Jun 20, 2006

When heroes stood tall

Brainster links to this NYT story on efforts to uncover the "real" story of World War I hero Sgt. York.
Their heated examinations do not challenge the essential heroism of Sergeant York, yet such scrutiny helps explain why it is hard to be a hero these days.

There are other reasons, too, of course. Wars are often unpopular clashes fraught with moral ambiguity, and while the news media are often attracted to heroism, they also like to challenge myth building.

Military abuses now have a longer shelf life than acts of derring-do.

As far as the shelf life of any story is concerned, it depends on how much shelf space you devote to the story and where those shelves are situated. If you stock your abuse stories at the cash register and your hero stories in the backroom, it's likely the abuse stories will generate more interest.

According to the piece, York probably didn't single-handedly force 132 Germans to surrender, but the press seized on his story because it made better copy. By the time the press was done with him, Sgt. York had "single-handedly silenced 35 German machine gun nests and killed 25 enemy soldiers" even though he was not alone at the time.

Seems to me we've exchanged one form of press cynicism for another. The narrative of 1918 highlighted "uplifting tales of uncomplicated bravery." One backwoods Tennessean served as a stand-in for every American soldier; he made us feel good about ourselves and justified our involvement in the war.

The narrative of this war focuses obsessively on a handful of wrongdoers. They too serve as stand ins for everything that's wrong with us and with the war.

After 88 years and a classic movie, it's probably too late to put the Sgt. York genie back in the bottle. I'd hate to think that 88 years from today, researchers will have to "prove" that not all American soldiers were vicious psychopathic killers.

No comments: