December 7, 2016

Forum: What Makes A Hero?

Every week on Monday morning , the Council and our invited guests weigh in at the Watcher’s Forum, short takes on a major issue of the day, the culture, or daily living. This weeks’ Forum is going to be a little different. The original Question. inspired by Veteran’s Day was “Can You Name Three Heroes Whom Have Directly Influenced Your Own Life?”

For reasons that I’m sure were perfectly good ones, the only response (and an excellent one) came from Laura Rambeau Lee at Right Reason, who wrote:

The first of the heroes who have directly influenced my life would have to be my ancestors who came to the Colonies from Germany and who within 30 years found themselves fighting in the Revolutionary War against the tyranny of the British Empire. The blood of these patriots runs through my veins as surely as I, too, feel the necessity to do my part to preserve this republic they risked their lives to help create.

On a larger scale my heroes today are the people who are speaking out against an ever growing out of control government at the federal and even at the local and state levels. So many have come out of their comfort zones and gotten involved in any way they can with whatever abilities they possess to fight the good fight. They are our neighbors, co-workers and family members. Their numbers are growing and they are becoming a force for change. While many people may not even be aware, I believe we are living in historic times in America and in the world. The very future of civilization lies in the balance. This is a battle that has been going on since the beginning of humankind; this is a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In this age of the internet and technology, we have been able to communicate with one another and I find strength and hope in the knowledge that there are many of us willing and ready to do what needs to be done to win this battle.

Finally, as we celebrate Veterans Day this week, I celebrate those who heed the call to serve their country. These men and women dedicate years of their lives, and some pay the ultimate price, to fight to keep America free and to support others in their fight for freedom. They return home to live their lives, raise their families, and live the American Dream of their own creation. They are all heroes and deserve our utmost respect and admiration.

Well said, Laura.

And with that in mind, I thought it might be worth examining what a hero actually is.

A hero is frequently thought of as a brave warrior who excels at feats of arms. That is frequently the case. But there are many examples of such men whom behaved in less than heroic fashion. Benedict Arnold was one of America’s most accomplished heroes of the Revolutionary War, responsible for the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Saratoga. In fact, at the Battle of Valcour Island, he came within an inch of capturing Canada for the Americans. Yet his name today is a byword for treason because for all his courage, he yielded to the temptation of a bribe because of his bitterness at being passed over for promotion by the Continental Congress and his desperation over debts run up trying to please his young second wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold.

Sometimes, a hero is seen as someone who ‘fights for the people.’ Lenin, Castro, Hitler, Yasser Arafat and Che Guevara all wore this mantle from time to time. Yet in examining their lives and their deeds, the label of murderer and tyrant seems more appropriate than hero. Only True Believers think of them as heroic figures.

Sometimes, a hero is seen as a talented artist or sports figure. They often become heroes to millions. But often, that quality doesn’t extend to other parts of their lives. Just look at Richard Wagner, Barry Bonds, Mark McQwire, Tupac Shakur, Richard Strauss, Kurt Cobain or Leni Reifenstahl.

So what are we left with? Here are three examples of people I consider heroic that may shed some light on the subject.

Alvin York was a young man from the Tennessee hills without much formal education. he worked to support his family after his father died, and took his relief from the hard work in drinking, bar fights and whatever loose women he could find but later ‘got religion.’ On that basis, he tried to become a conscientious objector when America entered WWI, but was turned down and drafted into the Army.

His baptism of fire came in the Argonne Forest in October of 1918, when he and his unit were pinned down by German machine gun nests.Nine of the soldiers in his company had been killed or wounded, leaving Sergeant York in command of the remaining six men. What happened next is amazing:

“And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush… As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting… All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.”

At one point, six German soldiers in a trench near York charged him when he was out of ammo. He pulled his trusty .45 and killed all of them before they could get to him.At that point, the Germans, thinking there was an entire unit behind their lines instead of one man surrendered.

Sergeant York and the other six men left in his unit ended up escorting 132 German prisoners back to the American lines. He had singlehandedly silenced the machine gun nests and enabled the 328th Infantry to continue its offensive.

What strikes me about Alvin York’s account of his exploits is the matter of factness of the whole thing. Like a lot of other heroes, his bravery wasn’t a product of conscious thought, but sheer instinct when faced with the ultimate test. As he told his brigade commander, General Julian Robert Lindsey afterwards, “A higher power guided and watched over me and told me what to do.”

