The search for the hero

A decade or so ago I wrote a book on the psychology of military heroism. How is it, I wondered, that ordinary, everyday people, can find strength in themselves to do the extraordinary? It is a test to which many everyday people were put during the dominating wars of the twentieth century, when whole populations were drawn into the fighting.

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Members of 28 (Maori) Battalion training in the Western Desert, Egypt. Photographer unknown. http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=13063&l=en
Click to buy (pre-order up to 4 August 2018).

The subject was, of course, New Zealand’s own war experiences over the 150-odd years since the New Zealand Wars, right up to the Afghan conflict of the early twenty-first century. But the question I was exploring, I found, had universal application, for the ideals of military heroism are as old as human culture.

The ancient Greeks exalted the ‘wild courage … of the blood’, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, demanding extraordinary performance in the field, finding heroes in such greats as Alexander, Pelopidas, Timoleon, Theseus and Pericles. Greek and Roman heroes alike were immortalised by Plutarch in the first century BC. Ambitious politicians such as Julius Caesar later capitalised on such imagery to mould their own fortunes.

The concept flowed into Western society as it emerged during the first millennium AD, epitomised by northern warriors raiding from the Mediterranean to the steppes of Russia. A few centuries later the Crusaders took battlefield courage to new heights. There was a human dimension; Geoffrey Regan has offered compelling argument that much Crusader courage was a product of zealotry.

Why then did some combatants risk themselves above and beyond the call of duty? This too is not a new question; the Greek writer and philosopher Plutarch first tried to answer it nearly two millennia ago. Valour could be quenched too early in the unambitious, but ‘serious and firm spirits’ were ‘stimulated by the honours they receive, and glow brightly, as if roused by a mighty wind to achieve the manifest good’. For these people, Plutarch tells us, reward for valour inspired; they were ‘ashamed to fall behind their reputation instead of surpassing it by their actual exploits’.

Such opinion, reflecting the stereotypes of ancient Greek society, translates well in some respects into our rational-industrial world, poorly in others. From this modern perspective — meaning the broad socio-cultural framework that emerged from the eighteenth century ‘age of reason’ and the Industrial Revolution, and which continues to define our world into the twenty-first century — individual motives were always complex.

To understand the full range of motives behind military heroism,  I figured I also had to put their actions in context both of the human environment of the battlefield and of the society of the day. The evidence, predictably, still painted a ragged picture – but I was nonetheless able to catch occasional glimpses of the dissonance between heroic ideal and reality in New Zealand’s battlefields. A few Kiwi heroes, it seems, were heroic in the classic sense — seeking the hard edge of action in the hope of winning recognition. ‘Some of the boys wanted to be bombers [grenade-throwers],’ the pseudonymous Robyn Hyde — Iris Wilkinson — declared of the Western Front experience, ‘because it was one way of winning the VC.’

The effort carried its risks; ‘most of them got wooden crosses instead’.

The book was one of the last published by Reed New Zealand before it was taken over by Penguin and sold pretty well. And now it’s back, initially in Kindle, and – if that sells well enough – in print.

It’s being released on 4 August, but it’s available right now for pre-order. Go on – you know you want to. Click to order, and it’ll be delivered to you on release day.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018


2 thoughts on “The search for the hero

  1. I’m reading Shell Shock: The Psychological Impact of War, which was made into a TV series in England 20 years back. In WWI, in England, the guys all signed up as it was seen as spiffing good fun, making oneself a hero, and taking it all on for Blighty etc.

    So yeah, I’ll be onto your book after that one. I mean those first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan was enough for a lifetime with me, but having to live through it in the trenches must have been beyond belief.

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    1. Thank you! Yes, it was real dynamite (literally, at times). Plenty of people signed up over here in 1914, too, panicking that the war might end quickly and they would miss out. I even found some letters in our archives from a Kiwi volunteer in the Boer war, a few years earlier, telling his mother that he needed to get shot because one of his friends had been wounded, and he needed to go one better. His wish, alas, was later granted. I’ve found other letters about early Gallipoli days being ‘ripping’. That was before everybody spent the next eight months waist-deep in effluent, being shot at. My grandfather, who was a professional British soldier pre-war (served in the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry from 1906 until he was badly wounded in the second Battle of Ypres) later said he felt very sorry for the NZ volunteers because they’d never been properly trained. The eventual problem, of course, was that everybody knew that trick about putting two pencils up your nose, your underpants on your head, and pretending to be mad…

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