The question is deceptively simple: What makes a hero?
A four-star U.S. Marine general, a New York Times columnist, a Chinese immigrant author and a Nigerian novelist found different and remarkably subtle ways to define those qualities. But in every case their answers had more to do with a code to live by than with momentary glory on the battlefield.
Gen. John Allen, former commander of international forces in Afghanistan, quoted Lord Moran, a surgeon who served on the Western Front in World War I, where hundreds of thousands of men charged out of the trenches and to their deaths day after day, week after week, month after month. Their bravery lay not only in their desire to fight for their comrades and fear of shaming themselves. There was something more fundamental and long lasting. Allen quoted Lord Moran from memory: “If you know a man of character in peace, you will know a man of courage in war.” Heroism is about those people who are “willing to sacrifice everything, everything for the principles they hold most dear,” said Allen.
Anchee Min grew up amid the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in China then built a new life for herself in America as a writer—and as a mother. She arrived with no money and no English, working five jobs at once, making and then breaking a bad marriage, and trying to raise her daughter alone.
“The home front is the real battle,” said the author of The Cooked Seed. Courage, in her life, included standing up to her very American daughter, enlisting her when she was young in the work of survival—buying her tools and a book about plumbing on her birthday—and driving her to learn good grades. “I think she feels that getting A’s is easier than dealing with me,” said Min.
David Brooks, the columnist for The New York Times who has written so often about moral standards and imperatives, talked about “the heroism of everyday life,” and especially the need to confront oneself, to battle against your own sin and weakness. He cited the example of Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose mother, a woman of extraordinary determination and education, quoted Proverbs 16:32 to young Ike one day when he had lost his temper. He who conquers his own spirit, she told him, is better than he who conquers a city. Eisenhower later wrote that no conversation in his life was ever so important as that talk with his mother—even after he commanded the Allied forces that defeated the Nazis and after he served as president of the United States at the height of the Cold War.
Nigerian novelist and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka spoke of his admiration for all those young people, especially those young women, who are fighting for an education against horrendous odds in places like Nigeria, Somalia, Mali and elsewhere. And, when asked about his own struggles, he linked the question of bravery to the demands of creativity. Heroism, he said, is about “the ability to take risks in order to be at peace with oneself.”
But it was Gen. Allen who had the last word. There was no reference to the way his name had been drawn, unjustly, into the media feeding frenzy in the scandal that surrounded Central Intelligence Director David Petraeus’s resignation last year. Before that, Allen was due to be NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Afterward, he retired.
Even in his civilian coat and tie, however, Allen clearly was thinking of the men and women—his soldiers—still in the field. “Less than one percent of the population is involved in the defense of this nation,” said Allen. They fight, they risk their lives every day and often in corners of the world that the rest of the United States has forgotten.
“We fail to talk about the routine heroism,” said Allen. Those soldiers—that professional military—is made up of people “who truly are keeping the wolf from the door.”