Saturday, April 30, 2011

My heroes

Brigid put up a very well-written post today, which she titled "Big Damn Heroes". It started me thinking, and remembering. Several sad thoughts and a few tears later, I'll try to add my $0.02 worth to the discussion. It's not going to be easy to put it into words, because the faces of my dead haunt me . . . but for their sake, I'll do my best.

Brigid wrote:

The dictates of chivalry are not some formal guide to etiquette. I hope I die before I see a "Chivalry for Dummies" book. It's not a checklist, it's an understanding of things for which a man needs no checklist. It's not bowing before one's nation's enemy, it's never turning your backs on them. It's not holding the door open for a women because she's weak and lesser than you but as a sign of courtesy. It's a way of thinking, not an era or a specific rule.

I've written on this blog more than once about the wimpification of the modern male. But being a strong man does not mean you are completely closed off to emotion, treating sex like an oil change, and a woman as a somewhat lesser accessory. The strongest man I know can convey in one look, one touch, what I mean to him. But one can understand where the mixed signals come from. The view from the media is one of abject consumerism, relationships that manipulate, sex as control and the worst "if there's a man involved, it's his fault". Our nation has more material comforts than the knights could ever imagine, but for many people, it's prosperity without purpose, it's passion without principles.

People espouse the middle ages as being little more than Pestilence, Black Death and no YouTube with the concepts of that day being outdated, or worse, by their own basis, misogynistic. What do we have now to replace it? Materialism without ethics or effort, and baby daddy's, greedy trophy wives, teen moms,and crass bimbos who all get their own reality TV shows without any bit of skill or talent. This is our alternative to "the Dark Ages" a generation of people who fail to understand the difference between "can" and "should"?

Epictetus said it best "for it is better to die of hunger, exempt from fear and guilt, than to live in affluence with perturbation."

But the spirit of chivalry has not been entirely eradicated from the human heart, even in our pacifist, feminist, age. A chivalrous man today is a warrior with something to live for - and is willing to sacrifice his life either to protect or further it. Being a warrior does not not necessarily make him a man of war, but a man prepared to do battle for that which he loves. The battle can be one of ideology, not warfare, but his life is marked by preparation for something worthwhile, and thus is lived pursuing those ideals and interests which for him hold true value.

If this man is willing to die for something he loves, it is because he loves deeply and with great passion.

There's more at the link. Her entire post is well worth reading.

I think that sums up very well the team of people with whom I worked in South Africa to try to help the victims of politically-motivated violence during the period 1976-1994. Those eighteen years saw rolling civil unrest in opposition to apartheid. At times and in places it amounted almost to full-scale civil war. I wrote about it a few years ago, when remembering Mike.

The Government ruled its Black subjects by force of arms and legalized violence. The terrorists fought the Government by trying to make certain areas ungovernable, and used extreme violence against anyone who wouldn't support them, including murder, torture, rape, robbery, arson and anything else you can think of. The ordinary people were, of course, caught in the middle, unable to escape the violence of both sides.

Gradually a group of believers formed. We were from many different races: several African tribes, White, Indian, Colored (in South African parlance, that means a person of mixed race) and Asian. We had all sorts of different religious backgrounds: the various Christian churches, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Animist (i.e. African traditional religions). The common "glue" that bound us together was that each individual felt that his or her understanding of God and faith had called them to help the victims of violence. Nothing else mattered. Our differences of race, culture, education, religious perspective, theology and doctrine were completely submerged beneath this common calling.

As a result, those of us involved learned to have a profound respect and admiration - yes, even love - for one another. We didn't care a hoot about the differences. We were united in a common cause, a common purpose. Ever since those days, I've never cared what someone else professes to believe: I've cared only about how he or she actually lives their faith. Actions speak a damn sight louder than words. I have atheist friends whom I regard as far more Christian in their way of life than most believers, because they live the values to which many Christians pay only lip service.

For well over a decade we worked to get the victims of violence out of the nightmare situations in which they found themselves. Sometimes we'd go into the thick of a fight to get the people out. At other times we couldn't do that (it was, for example, illegal for people of one race to be in an area designated for another, particularly during an "emergency", and many of us ended up in police detention at one time or another), and we had to wait for the worst of the violence to pass before we could do our work. By rough count, we assisted, evacuated, fed, sheltered and got medical attention for several thousand people during those years. We didn't bother to keep an exact tally.

