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Thread: Concept of Heroism in history

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    Concept of Heroism in history

    Ok, I'm working on my Masters thesis which is on the construction and development of the ww1 aviator hero, generally looking at the ways in which the aviator, especially the fighter pilot/ace, became, in the abstract and individually, a hero figure in British culture/literature etc in and after the Great War itself.

    By construction I mean that heroes are social constructs, individuals are given in or after their lives emotional and symbolic meaning and value by society for an act (or perhaps acts?) undertaken at sometime by the individual. They are necessitated by the surrounding culture, literature, art and social values and ideologies and are cultivated by mediators - priests in effect who develop and build up the myth and reputation of the individual as a hero. I can point to, for example, the case of Billy Bishop, who certainly had help to become a public figure thanks to the influence of Lady St Helier, who saw him as a surrogate son and used her influence and contacts - which included Winston Churchill, Lord Hugh Cecil and Max Aitken (future Lord Beaverbrook), and also Jack Scott, Bishop's sqn commander, who was also friends with Churchill, Cecil etc and wanted his squadron to be known as the best in the RFC. That's just an example.

    However on the basic principles of the 'heroic' I was thinking. We associate heroism with a single act. If a child falls into a river and is under threat of drowning and a man jumps in and saves them, that is one single act that, if taken up by a journalist etc, can be seen as 'heroic'. The Victoria Cross is awarded for single acts of valour, courage, bravery etc (even though their awarding may be influenced by political things/wider events, like Rorkes Drift etc). When Leefe Robinson shot down the SL11 (airship) over Cuffley, he was seen by thousands - it was a single act. As was the act of Boy First Class Jack Cornwell, who stood at his post at the battle of Jutland despite being mortally wounded and with his gunnery crew dead. That was a single act of devotion to duty, as described by the powers that be.

    However, these fighter pilots (except Bishop) are not awarded or recognized for specific acts of bravery, but for 'continuous acts'. Albert Ball is the first man to be awarded, as far as I am aware, to be awarded not for a single act. He, and others after him, are awarded for consistent bravery over a period of time, for example in Balls case 25th April to 6th May 1917. Now it is to be said that Ball and his fellow pilots risked their lives and were brave and devoted as soldiers to their country. Yet is this really heroic? Consistent bravery? If we take this example then most of the men in the trenches for prolonged periods, facing gas, artillery and attacks are worthy of VCs too, no? Also, if we follow this principle, does it not make the recon/observer pilots just as heroic or even more so than the fighters?

    I guess what I am getting at is, can it be possible for one to be consistently heroic or is the 'heroic' limited to a single act? If one cannot be, does that, therefore, make the fighter ace, not a hero, just a brave man doing his duty?

    I can appreciate a general view that anyone who fights in a war (obviously on a particular side) is a 'hero', but I am looking at it from the fundamental structures of heroism, heroes and the heroic 'act'. The general view of the hero is someone who performs some sort of unspecified feat, act or whatever is the one I am looking at, not an un-academic populist view of heroism (like the whole 'every soldier/mother/father/insert anyone (etc) is a hero' view).

    Thoughts?

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    Some random uneducated thoughts:

    I would agree that heroism is more associated with a discrete act rather than continuous service. An individual may repeat their heroism - see VC and bar winners, for example - but it's still being associated with individual acts. These acts are beyond what is expected of the person in question, hence the soldiers in the trenches not getting VCs.

    Which leaves the question of why fighter pilots are apparently recognised for continuous service. I would make the (completely uneducated) argument that unlike ground combat, morale isn't a major factor in dogfighting. In contrast to the image of knights of the skies, it's very mechanical - Who has the altitude? Which machine turns tighter? Which is faster, in a straight line or climbing? There's certainly skill involved, but you're expected to use your abilities. Heroism is about doing more than what is expected, showing courage. You can't make your plane fly faster or turn tighter by being courageous. Those opportunities for discrete acts where you can show bravery beyond what is expected are few and far between. I can only think of examples involving bomber crews, where the added mass and extra people makes it more likely for someone to be able to do something other than fly or have the plane go down. For example, climbing out on the wing to put a fire out - how is a fighter pilot going to do that?

