Heroes in the Age of the Antihero

We Americans are in a serious quandary.  Our national mythology—like the mythologies of most nations—requires us to pay tribute to the heroes of the past.  Once upon a time, Fourth of July speeches routinely invoked the bravery of George Washington and his men, their sufferings at Valley Forge, and their surprise crossing of the Delaware.  We admired the brilliance and gallantry of Lee, the steadfastness of Grant, the reckless fortitude of Custer, the toughness of commanders such as Black Jack Pershing or George Patton, the personal bravery of Alvin York and Audie Murphy.  And if Grant was an alcoholic butcher and Custer, an incompetent war criminal, we preferred to ignore their shortcomings, remembering that Grant was cool under fire and that Custer died gamey.

And then came Vietnam, and images of Alvin York and Audie Murphy were replaced by those of Lt. William Calley and the My Lai massacre.  But long before My Lai and the so-called Vietnam syndrome of cynicism and dishonor, Americans were already being trained to prefer existentialist antiheroes to the red-blooded Marines who stormed the shores of Tripoli.  Even before Sartre’s repellent self-portrait as Mathieu (in L’age de raison) and Camus’ Stranger, there was Bogart on film and the English poets who were understandably demoralized by the horror of the trenches in World War I.  Poets often have...

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