Heroes and Leaders

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Heroes and Leaders


People do not always go to war as warriors or soldiers, let alone heroes or leaders, but they can become heroes or leaders in the heat of battle. While it can bring out the very worst in humanity, combat also has the ability to bring out the best in an individual. Bravery, valor, heroism, and sacrifice in battle are qualities dear to many characters in war literature, both fictional and historical. These same characteristics mark soldiers for distinction in battle, and make them leaders of men. A warrior's experiences in war can make him a postwar leader, as many cultures throughout history have placed high importance on a leader's ability to successfully wage war.

However, not everyone who survives war is a hero, and not all heroes survive war. Great leaders and heroes in combat are not even always on the winning side. Regardless of the outcome of the war, it is a hero's behavior during battle that sets him or her apart, not his or her success in war.

Heroes in the Ancient World

In her young adult novel Troy (2001), Adèle Geras introduces four new characters to the legendary tale of the sacking of Troy: Marpessa, Helen's servant; her sister Xanthe, the nursemaid to the son of Hector, Paris's doomed brother; Iason, a stable-boy in love with Xanthe; and Alastor, Marpessa's lover. These characters live in close proximity to the major players in the battle for Troy, but do not participate in the fighting themselves. The view of heroism in this story differs significantly from the view that readers in Homer's time held. In ancient Greece, heroes were semidivine—the chosen few aided by the gods. Not just anyone could be a hero. In the twenty-first century, however, when Geras wrote the novel, heroism is demonstrated by the ability to live life as normally as possible while under fire and to continue daily duties and responsibilities without collapsing in fear. Everyone has the capacity to be a hero. The greatest victory over an enemy—and a type of everyday heroism—is to live defiantly and full of hope in the face of attack and capture.

If heroism means continuing with one's appointed duties regardless of fear, Beowulf presents another example of a hero, one who later becomes a leader. Beowulf was a legendary pagan king who lived 1500 years ago in southern Sweden, and his story has survived in a thousand-year-old poemin Old English written by an unknown author. Beowulf destroys a terrible monster named Grendel who has been terrorizing the court of the King of Denmark. Of his exploits, Beowulf says: "What we did was what our hearts helped / Our hands perform; we came to fight / With Grendel, our strength against his." When Grendel's mother seeks revenge, Beowulf pursues her to her lair and kills her as well. His bravery and prowess against such fearful foes make him a respected leader, and he eventually becomes king: "Well-loved, followed in friendship, not fear."

Fifty years later, a mighty dragon threatens his people. In order to protect them, Beowulf fights the dragon and slays it, but is mortally wounded. Because he has no heir and has always fought alone, no one can replace him. Thus, despite his victory and heroism against the dragon, his people are doomed without their heroic leader. The ending of this story reflects the pessimistic view in pagan Anglo-Saxon culture that life is brief, dark, and fateful, even for mighty warriors like Beowulf. However, without heroic leaders like Beowulf, it would have been much worse. This poem also shows the importance that Anglo-Saxons placed on a leader's warrior past, and the importance of loyalty to one's duty and one's people. Beowulf's prowess makes him a great warrior, but his loyalty makes him a hero.

Heroes in the Middle Ages

Like Beowulf, Sir Gawain, a knight of the Round Table and nephew of King Arthur, is a hero well known to his people. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a fourteenth-century Middle English poem by an unknown author, Gawain fights a mysterious Green Knight. Like Grendel in Beowulf's story, the Green Knight attacks Gawain's lord, King Arthur, in his own court, taunting him: "Where now is your arrogance and your awesome deeds, / Your valor and your victories and your vaunting words?" After Gawain cuts off the Green Knight's head with an axe, the knight challenges him to receive a similar blow in a year's time. Gawain agrees. He embarks on a journey that prepares him for his final encounter, swearing to remain chaste for the entire year. Despite temptation, he keeps his promise. This saves his life when he encounters the Green Knight once more, and he returns home triumphant.

