Though much is taken, much abides and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, what we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

What is a Hero?

Is a the man who wins a war a hero? The athlete that scores the tie-breaking goal? The inventor of a wonderful tool? The woman who sacrifices every day to raise her children? The banker who brings in that big account? What about the person who bombs a crowded market?

Each of these sorts of people have been called heroes. Can we really use the same label for Albert Schweitzer and Arnold Schwarzeneggar? What meaning, then, does the word really have?

There is a common thread running through all of these people. It is the fact that they are role-models. This is neither good nor evil. Both Gandhi and Hitler have been heroes to someone. What matters is why we choose the heroes we do. Personally, my heroes are either people who have been willing to sacrifice themselves for a higher cause or those who have achieved great things despite enormous obstacles. As in Ulysses, it is those who strive, and do not yield.

Examine a person's heroes, and you will begin to see that person as he or she would like to see themselves. Here then, are some of my heroes.

Edward Bushell

Bushell is a minor character in history, and is included for exactly that reason. He was an ordinary man whose dedication to an ideal marks a great turning point in human justice. In 1670, Bushell was jury foreman at the sedition trial of William Penn in London. Penn, who later went on to found the American colony of Pennsylvania, was on trial for being a Quaker and speaking publicly. No evidence was introduced at the trial regarding the content of Penn's speech, but a great deal of emphasis was placed on the fact that the King had taken a personal interest in the trial and wanted Penn condemned.

It took Bushell and the jury less than fifteen minutes of deliberation to return a verdict of Not Guilty (actually, the verdict merely said that Penn was guilty of speaking to an assembly - not a crime even then). The presiding judge was apoplectic. He ordered the jury back into deliberations and fined them all forty marks (about two years' wages). When they again returned the same verdict, he threatened to have Bushell's nose cut off for defying the King. He said "Gentlemen, you shall not be dismissed till we have a verdict the court will accept; and you shall be locked up without meat, drink, fire and tobacco. You shall not think thus to abuse the court; we will have a verdict, or by the help of God, you shall starve for it."

The entire jury spent several nights in London's infamous Newgate prison, but uniformly refused to return a verdict of Guilty. When the judge demanded to know when Bushell would change his mind the answer he received was unequivocal. "Never," replied Bushell. Eventually, Penn was set free and the jury imprisoned. Bushell spent several weeks in one of the worst prisons in England. On appeal, England's Chief Justice, Justice Vaughn, affirmed that a jury must be free to speak its conscience and cannot be fined for it's verdict. Bushell's case, 84 Eng. Rep. 1123; 6 State Trials 999 (C.P. 1670).

The courage of Edward Bushell and his fellow jurors established for all time the independence of juries in the Common Law nations. The most cherished part of our legal system was given weight and validity by sixteen common men possessed of an uncommon courage. And at their head was Edward Bushell.

CDR Ernest Evans, USN

The United States, and a few other nations around the world, have in their midst a whole group of heroes whose labor on behalf of their nation is done at sea, cut off from their families, their homes and the reassuring sight of land. All too often, we forget their endless watch on the seas.

Commander Evans exemplifies the best in martial service. Ernest "Chief" Evans, a naval academy graduate of Cherokee indian descent was the commanding officer of the destroyer USS Johnston on 25 October 1944, when that ship was part of the task force known as "Taffy III" patrolling off Samar island in the Phillipines. Taffy III was a tiny rearguard, protecting General MacArthur's troops as they landed on Leyte.

VADM Sprague, Taffy III's commander, thought that ADM Halsey's Task Force 34 was guarding the San Bernardino strait, when in fact Halsey had moved north to challenge Japanese VADM Ozawa's Northern Force, a decoy. The bulk of the Japanese fleet, under VADM Kurita, was bearing down on Taffy III, prepared to rip it to shreds. Taffy III consisted of six tiny escort carriers, three destroyers and four small destroyer escorts. Kurita's Center Force consisted of four battleships, seven cruisers and eleven destroyers. Taffy III was hopelessly outgunned.

