Death doesn't mean end for some heroes' stories


December 03, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The statue of Arthur "Bomber" Harris was defaced again recently, spattered with paint the color of blood which stained the statue and the plinth on which it stands in the plaza before St. Clement Dane's Church in the Strand.

The authorities had it cleaned up within a week.

Obviously, Sir Arthur was not everybody's hero, though he certainly was to the members of Bomber Command who paid the $200,000 to have the statue put up last May. They are the ones insulted by this.

It is doubtful the vandals were contemporaries of Harris, or understood the turbulent war years that brought forth such sanguinary men and made heroes out of some of them.

As with most countries that have gone to war a lot, Britain's military history is full of heroes. A few, such as Harris, remain controversial. Some are important only to historians, the passions of love and hate they generated having died with the generation that felt the effects of their work. Douglas Haig was one.

Haig sits upon his mount in Whitehall, near to Downing Street. He was the commander of the British army in France through most of World War I -- the Great War. It was said he never appreciated the new tactics of Germany's field grey army, or the lethal capabilities of the machine gun, and tens of thousands of his young countrymen died as a consequence.

But nobody defiles Field Marshal Haig's statue these days. Who might remember? Who, at least, with the youth and nimbleness to wield a can of spray paint and then run off into the night?

Not all dead British heroes are controversial, but there does seem at least a faint tendency here to exalt the greater failures. Take the Royal Geographic Society. During its history it has fostered men of stunning achievement; men such as Charles Darwin. But outside its headquarters near Hyde Park only two images adorn the walls: those of Robert Falcon Scott and David Livingstone.

Scott was a naval officer who entered into a race to the South Pole against the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1911. Amundsen won. Scott and four members of his party died on their return to camp in January 1912.

David Livingstone made major discoveries in Africa (the Zambezi River, Victoria Falls) but became more famous for having been "found" by Henry Morton Stanley. Actually, Livingstone was not lost when Stanley encountered him at Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika in October, 1871, just broke.

Once resupplied, he told Stanley he intended to follow the Lualaba River, which he thought would reach the Nile. That was his life's quest, but he died without achieving it.

Stanley followed the river for him and what he found was that Livingstone had been wrong: the Lualaba joined the Congo, not the Nile. This took him to the Atlantic, and thus Stanley became the first explorer to make the East-to-West trek across Africa.

Perhaps it is understandable that the Royal Geographic Society would honor Livingstone and Scott. It's not only the British who are fascinated by those who fail while attempting great things. Failure is the basis of nearly all heroic tragedy, the fall of the mighty. Great failure is tragic. Great success is, well, just success.

Consider E. H. Shackleton. He led an expedition to Antarctica in 1914 with the aim of marching straight across the southernmost continent. He, too, failed, but on an Homeric scale.

Shackleton's ship got crushed in the Weddell Sea, and the party was forced onto the ice where they spent the winter. Shackleton led his men 180 miles to Elephant Island. With a few companians in a lifeboat he crossed 800 miles of ocean to South Georgia Island, from where he effected the rescue of his men. The achievement? Everybody survived.

What kind of hero was Bomber Harris? A great failure or a squalid success? His policy of carpet-bombing German cities during the war with the deliberate aim of killing civilians, his partisans argue, shortened the war. His enemies dispute that. Not only did it not, they say, but the killing was as inhuman as the atrocities of the Nazis.

Unlike Douglas Haig, Harris isn't really dead yet, and won't be so long as there are people alive who were on the receiving end of his strategies, such as those who, during the Queen's recent visit to Dresden, received her with eggs.

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