Unlike Beowulf's, Gawain's victory is a real one that he lives to enjoy. However, the victory of "our worthy knight" is due as much to his wisdom, mercy, and generosity as it is to his physical courage. In the time in which this poem was written, importance was placed not only on winning a battle, but the manner in which it was fought. Medieval culture required the bravery of the knightly class to be tempered by the humility and chastity of Christian virtues. Gawain's ability to adhere to both the codes of war and of peace make him a true hero and a leader.

Tariq Ali's novel The Book of Saladin (1998) is a fictional memoir of the great twelfth-century Muslim general Saladin, as recorded by a Jewish scribe, Isaac ibn Yahub. Saladin fought the crusaders in the Holy Land and had many successes against them. Though he took Jerusalem from the Christians in 1187, both Christians and Muslims regarded Saladin, like Sir Gawain, as a great chivalric hero because of his conduct in war. Saladin is an excellent example of a man who was a hero even to his enemies.

Through ibn Yahub's fictional account, Ali shows why people loved and respected Saladin so much by presenting him as an ordinary man doing ordinary things. Saladin is a powerful and charismatic leader, yet still he must deal with an adulterous wife, with negative perceptions of him, and with personal insecurities. Though he began life as a poor Kurdish boy, he is able to gain great power and respect through his conduct in battle, qualities as prized—if increasingly rare—in the contemporary era in which this book was written, as in the time of Saladin.

In sharp contrast to Saladin was thirteenth-century Asian conqueror Genghis Khan, who was feared as a monster by both Christians and Muslims. He was the great Mongol general whose armies conquered a wide and long-lasting empire spanning the Asian continent from China to Baghdad until his death in 1227. His sons continued his empire, which lasted for several generations before falling apart. Whereas chivalry and conduct were prized in leaders like Sir Gawain and Saladin, Genghis Khan's leader-ship appeared to be one of oppression and force, careless of the welfare of his subjects.

Genghis was not only a fearsome conqueror, but also a man of great courage and fortitude who founded a dynasty that endured in some places until the nineteenth century. He successfully inspired—or intimidated—his people to follow him and his descendants for centuries after his death. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2004), Jack Weatherford presents a different vision of Genghis from that of destructive conqueror. He argues that Genghis's empire created more than it destroyed, fostering trade and a transmission of ideas between East and West. This reinterpretation of Genghis Khan, nearly eight hundred years after his death, shows that not all leaders are universally respected, and sometimes the perspective of history can expose qualities about those leaders that were not seen in their own time. They can be heroes to some, and monsters to others.

Not all great warriors are men, as women have also fought in wars throughout history. One of the most illustrious of these women warriors was Joan of Arc. She was a simple peasant girl born in the south of France in 1412. Visions and voices of saints prompted her to take up arms against the English, who had invaded France. She inspired the Dauphin—the son of the King of France—to fight the English, taking back the city of Rheims from them. She led the army herself and fought at its head, in full armor. Joan of Arc's leadership through example, fighting alongside her men in battle and risking death, earned her the reputation of a fearless hero to the French.

Joan of Arc's career was short. In 1430, she was wounded in battle and captured by the English, who tried her for heresy and burned her at the stake in 1431. However, her death inspired the French to drive out the English and she became a martyr for the French cause. She has since become one of the greatest heroes in the history of France. American author Mark Twain was so impressed by Joan that he wrote her biography, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1885). In the Preface, Twain writes:

She was truthful when lying was the common speech of man; she was honest when honesty was become a lost virtue;… she was of a dauntless courage when hope and courage had perished in the hearts of her nation.

To Twain, she was an unsullied heroine in a sullied time who did not deserve her fate. Yet, she somehow rose above it, even after death, becoming a French hero and a Catholic saint.

Nineteenth-Century Heroes

C. S. Forrester's fictional British captain, Horatio Hornblower, is a traditional type of hero in the British literary tradition of Sir Gawain. He is strong, resourceful, and ethical, doing his job for his king and his country. He makes his fortune as a captain in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In Beat to Quarters (1937), Forrester's first book in his Hornblower series, Captain Hornblower sails to the Pacific during the Napoleonic Wars. He undergoes this long and treacherous journey in order to cut Napoleon's shipping ties with Nicaragua. All the while, he contends with directives from the British Admiralty that are nearly impossible to carry out, yet he manages to do so every time. Hornblower is the type of leader for whom "no" is an unacceptable answer, and he leads his men with authority and confidence. Forrester's hero, Hornblower, resonated with his readers at the time, who had lived through the horrors of World War I and embraced the patriotic and ethical manner in which Hornblower conducted himself, even in the face of adversity.

