The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern, by Tod Lindberg (Encounter, 240 pp., $23.99)
In The Heroic Heart, Tod Lindberg explores the evolution of the heroic ideal from the ancient world to today, examining how heroes shape politics and how the political world shapes heroism. Lindberg’s “classical heroic type” describes those rare individuals willing to risk death to fulfill their own inner sense of greatness. Historical and literary examples include Achilles, Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus. Political orders adjusted to such highly individualistic, destabilizing heroes by shifting their motivations from fighting for individual glory to fighting for a greater good. “The problem of the collision of heroism and politics found a path to resolution,” Lindberg writes, “when political authorities figured out how to put a hero to use in service of their ends.”
Civilized society evolved further, emerging into a new egalitarian political order that would eventually find no place for the classical hero. Egalitarianism “is in fact designed to prevent the emergence of such a character,” Lindberg writes, lest the next Alexander the Great emerge to restore anti-democratic autocracy. The tragedies of twentieth-century history also conspired against traditional heroism. Celebrating battlefield glory became less viable after the ghastly trench warfare of World War I. The individual soldier became an antihero, Lindberg says, and war-fighting became anti-glorious.
Antiheroic attitudes crescendoed after the Vietnam War and were captured most profoundly in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which, Lindberg notes, differs categorically from America’s other national war memorials in its sole focus on the 58,000 Americans who died in the conflict. The memorial “was conceived and executed as the twentieth-century backlash against heroism in its classical, slaying form reached its apogee in the modern world, a point from which it has not really descended: unglorious war as mainly, the death of the dead.”
More recently, the fierce backlash against the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (the “American Sniper”) exemplified this discrediting of the “slaying hero.” I devoted a chapter to Kyle in Valor: Unsung Heroes from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front. Kyle is perhaps the best example of a slaying hero in modern America; like the classical heroes Lindberg highlights, Kyle had no compunction about killing enemy forces, and he was remarkably good at it. Kyle’s clear moral conviction struck a nerve: while the film about his life was wildly successful among American moviegoers, it was also hated by many political and cultural elites, whose objections seemed to exemplify the shift that Lindberg chronicles.
The modern heroic ideal replaces the slaying hero with the individual whose higher purpose drives him to serve others—not battle or defeat them. The highest form of this heroism occurs when such service involves risking one’s own life. Lindberg points to the New York City firefighters who rushed into the World Trade Center on 9/11 and to humanitarian aid workers who travel to the world’s most dangerous places. Analyzing lists of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, Lindberg spots a trend: the percentage of citations that include a life-saving narrative has escalated markedly in the modern era. “The increasing emphasis on life-saving activity over time is so starkly apparent that it is tempting to conclude that no one will get the Congressional Medal of Honor any more simply for exacting a price on the enemy,” he writes. “Absent the saving function, the chance of a medal being awarded now seems vanishingly low.”
I saw the same trend in reader reactions to my book. While speaking before audiences about the nine heroes profiled in Valor, I noticed a clear difference in the responses to stories in which the hero killed enemy forces versus those in which the hero saved lives. The distinction was so sharp that I revised my talks to emphasize the saving narratives.
If the American military—the most powerful fighting force in the history of the world—reserves its highest honor not for killing the enemy but for saving lives, “then we have perhaps reached the point in the development of the modern world at which the modern, saving form of heroism has eclipsed the vestigial forms of classical heroism and their slaying ways for good,” Lindberg observes. And that raises a haunting question for the author: what if a slaying hero (or villain) arises outside of the modern egalitarian West? Considering the rise of ISIS, the assertiveness of Iran’s mullahs, and the belligerence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, those anti-Western heroes may have arrived already. “Do we,” Lindberg asks, “generous in spirit and reluctant to slay as we are, have the capacity and will to resist?”
Photo: U.S. Navy Seals in Afghanistan, including Congressional Medal of Honor recipient LT (SEAL) Michael P. Murphy (far right)