Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Heroism 101: What It Is, What It Isn’t

The demise of Tiger Woods as a “sports hero” recalls the similar dismay attending O.J. Simpson’s tumble from grace in 1994. While there’s worlds of difference between a serial philanderer and an accused murderer, both address the American public’s growing inability to distinguish between heroism and celebrity.

For starters, there’s no such thing as a sports hero, and there never was. After 61 years on Planet Earth and a couple of dozen Tailhook reunions, I know a hero when I see one. But first let’s define out terms.

The American Heritage Dictionary: “A man noted for feats of courageous nobility of purpose, esp. one who has risked or sacrificed his life.”

Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “Any man admired for his courage, nobility or exploits, especially in war.”

Genuine heroism involves sublime accomplishment at risk of one’s life. Unless the penalty for failure in an endeavor involves death, dismemberment or torture, we should call it something else, because it is not heroism.

Having known a dozen or so Medal of Honor recipients, I realize that there are degrees of heroism. The individual who finds satisfaction in risk taking, or even enjoys it, surely may be a hero. But he is less heroic than someone who conquers his fear and, with a feeling of dread, accomplishes the same feat. A few personal examples:

Two friends of mine—Bob and Steve—drove their 140-knot helicopters into the teeth of North Vietnam’s air defense network to rescue downed aviators in Haiphong Harbor.

Another friend—Jim—not only survived seven years of torturous extortion as a POW in Hanoi, but emerged with his self-respect intact.

I won’t even attempt to mention the fighter pilots, especially of the 1942 era. They repeatedly engaged in aerial combat, handicapped by inferior equipment or lopsided odds, or both.

However, heroism is not limited to the profession of arms. Consider John, an eastern Oregon deputy sheriff who twice entered a burning house, alone, to retrieve the occupant who had collapsed from smoke inhalation.

The point is this: Every one of those men is a genuine hero. Had they failed in their efforts, they would have died or suffered other extreme consequences. That, by definition, is what makes them heroes.

And while we’re at it, let’s consider the more passive kind of heroism inherent in tailhook aviation. I refer to naval flight officers who willingly put their one and only lives in the hands of often younger, less mature pilots—not once or twice but hundreds of times. And I will remind sportscasters of the teenagers who comprise those on the flight deck, “the gang on the roof.” In one of the most lethal working environments on earth, the aircraft handlers, fixers and “shooters” whose average age runs around 20 accept death or maiming as the penalty for one second’s inattention.

But none of those fliers or flight deck personnel regard themselves as heroic. They consider the enormous risks of their calling as merely routine. That attitude in itself is heroic.

Among my naval aviation friends, four carry lasting reminders of the risk inherent to their calling. One lost his right arm, another lost an eye, one is permanently crippled and the fourth cannot use his right hand. (The F-8 Crusader, though one of the finest fighters ever, was terribly unforgiving.) Yet none of them has ever uttered one syllable of self pity. Contrast that with the professional victims of our society who make careers out of their misfortune.

To label any athlete as “heroic” is to dilute the meaning of the term and to insult the genuine heroes. O.J. was certainly a fabulous running back; I saw him play Oregon State in 1967 when the Beavers defeated USC. Later, he enhanced his reputation with more gridiron “heroics.” But he was extremely well paid and cared for. The cost of failure was trivial; it merely meant his team didn’t make the playoffs that year.

By contrast, in Navy Air the cost of failure is permanent, irrevocable. The “routine” of seabased aviation is laced with risk in a manner completely unknown to surface and submarine operations. From startup to shutdown the potential for disaster is unremitting for some or all of those involved—all the time. Ships tend to float perpetually. Aircraft will not fly indefinitely.

At some point, somebody is bound to ask, “But what about moral courage?” Well, what about it?

Let’s briefly consider the relative scale. In the nine-year outrage the world now knows as “Tailhook” we witnessed the near-total collapse of moral courage in the nation’s civilian and uniformed leadership, from the White House downward. Men who had regularly demonstrated physical courage in the course of their naval careers were unable to meet the same standard when faced with political adversity. It was far-far easier to scapegoat a civilian-run organization that never had authority over military personnel than to hold the suits and stars accountable.

Therefore, it may be true that moral courage is rarer than the physical variety. But what does that say about the mettle of individuals and institutions? What is it that turns operational heroes into Beltway sheep? And more to the point, what does the current crop of ordinary heroes make of their superiors who today burn incense at the altar of political correctness rather than be accused of “racial profiling” toward terrorists?

However you answer that question, I think that everyone in the business will make one plea: From now on, can we please have some perspective in our definition of heroes?