Heroes and Uniforms

Heroes turn up in the most unlikely of places. Take the Wildberry Inn in Newfoundland. The Wildberry  isn’t up to much really. It may have seen better days but I wasn’t convinced. The Inn is a sprawling motel-like structure set in the dwarfed sub-arctic softwood on Highway 430 running west from St. Anthony at the tip of Newfoundland’s northern peninsula. Folks said the Wildberry had been built to be near the Airport but that moved further out leaving the Wildberry to its own meager devices. The Inn has long deserted corridors and a kind of spooky feel to it like you can imagine Freddy from Psycho running down the hall through the darkness. Still there was a kind of splendid isolation about it all and the place was clean and the staff welcoming if slightly odd.  There was certainly nothing else for miles but crows, moose and dwarfed spruce. Definitely a place one could ‘get away from it all’ whatever ‘it’ was.

I readily believed the owner when he told me that not many tourists had been in the summer months but he had high hopes for the moose hunters in the fall and the snowmobilers in the winter. ‘Next year country’, this. Behind the desk was a chatty bent over little guy who we later learned was Bruce Colburne. While the owner stayed at the Wildberry all winter Bruce told us that his arthritis drove him back into St. Anthony where the heat was more dependable.  But Bruce, who has now gone 74, liked to come out and lend a hand at the Wildberry because he liked being around people.  Over breakfast which included more kinds of boxed cereal than Kellogg’s ever thought of Bruce got into reminiscing about his life. He was from St Anthony but had gone off to school in St. John’s where he had taken up nursing at Memorial University.  He had spent 34 long years working as a nurse on the Labrador coast with the Grenfell Health Services.  Worked on the hospital boats, worked in air rescue. Brought health care to the poor fishing communities up and down the Labrador coast as well as the Innu and Inuit who are native to Labrador.  Worked in the sub-zero winter. Worked through the fly plagued spring.  It was hard work he said.  Dealt with tuberculosis, malnutrition and so many industrial accidents and it had all left him pretty enfeebled with the bad arthritis and a medal and a $100 from the Grenfell Mission.

Grenfell was started out by a charismatic young doctor, Wilfred Grenfell, from the south of England. Until Grenfell set up his first hospital in 1893 in Battle Creek the impoverished people of Labrador were without health care.  Grenfell is a bit of a hero in these parts as his Christian commitment and flair for organization over the coming decades helped him build up a health service that included hospitals, nursing stations, medical ships and other care facilities up and down the coast. Grenfell not only dealt with the health care of fishers but also set up production and consumer coops to bypass the infamous ‘truck system’ whereby those staunch free enterprisers the wealthy St John’s fish merchants kept the poor fishing communities in a state of cashless debt bondage. What Grenfell built has since become the core of the provincial health system in northern Newfoundland and Labrador. It was as part of this enterprise that Bruce Colborne threw in his lot.

While he had few regrets about his choice to work with people there was one thing he kept coming back to that really puzzled him. His mother had never approved of his choice of career and was much more favourably inclined to his brother who had made a career in The Forces. He came back to the point several times. His brother had been in the Air Force and served in Cyprus in the days when Canada did peacekeeping rather than its current commitments to aiding and abetting the US global policing.  It raised the question for me about what are heroic acts and who are heroes. Seems there has always been something about guns and uniforms. When Bruce was growing up back in the 1950s nursing might have been seen as a sissy profession for a man. Joining the military was the ‘manly’ option. Yet who is really the hero?  Is heroism a question of an individual act – saving a drowning child or charging an enemy gun emplacement to save your platoon? Isn’t it also possible to lead a heroic life of difficult self-sacrifice for others or commitment to a cause larger than oneself but for the greater good?  If so what kinds of life qualify? Or does heroism still need to be certified by a single act of bravery?

In present day Canada under the official sway of the truculent conservatism of Stephen Harper and coloured by reactionary doctrines of state patriotism and law and order – heroism is fast becoming the exclusive monopoly of the military and the police. It has reached the point that these men in uniform don’t actually have to do anything to become heroic. The uniform itself is enough to characterize them as heroes. If they get killed in action then their heroic status is certainly guaranteed.  Most of the Canadian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan were blown up in their patrol vehicles by roadside bombs planted by the Taliban. They mostly never got a chance to perform heroic acts. Others commit suicide or are killed by friendly fire. No matter all are heroes entitled to full state honours whether they want them or not. It all started with the official proclamation of a Highway of Heroes running from the air force base in Trenton to Toronto the trip soldier’s bodies took on their return from Afghanistan along a rather unpropitious section of Highway 401. Now four other provinces have gotten into the act proclaiming local stretches of pavement as Highways of Heroes. The Hero business hasn’t stopped there – a rock anthem to Canadian soldiers is performed by the Antigonish, Nova Scotia-based band The Trews entitled The Highway of Heroes is part of a campaign to aid something called the Herofund for military families. This is all against a backdrop of the Conservatives sponsoring a militaristic and patriotic semi-official rewriting of Canadian history. Now for example the slaughter of innocents in World War One where young Canadians were conscripted as cannon fodder into the bloody trenches of France and Belgium for no obvious purpose has become in Conservative eyes a brave exercise in the national coming-of-age. In short this hero business is getting a bit out of hand.