Johnston, the closest American ship to the Japanese fleet, turned toward it and charged, followed by USS Hoel and USS Roberts. The closing speed between the Johnston and the attack cruiser CA Kumano was more than 60 knots. Johnston's small guns had less than half the range of Kumano's, not to mention the mammoth guns of the battleships. Johnston put ten torpedoes into Kumano, then reversed course and continued to run the gauntlet of one of the most powerful fleets ever assembled. She was torn apart by heavy 14-inch and 6-inch shells. She lost her fire control, her compass, her radio and all but one engine. Yet over the course of the next three hours, Evans and Johnston's crew repeatedly steamed between the mighty fleet and the vulnerable escort carriers.

Evans himself was repeatedly wounded, but refused to leave the bridge or take his ship out of the fight. His shirt was blown off his body by an explosion on the bridge. Half of his left hand was torn off. But he and his heroic crew continued to make attack runs on the Japanese fleet. Johnston was finally cornered and sunk at 1010 in the morning, three and a half hours after she first charged the Kumano. The flagship of Japanese Destroyer Squadron 10, which had riddled her with 5-inch shells, fired a salute as she went down.

The Japanese commander, VADM Kurita, unaware of the completeness of his victory, was convinced that he'd just tangled with the screening force of Halsey's Task Force 34, and retreated back the way they'd come. If not for the courage and determination of CDR Evans, his crew and the men of Taffy III, the vulnerable escort carriers would have been destroyed, and MacArthur's landing force annihiliated. 1,130 members of Taffy III died in what would eventually be known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Of 327 crewman aboard USS Johnston, only 141 survived.

Banner for "Battle off Samar" - Taffy III at Leyte Gulf

Morris Dees

Morris DeesMorris Dees is America's foremost crusader against hate crimes. He co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group of lawyers that specializes in civil-rights violations and racially motivated crimes. The center exposes and undermines American hate groups, ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to anti-government militias.

In 1981, when Klan members lynched a black man in Mobile, Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Klan for inciting violence and won a $7-million judgment. The importance of this victory cannot be overstated. The precedent was established that criminals cannot hide behind organizations. Membership in groups that espouse and encourage crime makes the member liable for damages caused.

Dees also successfully prosecuted and won a $12-million judgment against Tom Metzger, racist leader of the hate group known as "White Aryan Resistance". Metzger had encouraged some skinheads in Portland, Oregon to "defend the Aryan race" by violence. Later that day, when Metzger was far away, the young men beat and stomped an innocent Ethiopian man named Mulugeta Seraw, to death. Dees established Metzger as the proximate cause of the crime and make him accountable. In these two cases, Dees was able to attribute the murders to the hateful beliefs of a larger organization, thus "holding accountable once and for all" groups that advocate violence as a means for advancing their ideas, he said.

Dees' life has been threatened on many occasions, and the vicious hate group known as "The Order" actually planned to kidnap and torture him prior to their capture by the authorities. Yet he continues to crusade against hatred, racial injustice and the abuse of the desperately poor. He denies any status as a hero, but his quiet determination that evil will not go unremarked or unchallenged marks Morris Dees as a great man, and is what makes him one of my heroes.


"Stranger, announce to the Spartans that we
lie here dead, obedient to their words"

Statue of LeonidasAnother characteristic of heroism is that it can be found anywhere. Leonidas was the king of Sparta (Lacedaemon) who commanded the Greek armies at one of the most important battles in human history: Thermopylae. In 489 B.C., the Persians (known to the Greeks as the Medes) had invaded Greece in overwhelming numbers. The Greek city-states were trying to assemble their armies at the plain of Marathon, and Leonidas took a tiny force of 300 Spartans and Thespians to the narrow mountain pass through which the Persians would have to pass to reach Marathon. The Persians numbered more than an hundred thousand.