    So instead fighter pilots are recognised for skill, and that skill shows over time. And if that skill is so apparent that it becomes inspirational, then it is heroic - it's so far out of the ordinary that it seems more than human, much like the bravery shown in a discrete act.

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    I think that the difference between the continuous act and single act heroism is that the single act heroism is more easy to relate to. In general it takes a very virtuous or brave person to act in continuous 'heroism', but the stories of single act heroism are of unexpected greatness.

    Think about it like this:
    A disabled wrestler winning an important match is seen and lauded as a hero.
    A physically apt wrestler who has a really succesful career? not so much. Heroism is the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, heroism is meant to inspire the layman, etc.

    I hope this will help
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    I think its two reasons for the aviators to be considered heroes. The first reason was that the countries at war need heroes, and the trench battles of WWI did not produce many poster like heroes. There were ofcourse plenty of heroes, but they did not fit the general idea of a shiny war hero. The second reason is that the aviators of WWI (and WWII) fit the poster hero bill perfectly. Knights in shiny armour fighting each other in man to man combat would for many be the ultimat image of heroes (think Richard Lionheart and Saladin), and the aviators came rather close to that image. Like the knights of the old they fought each other in man to man combat, seperated from the "peasant levies" that fought and died in the trenches most often without ever seeing the person(s) that killed them.

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    Premature anti-fascist Abdul Goatherd's Avatar

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    Add one more thing: statistics. Air-to-air kill numbers, kills-per-mission flown, etc., are relatively easy to record & track and construed as a competitive measure of skill that gives observers a measurable means to compare this ace with that ace and provoke arguments about who is "better".

    You can think of it comparably with, say, sports statistics. Number of goals scored in soccer, touchdown-to-interception ratios, yards rushing, etc. in American football, homeruns, RBIs in baseball, etc. Sports fans obsess over such individual numbers and use it to rank and value individual players and individual achievement in what are otherwise team sports.

    Numbers give a tangible and clear measure. And air numbers are easy to track and confirm. Ground numbers are harder. When you speak of fighter aces, you normally immediately give "number of kills" as his "measure", just like when introducing a baseball player, you might immediately give his RBI or homerun number. You don't do that with other personnel because their individual numbers are not tracked nor clear.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Capt. Kiwi View Post
    I would make the (completely uneducated) argument that unlike ground combat, morale isn't a major factor in dogfighting. In contrast to the image of knights of the skies, it's very mechanical - Who has the altitude? Which machine turns tighter? Which is faster, in a straight line or climbing? There's certainly skill involved, but you're expected to use your abilities. Heroism is about doing more than what is expected, showing courage. You can't make your plane fly faster or turn tighter by being courageous. Those opportunities for discrete acts where you can show bravery beyond what is expected are few and far between.
    What if fighter pilot attacks enemy despite being outgunned and outnumbered? Is it heroism? I think yes.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Abdul Goatherd View Post
    Numbers give a tangible and clear measure. And air numbers are easy to track and confirm. Ground numbers are harder. When you speak of fighter aces, you normally immediately give "number of kills" as his "measure", just like when introducing a baseball player, you might immediately give his RBI or homerun number. You don't do that with other personnel because their individual numbers are not tracked nor clear.
    Actually, air numbers are just as hard to confirm as ground numbers. It's just that in air warfare number of kills is usually an ultimate goal or a measure of efficiency. While in ground warfare its not always kills that matter. A tank crew (considering tanks usually fought enemy infantry more often than enemy tanks) supporting infantry attack looks far less remarkable than the crew destroying tanks, although former is no less efficient than the latter
    And remember - no nyash-myash

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    Quote Originally Posted by chepaeff View Post
    What if fighter pilot attacks enemy despite being outgunned and outnumbered? Is it heroism? I think yes.
    Do we have any examples of a fighter pilot attacking from a clearly disadvantaged position and succeeding? My intuition is that shock and awe and a good measure of courage more easily level ground actions than air combat. Of course, intuition is a terribly inaccurate thing to rely on.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Capt. Kiwi View Post
    Do we have any examples of a fighter pilot attacking from a clearly disadvantaged position and succeeding? My intuition is that shock and awe and a good measure of courage more easily level ground actions than air combat. Of course, intuition is a terribly inaccurate thing to rely on.
    I'm pretty sure there are some (and if pilot dies but shots down some airplanes it's still heroic act). There is always a place for shock and awe, its might be just more different than on ground
    And remember - no nyash-myash

