Don’t Count On Heroes!

As a society, we love heroes. We adore baseball players who pull out a win in the bottom of the ninth inning while down by several runs. We love the frontier myth of the savior who comes to the rescue of others amid daunting odds. Pop culture and particularly movies thrive on heroes saving all in crash-bang denouements.

We forget the history that places very real heroes in harm’s way where they either save the day or go down to heartbreaking defeat. Oskar Schindler was one such hero who saved 1,200 Jews in the former Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust.

But attention to hero worship often misses the larger story when the sometimes awful consequences of human behavior condemn masses of innocent people to war, famine, disease, grinding poverty, and ignorance. As long as heroes exist, then the consequences of sometimes vicious human behavior are often hidden.

The tyrants of history far outnumber the heroes. By any count, they, the tyrants, have an exponential advantage over heroes. Hitler took power in one of the most highly cultured societies of the 20th century and killed millions of innocent people. Not to discount heroes in the equation of history, but their efforts saved few.

Out of the horror of the Trump administration comes the hero, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to Woodward and Costa in their new book Peril (2021), the general acted as a sort of stopgap between the seemingly delusional president and the enormous power of presidents. Milley was a kind of football lineman who sacks the opposing quarterback to win the game. Milley, according to these authors’ accounts, was ready to go on the offensive and counter Trump if he planned to attack China or launch a nuclear war.

Where are the anti-nuclear heroes in government who feel emboldened to stop the nuclear submarine deal with Australia that France believes has stepped on its military contract toes? No heroes there, besides those who act boldly such as in the anti-nuclear Plowshares movement who typically receive draconian prison sentences for countering the so-called nuclear defense industry in the US.

Who among those with a functioning mind was not terrified for humanity during the Trump presidency? The guy was unhinged and ignorant and all-powerful. What worse combination could history witness? That we’re still here to bear witness to history is a miracle of sorts.

But as Shakespeare said, “Aye, there’s the rub.” And the gargantuan rub in Trump and Miley’s case, and our collective situation, is that our system is so distorted that one person in the wrong place at the wrong time can bring the entire show down in a few, brief hours. Boundless lethal power is a sobering reality and heroes will not lessen that reality.

Some have called for General Milley’s removal because he allegedly violated the civilian control of the levers of government in the US. I think that the general needs to be honored with a ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes on lower Broadway in New York City in a show of thanks for this single act of courage.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, a Russian vice admiral, Vasily Arkhipov, was one of three commanding officers aboard a submarine whose decision not to launch a nuclear weapon from the sub he was on may have saved the world from a nuclear holocaust. No doubt that the vice admiral was a hero like General Miley, but our species can’t count on the right person being in the right place at a time of great danger. It’s like playing Russian roulette again and again with all the species on Earth.

What’s needed are systems of government and systems of opposition that can deal with human needs in a sane way and keep those who would do harm to countless innocent people away from the levers of power, or, subject to a governmental and oppositional system of checks and balances.

In the US, the Federalist Papers were the foundation for a strong central government, in part, as an answer to the post-Revolutionary War revolt known as Shays’ Rebellion. The imperial presidency of the 20th century in the US set the stage for unlimited US power. Unlimited power now condemns those heroes known as whistleblowers to the same fate as many of those who took part in Shays’ Rebellion.

General Jack Ripper was the fictional antihero of the film Dr. Strangelove (1964). Delusional, Ripper launched an unprovoked nuclear attack against the former Soviet Union. The fictional General Rippers of the world have power to do the unimaginable, as do their real life counterparts. Heroes are great and they are necessary, but sanity, intelligence, and cool-headedness are equally enviable qualities.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).