"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

An “accidental” Hero?

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I’ve written several times about the soldier’s perspective on the concept of a ‘hero’. Most soldiers I know are distrustful of the term. A hero, to a soldier, is the person who takes huge risks for the purpose of being recognized. That is, a person who places their individual wants and desires above those of their comrades. That is fundamentally antithetical to the ethos of the soldier.

I remember one refrain being central to my time in recruit term at charm school – “Don’t biff your buds”, in regular speak, don’t do anything to harm your peers. One of the worst offenses you could commit was to do something that resulted in your buds suffering.

One person in my recruit flight got tapped for a ‘kit muster’. The kit muster was considered tantamount to descent to the third circle of hell, reserved only when our seniors wanted to inflict the highest level of suffering. The chap’s section-mates, and all of my section, worked for a week to perfect everything in his room. I can recall folding the sheets tucked underneath the mattress, because they could be seen through the springs under the top bunk. Everything that could be polished was polished, all that needed dusting had been dusted repeatedly.

As the inspection proceeded, we were standing in the room next door listening to the critical comments of the CSC – section commanders. When they pulled out the bottom drawer of the dresser, they found a hidden box. It turned out that the box had inside it a cake that had been sent to the chap undergoing the kit muster.

The reaction of everyone was immediate and angry – after labouring all that time, the thought that he would hide a care package from home was unthinkable. As was included in the lyrics of the Billy Joel song, “Goodnite Saigon” that was played to us every night in bed, the idea was that “we will all go down together.”

I was willing to give him benefit of doubt, to assume that the package would have been shared in the aftermath of the kit muster – but I was the odd one out. It was apparent at that point that his career in the military was over, for even the seniors were disgusted.  He left shortly thereafter.

That might seem like a really trivial matter to get so worked up about, but it really comes down to a question of character. If I can’t trust you to share a cake from home when I’ve been giving everything for your benefit, how will I trust you when you’re the one laying down suppressive fire while I’m charging up a hill to take out a machine-gun post? (this is an example that never would have involved me militarily, but I could easily restate this 1,000 different ways, because character was the key).

Those who have demonstrated they are trustworthy in small things, will be given even larger things (paraphrasing).

So, as I’ve said before, the greatest compliment that you can pay a soldier is not, “you’re a hero”, but, “you did your duty” or more directly, “you didn’t let your buds down”, or “well done, true and faithful servant.”

That forth link (above) to Anthony Swofford’s comments says it beautifully:

I told her that the problem with believing your country’s battle monuments and deaths are more important than those of other nations is that the enemy disappears, and it becomes as though the enemy never existed, that those names of dead men proudly carved on granite monuments cause a forgetting of the enemy, of the humans who died and fought in other cottons, and the received understanding of war changes so that the heroes from one’s own country are no longer believed to have fought against a national enemy but simply with other heroes, and the war scar is no longer a scar, but a trophy. The warrior becomes the hero, and the society celebrates the death and destruction of war, two things the warrior never celebrates. The warrior celebrates the fact of having survived, not of killing Japs or Krauts or gooks or Russkies or ragheads. That large and complex emotional mess called national victory holds no sway for the warrior. It is necessary to remind civilians of this fact, to make them hear the voice of the warrior.

Likewise, this comment from another post referring to a book by Mike Scotti concerning a decoration he was awarded:

To my mind, all the citation really said was that a Marine had fought the way he was supposed to fight in combat, regardless of the circumstances. It said that a Marine had done his job. It didn’t say anything about governments, politics, oil, the United Nations, the CIA, or intelligence that pointed to weapons of mass destruction. (p. 56)

All this to say that the ‘voice of the warrior’ calls out to our civilian masters to remember different things about us.  The danger in the term ‘hero’ is that it may submerge the person behind a false title that removes the death and destruction of war and replaces it with a bloodless facade.

Now, all that to set the background to look at this article about Corporal Cirillo from yesterday’s Hamilton Spectator (these links only last about 30 days so I’ll include a snip):

Cpl. Nathan Cirillo an accidental hero

Title a sentimental posthumous promotion from tragic victim

The prime minister is back in Ottawa; the church robes are tucked way; and the bagpipe laments to blood and sacrifice have faded into memory.

Cirillo’s death was tragic and senseless, but in no way was it heroic.

By the time this week’s regimental funeral took place, Cirillo’s death had snowballed into an overwhelming spectacle of public mourning.

By definition, a hero is someone singled out from the rest of us by their outstanding courage.

The accolade traditionally isn’t bestowed for simply wearing a uniform, be it military, police or firefighter.

The honour is accrued by performing brave deeds and daring feats — risking or sacrificing your life to save others, valiantly defending a position, boldly destroying the enemy.

Cirillo may have possessed those heroic qualities and might even have had a chance to display them had he lived. But he didn’t. He died unprepared and unarmed, the unlucky victim of a seemingly deranged killer who was himself gunned down after storming Parliament.

And yet the random nature of Cirillo’s death has in no way impeded his posthumous promotion to hero in headlines, articles, comments, tweets and even a local billboard.

Does that mean anyone who dies while in uniform is automatically a hero? If so, what do we call those who really do perform lion-hearted acts?

The sad reality is we’re doing truth an injustice by minimizing the true meaning of the word and elevating Cirillo into something he wasn’t.

By all means, the city should appropriately commemorate him.

