Of all the quotes I have come across on heroes and heroism, there’s one by Jonathan Swift, the Anglo-Irish satirist, which has stuck with me for many years because it pronounces with genuine accuracy how we in America seem to define or view as a hero… “Whoever excels in what we prize appears a hero in our eyes.” And what we prize, more often than not, is not something virtuous and unselfish, but quite the opposite.
It takes a once in a blue moon exposure of fraud and deceit by someone widely known, for the American public to come to terms, if only for a very short period, with our shallow standards for heroism. And as for villains, it’s rare in this land of exceptionalism for the citizenry to admit we produce them, and never in the high numbers or in the high criminality that befit them.
This past week, a well performed effort in investigative reporting by TV’s Sixty Minutes gave us one of those rare journalistic treats. The debunking of one of those persons bigger than life, Greg Mortenson, might seem sad to some people but it is a reminder to us all of the challenges that test our character and lift man to a status of demigod or hero. This author, humanitarian and Director of Central Asia Institute is shown as a mere human carrying a mixed bag of good deeds and fraudulent ones; but whatever his personal balance sheet turns out to be, he is certainly far, very far from being a role model, much less a hero.
Trivial and significant lies – and Mortenson fabricated them in both categories – to promote oneself in the pursuit of wealth is as American as apple pie, the Stars & Stripes and motherhood. Greed has never quite made it in this nation as a vice, its virtuosity acknowledged as “a good thing,” not just by Martha Stewart, or Ronald Reagan, but by most everyone. But no matter what camera angle we take, we must include in the picture everything that appears on stage. As great as the advocacy for educating young women is, such lofty design must not be intertwined with lies and used as a mantle for self-promotion and personal gratification; and that’s what Mr. Mortenson apparently did.
Greg Mortenson has been amply rewarded for his mercenary efforts, and given exalted humanitarian status in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such high esteem has been bestowed as well by the military and the media in the US, not to forget his nomination in 2009 and 2010 for the Nobel Peace Prize by several members of the US Congress.
In America we have rigorous licensing requirements to practice all professions and most trades, yet we lack a pre-canonization process to test the qualifications of those to be added to the rolls of heroes, humanitarians or even candidates for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Thus, it should come as no surprise that we sometimes honor those whose glory is but an apparition of yet undiscovered deceitful-crock.
For reasons that have always escaped me, even some professions are given a blanket hero denomination for the membership at large; and most actions those members take in the line of duty, since there is life-threatening risk involved, become “heroic acts.” I am referring, of course, to the police and firefighting contingents in our communities. And, at an even grander scale, to the three million members of our volunteer military, the defenders of the corporate empire, who are promoted to us as defenders of “our freedoms”… and to the more skeptical among us, as defenders of “our way of life.” Certainly the latter makes a lot more sense, for our way of life is very intimately tied to the success of Corporate America, but not our personal freedoms.
And from heroes we go to villains, this time drawing them from the very same blanket group dabbed as heroes: the men and women in uniform defending the empire. And no greater villains than those people who blindly follow orders without examining their consciences, cutting lives as if they weren’t members of the human race. It has been done in instance after instance, although only a few cases have acquired notoriety, such as the massacre of 347-504 (depending on whether it’s “our” count or “theirs”) unarmed old men, women and children at MyLai (Vietnam) in 1968; or the equally brutal assassination of 24 Iraqis at Haditha (Iraq) in 2005.
Justice exacted for mega-crime at MyLai, involving 26 life-mowers and probably twice as many cover-up patriots, was summed up in 3 ½ years of house arrest for the infamous Lt. Calley, for many still a hero for having done away with so many “gooks.” As for Haditha, marine perpetrators, as well as those involved in their cover-up, have been exonerated or not charged; just one marine remains to be tried – and only on manslaughter charges. Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich’s trial, after postponements, is now scheduled for June 27, 2011. It’s unlikely that he will spend time in prison; after all, he is this generation’s version of Lt. Calley.
There will always be heroes and villains (or criminals) in the world… and there will always be our version of heroes and villains in the United States. Shouldn’t the standard for all mankind be the same?
Ben Tanosborn is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ben’s website: www.tanosborn.com