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I have blogged before on the way in which society seems to choose what to remember and what to forget. Similarly, I have mused on remembrance, the poppy and the increasing militarisation inherent in paying homage to Britain’s war generation. In the current crisis, despite the despair, I sense a change in our understanding of the term heroism, which I will explore further below.
In the 20th century there was concerted focus on idolising the military man and his function within British society. This is unsurprising, it is not for nothing that Camus describes this period as ‘the century of fear’ (1946/2007: 27). This period was, and remains remarkable, for the two world wars, as well as a variety of other conflicts, within which Britain was involved (along with many other nations). The two world wars provide foundations for the way in which the twentieth-century is discussed and understood, with substantial periods of time often delineated into the short-hand of pre-war, inter-war and post-war.
Although only twenty years in, it is clear that the twenty-first century, cannot be described as peaceful. Rather it has continued with the same approach to international relations, often argued to be immoral, if not illegal, of using military violence to obtain, what Britain views as, reasonable and tangible gains. Whether we focus on Afghanistan, Iran, Iran, Libya, Sierra Leone or Syria, British military might is deemed appropriate, proportionate and necessary (as least in Britain). Certainly, a number of authors have already dubbed our current century, as being in a perpetual, ‘war without end’ (cf. McAlister, 2002, Tertrais, 2004, Schwartz, 2008).
However, in 2020 the world is facing a far more challenging enemy, one which threatens us all, Coronovirus, or as it is more scientifically known, Covid-19. More importantly this is an enemy that cannot be shot, exploded, tortured or conquered in the traditional, well-worn ways of warfare. Instead, this crisis calls for a different kind of hero, one who does not have recourse to an arsenal of increasingly, terrifying weapons.
As with the war, there are two distinctly different experiences, those on the front line and those who are not. Each group has a role to play, for some they will take their lives in their hands, on a daily basis, to tend to the sick, to deliver supplies to organisations, communities and individuals, to maintain vital services. This group will see things, again and again, that are upsetting, that will test their resolve, their empathy, their patience, good-humour and their confidence. For others, their role is to stay out of the way, to stay indoors, to ensure that the disease does not spread further. Each group will have their own tales to tell to each other, as well as to the generations which will follow.
Once this is all over, once we emerge from our enforced isolation, we will have a return to some kind of “normality”, yet this experience is unlikely to disappear from our individual and collective memories. As our forebears, had the war experience to shape their lives, and that of those who followed them (in many unexpected ways), so shall we have a similar defining moment. Whilst the hero of the twentieth century was indisputably a white, straight, able bodied, (nominally) Christian man dressed in khaki, the hero of the twenty-first century will appear in a variety of diverse guises. From the supermarket worker to the school teacher to the carer to the paramedic to the police officer to the undertakers to the cleaners to the small business owners to the scientists, to the nurses, paramedics, doctors, surgeons and all the others, each are serving on the front line of the fight against coronavirus. They are women, men, Black, Asian, white, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian and atheist, they are young and old, they are experienced professionals and those just starting out on their working lives, they are well-renumerated, they are poorly paid, they have fears and anxieties, families, friends, and those that love and fear for their safety.
These people have little in common but their humanity and they are redefining heroism second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.
Calhoun, Laurie, (2002), ‘The Phenomenology of Paid Killing,’ The International Journal of Human Rights, 6, 1: 1-18
Camus, Albert, (1946/2007), Neither Victims Nor Executioners: An Ethic Superior to Murder, tr. from the French by Dwight Macdonald, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers)
McAlister, Melani, (2002), ‘A Cultural History of the War without End,’ The Journal of American History, 89, 2: 439-455
Tertrais, Bruno, (2004), War Without End, (New York: The New Press)
Schwartz, Michael, (2008), War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context, (Chicago: Haymarket Books)