Thursday, May 29, 2008

Lowering the bar at 100 km/h

Last night I was on the 401, driving past those signs that now declare it the "Highway of Heroes". I have never liked that designation. I object to it for a number of reasons. First of all, I don't care for the intrusion of militarism into our casual, everyday lives. I think it sends the wrong message. We're living in the nuclear age. The military is necessary evil that I feel is put to its best uses when it's at home, looking after our interests here, or perhaps maintaining a presence on the soil of our legal treaty allies, where we are completely welcome, as a show of solidarity and support. But mostly, I object to it because I feel it cheapens the word "hero". I'm sorry, but I don't consider someone a hero just because he died in a uniform overseas. That's unfortunate, but not necessarily heroic. That idea would anger a lot of people, but it's just because their patriotism blinds them to the actualities of it. To illustrate the point, I would remark that people knowingly take risks doing their jobs every day, but we don't think of them as heroes. Millions of people risk their lives daily on our highways, getting to and from work to do the things that, in the own small ways, contribute to the functioning of our society. And every day, a handful of them don't make it. Accidents happen, and they never get to go home again. But we don't call them heroes.

Likewise, a young man who puts on the uniform is extremely unlikely to face combat, much less die in it, and we all know that. The odds are vastly greater that he (or she, forgive me) will spend a few years fixing equipment, learning to shoot, marching, taking a turn peeling spuds, and maybe helping out when a natural disaster occurs somewhere in the country, or another country. The odds against any particular person in uniform ending up in combat or dying in it are extremely high. But even when it happens, is that necessarily the making of hero? Part of the job of a soldier, should it come to that, is to engage in combat at the risk of life and limb. But likewise, part of the job of just about any of the rest of us is to risk smashing into a bridge abutment or being t-boned by someone running a red light. It happens. It's part of the job. And let's be honest... an awful lot of the time, we're talking about guys who were in jeeps that overturned, or helicopters that crashed, or who stepped on a land mine or set off a booby trap (just as hundreds of kids do every year in the countries we "helped" in the past, but no one calls them heroes... no, they're at best "victims", and at worst, "collateral damages"). As unfortunate as that is, is it right to water down the word "hero" to apply to that?

My idea of a hero tends to focus on fire fighters. Every time they answer the call, they're at risk. And every time, it's about saving lives and property. It's not occasional, it's not a couple of times in the course of a career as it typically is for soldiers or police, it's pretty much every day. That's more in keeping with the idea of a hero to me.

I thought about it last night... what is a hero? To me, a hero is someone who, at clear and obvious risk to him or herself, does something far above and beyond what would ordinarily be expected of a person in that situation. We know what a hero really is; a hero is someone so bold and brave that he wins the Victoria Cross, or the Legion of Honour. A hero is someone who braves a burning car to save people, especially strangers, for example. I once read about a German pilot in World War II whose stricken plane was about to hit a school in France. Rather than bail out and save himself, he rode the stick down to avoid the school, and perished rather than sacrifice all those children. I look at myself and as much as I'd like to think I'd be that brave and that selfless, I strongly suspect I'd hit the silk and just hope really hard my plane missed the school. I'm not a hero. At best, I'm ordinary. And, frankly, I think so are most of the soldiers who come home to us in boxes from overseas. Unfortunate, ordinary men and women — admittedly doing a tough job, but not necessarily heroes.

No, we need to reserve that word for the truly exceptional. This... this is a hero. This is a tale of real heroism in my book.

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