As a fond reader of military history, the subject of heroism is one that I often have occasion to ponder . Our society, and contemporary historians and other writers in general, tend to have two aspects of revisionism when it comes to heroes. On the one hand, there is a tendency to seek to find fault with those who have been enshrined in marble, and then there is the tendency to wish to build heroes out of people who have been ignored or neglected. This can be a complicated matter, as there is often something generally heroic about many people whose likeness appears in marble, and there is also generally a reason why others have been neglected, even if unjustly. What tends to make this particular matter more difficult is that existing heroes are subject to great amounts of scrutiny to tear them down, while others are treated with an absence of scrutiny in order to build them up.
For example, I recently finished reading a book about Lt. Col. James Cushing, an obscure American miner whose grave in the Philippines is unknown and whose heroism in leading the Cebu guerrillas against the Japanese has been entirely forgotten in his adopted homeland. To be sure, finding and sending the Japanese naval war plans for 1944 was a great coup, worthy of statues and street names and marble statues, as was his work in killing, wounding, and capturing around ten thousand Japanese occupation troops during the course of World War II despite very little and very late support from McArthur and Southeast Asian command. Yet it is that sense of distance and isolation from the political sphere, and the way that Cushing’s intelligence work was kept quiet, despite the real appreciation of Allied leadership, that led in large part to Cushing’s lack of fame in the United States. Additionally, his identity as American, even if he was half-Mexican with a Filipino wife, led him to be forgotten in the Philippines after independence, when the Philippines wanted (quite sensibly) to focus on their own heroes, and had an ambivalent feeling towards any heroism on the part of Americans in their country while it was still under American imperial rule. This does not mean that the reasons for neglecting to honor a genuine hero were enough, but that the reasons can be understood.
During most of my childhood, I grew up in the rural South in central Florida. As a somewhat loudmouthed Yankee-born child with a high degree of disapproval of the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, I was not popular with many of my neighbors growing up for entirely understandable reasons. Being an obnoxious loudmouth who is vocally critical of the dominant culture of one’s neighborhood is generally a speedy and sure route to social isolation, after all. Prior generations of Southerners put their heroes in marble and carved them on the side of Georgia mountains. To be sure, many of those heroes and the dishonorable cause for which fought, are not heroes to many people today. Not only is the monumental honoring of such people troubling to many, and a reminder of historical abuses, but such matters have become an open embarrassment to a culture that is increasingly hostile to that particular historical sin, one which was once pandered by a majority of the country and overlooked and ignored by many more. Yet, no matter how dishonorable their cause, or how embarrassing it is to see statues and other historical artifacts of that wicked regime, it is immensely dangerous to drive it entirely underground through social hostility, as it is easier to deal with matters that are an open concern where one can communicate than it is to deal with those matters that are hidden underground, and that poison the feeling of community among us because such matters are considered unacceptable for polite conversation. The more that has to be concealed about our behavior and our feelings and our beliefs for fear of social and criminal repercussions, the more our social interactions become hollow and without genuine warmth and depth.
In ancient Greece, the career of one Alcibiades was permanently ruined by the defacing of statues. To be sure, he was a talented young man, a protege of Socrates himself, and a young man of elite aristocratic heritage. Unfortunately, he was also a man of reckless ambition with a deeply troubling lack of moral character, which led him to flit from Athenian defender to Spartan and Persian courtier and back to Athenian leader with alarming ease. Truly no one who turned coat as often as he did could be a man of deep loyalty and convictions to anything but his own well-being. Alcibiades wanted to do deeds that would earn him a place in marble, yet his pattern of dishonor and disloyalty meant that no one trusted him enough to consider him heroic. Did they respect his talent? Absolutely. Did they grudgingly accept his help, when offered, despite their knowledge that it would not be loyal and true, because he was so conspicuously talented? Yes, indeed, but talent does not make one a hero, or make one trusted, even if it provides opportunities for service for merely self-interested reasons. So, while Alcibiades ended up with his chapter in Plutarch’s Lives, he was not a hero, but rather a cautionary tale for what happens when ambition is present apart from virtue, and how those who are widely thought to deface statues do not tend to be the best models for being honored by statues.
By the time someone’s deeds have merited a statue, their lives have usually ended, and generations may have gone by before we recognize the repercussions of one’s deeds or see someone as a model so worthy of emulation that it deserves to be preserved in a public and monumental fashion. When we see a life as worthy of emulation, there is a tension involved. For one, such a life is deemed to have relevance for the present period, because it models some sort of transcendent and universal quality, be it courage or honor or integrity or justice or wisdom. Yet such a life, by necessity, will involve having lived in another time, with thoughts and beliefs and manners of expression and worldviews that are at least somewhat out of date, if not outright embarrassing. It is unjust to judge those in the past by the standard of the present, but at times, as is the case with the examples of Confederate military leaders or ancient political leaders like Alcibiades, we are fortunate enough to know that they were weighed in the balance and found wanting by the standards of their own time. We need not judge the people of the past by our anachronistic standards, but rather we ought to do justice to the understanding of morality and decency by the people of the past through their own words and actions. At the very least, it might make us more humble about those who we wish to memorialize, and those with whom we find fault. In our present day and age, more humility is certainly a good thing, for someday we too will be subject to the verdict of history, and what we believe and how we behave may be every bit as embarrassing to us as the sins of past generations which we often uncharitably use to club others over the head. None of us is immune to the scourge of revisionist history, so may we honor those who have been neglected, and not be in a hurry to set a standard of behavior that will be all too easily used against us.
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