Why do we make heroes of people doing their jobs?

April 19, 2001|By Gordon Livingston

WE APPEAR to be so short of heroes these days that we manufacture them at every opportunity. The way in which our Navy airmen were welcomed home from their 11-day detainment in China is the latest case, but the lionization of anyone publicly displaying competence seems to be increasing.

It used to be that courage required two things: risk and choice.

One can argue that, by joining the military, a person exercises a choice to tolerate a level of danger beyond what is usual in civilian life. Realistically, though, the informed decision to put on a uniform is not in itself usually considered heroic.

When something untoward happens, however, say an incautious Chinese pilot, out come the flags and trumpets. (Not to be outdone, the Chinese have described their aggressively incompetent fighter pilot -- now dead -- as a "revolutionary martyr." They must be short of heroes, too.)

The return of our detainees was scripted to evoke memories of the arrival of the POWs at the end of the Vietnam War -- right down to family members taking turns rushing into the arms of the freed airmen. (Were we supposed to think, "My God, these men haven't seen their children for two weeks"?)

The orchestration of these events was reminiscent of the parade at the end of the Persian Gulf war, meant to echo the victory marches of American troops at the end of World War II. The difference between 100 hours and four years of fighting robbed the imitation of its power.

Maybe it just makes us feel better about ourselves to imagine that we care more about our own Americans than others in the world. The recent deaths in Vietnam of seven Americans on an MIA search team is a reminder of a distant conflict where tragic absurdity was the norm. To die searching for bone fragments may be the ultimate irony. Perhaps only the futility of their mission (or our long embarrassment about that war) prevented them from being labeled heroic as well.

So what is the difference between being unlucky and being courageous? And why do we seem to have such trouble distinguishing between the two? Is a mother heroic who runs into a burning building to save her child, or should we wonder at a mother who wouldn't? And what of a pilot who does an exceptional job of dealing with an emergency? He had no choice, but does he get a medal for not panicking?

Our culture of celebrity worship has lowered our standards for what constitutes both accomplishment and virtue.

We admire the people who entertain us despite their evident flaws. They are, in general, an extraordinarily self-indulgent lot who appear to have trouble committing themselves to other people or to any cause outside their own aggrandizement. They are, of course, good at pretending to be someone else, which is, after all, their jobs. And they have what we covet: wealth and beauty. It's understandably confusing -- though endlessly fascinating -- when they turn out to be so fallible.

And when a celebrity meets an untimely end it provokes an outpouring of what might be called cheap grief. Such events as the deaths of Princess Diana or John F. Kennedy Jr. allow people who didn't know them to pile flowers and weep copiously without the lasting sorrow and sense of amputation that is the lot of those who have lost someone they love.

Go to a Compassionate Friends meeting sometime and watch bereaved parents speak with each other about the deaths of their children. Compare the depth and duration of their grief with what most people feel a month or a year after a celebrity dies.

So perhaps that's what all these festivals of "heroism" are about. We long to experience strong emotion and will seize any opportunity to do so, even at the risk of applauding those whose sacrifice is small.

And if the objects of our adulation declare themselves unworthy ("We were just doing our jobs."), well, that's good old American modesty for you. It's also the truth.

Gordon Livingston, a Vietnam War veteran, is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.

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