Friday, April 26, 2013

We Can Be Heroes

I’m not a pacifist. I think there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to take up arms to defend oneself, one’s freedom and the freedom of others. I think, for example, that Adolph Hitler had to be stopped, and I doubt that peaceful means would have achieved this. I think that Apartheid in South Africa had to be destroyed, and peaceful means would not suffice. That is not to say that there is ever really a winner in war. The winners don’t really “win” even if, in the end, they achieve their goal. There is too much loss all around to ever call this a victory. Nevertheless, some conflicts ultimately serve a just cause. Of course, not everyone involved in a war serves that cause. Motives are rarely uncomplicated or untainted by personal gain.

Unfortunately, every war tries to paint itself as “just”; every war is a war for “freedom”. This is how war is marketed by its salesmen. So even many of those who become caught up in an unjust war may do so for noble motives. They bought the product that was sold to them. They believed the lies. They are not entirely blameless in these conflicts, but nor do they bear the brunt of the blame. We can honour their courage and respect them for the price they paid, without buying into the salesmen’s pitch.

Looking back over history, it is difficult to interpret the First World War as a just war, or as a war for freedom. The rulers of nations used their citizens as cannon fodder to settle their own petty disputes. The men and women involved died tragically, if bravely. Many had no idea why they were fighting at all. Salesmanship had elevated the enemy to demonic status, even though there were cousins at the helms of the nations involved. No, I don’t believe that this was a war for freedom, and certainly not a war in Australia’s defence. Nevertheless, I see the value of remembering the cost involved, as a reminder of the folly of war, and the folly of the leaders of nations.

I become uncomfortable when remembrances of wars past turn into hero-worship. It is a fine line between honouring bravery and sacrifice, and hero-worship. Heroism is something to aspire towards, but heroes should not be idealised or idolised. If we make our heroes unreal, we dishonour them, and make heroism impossible for lesser beings such as ourselves. Furthermore, heroism takes many forms. Sometimes just staying afloat from day to day takes tremendous strength and courage. I, for one, do not aspire to becoming cannon fodder for the leader of this, or any other nation. I have no desire to be transformed into someone who hates the “Hun” (whoever that is today), so that I can be persuaded to kill him with a clear conscience. Perhaps those who refuse to fight are also heroes, although propaganda will label them as cowards or traitors. Some men and women who fought or are fighting in wars may be heroes, some may not. Let us not turn our eyes solely towards war to find our models, our inspiration and our heroes. 

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