Many countries have an annual Memorial Day – to remember all those who died in (military) service to their nation. In the United States, the last Monday of May is a Federal holiday to honor those who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Memorial Day began as an annual Decoration Day – for visiting and decorating the graves of (Union) soldiers who died in the War Between the States. The day was later renamed Memorial Day to include and honor all Americans who have died in all wars.
When Americans speak of their war dead, particularly on Memorial Day, they are often referred to as heroes – as are also sometimes all who serve(d) in the United States Armed Forces, living or dead, during times of war or peace.
The word hero comes from Greek – referring to a protector or defender, who served, preserved, safeguarded, and saved (those watched over). Although originally and most often associated with warriors and martial courage, the term heroism later extended to more general moral excellence – and to those who, in the face of danger and adversity, or from some position of weakness and disadvantage, display courage and self-sacrifice for some greater good.
The principal character in a story is often thought of as the hero (or heroine). Those who are known for performing brave deeds or heroic acts, displaying extraordinary strength, courage, or ability, or possessing superior qualities in any field, are often admired, celebrated, and regarded by others as a model or ideal. Many myths about heroes and their exploits portray them as having godlike prowess and beneficence and sometimes attribute it to them being the offspring of a mortal and a god, and thus immortal demigods. Ancient religious cults were sometimes based upon some hero’s presumed divinity.
According to Joseph Campbell, important myths from around the world which have survived for thousands of years all share a fundamental story structure.
- “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.”
In laying out the monomyth, Campbell describes a number of stages or steps along this journey. The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure). If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world, the hero must face tasks and trials (a road of trials), and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift (the goal or “boon”), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge. The hero must then decide whether or not to return with this boon (the return to the ordinary world), often facing challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon).
Very few myths contain all of these stages. Some myths contain many of the stages, while others contain only a few. Some myths may focus on only one of the stages, while others may deal with the stages in a somewhat different order. The stages may be organized in a number of ways, including division into three sections: Departure (sometimes called Separation), Initiation and Return. Departure deals with the hero venturing forth on a quest, Initiation deals with the hero’s adventures along the way, and Return deals with the hero’s return home with knowledge and powers acquired on the journey.
Interestingly, the first Hero (in Greek mythology) was not male, but female. A mythical priestess – not to be confused with the Hera, goddess of women, marriage and childbirth, and queen of Olympian deities, Hero was a priestess of Aphrodite (Greek goddess of love), at Sestos, a town on the Hellespont (now Dardanelles). Hero was loved by Leander, a youth who lived at Abydos, a town on the Asian side of the channel. They could not marry because Hero was bound by a vow of chastity, and so every night Leander swam from Asia to Europe, guided by a lamp in Hero’s tower. One stormy night a high wind extinguished the beacon, and Leander was drowned. His body was washed ashore beneath Hero’s tower; in her grief, she threw herself into the sea.
In the film, The Guardian, the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer portrayed by Kevin Costner is asked how many he saved. What’s his “real number”? He replies that the number of people he lost is the only number he kept track of.
Most real heroes are humble, rather than proud or arrogant. Most usually do not consider themselves to be heroes – and are among the first to say so. “True humility” is distinctly different from “false humility” and deprecation of one’s own sanctity, gifts, talents, and accomplishments. Heroes do not do what they do for the sake of receiving praise or adulation from others. Humility is not thinking less of oneself; it is thinking of oneself less.
The words humble and humility come from French are related to the word humus. Humility is the quality of being modest and respectful, grounded and down to earth, unpretentious and unassuming. Humility is often considered a virtue. Humiliation is not. Heroes are usually quite conscious of their failings.
There is a big difference between a hero’s humility and anyone else’s desire to humble or humiliate. Anyone who attempts to lower, degrade, or make others feel or appear inadequate or unworthy, especially in public, is not heroic. Neither are those who seek to shame others – even their enemies.
Simply serving (in the military) or dying (while at war) does not necessarily make anyone a hero – yet how a nation regards, remembers, and honors those who serve(d) and those who died doing so matters. Memorial Day is a day for the living – to both remember and honor those who no longer are – as a result of their (military) service – and for making memories matter. Old soldiers never die; young ones do. Don’t be a reason!
One of the best ways for the lives of those lost to not have been in vain is prevent others from dying. Supporting our troops includes helping bring them home – alive. We must neither idolize nor ignore them. Those who serve(d) society need more than acknowledgement, admiration, or appreciation – for their lives to matter. The living, and in particular, the wounded, need new opportunities to serve society – and more people to join them in doing so.
This We’ll Defend is the official motto of the United States Army. Not for self, but country, the United States Navy has no official motto and simply relies on Honor, Courage, and Commitment – as does the Always Faithful (Gung Ho) United States Marine Corps. The United States Coast Guard is Always Ready – as is the National Guard. The United States Air Force promises to Aim High – Fly, Fight, and Win. To liberate the oppressed, U.S Army Special Forces and U.S. Navy SEALs carry on knowing that the only easy day was yesterday.
U.S. Army medevac helicopter pilots believe that to fly well is to save lives. U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers and U.S. Air Force Pararescue Jumpers often go where others dare not so That Others May Live. United States Navy Hospital Corpsmen serving alongside Marines are among the most decorated servicemen in the United States Armed Forces – and quite a few have been awarded the Medal of Honor – usually for no man left behind. Uncommon valor is a common virtue – not just among United States Marines, but among many serving in our Armed Forces seeking to do what they believe is right, to make both themselves and the world better in some way, and to do what they can to protect and defend others. No matter how much death and/or destruction war may entail, for there to be a future for anyone, the focus must always be on life – and never forgetting the dead and (still) wounded.
Dead or alive, the men and women who serve(d) in our Armed Forces may not all be heroes – but they all do deserve respect. The best way to show anything is with actions and behavior. Heroism is more than simply altruism or sacrifice – and there are opportunities for everyone to be someone else’s hero. The world needs heroes more than ever. It is not more people dying, but more people living, sharing, helping, and inspiring others with their own time of the heart. The best MYTH is one that helps Make Yourself The Hero.
That’s my perspective. What’s yours?
© 2012 – 2015, Oren Pardes. All rights reserved.