Obama and McCain Offer Two Very Different Kinds of Heroism

Americans have never been very eager to turn war heroes into presidents. George Washington did not set much of a precedent. Only five of the 42 who followed (Jackson, W.H. Harrison, Taylor, Grant and Eisenhower) made their reputations in war. In the 20th century a few could claim minor war heroics (Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, George H.W. Bush), but at the century's end a onetime war protester, Bill Clinton, handily defeated two veterans of "the good war": a onetime fighter pilot, Bush (even though he'd waged a successful war in Iraq), and a permanently disabled warrior, Bob Dole.

Now we are at war again, and the stock of war heroes seems to be on the rise. Although the war is unpopular, the candidate whose main claim to fame is wartime heroism has a chance to win in 2008, or so the polls suggest. The same polls say that John McCain trails Barack Obama on nearly every issue except war, national security and "strong leadership." Never underestimate the polling power of a war hero, or the power of a hero to whip up public support for a war -- especially if that hero is the president of the United States. That's why the question of heroism and its appeal matters to all of us.

Conservative cultural critics have been lamenting the decline of heroism in America for years. Their argument is at the heart of the McCain campaign. It goes like this:

People become heroes -- they muster the courage it takes to suffer and risk all for others -- by strictly controlling their selfish impulses. By demonstrating self-discipline, heroes prove their superior character. And that earns them the right to wield political authority. Only people with such strong self-control deserve to be in charge of controlling social boundaries. Only a hero's example can control the impulses of the unruly mob and maintain the social order.

But, the conservative argument continues, in our postmodern society everything is just image -- including heroism. Few of us can distinguish any longer between real heroes like Sgt. Alvin York or Audie Murphy, who risked genuine suffering or even death, and fictional ones like Ironman or Indiana Jones, whose risk and suffering is all make-believe. As the fictional heroes become the models for all heroism, we come to believe that the impossible can be done effortlessly, with no need for the enormous self-discipline that is the essence of real heroism.

We are blind to real heroism because we take it as nothing but image. The success of "Swift boating" in 2004 showed how readily the public will accept an advertising campaign in place of the historical reality of heroism.

The worst effects show up among America's young people. Having grown up in a time without real heroes, they know about heroism only from screen-image substitutes. So they fondly imagine that they, too, can achieve great things without strenuous effort and self-discipline. They expect to "do their own thing," "let it all hang out," blur all cultural boundaries and still somehow lead successful lives. And when they are presented with genuine heroes, the young turn cynical and refuse to be guided by their betters. They may even refuse to follow the authorities into war when our nation's very existence is at stake.

This year Republicans find the demise of heroism tragic not only for American society but for their party, because they think they've got an authentic hero as their candidate. And it's no coincidence that he gained his laurels in war. War has always been the prime arena for the kind of heroism that most Americans have prized. It all started with the Minutemen (or so the story goes): ordinary farmers who knew evil when they saw it, picked up their guns to defeat it, and then went back to their ordinary, everyday lives. They mustered the courage to do extraordinary deeds, to risk suffering and death, because they knew that democracy was worth every sacrifice.

That's the uniquely democratic brand of heroism that the McCain campaign boasts of: ordinary people rising to extraordinary heights by controlling their selfish impulses in order to hold the line against an evil that threatens from beyond our borders. Recognizing that line and defending it at all costs is the essence of heroism, American-style.

Or at least it was, until the United States tried to act out the old Minuteman story once more in Vietnam. By the time that war ended, many of us had learned to be skeptical of anyone who claims that all goodness is on our side of the line and all evil on the other side. That's another big reason heroism has fallen into disrepute -- and another big reason conservatives want so desperately to restore its reputation.

It's all part of the same package, McCain supporters say: loss of heroes, questioning of war, cynicism toward authority, skepticism about rigid lines separating good from evil, glorification of impulse, and the decline and fall of America as a morally healthy nation with a stable social structure. It all hangs together. And it all started in -- you guessed it -- "the '60s"!

Republican candidates started running against "the '60s" 40 years ago. They are still doing it because, more often than not, it has worked. The trick is to tweak the campaign by giving the attack on "the '60s" a new symbolic image and new code words from time to time.

Four years ago, the key symbolic words were "homeland security." Although George W. Bush never suffered or even fought on a real battlefield, he campaigned successfully as the heroic leader of a global war on terrorism, holding the line against evil everywhere. John Kerry suffered not only from the advertising attack on his heroism, but from his youthful change of heart. After leading his crew in numerous battles against the enemy, he returned home and crossed over to the other side, supporting the peace movement's protest against the government's simplistic story of good vs. evil. That refusal to hold the symbolic line may have cost him the presidency.

Of course it's equally possible that the Vietnam War years had little to do with Kerry's defeat. Perhaps we have indeed put Vietnam behind us. Perhaps the American people want a new kind of hero not related to war at all.

The McCain campaign is betting heavily against that possibility. It's doing all it can to make this election another referendum on the '60s and the Vietnam War by asking voters to endorse the enduring value of war heroism. By coupling McCain's Vietnam heroics with his "No Surrender" stand on Iraq, it is trying to make the election a broader referendum on the cultural meaning of war itself.

Today, the key symbolic code words for the pro-war, anti-'60s campaign are "patriot" and "hero," both prefaced by the adjective "real." The McCain campaign portrays its candidate as the ultimate citizen-soldier, an ordinary human who rose to a superhuman level by courageously enduring superhuman suffering.

Why could he do it? Because, according to his campaign, he was so dedicated to serving his nation by maintaining the boundary between good and evil. McCain's job was to drop bombs on people because their nation was supposedly on the wrong side of the moral line. Had he not been shot down, who knows how many years he would have spent at that task? He became a hero, the story tells us, because he had the courage to do whatever it takes to stop evildoers.