Thermopylae was important because Persia was the world's first true superpower. It dominated Asia and sought to dominate Europe. If the Greeks had lost at Marathon, Western civilization would have died at birth. And the Greeks could not have won at Marathon without the brave stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae.

To call what the Spartans did at Thermopylae 'brave' is to misunderstand the scale of the action. Thousands of Persian soldiers, including the very best, the 'Immortals', tried repeatedly to destroy the tiny force that blocked their way. Every Greek soldier was outnumbered more than ten to one in each clash. They knew, with an absolute certainty, that not one of them would survive the battle, and yet they kept the mighty Persian army at bay for a critical six days.

Leonidas and his men knew what was at stake, and knew that every hour they bought for the army assembling at Marathon was just that much more chance that the Greeks could defeat the Persian juggernaut before them. Many men have risked death for their countries, but these men took no risk: death was a certainty. Yet even though the way to flee was clear behind them, they held the pass to the last man, even launching a series of daring charges to recover the body of Leonidas once he had died, for he stood in the front rank throughout the fighting.

People need not be soldiers to be heroes, and it is the spirit of the Spartans that made them heroic, not their victories. Indeed, it was in defeat that they showed their truest selves. Some of us, at one time in our lives or another, will have to make the choice to either give up our principles or give up everything else that is dear to us. That choice, though devastating, holds a terrible beauty: the chance to know who and what we really are.


Honor to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they're rich, and when they're poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that Ephialtis will turn up in the end,
that the Medes will break through after all.

C. P. Cavafy (1903)

George WashingtonImage of George Washington

First in War, First in Peace,
First in the hearts of his Countrymen.

The first popularly elected head of state in more than twenty-three centuries, George Washington has had an enormous amount of praise and adulation from the nation that calls him 'the father of his country." He is more symbol than man, now. We tell our children that he never told a lie, and that he starved with his men at Valley Forge, even though we know these things to be untrue.

It is right an fitting that any nation find for itself heroes, or make them. Symbols are in many ways far more important than the actual people underlying the legends. For instance, it doesn't really matter whether King Arthur ever existed: his power as a symbol far outweighs any importance he might have had as an historical figure. But when our national heroes are modern men, whose lives can be examined, we all too often find them lacking; our symbols become soiled with reality.

George Washington is a remarkable and notable exception. The United States was blessed at her birth by having not one leading figure, but a whole host of great men, what one historian calls 'that galaxy of demigods'. Jefferson, Madison, Mason, Henry, Adams, Hamilton, Franklin, Jay...the list is a very long one. But the interests and views of these Founding Fathers were never less than fractious, always at odds. And it is here that Washington's greatest asset showed through. Not his martial ability, nor his keen intelligence, but his complete and utter moral integrity. Members of both parties (Federalist and Anti-Federalist) trusted implicitly that Washington would remain impartial and so he was the only one they would trust as President of the Congress, and later, of the United States.

Unlike modern politicians, Washington sought no fame or limelight. Rather he turned his talents on those things he felt were his duty, and did them quietly and with energy and diligence. On one famous instance where he did act decisively to preserve the nation, he did so, characteristically, by personally appealing to the better natures of his men. In that case, the Continental Army, furious over not having been paid in years, assembled to vote on a motion to march out of the country, leaving it defenseless. Washington went among them at their angriest and took the podium to speak. But in the dim light, he could not read the words he had written down. So the crowd of soldiers waited while he found his spectacles. "Forgive me", he said. "I have grown old in the service of my country." So shamed were the angry soldiers at seeing this, that they crowded and clamored about him, ending the meeting. Washington later forced Congress to pay the Army some of what they were owed.

During his life, Washington was many things: Surveyor, Farmer, Businessman, Soldier, and Statesman. The United States might well not exist if not for Washington's military ability, but it was his personal moral integrity, so great that it was felt without question by 'that galaxy of demigods', that brought respect and faith to the Presidency. Men were willing to believe that a single man could lead without trying to rule, that great power does not necessarily corrupt the man who wields it.

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