Monday, December 10, 2012

Lots of Heroes

Some people observe moral decline in some aspects of American society, and conclude that part of the problem is that we don't have enough heroes. This is disputable. It is quite possible to argue that America has many heroes, both in the past and in the present.

Of course, a definition is in order. We aren't talking about the superheroes of comic books and movies with their supernatural powers - Superman, Spiderman, etc. To borrow a definition from a dictionary, we're using 'hero' in the sense of someone "who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities" or more simply "who is typically identified with good qualities."

America has many heroes. Other nations do as well - take your choice: China, Germany, Poland, Iceland, Australia, etc. America has no monopoly on virtue. Again, a definition will clarify: although we need not demand complete agreement on virtue, a consensus reveals that definitions will include, by way of example, chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility, prudence, justice, restraint, courage, faith, hope, and love.

But one definition in turn demands another - the 'love' which is a virtue is no mere emotional attraction, but rather a selfless commitment to do what is good for another, even at one's own cost: altruism.

But the abstract discussion of heroes and virtues, while central to philosophies like Aristotelianism and Scholasticism, is almost irrelevant to history. In history, it is the concrete, specific, and detailed study of individual heroes which interests us. For example, the National Review offers us the obituaries of two heroes:

As the world that was forged at Guadalcanal, Stalingrad, Normandy, and Hiroshima endures through each decade's challenges, the band of men who fought and won World War II continues to dwindle in numbers, though not in glory. Last month brought the passing of Albert Brown, America's oldest WWII vet, who survived the Bataan Death March to find that it was just the beginning. During his three years in captivity, Brown endured constant beatings as his six-foot frame wasted away to 90 pounds. After liberation, he spent two years in an Army hospital; unable to work at his pre-war trade of dentistry, be became prosperous in California real estate. Dead at 105. R.I.P. Also leaving us was Charles Murray, Jr., a Medal of Honor recipient. At one desperate juncture during the Battle of the Bulge, he encountered a group of 200 German troops who had pinned down an American battalion. Murray tried to call in air support, but when his radio went dead, he single-handedly fought off the entire detachment - killing 20, capturing ten, wounding many others, and taking shrapnel in his legs from a grenade before reinforcements arrived. Dead at 89. R.I.P.

It is in studying such heroes that we learn about heroism. These heroes were young - many WWII heroes were between the ages of 18 and 22 - but heroes can be of any age. These high-profile examples are properly understood when we see that the same heroism is at work in everyday examples: being a good mother or a good father is a heroic act, a deed often spanning decades. Being a good friend is heroic; donating to charities is heroic. Having a mutually supportive, respectful, and affectionate marriage over the decades is heroic.

Examining and understanding history's heroes is - in an overused word - inspirational. The knowledge of these events has the emotional power to encourage us in our individual lives - encourages us to heroism. A periodical titled Historical Footnotes relates the events surrounding

a navy chaplain who was wounded at Pearl Harbor and then was in the Tokyo Bay area at the end of World War II. His experiences epitomize the danger chaplains can be in while ministering to the soldiers and sailors in the military.

Two elements of heroism can be found here. First, that the chaplain persevered: wounded, he returned to duty. Second, altruism: his mission was to serve his comrades. His name was Raymond Charles Hohenstein; his is not one of the famous names in history books.

Chaplain Hohenstein began his service stationed on the USS Boise from 1940 to 1941, when he left to serve on the USS California. He was stationed on the USS California at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, on that fateful day in December 1941 when Japan attacked and the war began for the United States.
Charles Hohenstein worked to help the sailors aboard the ship when it was attacked. First looking for gas masks to help them breathe, then helping to evacuate them to safety. Even after he was wounded, he continued to find ways to encourage the sailors.

The USS California was severely damaged and eventually sank. Chaplain Hohenstein's injuries consisted of flash burns to the face, scalp, and right arm. He was awarded the Purple Heart in 1943 for wounds received at the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was the first living navy chaplain to receive the award.

After recovering from his wounds, he returned to active duty. Providence can be symbolic, and he who was wounded at the very beginning of the Pacific war was present at its very end.

Chaplain Hohenstein went on to serve at the Submarine Base at Pearl Harbor, the Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Illinois, the Naval Operating Base in Key West, Florida, and as senior chaplain on the USS Wisconsin during World War II. He served on the USS Wisconsin from 1944 to 1946; this service included being ashore in the Tokyo Bay area on September 2, 1945, when Japan officially surrendered. He was the only navy chaplain to be present at both the beginning and end of the war with Japan.

Our problem is not that there are too few heroes. There are many. Our problem may be that we are not studying our heroes - not learning about their lives and actions - and therefore denying ourselves the opportunity to be inspired by them.

Studying heroes requires sober realism. Heroes are not perfect; they have their flaws and failings. Heroes come in all races, languages, cultures and nationalities; American cannot claim a monopoly on heroism. But studying heroes will not only inspire us, but it will also - through the analysis of many examples - crystalize our understanding of virtue and help to recognize the the right thing to do.