America's Hero Problem

From Chesley Sullenberger to the rescue workers of 9/11, we revere people who commit outstanding acts of bravery. But what happens after the great moment of sacrifice?



In our imaginations, heroes live forever in the singular moment of glory: the fall on the grenade, the dive into the subway platform, the seemingly effortless glide of the airplane onto the Hudson River.

But in real life, heroes do die. Tim Hetherington, who devoted his life to capturing the most dangerous places on earth so that the rest of us might see, was killed covering the conflict in Libya. The first responders who plunged into the smoking, hellish wreckage of the World Trade Centers sacrificed their own lives for others. And to date, there have been more than 6,000 fatalities of service members involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

In What It Is Like to Go to War, Karl Marlantes nonfiction follow-up to his Vietnam novel, Matterhorn, he considers the idea of the hero in our society, writing, "Wanting to be a society-certified hero is a specialness issue. I see people killing themselves at work and at home to pay for mortgages that are too much for them, or taking vacations they can't afford in the right spots, all to be special. Wanting a medal in war is just killing yourself at a faster pace, for all the same wrong reasons."

Because, sometimes, a lot of the time, the hero lives. And this might be the most difficult part. It is the part we don't really like to talk about.

To be clear, Marlantes believes deeply that military members who put their lives on the line in the service of their country are indeed heroic. But he feels we are not properly preparing young soldiers for everything that comes after. Marlantes precisely crafted and bracingly honest book focuses specifically on the aftermath of combat, but heroism can be a difficult yoke to bear in any situation. For all who commit heroic acts, the moment of glory ends: the plane lands on the Hudson and water-soaked luggage must be accounted for; the dive into the subway is survived and you go back to a life of anonymity. Marlantes uses both his own personal experiences and readings from authors and philosophers such as Jung and Homer, to show how an extraordinary situation can leave a person changed forever.

Marlantes examines the work of philosopher Joseph Campbell, best known for his writing on comparative mythology and author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, who wrote, "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." Here Campbell explained the myth of the hero and stories that have survived for thousands of years to create the archetype by which we have come to understand heroism. This archetype, however, doesn't tackle the role of the contemporary hero in an instant-media-driven society in which we seek to raise people to impossible heights and then inevitably wait for the fall.

For some heroes, the aftermath is more than they can bear. Consider Robert O'Donnell, who rose to fame as the man who struggled down a narrow well to rescue Baby Jessica as a captivated nation watched, and who killed himself just days after seeing footage of rescue workers at the site of the Oklahoma City Bombing. He told his mother ""When those rescuers are through, they're going to need lots of help. I don't mean for a couple of days or weeks, but for years." Four days later he shot himself in the head, leaving a suicide note that read, "I'm sorry to check out this way. But life sucks."

"We ask a 19-year-old to play the role of God," Marlantes told me, speaking of young combat veterans. "It leaves behind an enormous wound to the soul." Once the adrenaline has worn off, once the parades have ended, one is left to face the consequences of what being a "hero" really means. And the isolation can be stifling. These moments of internal struggle don't make for good movies. The vision of the veteran, the good Samaritan, or the first responder, alone, struggling to come to grips with that singular moment and its real significance is just not nearly as glamorous. It doesn't make for good chatter on the morning television shows.

I asked Marlantes what he thought about contemporary heroes, including Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot responsible for what came to be known as the 'Miracle on the Hudson.' "It seems to be that he was certainly heroic, brave, and skillful. But also he was doing his job." Marlantes said.

This can be a difficult dichotomy to reconcile. There is a societal belief that you are either a hero or a regular guy. In comic books and cartoons life is more easily divided. Clark Kent is a slightly bumbling journalist until trouble arises—then he becomes Superman. Bruce Wayne is a brooding millionaire, except for when he is Batman. These characters are largely able to keep the regular guy and the hero completely separate.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell explored this idea of duality, saying, "There are adventures into which you are thrown—for example, being drafted into the army. You didn't intend it, but you're in now. You've undergone a death and resurrection, you've put on a uniform, and you're another creature."

Heroism is very much like a transformation into another creature. It can be used, for instance, to make a dull political candidate more compelling, more adventurous. It can be a convenient rallying cry for those on both sides of a binary issue like gun control or abortion rights. But for the individual, this transformation creates a disconnect with the rest of society. Tim Hetherington, for example, felt an increasing frustration with people who didn't seem to get the intent of his very dangerous work. After his death, his friend Jeremiah Zagar tried to explain that frustration.

"Someone said, 'Diary is so beautiful.' No, it's not, it's the opposite of beautiful. Diary is about Tim trying to express that he is completely sucked dry by war—a shell of a human being. The end is a dude on the phone with the press, he can't explain anything of what he's seen. He's like, You have no fucking idea."

We as a society are routinely let down by our heroes. We expect them to continue to live lives unsullied by the taint of the quotidian. We don't expect that war heroes might suffer from guilt, or that an ordinary citizen might attempt to profit from sudden infamy and be left bereft when the cameras disappear. These are unrealistic and dangerous expectations, designed to fill the vacuum of a 24-hour news cycle hungry for the moment of glory and indifferent to the aftermath.