Beyond the Hero Syndrome


With apologies to the authors of the Old Testament, the popular myths of war heroes could well have started with the sacking of Troy, as recorded by Homer circa 850 BC. But in the telling of the Greek poets, heroes weren’t exactly winners. The higher they went, the deeper they fell. However, sometime between then and the mid-twentieth century, the tragedy that clung like a gray ghost to military heroes in the Western tradition withered away. Today there’s hardly an ironic note, much less a tragic one, to be found in accounts of the so-called war on terror. Counterinsurgency does not lend itself to Homeric heroes. Even when Julius Caesar paraded Vercingetorix, the captured leader of the Gauls, through Rome in a victory celebration, everybody knew something bad was going to happen. In today’s counter-insurgency engagements, there are no Berlins or Tokyos to be sacked. Victories are short, dirty, ambiguous, morally questionable, and often inconsequential. From the muck of the war on terror, heroes have to be invented. Take, for example, reports on the last breaths of Osama bin Laden.

more from Jeff Stein at Bookforum here.