He received the Medal of Honor, France’s Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor, along with Italy’s Croce di Guerra al Merito and a host of other honors, about 50 in all. He also became a major celebrity in the United States, getting a parade in New York City, a banquet in his honor at the Waldorf Astoria, and an appearance before congress where he got a standing ovation.

It would be enough to turn any man’s head. But Alvin York’s essential decency and heroism won out. He was offered thousands of dollars for public appearances, product endorsements, newspaper articles, movie rights to his life story, even $50,000 – a fortune in those days – to do a vaudeville tour.

He turned every one of them down. The one gift he accepted was a 400 acre farm from the local Rotary Club and the State of Tennessee.

In later life, he lent his name and reputation to a number of charitable and civic causes, including a Bible school and seminary which he financed by finally giving in and allowing Hollywood to film ‘The Story of Sergeant York’ in 1941.

After Pearl harbor, he fought hard to enlist at age 54 and the Army finally gave in, commissioning him as a major in the Army Signal Corps. He toured the country, raising money for War Bonds and helping to bolster America’s morale at a trying time. In one amusing episode, he took on the Army again when large numbers of volunteers from his home Fentress County were rejected because they were illiterate. He even offered to lead a battalion of the rejected illiterates himself, saying they were “crack shots.” The Japanese and Germans were probably fortunate the Army turned him down.

I most like this quote from him, in front of the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day, 1941: “Liberty and freedom are so very precious that you do not fight and win them once and stop. They’re prizes awarded only to those peoples who fight to win them and then keep fighting eternally to hold them.”
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Ronald Wilson Reagan was a man who came from humble beginnings and could literally be said to be the man who had everything. He enjoyed great wealth, film stardom and a luxurious lifestyle. Most men in his position would have simply enjoyed life. Instead. he went into the arena of politics at age 56, first as governor of California from 1967-1975, and later as president of his country.

Like many people of his generation, he started out as a classic liberal and an FDR Democrat. That changed as the Democrats moved Left. A key part of that change was sparked by experience as president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, when communists and their sympathizers made an overt attempt to take over the union.

Reagan was always noted for his genial personality and his ability to work with even those people whom he disagreed with. But there was always a hard line of principle he refused to cross. At the height of his film career, there were threats to slash his face and injure him and his family unless he gave in to communist attempts to dominate the union. He stood up to them and won, even though it cost him opportunities in Hollywood he otherwise could have had.

He became a Republican in 1962 and never looked back.

After a successful career as governor of California which saw him turning a deep deficit into a budget surplus, and vastly improving the state’s infrastructure, he ran for the presidency. After losing to Gerald Ford in 1976, he didn’t back down, but ran again in 1980. Aside from getting off the floor after a tough loss, you have to admire his courage in wanting to run for president at age 70, when most men are content to enjoy their sunset years.

The presidency is an immense job at the best of times, but the mess left by Jimmy Carter’s dysfunctional presidency would have been a nightmare of a burden for anyone to take on. The economy was stagnant, unemployment, prices, interest rates and inflation were skyrocketing, and America’s foreign policy could only be characterized by the words defeat and retreat. Yet Ronald Reagan took on the challenge.

After being elected by a landslide, Reagan began by using Arthur Laffer’s formulas of tax rate reduction to spur economic growth, and instituted control of the money supply to curb inflation, economic deregulation, and reduction in government spending. It worked. Over his two terms, his economic policies saw a huge reduction in interest rates, reduction of inflation from 12.5% to 4.4%, and an average annual growth of real GDP of 3.44%. The numbers would have been even better if President Reagan hadn’t had to spend money to rebuild America’s military, skeletoned out during the Carter years.

Even more impressively, he did this working with a solidly Democrat congress who for the most part hated his guts. Even an assassin’s bullet he took in 1981, just 69 days into his presidency didn’t stop him.

Ronald Reagan was re-elected for a second term setting a record for electoral votes. His opponent,Left Wing democrat Walter Mondale only carried Washington DC and his home state of Minnesota. One of my favorite Reagan bon mots occurred in this campaign during a debate, after Mondale snidely referred to Reagan’s age. Reagan’s reply? “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Even Mondale laughed at that one along with the rest of America, but that was effectively the end of his campaign.