It was often extremely dangerous work. Twenty-seven of our group died during the 1980's and early 1990's. Some died during our operations. Others died because they were identified as members, and attacked at home by those who didn't want us (or anyone else) bringing any hope, however faint, to those they sought to rule by terror and fear. Our Black members were particularly vulnerable to this, because they lived in areas that were more often than not terrorist-controlled.

Again, more at the link.

I've never forgotten the heroism of my Black and Coloured friends during those years. They lived in racially-segregated townships, in the midst of crime and violence (sometimes aimed specifically at them because of their work to help the suffering). Many had no electricity in their homes, and no running water (they had to fetch buckets of water from communal taps set every few hundred feet in the street). Some had no sewer systems; their toilets emptied into buckets, which left a noxious, never-ending stench over the whole township. It permeated one's clothing, so that after a trip there, I had to wash my clothes (sometimes more than once) before I could both feel and smell clean when wearing them again. Many washed in tin baths, filled with cans of water heated luke-warm over a kerosene stove; sat together at night in the dim light of candles and kerosene lamps; and shivered under threadbare blankets, sometimes wearing all their clothes and huddling three or four together for warmth, in the freezing temperatures of a Highveld winter. Yet, despite all this, they kept on working, harder than I would have believed possible, to help the helpless and bring what hope they could to those in despair. Several paid with their lives. Others, like my friends Fanyana and Inyati, soldiered on through the hopelessness and despair, and saw our hopes become reality with the end of apartheid and the advent of democracy in 1994.

In contrast, I could go back to my relatively safe suburb each night (reserved for Whites only under the apartheid Group Areas Act). I could shower, cook a decent meal on my electric stove, watch TV, read a book by electric light, and go to bed warmed by heaters in winter, with an electric blanket if I wished. On numerous occasions I had Black friends and colleagues staying with me in my apartment, so that they could get away from particularly dangerous situations for a while, or avoid police or political activists who were looking for them. I was always uncomfortably reminded of my life of relative privilege by the look in their eyes when they realized that they could shower or bathe in unlimited hot water, and read under bright lights for as long as they wished, and sleep in warm beds in a heated room. (My four-bedroom apartment, where I lived alone, was two or three times larger than their ramshackle township homes shared by up to a dozen people.) It shamed me, sometimes.

There were other heroes, too. I remember some Indian friends. (In the South African context, that means people descended from laborers and clerks who were brought from India to Natal during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma, was one of them.) Some were Hindu, some were Muslim, others Sikh or Jain; but all worked together in perfect unity with each other, despite the religious violence which had divided (and continues to divide) those communities in India itself. They got on well with the rest of us, too, with our mixture of various forms of Christianity, Judaism, African animist beliefs, and a smattering of several other faiths.

During the late 1980's, we encountered Mujahedin who'd returned to South Africa after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and who were now trying to establish a fundamentalist Muslim society. They founded an organization known as Qibla, which later spawned PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism And Drugs). In time, the latter became a pseudo-terrorist and criminal organization in its own right. On more than a few occasions, members of Qibla tried to force my colleagues and I to channel our aid to the victims of violence through them, in areas where they were active. (They would have distributed the aid "with strings attached", and used it to boost their image in the community, ignoring us.) When we refused, they turned nasty - sometimes violent. (Such incidents confirmed for me, the hard way, the truth of Clint Smith's maxim: "You can say 'stop' or 'alto' or use any other word you think will work, but I’ve found that a large bore muzzle pointed at someone’s head is pretty much the universal language.")

My Indian Muslim friends saved my life, and the lives of my colleagues, more than once by putting themselves at risk to get us out of harm's way. I'm sure that on two occasions at least, I would have died but for them. To this day, I'm angry to hear unthinking, unknowing, ignorant people condemn as evil all Muslims, and the entire religion of Islam, solely because of the terrorism espoused and practiced by some Muslims and some sects within Islam. (There are so-called "Christian terrorists" too [e.g. the IRA, the UVF and - here in the USA - the Order], and "Jewish terrorists" [e.g. Irgun , Lehi and Kach], and terrorists from many other faiths; but they don't condemn their faiths because of the evil deeds of some of their followers.) There are good Muslims as well as bad, just as there are good and bad Christians, good and bad Jews, and good and bad in every religion ever known. It's always the individual that matters, not the group. To quote Sergeant 'Buster' Kilrain in the movie Gettysburg: "Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time."

