An adage, frequently attributed to Winston Churchill, says, “The victors write the history books.” In other words, the history we know is the historical narrative handed down to us by the winners of history’s struggles – not necessarily the fact-based account. Suppose the Nazis had won World War II. In that case, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt might be viewed as the epitome of evil in our historical frameworks and Hitler as the sacrificial leader. Thankfully, that is not the case.
But if the victors write history, how has that impacted our understanding of historical heroes and heroism today. Years ago, I remember watching the Gary Cooper classic Sergeant York. The movie was released in 1941, coincidentally during the same period that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The film tells the true-life story of Alvin C. York, the most decorated US soldier to fight in World War I. According to the movie’s story, York was a conscientious objector at the outbreak of World War I. Although raised in the mountains of Appalachia as a skilled marksman with a rifle, York could not reconcile his Christian faith that said he could not kill his fellow man with the call for war as American soldiers crossed the Atlantic to fight the Germans in World War I. A crisis of faith and duty was ultimately resolved when York read Jesus’s words, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” York joined the army and won the Medal of Honor after killing 25 enemy soldiers and capturing 132 prisoners in a single engagement.
The movie Sergeant York pushed all the right buttons. Bravery, faith, self-sacrifice, and even destiny. My perspective watching the film as a young boy must not have been too far removed from the viewpoint of those who filled the theaters to make it the most popular film in 1941. But is that the true story? Are the lessons of Sergeant York instructive to what makes a hero, or was it a story that promotes patriotic dogma that perpetuates wars? Is Sergeant York simply the story told by the victors?
When World I broke out, more than 5,000 American individuals refused to fight on the grounds of conscientious objections. These included those who held to religious convictions of the Amish, Quakers, Mennonites, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, to name a few. Many of these conscientious objectors were court-martialed. Some were imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth and Alcatraz. At least 27 of America’s conscientious objectors died while imprisoned. These were hidden lives, names we do not know, lives we have never heard of, but they sacrificed for what they believed in, some paying the ultimate price. Their beliefs were not in line with the agendas of their countrymen, but it was a high ideal that makes humanity better.
What makes a hero? Is it the way their stories are told or the fact that their stores are told at all? Or is the true nature of heroism completely detached from memorials and popular sentiment.
I contend the true definition of heroism shares very little in common with what we will see celebrated across the country on this Memorial Day. True heroism is not an easily consumed message that suggests simply donning a uniform sets a person apart from the rest and makes them worthy of unique respect. There are many men and women in uniform who are worthy of the title “hero.” Many of these heroes lived lives we will never know about. There are also many pacifists and conscientious objectors similarly worthy of the title “hero.” It is likely we will never hear of their names or their stories of sacrifice either.
The true nature of heroism is not about a uniform or a protest, or a popular cause. Heroism is about conviction, sacrifice, and selflessness. Individual heroes demonstrated these regardless of whether anyone would know or remember their name or their acts. Heroism is not a synonym for fame or popularity. It is more closely related to honor and integrity. Ultimately true heroism is an act of humility that says our life is worth less than the lives and purposes we see beyond ourselves.