The Death of Heroes, the Recovery of the Heroic

By Hein, David | The Christian Century, December 22, 1993 | Go to article overview

The Death of Heroes, the Recovery of the Heroic


Hein, David, The Christian Century


GOERGE BUCHANAN Redwood enlisted in the infantry immediately following the U.S. declaration of war in April 1917. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in action at Seicheprey, France, on March 28, 1918. He led a patrol of men into a dangerous portion of the enemy's trenches, where his men surrounded a unit nearly double their own strength, captured a larger number than themselves, drove away an enemy rescuing party, and made their way back to their lines with four prisoners, who yielded useful information.

In May 1918 the German army was carrying out its last great offensive, pushing toward the Marne River and threatening Paris itself. On May 28 American troops scored their first success of the war, capturing and holding the town of Cantigny. This victory was of little strategic importance, but it demonstrated the fighting ability of the American Expeditionary Force and re-inforced the decision to permit General John Joseph Perishing to establish a separate army. During the battle, Lieutenant Redwood was killed by a high-explosive shell; he was the first Marylander killed in action. He had undertaken a personal reconnaissance mission to obtain information about the enemy's lines, which were reported to be under consolidation. While sketching a map of the German position, he came under heavy fire. Though fatally wounded, he continued to work until the drawing was completed. His sketch, secured during the night, provided the Americans with valuable intelligence. For this act Redwood was awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster (worn with the DSC) and the Croix ede Guerre with palm. In his honor, German Street in downtown Baltimore was renamed Redwood Street.

Among Redwood's papers at the Maryland Historical Society is a letter from Sergeant Max Rosenbaum, whose life Redwood saved at Cantigny. Rosenbaum, severely wounded, was carried by Redwood "regardless of his own safety" through intense machine gun and artillery fire to a spot out of harm's way. Rosenbaum called him "the Hero of Heroes" of his division.

Such language was familiar in those days. But after World War I, we in the

West became disillusioned with the concept of "the hero." In Ernest Hemingway's Farewell to Arms, Lieutenant Frederick Henry speaks for all those now embrassed by such words as "glorious," "sacred" and "sacrifice." The notion of the hero died, it was said, on the fields of Flanders, amid the putrefaction and stench of modem, mechanized butchery.

In fact, heroism is an idea that has been subject to cyclical ups and downs: it was up, say some scholars, in the acient period, the early Middle Ages, the High Renaissance, and--thanks to the Romantic Age's predilection for great men and individuality--the 19th century; it was down in the later Middle Ages and the 18th and 20th centuries. Journalist Harrison Salisbury is only the latest among many commentators to note that ours "is not the age of heroes." But the current devaluing of heroes may be more than just a passing phase. We may be witnessing the end of a downward spiral: the death of the hero as a feature of Western culture.

We have experienced with ever-increasing electronic rapidity the fall of clergy, sports heroes, politicians and other public figures. People have concluded that it is safer to extol celebrities ("pseudo-heroes," some call them) who can momentarily excite us and then be casually decarded than to invest themselves in heroes who in the end will only disappoint. Observers have a right to be suspicious, also, when they see the close association between heroes--Stalin, Castro, Hitler, Mao and the like--and virulent nationalism, especially in a time when the survival of the whole planet is at stake.

Then, too, military heroes, even those fighting for the democratic nations, are not what they were, perhaps because after World War II the terms of intervention and the scenes of combat changed so much. …

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