Some Thoughts on Heroism

Image: Mal Booth

Military veteran Mike Stajura has a plea. “On Memorial Day, when our thoughts will be with our fallen brothers and sisters,” he writes at Zócalo Public Square, “I ask you to reconsider excessive use of the word ‘hero.’” Soldiers know you mean well, says Stajura, but they don’t feel comfortable with it.

“Professionals in this business know that when the American soldier must rely on heroism, it means that something has gone very wrong in the planning and execution of a mission,” he explains. “Soldiers train, plan and fight in a way that takes heroism out of the equation.” If you’re striving to be a hero in a war setting, you’re asking to get yourself killed.

For most service members and veterans, what inspires them is a sense of mission and not a desire to be covered in medals. “We struggle our best to live to a high standard, but we’re very much human,” Stajura writes. “Some of us are proud of our service, and some of us are trying to overcome aspects of it, but we’re neither heroes nor victims. All of us understand that we were in service to something greater than ourselves.”

Peter Drucker would have admired such sentiments. Drucker found the ideal of what he called the “Heroic Man” to be a dangerous one that had managed in the 1930s to bewitch many people, even nations. “If the individual finds his satisfaction and his fulfillment in suicide, then society can have no meaning at all,” he wrote in The End of Economic Man. “And anarchy must appear to be the only legitimate form of social existence.”

In Landmarks of Tomorrow, published in 1959, Drucker wrote that the era—one of recent war, slave labor and slaughter—called for those who enjoyed the blessings of peace to live with a quiet greatness. A person should avoid seeking out heroism and instead try to play what Drucker called a “prosaic” role, demonstrating compassion and good citizenship and refusing to succumb to moral numbness by stepping up and taking responsibility.

In this way, Drucker wrote, “Everyone must be ready to take over alone and without notice, and show himself saint or hero, villain or coward.”

We wish our readers a Memorial Day of quiet and gratitude, and may all of us one day have the luxury of roles that are prosaic.