Most of the world is convinced that America went into Iraq with cynical motives. They believe we're there to dominate the Arabs and steal the oil. Their cynicism is based on one of the pillars of Western civilization, the classical hero invented by Homer, an archetype of the man who undertakes wars for glory, adventure, and plunder. France has its great military heroes who did precisely that, foremost among them Napoleon and Louis XIV. The same is true of Germany with its tyrants Wilhelm II and Hitler. Russia and China are up there with Stalin and Mao. The idea of the reluctant warrior, the hero without a spotlight, the man or woman who sacrifices himself or herself in order to free and inspire others is not a large part of their tradition.
Not so the United States, which is built on the Biblical heritage of Judeo-Christianity. Homer's heroes could not be more different from the heroes of the Bible, and these differences play themselves out in the respective foreign policies of Europe and America.
In the 8th century B.C., in the Greek settlement of Ionia, a blind storyteller named Homer surveyed the men and women around him and was unimpressed with their petty pursuits of their daily lives. Predictable, uninspired, and routine, their lives were hardly the stuff of which movies are made. They had brittle bodies and even more brittle egos. Homer's ingenious response to human ordinariness was to invent a man, Odysseus, who was extraordinary, the classical hero. Here was someone who led a life of epic proportions and cosmic-level struggles. The Iliad and the Odyssey are epics filled with warfare and long, arduous journeys, beautiful women and impossible tasks. All classical heroes who have followed since-from Alexander the Great to Michael Jordan-share five essential characteristics:
1. Their strength is physical and so are their heroic actions.
2. They subdue and triumph over an adversary and revel in the triumph.
3. They receive the adulation of the adoring masses.
4. They receive great material rewards, usually in the form of riches and lovers.
5. Their memory is immortalized in a great tale, and they achieve legendary status.
But rather than create a truly transcendant human being, Homer just increased his insecurity and magnified his mediocrity. Notice how each of the characteristics of the classical hero is born of uncertainty and lack of confidence. Here is a person who spends all his life proving himself to his peers. He exists only when others notice him, feel strong by making others feel weak. He relies on his ability to dominate others to determine his own self-worth.
He believes that he was born without any intrinsic value, and so he spends his entire life working to prove that the opposite is true. Unable to live with his own sense of worthlessness, he spends a lifetime in search of glory, playing to the crowds, hoping to earn their homage. In so doing, he compounds his wretchedness, so that the mob holds the keys to his sense of accomplishment.
France, Germany, and Russia are societies based on the ideal of classical heroes, the type of hero invented by Homer. Hence, when America speaks of there being a different type of hero, a hero animated by sacrifice rather than selfishness, by service rather than self-absorption, they are incredulous.
America is based on a different book of heroes. It's called the Hebrew Bible. The Founding Fathers were Christians who knew the Old and New Testaments well. Unlike their European counterparts who were mired in anti-Semitism, many of them had a working knowledge of Hebrew, admired the Jews greatly (as John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson: "I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation"), believed they were creating a promised land, and turned to the struggle of the ancient Israelites for inspiration.
Notice that, unlike Achilles and Odysseus, the biblical hero is a reluctant hero, one whose primary purpose is righteousness rather than recognition, virtue rather than victory, moral courage rather than mortal conquest, G-d rather than glory. Abraham and Moses are simple shepherds who distinguish themselves in making G-d rather than themselves known, throughout the land. Unlike the Ottoman Sultans who often murdered their brothers upon assuming the throne, Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt, forgives his brothers' attempt at fratricide.
1. Their strength is spiritual rather than physical. Moses defeated the Egyptians by the power of the word alone.
2. Like Abraham praying for the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, they seek to save rather than conquer their fellow man.
3. Like Moses who is often excoriated by the Jews whom he has rescued from Egypt, they are often despised in their lifetime.
4. They do the right without recognition or remuneration. Like Moses, who is buried without even a marker, they do not focus on payment or appreciation.
5. Like David, who is remembered more for his psalms than his eartlhy achievements, their lives serve as a permanent memorial to G-d's greatness rather than their own. Rather than chasing the spotlight, biblical heroes dedicate their lives to conferring dignity upon others.
The biblical hero is someone like Abraham Lincoln who saved the Union and whose only reward was a bullet to the head as soon as victory was won. The reluctant hero is a man like Martin Luther King who fought for the equality of America's black sons and daughters and was rewarded with assassination on a motel balcony. The biblical hero may not reach the promised land, but his people always get there as a result of his sacrifice.
Moses, too, died the way he had lived. "Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died.And God buried him in the valley.And no one knows his burial place to this day." (Deut. 34:5-6) Moses retreated from the world stage, silent and alone. No equestrian statues, no troubadours singing epic poems. No great monument in a public square. Rather, he had done his duty before G-d and man and then, like silent footsteps in the night, he was gone.
Here is the deeper meaning of the famous story of Solomon and the two women who argued over a live baby, each claiming it as her own. To determine the true mother, Solomon commands that a sword be brought and the child be sliced in two. The real mother cries out and asks that her son be turned over to the imposter rather than be put to death. A real hero is prepared to retreat into anonymity and lose the object of his or her affection, to permanently withdraw from the stage and witness the object of love alive and flourishing. This is real love, because it comes with no reward.
The modern biblical heroes are the brave men and women of the United States military who came into a country to liberate its citizens of tyranny and empowered the Iraqis to govern themselves and be free.
Notice that the American leaders-Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Tommy Franks-continue to speak in uninspired monotones, purposely going out of their way not to gloat. Their emphasis is service rather than triumph. The victory is not an American victory but a human victory. Therefore, while warm homecoming commemorations are appropriate, triumphal ticker-tape parades are not.
While the war is not yet over and our troops have not returned home, I can predict the rest of the story. With little fanfare, they will eventually come back to their families. They will take their kids to school and they will try to be attentive and loving spouses. In short, they will continue all the deeds of real-life heroes.