now. It’s also a very big question, and I’m certainly not going to be able to address every aspect of that question in this particular column, so right now I’ll just address the notions that first made me ask this question.
This idea came from Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers. It’s a wonderful film, as is its mirror twin, Letters from Iwo Jima. This film presented a very different idea of heroism to me, because some would say that this essentially debunks the idea of heroes. Flags of Our Fathers shows how the American public considered those men heroes for raising the flag on the island of Iwo Jima in a photograph. For a short while, they became minor celebrities. The film seems to make a point of showing how silly that idea is. None of those men seemed to feel that they were heroes. All they did was raise a flag, after all. Each of those men seemed to believe that their comrades still fighting on Iwo Jima and in the rest of the war were more heroic than they were.
The last words of the film are probably the most poignant, and they’re the ones that spoke to me the most.
I finally came to the conclusion that maybe he was right. Maybe there’s no such thing as heroes. Maybe there are just people like my dad. I finally came to understand why they were so uncomfortable being called heroes. Heroes are something we create, something we need. It’s a way for us to understand what’s almost incomprehensible, how people could sacrifice so much for us, but for my dad and these men, the risks they took, the wounds they suffered, they did that for their buddies. They may have fought for their country, but they died for their friends. For the man in front, for the man beside him, and if we wish to truly honor these men, we should remember them the way they really were, the way my dad remembered them.
On a similar note, there’s the story of Salvatore Giunta. Giunta is the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Medal for risking his own life to save a fellow injured soldier from being captured by the Taliban. However, he’s been very vocal about his discomfort at being singled out as a hero. He doesn’t feel that he should be singled out as a hero when so many other soldiers are overlooked. He even said, “I’m a mediocre soldier….Think how good the great soldiers are.”
Even with both of these facts in mind, I can’t say that heroes don’t exist. John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes and the other men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima weren’t heroes because they raised a flag. They were heroes because they were soldiers, just like every other man who fought on that island. I admire Sal Giunta’s humility and lack of pride, but in my opinion, he is most definitely a hero for what he did for his comrade. What else could we possibly call him? If we were to take him at his word, he’s “a mediocre soldier.” But he showed courage far beyond what normal American citizens are ever asked to for. I do agree with him that all soldiers should get that respect, and not just him, but I’m the kind of guy who thanks every soldier he sees for his service to the country.
Regarding the quote, I agree heroes are something we create, but that’s kind of the point. At the end of the day, “hero” is another word that we use, and it’s a word that we should all use very carefully. We use that word when we refer to the men and women who do what we think is impossible, and what we wish that we could all do. We use that word to show who inspires us to be better.