Of course in war the heroes are all on your side. It is impossible for there to be a Taliban hero no matter if they behave bravely or not. The enemy are simply ruthless fanatics beyond redemption. An Afghan farmer who doesn’t much like his poppy crop eradicated and doesn’t cotton to the idea of his country overrun by NATO troops may be attracted to Taliban nationalism. If he takes the decision to engage in suicidal resistance against technologically superior NATO forces are there no possible instances of heroic behavior?  Sure Taliban ideology is an unpalatable bit of intolerant fundamentalism and they may force fighters into their ranks. But are the motives of Canadian soldiers so pure? Don’t they join ‘The Forces’ because of poverty and a lack of other employment opportunities and the chance for free educational advancement rather than simply the desire for patriotic sacrifice?  In Atlantic Canada which provides a disproportionate number of soldiers to the national effort there is widespread support for the troops and the dangers they face.  But aren’t at least some of the yellow ribbons due to solidarity with those who have chosen this particular form of ‘going down the road’ rather than an abstract patriotism?

Hero is a conversation stopper. You can’t question a hero particularly a dead one. You can’t ask why they died. You can’t express doubt about the cause.  It is a besmirching of their sacrifice, insulting of their families at a time of deep loss, and generally a mean-minded undermining of our values and freedoms.  Occasionally a stubborn parent departs from the official script questioning why their child had to die in what appears to be increasingly a losing cause in a place like Afghanistan.  Such was the case with the parents of Sergeant Mark Leger killed by friendly fire in the early days of the Afghan conflict. By-and-large the consensus media quickly passes over such discordant notes to return as quickly as possible to the heroism chorus.

Perhaps heroism has always been at least in part an ideology rather than simply recognition of an individual act of bravery. But under the current reactionary ideological dispensation it has taken on an almost religious character. It’s not just the military either.  Across the country the police have also benefitted from uniform hero-worship. Any police officer killed in the line of duty is celebrated beyond belief. It doesn’t matter if they died doing something heroic (some indeed have) or been killed in a roadside accident.  There is a huge media outcry, a large police funeral with attendees coming from forces near-and-far and a public wringing of hands and call for ever harsher laws and punishments to deal with those who defy the police. It is similar in some senses to the funerals of motorcycle gang members where riders come from near-and-far to show their ‘colours’.  Not that policing is in any way the most dangerous line of work just check out the deaths in such sectors as the construction industry or the fishery. The hero-worship accorded police stands in sharp contrast to the deaths of those killed either by accident or on purpose by the police themselves.  There has been a spate of police killings of the mentally disturbed across the country for which there is little legal redress or even sympathy for the families left behind.

So maybe we need to reconsider the highly manipulable notion of ‘heroism’. It simply leaves too many questions unanswered and lends itself to double standards that serve causes beyond those of a natural human sympathy and respect. Maybe we can just describe the lives and deaths and let people make up their own minds as to whether they are ‘heroic’ or not.  The great German playwright Berthold Brecht proclaimed famously ‘unhappy is the land that needs a hero.’   The temptation of those who hold radical views is to come up with their own set of alternative heroes. But if we pay close attention to Brecht perhaps there is another way that quietly values the lives of ordinary folk like Bruce Colborne and avoids the hero designation attached to macho militarism that always end up badly.

Richard Swift is a Canadian independent journalist based in Toronto who has covered many parts of the world. He is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Democracy (New Internationist 2010) and also Gangs: A Groundwork Guide (Groundwood Books, 2011). He is also the 2011 winner of the Daniel Singer Millennium Prize for his essay, "Preparing The Ground." The topic he addressed involves why the Left in some Western countries has been marginalized while right-wing populism has been able to channel much of the anger caused by the financial crisis. Swift is a former co-editor of The New Internationalist which is based in Oxford, U.K., with offices in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.