Heroes and the Red Thread of Western Civilization

Written by Stephanie Janiczek on September 29, 2013

Millions upon millions of human beings for close to 2800 years, maybe more, have read or heard of the Iliad: The story of Mycenaean warriors landing at the Gates of Troy with their troops in order to bring back the runaway queen of Sparta Helen. Names like Hector, Paris, Agamemnon, Patroclus, and Ajax fill the world’s vocabulary, each name a unique gift, each name heroic in its own way. However, the story as Homer wrote it began as such: “Sing, oh goddess, the anger of Achilles…”; and later this line, taken from the beginning of the Aeneid, “Of arms and the man I sing…”. The hero was Aeneas, the main, flawed character in Virgil’s masterpiece, the Aeneid.

The Hero, in each epic tale, is a singular being. Individualistic as a Greek hero and yet devoted as a Roman. What these heroes did was simply explain the world of Roman or Greek virtue to the people hearing them or later reading them. In both early Western civilizations the “Hero” is the epitome of manliness, of what it means to be a Greek and what it means to be a Roman. Without these stories there would be no cultural basis for these civilizations.

The hero throughout history is a changing, yet unchanging, being. Be he fictional or real, he is the red thread that binds a culture and civilization together. When modern Americans can sit down and connect the cowboy, the gunfighter, the GI to Achilles and, yes, Aeneas, it’s a moment where we can shake hands literally with our cultural ancestors.

The Greeks based everything on individual achievement. A man must do things that set him apart in a glorious way from his peers. The Romans taught that individual achievement was fine as long as it was done in regards to Rome. All things must be done for the honor of the state. The state of course changed from Rome’s founding as a collection of mud huts to the rising edifice that was the Coliseum. Between the two civilizations, one might hear something very familiar to the ears of Americans: Duty, Honor, Country. How one achieves all of that to the best of one’s ability is by one’s individual desire to be the best.

Americans are the rightful heirs of Rome and Greece, but not in the way cynics who cry about the end of civilization and rationalize low ebbs in economic and voting cycles. We are the heirs of these ancestors because, together, we are what they wanted to achieve in some way. Of course, this is bare bones, but in the greater sense it is true. No country in the last 200 years has dominated the world as much as the United States. If we are an empire as mournful sad sacks, like Pat Buchanan likes to cry about, we are an empire of culture not arms. Though, to be sure we have bases everywhere, not one bit of soil could be said was ever “conquered” as Scipio conquered Carthage. Culture proves a powerful weapon.

When John Wayne passed away, a Japanese News Paper called him Mr. America. As much as our soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen are examples of real life American exceptionalism and heroism, John Wayne was the cultural symbol of that hero. A hero is the finest example of what the culture he stands for means and is. In a career that spanned over fifty decades no actor, no American, personified the American man at his finest as John Wayne did.

What Wayne did was exemplify real men. He took the soldier, the flier, the marine and sailor and gave him a worldwide audience. What he said was what most Americans believed was right about the country. When John Wayne appeared in the Sands of Iwo Jima he didn’t just wear a uniform and pretend to be Sergeant Striker, he stood in for every brave man that stormed that Volcanic Island. He was the voice of John Basilone and thousands of others who died taking Iwo Jima. Nowadays it might seem corny to people, but back then when The Sands of Iwo Jima was made, it solidified those Marines in the heroic pantheon forever. The Sands of Iwo Jima as an American version of the Iliad. Striker doesn’t have to be a real Marine because there were thousands like him, just as Achilles may or may not have been a real Mycenaean/ Greek hero.

How we regain our grounding as Americans is by rejecting the 1960’s radicals and rediscovering our lost heroes. Just in the last decade a plethora of men have stepped forward to claim their spot on the red thread that connects everything. Michael Murphy, Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor recipient is one. Chris Kyle, Navy SEAL sniper is another. Dakota Meyer, US Marine Medal of Honor recipient is still another. And there are more names on that list. But how many young people, even older people, know who they are because our culture has never really honored them.

How do we reclaim the heroic concept in the American culture? By championing the real men and women who have done the remarkable. But, in order to realize this we must look at our writers of fiction. How many novelists have created characters that mirror the heroes that walk among us? We are stuck with anti-heroes like Jason Bourne, and yet Mitch Rapp still waits for Hollywood? We are stuck with fictional super-heroes and yet, the men who took Fallujah are waiting for their story to be told?

Heroes don’t stop existing because some nitwit with a freaky haircut and weird glasses in Hollywood is uncomfortable being in the presence of a real man. They don’t disappear because some MSM pundit and his boss dislike the reason they went to war in the first place or the story is just so Bush. The reason is simple: these heroes, real and fictional are our story. They are our connection to our past.

Image: Screenshot: The Searchers (1956); public domain

Stephanie Janiczek is a former Capitol Hill Staff Assistant, Schedule C Appointee and Leadership Institute alum. Military Wife, Hunter, Horse enthusiast, dog owner, writer and feminist kryptonite.