In fact, McCain was not just "an ordinary guy." He was born into Navy aristocracy, raised among upper-echelon officers who were not likely to suffer even during wartime. Even now, though he did suffer terribly and is permanently disabled, he makes sure that in the public eye he never looks like he is suffering. He has worked hard to cultivate a mild "common man" image that masks the aggressive face of the warrior hero (though the mask sometimes cracks in private, we are told, under the pressure of his terrible temper).

If there must be suffering, McCain's face seems to say, I will take it meekly upon myself in a Christ-like way, as I did so many years ago. Yet don't be fooled, his words say. Behind my gentle demeanor lies a God-like wrath that will be inflicted surely and swiftly on evildoers who threaten our nation.

That's exactly the kind of heroism American culture has always valued most, the kind that seemed in danger of disappearing in a cloud of '60s pot smoke. In a post-9/11 world, where symbols of holding the line seem both so outdated and so necessary, a rebirth of heroism wrapped in the flag is a message many voters may find hard to resist. How many? With most polls showing McCain trailing, but usually within or near the margin of error, it is impossible to predict.

The Obama campaign is watching those polls, too, and it is certainly not ignoring the power of heroism. But since its candidate has never been to war, and he won the nomination on the strength of his stand against the Iraq War, it presents him as a very different kind of hero -- not an Andrew Jackson, not an "ordinary-man-does-extraordinary-things in war" kind of hero, indeed not an ordinary man at all. Obama appears as the reincarnation of Lincoln: another self-made man from Illinois who rose out of ordinary surroundings to reveal the extraordinary gifts he was born with.

In this story, the innately extraordinary hero grew up in a humble setting. He might almost have been born in a manger in a stable. Now he chooses to work in the same kind of humble setting with ordinary people like us, to take on our sufferings as his own, to share his transcendent gifts with us all.

Unlike McCain, who often looks like he has donned a mask of tranquility to hide his suffering, Obama often has a slightly pained look on his face, as if he wears a mask of suffering while the true self behind it transcends all earthly cares. His look of suffering speaks of his continuing care for, and contact with, the suffering underclasses he once served as an organizer. It speaks of his continuing commitment to use his extraordinary talents for the good of ordinary folks everywhere.

If you haven't seen this kind of heroism in Obama, watch some of his public appearances and commercials again. Look at the way he sounds, the way interacts with people, the way he carries himself, with an eye out for the imagery of a transcendent savior who has come down to serve us all. Make up your own mind if it's there or not.

If it is there (as I'm pretty sure it is), Obama's success suggests that a large portion of the American people may be ready for a truly elite leader, as long as he or she is outwardly clothed in the Lincolnian narrative of the common person. The American people may no longer want a war hero, but a peace hero.

A war hero inspires by having exercised, in the past, a superhuman self-control that offers us a model for restraining our own natural impulses. A peace hero inspires by who he or she is in the present. By merely doing what seems to come naturally, a peace hero offers a model for releasing the natural goodness within each of us.

A war hero is a mere mortal who protects the rest of us by preserving the boundary lines between good and evil against every threat. A peace hero seems more than human, because he or she has the courage to cross boundary lines -- lines of race, class, gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion -- and therefore ultimately crosses the line between human and superhuman.

A war hero comes to seem more than human by treating enemies as less than human and raining death down upon them. A peace hero comes to seem fully human by treating all others as fully human and giving them the fullness of life.

Obama is perfectly suited to be a peace hero because both his transcendent gifts and his mortal being symbolize the union of opposites. He bears the very visible mark of his human origin, which crossed the most sacred of American boundaries, the race line. In his life he has spanned the class spectrum, seeming to be equally comfortable with all from the top to the bottom. Uniting such profound opposites in his genetic makeup and his biography, he can symbolize the uniting of all opposites. And he can symbolize the pressing need to bring enemies together because he seems to stand so far above the merely mortal fray.

Many Obama supporters are not looking for a hero at all. They are skeptical about the idea that one person could be somehow superior to the rest of us. They are suspicious about any person who claims to have authority over others. The skepticism and suspicion are healthy. But they can be pushed too far. They can cost Obama a lot of votes.

More importantly, they can allow the right wing to keep the control it has had for four decades over the idea of heroism, just as it has controlled the idea of patriotism, the flag and all the symbolic trappings of "America."

The Vietnam War cast the meanings of all those symbols radically in doubt. The 9/11 attack might have done the same. But since the '60s the Left, rather than fighting to capture those symbols, has turned away from the symbols and the fight, letting the conservatives win tremendous cultural victories by default. That makes it easier for them to continue their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and start new wars elsewhere.

So despite all the valid reasons for eschewing the whole idea of "an American hero," those of us who want to dampen the public enthusiasm for future wars would do well to consider promoting Barack Obama as an extraordinary American peace hero. Obama offers us a precious opportunity to separate "hero" from "war" and give heroism in America a new meaning that's in many ways the opposite of the old war heroism.

We might well be thankful to have a hero who appears to descend from above us. For too long we have lived with the myth that our presidents, like our war heroes, must be common people who are now empowered to rise above us and do whatever they like. If we want to restore some measure of genuine democracy to our political life, we might be better off with a president whom we view as extraordinary.

Then we, the people, must bring that president down to our own mundane level by subjecting him or her to all the political pressures we can bring to bear. A hero brought down from on high may be less dangerous, and less likely to lead us to war, than a hero raised up from below -- as long as we are ready to keep the pressure on from day one.

AlterNet is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by our writers are their own.


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