Twenty-seven of our group died during those years of violence, and four more have died since then. Many more of us bear scars to remind ourselves of the "dark ages", as we not-so-jokingly referred to them. When I think of heroism, I think of those men and women, many of them unarmed, putting their lives on the line to protect the victims of violence, terrorism and injustice. Too many of them paid the ultimate price for their sense of duty . . . but that didn't stop most of their friends from coming back the next day, and continuing their work. Heroism indeed. (I don't include myself among such heroes. I did a lot less than many of them, and didn't have to live in the constant danger of a township environment, as most of them did.)

I think, too, of the men and women of the armed forces with whom I served. Some of my liberal, left-wing acquaintances argued with me back then, and still do. They allege(d) that my military service amounted to de facto support of the apartheid policies of South Africa's government. I denied that emphatically at the time, and still do. The armed forces were trying to stop terrorism. I've seen at first hand, and in far too much detail, what terrorism involves . . .

  • It's the landmine that blows up a farm tractor towing a trailer with fifteen kids on the back, heading for a school. The dirt of the road is transformed, in the words of a well-known song by Juluka, into "mud colored dusty blood" (listen to it here). Vultures wheel above us as we pick up the shattered remains. They'll take care of anything we miss before the sun sets.
  • It's the car bomb that explodes as a young secretary is passing, smashing her head into an unrecognizable pulp against a building, leaving swatches of her blond hair torn out at the roots, embedded in the brown stone, stained with blood and gray brain matter.
  • It's the 'community organizers' who bring their bully-boys to attack the home of a suspected informer, the wife of a labor organizer who's currently in prison. They gang-rape his wife in front of her three children, forcing them to watch; then they douse a tire in gasoline, hang it around her neck, and set fire to it, dancing around her writhing, screaming body as her head is burned into a ghastly caricature of a human being. (It later turned out she was not, and had never been, an informer . . . but by then it was too late for her, and for her children.)
  • It's the terrorist who plants a limpet mine beneath a table at a fast-food restaurant. Later that day, it blows the legs off a mother and her eight-year-old daughter as they sit eating their food. The blast leaves the woman broken, lifeless, on the floor, and her daughter screaming hysterically, trying to claw her way to her mother, dragging the stumps of her thighs across the blood-slick tiles, to die lying across her body.

You want to know what any or all of those things look like? Sound like? Smell like? I wish I could show you my mental images of these and other incidents. They're seared across the inside of my eyelids. They haunt my nightmares still. No . . . I supported any and all means to stop such terrorism then, and I'd do the same thing again in a heartbeat. Show me a terrorist, and I'll pull the trigger on him without a moment's hesitation. Such people have no place on this earth. In opposing them and their tactics, I certainly wasn't supporting the system against which they were fighting. I opposed them because they were worse than that system. (Somehow, my liberal and left-wing friends have never been able to wrap their brains around that. To them, the end excuses, even justifies, the means, whereas to me, evil means can never achieve a good end.)

Some of those servicemen were heroes, too . . . and they bear the scars of their heroism to this day. Some didn't survive their service, and I honor their memory. Some survived at the time, but were scarred for life, not just physically, but mentally and spiritually. I remember Gavin, who was a member of a patrol that found a baby, too young to walk, sitting in the middle of a dirt road in a township, crying. As the point man and a couple of others walked up to see why the baby was just sitting there, the terrorists waiting in ambush blew up the landmine they'd buried beneath her, killing the point man and savagely mutilating the other two soldiers. Bits of flesh and blood from the soldiers, and the baby, splattered all over Gavin . . . across his face . . . in his eyes, nose and mouth.

For years, Gavin would start awake in the small hours at night, a scream of horror on his lips. "They blew up a baby! A baby!" Gavin's wife eventually left him, because she couldn't handle the strain of living with his nightmares. Psychiatric treatment couldn't break the cycle; nor could alcohol, or drugs (legal and illegal). Gavin took his own life at last, too tormented by what he'd seen to endure any longer, in the small hours every night, the parade of images across his closed eyelids. He was a hero in my book . . . and I'll always remember him as such.

