Thursday, March 19, 2009

We should sing a louder song for our heroes

Great deeds of courage are being performed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we are reluctant to celebrate acts of violence

One of the more extraordinary aspects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is the almost total absence of great names and great heroes to have emerged from the conflicts.

These wars have produced no swashbuckling, death-defying hero of the sort celebrated through centuries of British military history: no warrior of comparable renown to Lawrence of Arabia or Douglas Bader. We have no modern Achilles, no Lord Lovat, who led his commandos ashore on D-Day to the sound of bagpipes, and whom Churchill described as “the handsomest man who ever cut a throat”.

The battlefields have not produced a Colonel “H” Jones, the Parachute Regiment commander killed in the Falklands conflict. We have no modern equivalent of “Chinese” Gordon, cut down defending Khartoum, nor a Captain W.P.Neville, kicking a football into no man's land to start the Battle of the Somme, only to be killed before reaching the German wire.

The age of the military celebrity is dead and buried. This may reflect a gentler society, but it also represents a dramatic cultural shift that says much about modern attitudes to the military and our profound ambivalence about the real nature of war.

This dearth of publicly celebrated heroes is not for lack of courage. On the contrary, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated astonishing bravery, time and again. We just do not commemorate them as we once would have. The names and actions of modern warriors do not linger in the public consciousness. At most their deeds last a single news cycle. Most return home to complete anonymity.

Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2004 after he twice saved members of his unit from ambushes, and sustained serious head injuries. He is the most highly decorated British soldier of recent times, yet his is hardly a household name.

In June 1944, Stanley Hollis, VC, repeatedly charged the German machinegun posts on the Normandy beaches, armed only with a sten gun and hand grenades. His exploits were immediately celebrated, and are remembered still. I cannot think of a single individual who has been celebrated in a similar way in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The word “hero” is often overused in relation to the continuing wars, but usually it refers to individuals who have rescued others, survived horrific injuries or died. Those who fight and kill at extreme risk to themselves - which is what soldiers are primarily intended to do - are not remembered in quite the same way.

In classical mythology, the hero was a magical, god-like warrior capable of extraordinary feats of arms, impelled by a lust for glory. “Do you not see what a man I am, how huge, how splendid?” Achilles declared, according to Homer.

British hero worship reached almost ludicrous levels in Victorian times, with martial heroes and their (often exaggerated) achievements celebrated in poem, song, painting and statuary. Much of this was jingoistic propaganda. Even stunning military defeats such as the Charge of the Light Brigade were painted in heroic colours. The more enemies who were slaughtered and the worse the odds - consider the celebrated carnage at Rorke's Drift - the greater the victory in Victorian eyes.

Today our attitudes to battlefield valour are far more complex. Britain's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has been long, divisive and expensive. Popular acclaim for men and women fighting an unpopular war is understandably muted. More widely, as society has grown more pacific, we have become uncomfortable with the idea of elevating people to heroic status for acts of violence in distant lands. Celebrating battlefield heroics draws attention to the gory and horrifying nature of war, a side that the public would prefer not to see.

In modern military philosophy there is also a tendency to avoid citing brave individuals, when credit may be owed to a group. Britain is not alone in its reluctance to celebrate and advertise personal feats of arms. In the US too the hero tends to be a victim more often than a fighter. Pat Tillman, who sacrificed a lucrative American football contract to join up, was hailed as a hero when he was killed in 2004 (by friendly fire, it later transpired). His actions in combat were hardly mentioned.

Private Jessica Lynch was injured and captured by the Iraqis, released by special forces, decorated, fĂȘted and then made the subject of a television drama, all without firing a shot. Another woman soldier, Leigh Ann Hester, led a team of military police in a ferocious and unequal gun battle in 2005 that left 25 Iraqi insurgents dead. Sergeant Hester is almost unknown.

Society's reluctance to address the bloody reality of battlefield combat may reflect an admirable shrinking from violence, yet it contains a profound contradiction. We expect soldiers to fight and kill on our behalf, but offer scant public appreciation when they do so efficiently.

Britain should never return to the age of military hero worship, of glorified bloodshed, yet our squeamishness over recognising acts of aggressive military bravery is hypocritical - poor recompense for a grim job well done.

I am no supporter of either war, but surely the least debt we owe to our soldiers is to acknowledge the reality of what they have to do. Since 1991, the Pentagon has banned photographs of flag-draped coffins returning from war zones, as if death in combat was something to be hidden away, and not spoken of. Barack Obama is now preparing to overturn that ban, a long-overdue recognition that dying - like killing - is part of what soldiers are trained to do.

Some talk of the heroes of Basra and Helmand. But not enough.

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