In foreign policy, President Regan was particularly stellar. it was he who first had the courage to label the Soviet Union what it was, an evil empire, and to take the real steps that destroyed it. He didn’t merely tell the Soviets “tear down this wall,” he saw to it that it happened, just months after his second term ended.

He built up SDI, the U.S. missile defense system to the consternation of the Soviets and the anger of their friends in the leftist press. When sitting down with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland in the third of their four meetings on control of nuclear weapons, Gorby tried to pull a fast on Reagan by inserting something they had already agreed was of the table, saying “of course, this means SDI will be dismantled.” Reagan simply smiled, said, “this meeting is over” and walked out, heedless of the press criticism he know was coming. In the end, he got the agreement he wanted on America’s terms, not the USSR’s.

Reagan also knew how to deal with Islamic terrorism and aggression, unlike others I could name. When the Libyans bombed a Berlin nightclub frequented by U.S, servicemen, President Reagan responded by launching a pre-emptive bombing raid on Tripoli that essentially got Libyan leader Moamar Gaddafi out of the terrorism business.

A similar thing happened when Iran tried to shut down the Persian Gulf and fired on US tankers. Reagan sunk most of their navy and had the marines occupy Kharg Island, where the terminus of Iran’s oil pipelines are located. He then had American and other tankers fill up for a month of so at Kharg Island for free, one of the few times Iran ever suffered real pain for any of their hostile acts towards America. They didn’t act up again while Reagan was in the White House.

Ronald Reagan left office in 1989 with an approval rating of sixty-eight percent, one of the highest in modern times.

To really get a sense of whom Ronald Reagan was, it helps to read his diaries as president. Like Alvin York’s account of his WWI exploits, the tone is matter of fact, even humble..but with a resilience throughout that gives the true measure of the man.

He wasn’t perfect, and I’m sure he’d be the first to say so. But his greatness was to take on what seemed an impossible task and leave America far better than he found it.

And he went out with yet another act of heroism. In August of 1994, at the age of 83, Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Characteristically, he faced it head on, informing his fellow Americans that revered him through a handwritten letter. Part of it read:

“I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease… At the moment I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done… I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you.”

He fought on for another ten years, passing away in 2004. Those close to him have already gone public on his valiant struggle in the face of his disease. His mind may have betrayed him, but his spirit never did. On his burial site these words are inscribed:

“I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph and that there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”

One of my favorite Reagan quotes: “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit

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Lucius Cornelius Sulla was the Roman Republic’s most famous and victorious general in 83 BC. And it was a time when the Republic was about to collapse in corruption, civil strife, cronyism and blatant mismanagement.

Two parties dominated Rome,the optimates and the populares, somewhat similar in outlook respectively to our own Republican conservatives and Leftist Democrats today.

The actual survival of Rome was in doubt.

So what Sulla, an optimate did was to march five of his legions back into Rome, assume a position as dictator and take over the city. All of this was strictly forbidden by Roman Law and Sulla risked the death penalty. Many would have simply gone with the flow, waiting to see whom would bid for his services. But as a patriot, he felt there was only once course of action left for him.

The Senate, having no choice, appointed him dictator legibus faciendis et reipublicae constituendae causa (“dictator for the making of laws and for the settling of the constitution”).

Sulla used his powers to enact a series of reforms to the Roman constitution. He also arrested and/or exiled a number of people he suspected of corruption or other crimes against the Republic and carried out a number of executions of those he considered traitors or whom he felt had acted against Rome’s interest.

Then, once his reforms restored the balance of power between the executive and legislative parts of Rome’s government and codified requirements for holding office, the economy was working well again and the state was again operating on its founding principles, Sulla did something unheard for the times.

He voluntarily relinquished his absolute power, disbanded his legions and resigned two years after he first became dictator, retiring to his country villa with his family.

His selflessness and patriotism was so obvious that he remained immensely popular with his fellow Romans, and even his enemies dare not touch him. He was given a hero’s funeral by the City when he died 3 years later. And his contemporaries like Plutarch credited him with saving the Roman Republic, which managed to last for another half century before Augustus turned it into an empire in 27 BC.

It is one thing to seize power for ‘the greater good.’ Many men have done that and it seldom ends well. It’s something very different to take over, enact necessary reforms, put a strong structure in place and then have to encourage to voluntarily give up that power.

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 Well, there you have it.

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