African leader Shaka Zulu was a historical contemporary of the fictional Hornblower. Born around 1787 in southern Africa, he rose from obscure origins to become one of the continent's greatest heroes. Under Shaka's leadership, the Zulu nation became a war machine. Several decades after his death, his people successfully took on and destroyed the greatest military power of the late nineteenth century, the British, at the battle of Isandlwanha in 1879. Armed with nothing more than heavy spears and the discipline originally instilled by Shaka, Zulu warriors routed a British army armed with modern firearms. Shaka's leadership was strong enough to influence a generation of Zulu warriors long after his death.

E. A. Ritter's young adult novel Shaka Zulu (1955) tells Shaka's story in a fictionalized account that combines the myth of Shaka Zulu with facts surrounding his life. Like Genghis Khan, Shaka gained a reputation as a monster in many Western accounts at the time mainly because he led successful campaigns against Western armies. However, Ritter shows that to the Zulus, who remain a proud nation to this day largely because of Shaka's successes, he remains a great and mighty hero. Like Weatherford's reexamination of Genghis Khan, Ritter's book about Shaka Zulu offers a new perspective on a leader whose positive attributes and contributions have been largely unacknowledged for centuries.

Forty years after Shaka Zulu took power in 1816, America found itself at the end of the bloody Civil War. Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson fought on the side of the doomed rebel Confederacy. In fact, Jackson did not survive the war, dying in 1863. Lee lived to complete the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in 1865. Despite fighting on the losing side in the war, both men are remembered today as chivalric heroes of the caliber of Beowulf, Sir Gawain, and Horatio Hornblower, because of their honorable conduct and military prowess relative to the generals of the Union army. They fought not for the maneuverings of politics and government, but because they felt they were defending their country and their way of life.

In his novel Gods and Generals (1996), Jeffrey Shaara writes a fictionalized account of the generals on the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg. He discusses the events leading up to the battle with reference to Lee and Jackson, as well as their Union opponents from the North, Generals Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Winfield Scott Hancock. Shaara focuses on the decisions and emotions that led up to this battle, through the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Gods and Generals shows how people can fight on opposite sides yet still be heroes in war. He writes of how Jackson earned his nickname and the respect of his troops: "Yes, sir. It was General Jackson. Saved the day, he did. Drove them bluebellies all the way back to Washington! They's sayin' he stood his men up like a stone wall!" Written one hundred and thirty years after the end of the war, Gods and Generals provides yet another example of how modern scholars and readers attempt to dissect the motives of some of history's greatest leaders.

One of America's greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln, is the subject of Walt Whitman's poem "O Captain! My Captain!" (1865), which reminds readers that not all heroes survive their victories. Like Beowulf, the ship captain in the poem is killed during his greatest battle, and his body is brought back to a crowd eager to celebrate the crew's victory. The narrator of the poem is a sailor on the captain's ship. Whitman specialized in evoking the strong emotions brought up in wartime, such as the juxtaposition, or comparison, of the conflicting emotions of joy and sorrow, victory and defeat. In this case, he shows the tragedy of a sailor seeing his captain struck down when they both should be enjoying the captain's military triumph. The sailor trusts his captain's leadership so thoroughly that he calls him "father," trusting him as a son would a parent: "Here Captain! dear father! / This arm beneath your head! / It is some dream that on the deck, / You've fallen cold and dead."

Though the poemis about a naval captain, it was actually written in response to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. A supporter and admirer of Lincoln, Whitman felt as though the country had been robbed of its hero and leader on the day Lincoln was killed. While Americans rejoiced at the end of the long Civil War, their joy was mixed with sorrow that Lincoln was no longer with them to celebrate. Victory, the poem illustrates, does not always guarantee a happy ending.