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    Quote Originally Posted by chepaeff View Post
    What if fighter pilot attacks enemy despite being outgunned and outnumbered? Is it heroism? I think yes.
    I can get that sort of action. I mean, despite his death as a result, Werner Voss' last fight was truly incredible, and I guess worthy of some 'heroic' status, i mean the whole RFC respected Voss highly and even saw him as a sort of hero.

    Also got to mention the notion of death/sacrifice. That's a constant theme in the making of heroes, considering many pilots don't make it out of the war (well the tops 'scoring' ones anyway). Their death is taken as a sacrifice on behalf of the nation and therefore an inspiration for others to follow.

    I think what it might be is that certain social and cultural structures just made it easier to perceive the aviator as a hero, more so than the foot-soldier. The values and perceptions of society about what war is, how it should be and who it should be fought by, were transplanted onto the aviator. As a result the aviator is not so much a heroic figure because of the actions that he does, but more because of the cultural perceptions of what it is like to fight in the air. No doubt about it - the men were brave, but so were the men in the trenches, submarines, or reconnaissance planes.
    Shooting down a plane at the start of the war could be seen as something sensational, something heroic - probably because of the fact that it was so rare and unusual. By wars end it is something common, thousands of pilots had downed enemy planes. 5 used to be the amount you needed to be called an 'ace' or 'star turn'. But plenty of people got that. Obviously the men who shot down the most got press coverage, in varying degrees. I believe that only 1 VC was awarded to a pilot from Fighter Command in ww2, which is odd considering the majority of air VCs in ww1 were for fighter pilots. Many of the early VCs for aviators were for single acts, like Rhodes-Moorhouse, or Leefe Robinson, or a later example Bishop's assault on the aerodrome. But the majority of other VCs are awarded not for any single act. Which is odd considering the VC is there for a single act of bravery/valour etc.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kaiser Franz View Post
    I believe that only 1 VC was awarded to a pilot from Fighter Command in ww2, which is odd considering the majority of air VCs in ww1 were for fighter pilots.
    Because nature of air warfare changed? Tactics evolved from 1 vs.1 fights and impact on ground warfare greatly increased
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    Premature anti-fascist Abdul Goatherd's Avatar

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    Quote Originally Posted by chepaeff View Post
    Actually, air numbers are just as hard to confirm as ground numbers. It's just that in air warfare number of kills is usually an ultimate goal or a measure of efficiency. While in ground warfare its not always kills that matter. A tank crew (considering tanks usually fought enemy infantry more often than enemy tanks) supporting infantry attack looks far less remarkable than the crew destroying tanks, although former is no less efficient than the latter
    Fair enough. But my point is that numbers seem to be always associated with individual fighter ace names. Even if inaccurate, it still gives the general public something to tangible to discuss, debate and obsess over, a supposedly "objective" competitive measure of individual skill which, like in sports, lends easier to hero-worship. Sports positions which don't have a tangible "numerical measure" to sink your teeth into - a defender in soccer, offensive tackle in football, etc. - tend to get relatively overlooked.

    If the numbers weren't there, I doubt fighter aces would get as much discussion.
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    Quote Originally Posted by chepaeff View Post
    Because nature of air warfare changed? Tactics evolved from 1 vs.1 fights and impact on ground warfare greatly increased
    well, the whole 1v1 combat of ww1 was obsolete by 1917 anyway. Formation flying and group tactics had overtaken those of the 'lone wolf' very quickly. Men like Bishop, who was very much a lone wolf, were obsolete and it showed. The men of his squadron, 85 sqn, were a desperate bunch until Mannock came along and actually taught them things and organised them to fight as a group and not as a individuals.

