[December 4, 2019] As young boys in the 1950s, we listened intently to returning Korean War veterans to get some idea of what war was like. We asked stupid questions of these veterans. Who were the best fighters? Did you kill any Communists? Were you a hero? There was something that drove us to understand what it took to be heroic and hear stories of heroism.
This topic is written in two parts. The first article answers the question “What is a hero?” while the second article answers “Why do we have heroes?” Without the first question, the second cannot be effectively answered. A previous article I wrote on the subject, titled “What is a hero?” gained some popularity on several leadership websites. I find it necessary, however, to add more on the topic.
“A hero is someone who, in spite of weakness, doubt or not always knowing the answers, goes ahead and overcomes anyway.” – Christopher Reeve, American actor
Heroes are people who risk everything, including their lives, for the well-being of others. From the time we first walked the Earth, stories about the hero have flourished. These stories are a part of a meta-story (repeated because it’s draws us to it) about the best human traits; courage, strength, and honor. These are ideals of human nature, and nothing can change our desire to embrace those traits.
The set of stories we heard from the Korean War veterans were about battles in the hills just north of the 38th Parallel in North Korea.1 We heard about the soldier who fought until his ammunition ran out, then used up his hand grenades, and then his bayonet and entrenching tool to fight off the “communist hordes.” We also heard about the Marine machine-gunner who kept fighting in his position until overrun and killed.
As boys, we were in awe. How could we imagine what happened in that war? We couldn’t, but there was some force inside each of us that kept pushing us forward to hear more and more. Every chance we got, my friend Wilson and I would ask about the war and listen as if our very lives depended upon the outcome.
We were interested because we wanted to know about war heroes. We wanted to know that ordinary men could do extraordinary things. How could a man, barely older than us and who came from a small town in Louisiana, fight with such ferocity and bravery in the face of certain death? We had to have our questions answered.
- Later, long after I joined the U.S. Army, I discovered that the battles our local veterans were telling stories were part of the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge which took place between mid-September and October 1951.