# # #

One of the little touches I most enjoyed about Friday's Royal Wedding in England was that the bride's bouquet was laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior the day after the wedding.

Royal brides have done this in England since the Tomb was inaugurated, starting with Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923. H. V. Morton said of the Tomb:

... An official guide, wearing an armlet, came up with two Americans, husband and wife. They read aloud the inscription:

'Beneath this stone rests the body of a British warrior, unknown by name or rank, brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land....' And so on to the splendid end: 'They buried him among the kings because he had done good towards God and towards His House....

'That's beautiful,' they said quietly, 'That's the most beautiful thing in London.'

'Those brass letters,' explained the guide,'are made from cartridge cases melted down ... cases picked up in the British lines in France after the war.

They went over to the Union Jack, and beneath it they looked at a small frame, in which is the blue-ribboned Congressional Medal of Valour, the gift of the people of the United States, the highest order in their power to bestow.


They went away, lingering here and there under the vast arch of the nave. I stood there thinking. There were flowers - a few tulips, freshly pulled, and daffodils, the first of the year....

This tomb and the Cenotaph bear witness to the greatest emotion this nation has ever felt. Children are brought here every year; and so the memory, without the sharpness, perhaps, felt by us who lived through it, goes on with another generation. In this way a nation keeps alive its holy places. Wonderful to think of this unknown boy, or man, lying here with our kings, our captains, our prophets, and our priests. It is the first time in the history of the world that this has happened. His fame is greater, too; he is Everyman who died in the War. No matter how many mothers believe that he is theirs, they are right; they are all of them right - for he is every mother's son who did not come home from France.

Always, as long as England stands in history, this marble stone will tell the story of the only unknown man to whom the great Abbey of Westminster opened its arms, saying: 'Come in, you Unknown Warrior, among the kings and the great ones of all time, for you too are great, you too spent your life nobly, and you too are for ever holy in the memory of this people.'

There's more at the link.

My fallen heroes aren't commemorated with the bouquets of Royal brides. They're not honored by an entire Empire or Commonwealth. Most are nameless, faceless, except to those of us who knew them . . . and as our memories fade, and we too pass from this world, they - and we - shall be forgotten.

But until then, I shall remember them. They're as much heroes, in my book, as all those honored by the wider world. Until I die, I shall thank God that I've known heroes. Until then, I'll try to keep their memory alive in small ways like this blog post . . . so that at least someone will remember them when I'm gone.



Home on the Range said...

The faces of the dead will always haunt, but there, as the sun peaks up over the horizon, is hope and love, where you least expected it.

Keads said...

A very thought and emotional provoking post Sir. Thank you!

Guffaw in AZ said...

Peter - I posted links to both you and Brigid. Because there was nothing more to be said.
Thank you.

trailbee said...

Thank you for a great post. Our heroes come in many shapes and sizes, some of mine are dead, some still living. They shape us, make us ponder what life might be like without them. I was the creation of two of these, sister to another, and best friends with another. I am now old and wonder at times if I was able to fill my parents' shoes. Probably not. It is good to be reminded there is still work to be done. Again, thank you.

Anonymous said...

I am pleased to see your take on the South African issues is not one-sided. As an ex-member of the parabats there I can assure you much worse thing happened such as hollowing out a baby to smuggle explosives etc.
There is no justification for apartheid, just as there is none for the situation there today.
I thank God that 80% of the whites voted for change otherwise no telling what it would be like today..

Popgun said...

With greatest respect - wow!


bruce said...

you done well

Anonymous said...

I'd type more, but for some reason my screen is blurry and there is a terribly large lump in my throat. Thank you, sir.

Anonymous said...

I can't begin to wrap my head around what you've seen in your life, Peter. I do hope I can learn from it though, and face the world as you have.


Old NFO said...

Well Said Peter, well said... Thank you for the reminder!

CenTexTim said...

Powerful and moving. I have just added you and your comrades to my list of Heroes.

Anonymous said...


Jim said...

I followed the link here from today's blog. A long read, but well worth the time.

Jesse in DC said...

I followed the link today as well. Wow... I think it suddenly got dusty in here...
You know Peter, you are a hero too. God bless men like you.