Twentieth-Century Heroes

Though war literature often depicts the glory and sacrifice of battle, it can also show the horrors of war and the fear many men feel about having to fight—and kill—other men. Yet heroes exist in these environments nonetheless. One might argue that they flourish there. American Sergeant Alvin York was a hero of the World War I, which was fought between 1914 and 1918. Battles were waged in the trenches, with opposing sides leading attacks on each other's trenches, often resulting in hand-to-hand and bayonet combat in addition to warfare that uses mustard gas, artillery, and bombs.

York did not want to fight in the war, and had been drafted into service. However, when he found himself forced to attack a German machine gun nest, he did this so successfully that he later won the Congressional Medal of Honor. In Sergeant York and the Great War (1930), a novelization of York's diaries that had been published in 1928, Tom Skeyhill presents York as a person who rose to the occasion in extraordinary circumstances. York might never have become a hero if he had not gone to war. But when faced with battle, he met the challenge despite fear or reservations, acting with courage and distinction. His conduct, like that of Saladin and Horatio Hornblower before him, earned him the title of hero.

Some might argue that examples of heroism and courage are easy to come by in times of war, but more difficult to find in everyday life. Before he became President of the United States, John F. Kennedy fought in World War II in the Navy. After the war, he wrote Profiles in Courage (1954), a book highlighting eight politicians from American history who made unpopular moral stands: John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, Edmund G. Ross, George Norris, and Robert A. Taft. Despite his military background, Kennedy did not choose to write about war heroes. Instead, he wanted to show that courage does not always entail doing what is popular, but in doing what is right, regardless of the consequences. Of Sam Houston—who was the president of the Republic of Texas, then a U.S. senator from Texas, and later the governor of the State of Texas—Kennedy writes: "He could be all things to all men—and yet, when faced with his greatest challenge, he was faithful to himself and to Texas." The most important lesson in courage is showing bravery, not in time of war, but in the battles that one has to fight for what one believes. Courage off the battlefield may sometimes be the very thing that keeps soldiers from having to fight at all.

Anton Myrer's Once an Eagle (1968) is a Marine Corps classic, and is sometimes used as a textbook in leadership classes at West Point Academy. It tells the story of two types of soldiers: Sam Damon, who wins battles and lives to serve the men under his command, and Courtney Massengale, who uses his position and his men to climb the military ladder, no matter what the cost.

Damon and Massengale learned how to be soldiers in World War II, but the novel is set during the Vietnam War. Myrer himself served as a Marine during World War II, but eventually decided war was wrong, and this standpoint colored his view of the Vietnam War. Thus, his hero, Damon, tries to end the Vietnam War, while his villain, Massengale, profits from it. The hero of Once an Eagle, which was written during the height of the Vietnam War, is the leader who is advocating the end of fighting, reflecting the growing opposition to the war in 1968. Damon, in the literary tradition of Sergeant York, is the soldier that modern soldiers hope to become, while Massengale is the one they fear they will become, or will be forced to serve under.


The first thing that heroism requires is courage, regardless of whether a hero fights in a war or for peace. As these works have shown, victory does not automatically make a hero, nor does popularity or fame. In fact, a hero often labors in obscurity, sometimes despised by others. It is how a person—fighting on the strength of his or her convictions—reacts to adversity that makes him or her a hero. War is an event that inflicts hardships and change upon people. This is why examples of heroes are so often found in war literature and why, when one thinks of war, one often thinks of heroism.


Kennedy, John F., Profiles in Courage, Perennial Classics, 2000, pp. 98-99.

Shaara, Jeffrey, Gods and Generals, Ballantine Books, 1998, p. 149.

Twain, Mark, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, The Litrix Reading Room, www.litrix.com (September 12, 2005), originally published by Harper & Brothers, 1899.

Unknown, Beowulf, in Vol. 1 of The Norton Anthology: World Masterpieces, 6th ed., edited by Maynard Mack, W. W. Norton, 1992, pp. 1071-73.

Unknown, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in Vol. 1 of The Norton Anthology: World Masterpieces, 6th ed., edited by Maynard Mack, W. W. Norton, 1992, pp. 1500, 1549.

Whitman, Walt, "O Captain! My Captain!", in Leaves of Grass: First and Death-bed Editions, edited by Karen Karbiener, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. p. 484.