    RE: the numbers of planes shot down and 'scoring'. Yes, the sporting element of the society from which they came from was very important. But then it was also of the making of the pilots themselves. The sporting and also chivalry imagery of the air war was a compensatory myth built up by those who fought in the air to cover the moral ambiguity of their job - they were killing people in a somewhat personal, 1 on 1 level, but they rationalized it as a chivalric, sporting thing to make up for this dodgy moral background. They were placing cultural and literary perceptions of war and sport based on the values of society pre-1914 onto their job, and it was also what the people who were back home did too. They placed these chivalric, sporting, martial values onto the airman.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kaiser Franz View Post
    Also got to mention the notion of death/sacrifice. That's a constant theme in the making of heroes, considering many pilots don't make it out of the war (well the tops 'scoring' ones anyway). Their death is taken as a sacrifice on behalf of the nation and therefore an inspiration for others to follow.
    If you are looking for overall "structures" rather than just images of air-aces, this issue of inspiration is really the key thing to follow: 19th century discourse is full of inspirational stories of the lives of particular individuals, showing how their combined admirable acts over their lifetimes build them up into a Great Man capable of Great Deeds, who is worthy of emulation and serves as an example to others. Those emulating them might not be able to live up to these heights, but can still follow the trends in their own small way.

    These narratives often coalesce around particular individual great events which serve as the pinnacle of the hero's career, but these tend to be emblematic of their overall "character" rather than simply be things which transform someone "ordinary" into a "hero."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Kaiser Franz View Post
    I believe that only 1 VC was awarded to a pilot from Fighter Command in ww2, which is odd considering the majority of air VCs in ww1 were for fighter pilots. Many of the early VCs for aviators were for single acts, like Rhodes-Moorhouse, or Leefe Robinson, or a later example Bishop's assault on the aerodrome. But the majority of other VCs are awarded not for any single act. Which is odd considering the VC is there for a single act of bravery/valour etc.
    Only one in WW2? That is interesting. The germans handed out the Pour le Mérite to aces in WWI (after 25 kills I think it was), but they kept that habit in WW2 throwing Knight's Crosses at Luftwaffe. I wonder why the british stopped.

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    I think the other VCs were for bombers, or things not necessarily for 1v1 aerial combat.
    Well if one is predisposed to that the aviator can certainly be perceived as a Fascistic hero-figure. The ultimate Nietzschean superman! H.G. Wells recounted once of a discussion with a German (i think aviator) pre-1914 and this German stated that he believed aviation would destroy democracy as only the aristocrat, or superior man, would be able to truly take on the loneliness of flight and harness its power. The fact that the Luftwaffe was a purely Nazi creation added to this, and I guess the Nazi's were of the notion that a nation without hero-worship is doomed to destruction.

    I guess a British perspective is that the individual is important, however they are not so when in the field of warfare. Heroic acts are recognized to inspire others to do thusly but it should not place the individual as higher than the team/collective effort. There really is a sense that it would invidious and wrong to pick out individuals in a way that made it more than recognizing the act itself. Handing out a a medal and the recognition that went with it was fine. To turn this person into a major public figure, it was felt, would be bad as it would create jealousy within that mans unit, arm of the service and possibly from the other services. It was more about the collective/team effort than the individual, and as such the hero was to be an inspiration for the team to play on in that way.

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    But why the change in perspective? The british and the germans both awarded medals to fighter pilots in WW1 more or less just for being successful. Then the germans continued the habits of WWI in WW2. Ofcourse they buildt up their aces (tank, sub and aviators) as heroic propaganda figures, but they just continued what everybody did in WWI. It's the british stopping the practise from WWI that is the curious thing. What had changed? And how did this change occur? Was it purely a practical reason or had something happend in the way the society looked on these heroes?

    Another thing is that VC were just given for bravery, if I don't remember wrong, while the Pour le Mérite and Knights Crosses were also given for achievements, like taking an important enemy position. That ofcourse makes the german awards more easy to understand, and the VC decorations in WWI more problematic.

