Sunday, 17 October 2010

Heroes with feet of clay

The heroes I prefer all have feet of clay. Or perhaps I mean more precisely clearly visible faults. And if I’m strictly accurate, they’re not actually heroes.

The word ‘hero’ is massively overused. A hero is a larger-than-life figure who, driven by conviction of the rightness of a cause, takes on massive, possibly insuperable odds, knowing that there is little or no chance of success.

I read today that ‘Hat-trick hero Mathers provides finishing touch’ to secure the footballing victory of Thackley over Parkgate. Never heard of Thackley or Parkgate? Totally indifferent to the outcome of the game? Didn't even know they were playing? My point precisely.

Leonidas is a hero, at the head of his 300, battling the entire Persian Army and knowing all he can hope for is to sell their lives dear to give others the time to prepare a defence of all he holds precious.

Not all heroes are even particularly nice people. Take George Armstrong Custer, he of the famous Last Stand. He was arrogant to the point of insanity, and a racist to boot. Despite all that, it’s difficult not to feel a touch of admiration for the way, convinced that he was right, he went into the Battle of Little Big Horn with no chance of emerging victorious. Or even alive.

Splendid stuff. Except that all his men were wiped out with him, and that’s to say nothing of the thousands of men, women and children who paid with their lives for his gesture, when the US Army tuned up to wreak horrible vengeance for his death on the Cheyenne and their allies.

That’s the problem with heroes: they may be giants but like most giants they don’t notice who they’re trampling on around them.

So I’m not all that keen on heroes. But even among non-heroes, I prefer to see the faults of the figures I admire. That’s why I’ve always liked Voltaire. Outstanding when he went into combat for justice and decency, he also had all sorts of terribly obvious faults which, to me, just underline his humanity.

For example, he was certainly not above deviousness. As well as publishing anonymously, a prudent move if you had controversial views in that authoritarian age, he also liked to publish in the names of other people – most notoriously, a near pornographic piece that he gave out in the name of a painfully virtuous churchman who’d made the mistake of opposing him. He was also gloriously rude: I’ve never been able to track down the quotation, but I hope it’s true that he once wrote, ‘I am in the smallest room in the house. Your letter is before me. Soon it will be behind me.’ I used to study Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis who had the misfortune to fall out with Voltaire. Maupertuis had written that ‘the best doctors are those who think the least and practice the most.’ Voltaire quoted only the first nine words. It’s underhand, but so effective that I find it difficult not to admire.

Here’s a good hero story. Herbert Massie’s Castles of Steel is a great piece of work by an American on the history of the (British) Royal Navy in the First World War. From it I learned that at the outbreak of war, Count Spee was the Admiral commanding the German East Asia squadron based in Tsingtao, China.

In passing, I was amused to discover that the rather pleasant light Tsingstao beer that I keep drinking in Chinese restaurants but, somehow, nowhere else, is produced at the brewery set up by the Germans in their concession there.

Spee headed for South America where he threatened the British settlement on the Falkland Islands, the only Royal Navy base in the South Atlantic.

Against him was Christopher Cradock, an Admiral who'd expressed the wish to die either while out hunting or in combat. He had a squadron that was massively weaker than Spee’s. The Admiralty promised him one of the new battle cruisers, Defence, but then ordered it back and didn’t tell him. It sent the powerfully armed ship Canopus to be the ‘citadel’ around which he could mount his attack, but didn’t seem to realise that it was obsolete and far too slow. Cradock pointed out the problems, but perhaps not clearly enough for the First Lord of the Admiralty to understand them. The Admiralty’s orders were confusing, sometimes contradictory, but in the end Cradock was left with the clear impression that his superiors thought he had enough force to take on Spee and expected him to do the job.

Cradock wasn’t going to be accused of cowardice, so he took on Spee. True heroism. He knew his ships had no chance against Spee’s but he fought anyway. The result? The British lost two ships. And 1570 men, including Cradock, as he had wished. Damage to the enemy? Three sailors wounded.

Heroism cost 1570 men their lives for no discernible advantage.

And back at home the Admiralty had made things worse with its incoherent orders and misjudgements. Who was the First Lord at the time? A certain Winston Spencer Churchill.

Now there’s a popular hero, voted the greatest Briton ever in a BBC poll a few years ago. But the sorry tale of Cradock’s defeat at the Battle of Coronel tells a slightly different story, doesn’t it? A story repeated rather a lot in Churchill’s career: in his idea for the disastrous landings in the Dardanelles in the First war or at Narvik in Norway in the Second, his fixation with keeping Britain on the gold standard in the twenties despite the damage to the economy (shades of the present day), the appalling replacement of a fine general Auchinleck by the showman Montgomery in North Africa, to mention just a few of the most flagrant cases.

Yet he was undoubtedly a great man. My mother was a young but astute political observer at the end of the thirties, and as she says, he got it right then: only his little group realised that Nazi Germany was a threat that had to be defeated and couldn’t be appeased. And in 1940 he rose to challenge with flying colours: I always feel his greatest contribution consists of four words, ‘we shall never surrender’. No words could be more important, at a time when even his Foreign Secretary favoured negotiations for peace with Hitler.

A great man, Churchill, no doubt, but his failings were in proportion to his greatness and we ought to remember them.

Was he a hero? Well maybe at times he was. At his worst times, as at Coronel.

And they cost a lot of other people their lives.

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