“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible,” wrote George Orwell in 1946.

Sadly, that is true of our time too, and nowhere more so than in the constant, insidious use of the word “hero” to describe every current member of our armed forces.

Nowadays it is claimed that, merely by joining up, an individual becomes a hero, but this wasn’t always the case. A hero used to be defined as an individual who commits a brave and selfless act, on behalf of a noble cause.

Clever, propagandistic sleight of hand has subverted the word, however, such that the very act of being willing to take part in a conflict – and thereby become a “hero” – carries with it the implication that the conflict itself is automatically noble (and therefore justified).

These are the sentiments which are expressed by the charity Help for Heroes, which was founded in 2007, to help men and women wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I cannot stress too much how profoundly I believe that anybody injured, in whatever circumstances, should receive every possible care and succour. I nevertheless find the claims which Help for Heroes makes disingenuous: “We are strictly non political and non critical. We believe that anyone who volunteers to serve in time of war, knowing that they may risk all, is a hero … We may not be able to prevent our soldiers from being wounded, but together we can help them get better.”

Far from being “non political”, this statement is actually intensely political. It both redefines the word “hero”, in the way I have described, and goes on to imply that this wretched and despicable waste of young lives is unavoidable.

And that is simply not true. There are a whole host of ways in which we can prevent our soldiers from being wounded. Foremost among them is not getting involved in wars in the first place. Or we could simply not have a military at all.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Help for Heroes is playing into the hands of those politicians who are willing to send young men and women to their deaths, using the same kind of rhetoric which caused millions to die in the World War I.

And, tragically, now as then, many good, well-meaning, courageous and decent individuals believe it.

Doubtless, once in the war zones, some of these soldiers do, indeed, commit brave and selfless acts for noble reasons. But the fact is that they have no more business to be facing danger in the present scenes of conflict than they did in the battlefields of Flanders.

They have been deliberately and cynically duped.

“It is useful to remember that no matter where we turn, there is rarely any shortage of elevated ideals to accompany the resort to violence. The words … may be stirring in their nobility, but should also be examined in practice,” says the writer Noam Chomsky in his book Hegemony or Survival.

Chomsky draws attention to the analogies between America’s contemporary stance and that of England during the 19th century.

At a time when the country “was engaged in some of the worst crimes of its imperial reign”, he points out, it nevertheless maintained that it was peace-loving, unaggressive and only dedicated to serving others, “including the barbarians it conquers and destroys for their own benefit”.

And it is when these “barbarians” fight back, that we encounter another word, which has long been used for political ends, and which is much employed by David Cameron today: “cowardice”.

In Cameron’s lexicon “cowardice” is another word for “bad”. Witness the fact that he frequently describes the actions of suicide bombers as “cowardly”.

Yes, suicide bombers may be many things that we deem reprehensible, but one thing they are not is cowardly.

To refer to them thus, however, is a neat way to avoid having to examine what has driven them to these desperate and ruthless acts: craven behaviour speaks for itself; heroes, on the other hand, have nothing to explain.

The contrast between supposed heroism and cowardice is also a useful means for controlling one’s own side.

While the “hero” is applauded as he or she marches off to die, cowardice is deeply stigmatised. Its definitions under military law include such acts as desertion and surrendering without orders i.e. acting rationally in the face of peril. In the past in Britain it was punishable by execution.

If you cannot exhort individuals into needless bravery, shame them into it, or enforce it by firing squad.

And yet, how much safer the world would be if we all were cowards. By substituting a less loaded term, the philosopher Bertrand Russell illustrates the extent to which “cowardice” makes perfect sense: “Enlightened self-interest is, of course, not the loftiest of motives, but those who decry it often substitute, by accident or design, motives which are much worse, such as hatred, envy and the love of power. On the whole, the school … which preached enlightened self-interest, did more to increase human happiness, and less to increase human misery, than was done by the schools which despised it in the name of heroism and self-sacrifice.”

The word “enlightened” is key here. Russell is not talking about blind selfishness, nor does he suggest that self-interest should be applied in all cases.

And rightly. The world will always need heroes, but we have a moral duty to ensure that those who act heroically are called upon to do so by situations which are outside our control, and solely for the purpose of preserving life. One need only cite Charlie Simpson’s recent articles on shipping in Shetland for numerous examples.

Let us not be reckless, but if circumstances should compel an individual to risk all, let it be in order to perform such supreme acts of kindness, which truly merit the word hero.

Cathy Feeny


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.