    Edit. Could it be that the Blitz played a part? As I stated above a country at war need heroes to inspire them, but when I have looked at some old newsreels from that time it strikes me as the british people are portrayed as heroic. Maybe the collective "hero" pushed out the individual heroes? And if so was this done on purpose?
    Last edited by Jorsalfar; 13-05-2012 at 01:15.

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    It seems the Victoria Cross was awarded to members of the RAF during World War II.

    People can double-check that none were awarded to fighter pilots, but my assumption to start would be that there were a few handed out. Though given there were only 181 throughout the entire war... it might be a matter of sample size. The First World War saw 627, so there would be more room to squeeze in more members and branches of various services.

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    Well, certainly you have 'The Few'. They are the epitome of heroism to British people even now. Other than say Douglas Bader, Paddy Finnucane or Johnie Johnson, there are very few pilots people now can name. 'The Few' is more appropriate for a heroic ideal as they tick the boxes, not only that but they were actively seen to be doing something by the civilian population. The army was thousands of miles away fighting were the civilian population couldn't see, Fighter Command was fighting and, more importantly, defending Britain were the entire pop could see them do it. As such the whole of Fighter Command is seen as heroic to this day.

    But the collective air fighting began in ww1 and was the norm by the end. The RAF at wars end, and over the course of the writing of its official history sought to wright a mythic,. heroic and epic history that saw the whole RAF as heroic, heroic in the sense of them all having done their bit and been totally devoted to their duty as British men. When they asked if individuals should be named, it was decided to only include those who had been recognized officially for acts or those who had been killed, as it would otherwise cause what they described as 'heart-burning' among those who didn't get the recognition or mention.

    Perhaps when the army was small pre-1914 it was possible to see it in a more individualistic way, whereas with the mass armies post-1914 it was harder to do so. Perhaps a collectivization and democratization of heroism was what these wars did? Instead of specific war heroes as such, the whole army is perceived as heroic. Those in uniform are respected and honoured by most in society and seen as, by some and in some ways, as moral superiors to the civilian. They are not known individually, but are known by their uniform.

    So generally, I have this idea: fighters pilots are heroic because the values and ideologies of society at the time were conveniently able to mold themselves to accommodate the military aviator. Pre-existing values and ideas, such as that of the public school ethos, sport, chivalry, jingoism, militarism etc as shown in popular, patriotic and juvenile literature, were placed onto what the aviator did. Because of this a generic heroic view of the airman arouse quickly, helped by the press, politicians and some aviators themselves. However if we take the hero to be someone who performs an act of bravery, valour, courage, devotion to duty etc, the fighter pilot cannot be a hero in this general sense. The fighter pilot fights in the air as the foot-soldier at the front does: consistently. HOWEVER...it is the nature of the combat itself that separate this similarity and places it as exemplary. The aesthetics, along with cultural, literary and social perceptions of aerial warfare made it heroic and by proxy made pilots heroic. 1v1 combat, duels etc were exciting literary conventions into which the pilot was placed. There were, of course, single acts that, if we took my idea that heroism requires a single act, were heroic - like Robinson shooting down the SL11 or Bishop's attack on the german aerodrome, or Voss' ill-fated yet determined fight against 9 or so enemy pilots.

    So I guess that, if I am correct, that heroism does not necessary need a heroic act as such, but for the pre-existing structures and cultural/literary backgrounds to exist that can mold a heroic image onto a person, or people given a particular situation, in this case war

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    I went through the list, and as far as I can see only one fighter pilot got the VC and that was for one act of bravery, not for being "succsessful". Its true that the numbers of VC's went down in WW2, but it can not explain the lack of decorations of fighter pilots. In WWI they got decorated for being successful aces (more or less), in WW2 that practise had for some reason stopped.


    Quote Originally Posted by Kaiser Franz View Post
    Also got to mention the notion of death/sacrifice. That's a constant theme in the making of heroes, considering many pilots don't make it out of the war (well the tops 'scoring' ones anyway). Their death is taken as a sacrifice on behalf of the nation and therefore an inspiration for others to follow.
    I am not sure I can agree with this. I have looked through the british on wikis list of aces (+11 kills only) and most of the pilots on that list that died did so in 1918 or second half of 1917. By that time the hero worship of the aviators were already in place.

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