During the second presidential election debate in 1988, the Democratic candidate Gov. Dukakis was quite bewildered when he was asked: "Who are your heroes?" It was painfully obvious that he did not have any heroes, and thus had no inspiration for heroic action. Since presidents are expected to lead the nation at least occasionally -- and even possibly in a heroic fashion -- his lack of a ready response further diminished his credentials to the voters.
This incident led me to think about my own heroes. Because of my interest in world and military history, I learned to admire a number of men and women who behaved in a heroic fashion. In my childhood in Budapest I was exposed to several historical traditions. From the Old Testament I learned about the leaders of the ancient Hebrew nation. The history of Hungary presented a number of heroes. I found the history of the ancient world of Greece and Rome fascinating, and even European history supplied some heroic personalities. And unlike many other nations, Americans are especially fortunate in that their history has many heroes, and only a few major villains.
After much thought, I narrowed down my heroes to just three. Naturally, they all relate to my interest in world peace and the abolition of war. Yet interestingly enough, all three were warriors and fighters -- but they fought for causes greater than themselves. Directly or indirectly they contributed significantly to their societies, civilization and human survival.
One of the most successful military leaders in world history, he would have been just another of the conquerors of temporary empires -- like Genghis Khan or Napoleon -- except his vision went beyond military campaigns and battles. Forcibly uniting the warring Greek city-states, he undertook the conquest of the huge Persian Empire. Unlike modern day military leaders who typically hide in safe bomb shelters, he personally led the decisive charges of his cavalry in key battles. Because of his personal bravery, he gained the respect of the very people he conquered. And along the way he learned the secret of the unity of mankind. At his great feast of reconciliation at Opis, attended by 9,000 representatives from the provinces of his great empire, he proclaimed his philosophy of reconciliation and brotherhood.
His conception of unity was Concord among the nations, which demanded the elimination of their mutual antagonism. His philosophy of reconciliation may be summarized as:
His early death prevented the implementation of his ideas within his own domains. Yet his philosophy was passed into the Roman Empire, where ultimately the subject people received Roman citizenship and equality before the law. The Founding Fathers of this nation created institutions that similarly enable the functioning of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society -- perhaps ultimately becoming a model for a unified world commonwealth.
The Franciscan friar and priest, whose public career took place in the 15th century, was a faithful and tireless servant of the Roman Catholic Church, as preacher and diplomat. Although he labored ceaselessly for the spiritual and temporal welfare of his Church, his actions were not particularly heroic. His great moment came toward the end of his life.
In 1453 the greatest military power in Europe was the Turkish Empire. Armed with newly invented heavy artillery and a professional infantry, they were able to conquer Constantinople, the last remnant of the Roman Empire. Their ruler, Mahommed II was assembling a large army to advance against the rest of Europe. Only three great fortresses stood in his way -- modern day Belgrade, Budapest and Vienna. The military forces available to the rulers of the disunited European states were far inferior to the unified Turkish Empire. The fall of Belgrade appeared imminent, since the ruling nobility of Hungary shamefully refused to assist the military commander of the region. With the fall of Belgrade, in two annual campaigns Budapest and Vienna would have fallen, laying the heart of Christendom open to Muslim domination.
The only help the rest of Europe gave at this critical moment was John of Capistrano. At the age of 70 he was ordered to lead a crusade to the relief of Belgrade. Although he easily could have pleaded fatigue or old age, or both, he immediately advanced to assist the defenders of the fortress. He roused the ill-armed peasants of Hungary with such effectiveness that a sizable relief army was assembled. During July of 1456 the Turkish host was defeated, with John of Capistrano leading the left wing of the relief army. The independence of Hungary -- and the safety of European Christianity -- was secured for 70 years. His death followed shortly, from exhaustion and the plague. He is a heroic figure, for he had the vision to see the great danger threatening his fellow Christians, and he was willing to undertake the most extreme fatigues in the defense of his faith and values.
Although Alexander the Great and St. John of Capistrano are certainly heroic figures, they are also difficult to emulate. Who could match the strategic genius and the physical courage of the great Macedonian? How could one replicate the fervent devotion and zeal of the loyal servant of the Catholic Church? My third hero is more down to earth, more easy to follow.
William Lloyd Garrison initiated the abolition of slavery in the United States with his publication, The Liberator. His tireless agitation succeeded in turning public opinion gradually against the immoral social institution. To my mind, he represents the best of the moral values of America and humanity. He helped his fellow man, without financial reward and at times even at considerable physical danger. It would have been easy to ignore the plight of the enslaved black population. Garrison could have enjoyed the fruits of the slave labor -- cheap cotton garments, coffee, sugar -- while his considerable journalistic talents would have provided a good income and a leisurely lifestyle.
In our own time when greed and consumption are officially encouraged, preparation for nuclear war continues, genocide, mass starvation and subjugation of entire populations is ignored or excused by our government, William Lloyd Garrison is a hero whose example we can all emulate. We all have access to knowledge and information. Modern technology provides us with computers, instant communications and access to the media. Where Garrison had to assemble each letter of his newspaper by hand, we can use electronic publishing for the speedy production and dissemination of information. Where he had to communicate face to face with hostile audiences, we can reach millions through mass communications and the Internet.
Our national and world problems are more numerous than ever and need to be addressed urgently on a heroic scale. The abolition of the political class and the downsizing of the war institution are only two of our most crucial needs. Our global society and environment also needs much mending. Fortunately, it is much easier to follow our heroes now than it was in the past. Neither youth nor age needs to be an obstacle. Sex, race, social status are irrelevant to heroism. We need only the intelligence and determination to act in a heroic way.
I would like to close this message with a short poem I learned 48 years ago in a Philadelphia classroom for newcomers to America:
"Lives of great men all remind us
That we can make our lives sublime.
And departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time."
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