Having spent time with Pete Scholey a few weeks ago and read bits of his new book Heroes of the SAS, in which he recounts the stories of so many of the men he regards as unsung heroes, I got to thinking about what makes a hero. In the book Warriors, Max Hastings recounts some of the stories of the great heroes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but at the same time demonstrates that some of their actions which appear courageous are actually the actions of somewhat damaged individuals with a capacity for violence - incongrous and out of step in peacetime, but perfect for the terrible conditions of war.
For example, Guy Gibson will be forever remembered for the heroic Dambusters mission, soon to be remade into a film by Peter Jackson. According to Hastings, the reality was "more complex" and "more melancholy" than that. A driven loner, he was famously cruel to subordinates and ground crew alike and his heroism was a product of a distant father and alcoholic mother. Does this matter? Not to Bomber Command I suspect, but how does it square with our idea of a hero, based on books and films alike which portray them as much more likeable figures?
Perhaps it is not the ferocious character who storms gun emplacements, guns blazing or leads his men into the enemy flak who is the hero but the ordinary man, who quietly gets on with his duty with a burning desire to go home to his family rather than immortal glory. I don't know and I'm unlikely ever to find out, but I know it can never be as simple as our national histories or present media often portray.