But as a lost son at the heart of a wrenching tragedy, not some kind of warrior-saint.

Cirillo’s journey from innocent victim to national hero is a cautionary tale onto itself.

There’s no question his meaningless murder at the cenotaph so close to Remembrance Day, combined with the assault on Parliament, struck Canadians as a desecration of our heritage and historic values.

The rush of relief that came with knowing it was the work of a lone shooter, rather than a co-ordinated conspiracy, gave lift and depth to the empathy churned up by the death of the good-looking young soldier.

Would the emotional outpouring have been as strong if Cirillo hadn’t been so photogenic? We don’t know, of course. But there’s little doubt his physical attractiveness gave poignancy to the tragedy, as did the fact he was a young single father.

That poignancy gained momentum as his body was returned to Hamilton along the Highway of Heroes, the funeral convoy route for fallen Canadians soldiers from the Afghanistan war.

Thousands lined the way, waving Canadian flags, spontaneously showing sympathy for Cirillo, his family, friends and comrades in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Hopefully, his poor mother took some comfort from it all.

Soon Cirillo’s death had taken on an emotional life of its own, complete with saturation media coverage of every aspect of the funeral arrangements.

Emotion is contagious and it spread like wildfire. People felt intimately connected to the family. Cirillo’s grief-stricken mother became all grief-stricken mothers, his orphaned son, all orphaned sons. People were not only touched by their loss, they were moved by images and stories of other people mourning.

The more connections there were, the more people needed to be part of it.

By the time this week’s regimental funeral took place, Cirillo’s death had snowballed into an overwhelming spectacle of public mourning, military pageantry and religious ceremony that was feeding on itself.

As a result, even before the prime minister was whisked away, before the church lights dimmed, before the bagpipes fell silent, Cirillo had achieved what amounts to secular canonization.

Through no action of his own, the accidental victim had become an accidental hero. But sadly, like all accident victims, he just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

I won’t fall into the obvious trap of now saying that soldiers never call each other ‘hero’, but we expect civilians to see us that way, because that’s not it at all.  This article misses the point entirely, and underlines why that term ‘hero’ can be so dangerous.

Cirillo’s sacrifice, what makes him special, is the fact that he was standing there, in uniform, on duty, when he was murdered.  He wasn’t in a mall with friends, walking down the street in a suit or in his yard raking leaves.  He was a soldier, doing what soldiers do: standing guard.  That act, that willingness to stand on guard, is what sets him apart from the rest of society.

This sadly misguided article falls into a common trap that catches civilian journalists who fail to make any effort to understand the military ethos.  There are notable exceptions: Christie Blatchford, who has my respect for her sensitive and perceptive writing about soldiers; Sebastian Junger, who spent months with a US unit in close combat and captured the understanding of love between soldiers.  The rest of them, particularly those who have never gone to the desert to be with the soldiers as they live, fight and die, really don’t get it.

As a recent crest states, my oath of enrollment has no expiry date.  When I enrolled (to use another common catch phrase) I signed a blank cheque to my nation that included giving my life in pursuit of the mission.  That applied whether death came in a vehicle accident on an Alberta highway, in a training accident in Chilliwack, or in a fire-fight in Afghanistan.

What the reporter misses is that Cpl Cirillo is not being made into a saint because of how he died, but because of the choices he made when he lived.  That choice was to wear the uniform, and to do his duty, even if that duty was to stand in public with an empty rifle…even if that duty was to walk across a parking lot where he was run down (in the case of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent).  That choice is one the reporter never made, and that is what defines the gulf between the two of them.

For the same reason, what I share with my brothers and sisters in the police services, or the fire department, or paramedics, and all those that give service while risking their lives, is that choice exactly.  As I wrote previously, what marks the difference between the Globe & Mail reporting video taping the assault of Parliament and all the security officers, is that when the shooting started he dives for cover…while they all start to run…toward the sound of the gunfire.  That choice is what makes the difference. (there is a different, in that the military is the only one that accepts the unlimited liability of service…but for my purposes here we’re more alike than different).

What do you do when you hear the sound of gunfire?  Do you seek cover, call 911, and wait for help to arrive?  Or do you run toward the danger, run toward the sound of the guns, because you might be the one that makes the difference that day?

Adding to this a conversation I had with a friend today…the root question here is service, whatever form that service might take (although I’m specifically addressing the question as a soldier).  It may not involve gunfire, it may involve facing an epidemic of obesity and diabetes, and asking the question…to what service does God call me?  It might be to become a bright light on a hillside shining good eating instruction down upon many, but the root question is service.  This is a powerful Christian witness against a post-modern culture that seems to value observation above action.

This is what upsets me most about this debate – most of those who stand back and provide us with their thoughts haven’t even taken the time to understand what it is they’re talking about…and who would be the last ones to stand in the gap to help others.  Barbara Winters, CRA lawyer, who ran back towards the guns to give first aid to Cirillo…she understands.

Forgive me if I fail to pay you much heed when you express your opinion, if you don’t have the moral authority because you’ve never stood in the gap, never risked your life nor comfort for what you believe in.

Cpl Cirillo stood in the gap that day, and died while doing his duty, as did WO Vincent.  That is what defines him, not some term applied or not applied by those who do not understand why he was standing there in the first place.


Written by sameo416

November 1, 2014 at 2:34 pm

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