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Real Heroes

And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast...
they were all of them saints of God;
and I mean, God help me to be one too.

- A hymn we used to sing in church

Life is not like school. In real life you never know when the tests will come...or what form they will take. They come upon you unannounced and unlabeled. You don't even know when you are being tested.

We watched a scene in an immigration line recently. From near the end of the line, we saw a very pregnant woman - she looked as though she might have been from the Middle East - with two small children, one in a stroller, the other tugging at her hand. The poor woman was having a time of it. The line advanced very slowly. The children were tired. She had more than she could handle. We hoped an agent would step forward and take her to the head of the line. But none came. Nor did anyone in the line help. It wasn't clear how they could help. DO NOT USE CELL PHONES, said the posters. DO NOT TAKE PHOTOS. Could the woman leave the line? People were timid, a bit embarrassed. Most merely looked away. Finally, a young man with a bright smile and blond dreadlocks, near the front, signaled to her to come ahead and take his place.

Another time on the subway in Paris a plump woman of about sixty years of age came into the car. A man has to be careful about giving up his seat to a woman. He never knows whether she is old enough to appreciate the gesture. Unless the old girl is ready to fall down, she is likely to be insulted at being taken for an older woman. Besides, people don't want to give up their seats. So they tend to keep their heads down, pretending not to notice.

After only a moment of hesitation a young man got up and offered her a seat, which she gratefully accepted.

Neither of these small acts of kindness will make the history books. We call attention to them today not for their grandeur, but for the grace of them. Today, we do not pause in sorrow and silence over the depths of darkness in man; no, we rejoice in his rare moments of dignity and courage.

If life were like school, George W. Bush would have known that Iraq would test him and his administration. He might have done a little study before getting involved in the area. He could have begun, we would suggest, by reading our own book - The Essential Classics - [from Les Belles Lettres available from Amazon.com.


There, he could have begun his research with the life of one of the world's most successful men of action - Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered the entire 'known' world. But even Alexander couldn't survive Iraq. He died in Babylon in 323 AD.

Or maybe he could have boned up on the history of the greatest empire ever - Rome. He could have read about Emperor Septimius Severus's attack on Ctesiphon, near present day Bagdad. At least, Severus had a plan. He captured 100,000 prisoners - whom he sold into slavery. Back then empire was not only a source of glory...but of profits.

But glory is our subject today, not profits. We wonder who gets it and who deserves it. Generally, we note, they are not the same people.

In retrospect, George W. Bush might have spent a few hours studying more recent conflicts between Christendom and the Muslim world. Just as Lyndon Johnson could have taken a little insight from France's war in Indo-China (later known as Vietnam)...America's current president surely could have learned something from reading a little about France's war in Algeria. The French are always ahead of us; no military campaign or political project is so stupid that the French haven't already tried it.

It was after World War II that an independent movement in Algeria took hold. France sent its brave young men to put down the uprising, but after fighting for a few years, the French had had enough. They could win the battles, but they could never win 'hearts and minds' by killing Algerians. Only when the French had withdrawn, did the real killing begin and the real heroes appear.

Hundreds of thousands of local Algerian soldiers had fought next to the French. These 'Harkis' had been loyal to the French for many years. But when the time came for the French to leave, the Harkis were to be left behind. What awaited them was vengeance.

An article in Le Point from February 2002 noted that were 200,000 Muslim Harkis who had fought with the French. And after the French left, approximately 50,000 of them - including many entire families as well as civilian authorities that had cooperated with the French - were murdered. Whether the French saw it coming or not, we don't know. But a few officers realized that their men - if they were left behind - would be massacred.

The killing was often barbaric. Victims were crucified. Their limbs were torn off. They were butchered, mutilated...tortured in ways that plumb the darkness of the human spirit. A mayor was buried up to his neck; honey was smeared on his head. He suffered hours of agony, being eaten by flies and ants, before finally passing out and dying.

Some of the French military officers were outraged that they had been ordered to abandon their men under these circumstances. Brave men follow orders. But braver ones have the courage to disobey.

We recall our neighbor, Francois, who fought in Algeria telling us:

"One colonel didn't want to abandon his men. He marched them up to Oran where the ships were taking the French back to France. He went up to the ship's captain and demanded that he load on his troops - who were not French, but local Harkis...you know, Arabs. The captain of the ship said he was not authorized to take the Harkis. The colonel pulled out his pistol and put it up to the captain's head. 'Take them all, or I'll blow your brains out,' he said. He got them back to France. But I think the colonel was arrested. And the Harkis were sent back."

Still a few officers - such as Daniel Abolivier - were able to organize an underground railway to get the Harkis to France. A few survived. The others were lucky if their throats were cut.

George W. Bush likes to be thought of as a man of action. But there is a time for thought...and a time for action. A married man who has fallen in love with his secretary, for example, has already gone too far. He should have thought about it earlier. And when George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, too, a crucial opportunity for reflection, for study and for preparation was missed. Now, he has to wonder what will happen to his own Harkis when he leaves.

In the Vietnam War, Johnson and McNamara sent hundreds of thousands of brave young men on a fool's errand. More than 58,000 of them didn't make it back alive. They all got medals and were all called 'heroes' by their families and by the politicians. But the rest of the nation didn't quite believe it. Those who served in Vietnam were certainly brave...a man has to be brave to face death. John Kerry certainly wanted voters to see him as a war hero when he showed off his medals. But the medals sagged a bit when they were hung around John Kerry's neck.

Dying is easy for brave men. It is living that is hard...living with dignity and courage. It doesn't take a lot of courage to give up a seat on the subway...but there are times when the tests are more important and the stakes are much higher.

When asked to serve his country in Vietnam, Muhammed Ali famously said "No". The media branded him a coward. But Ali faced no threat in going into the army in 1967. It had already offered him a cushy job teaching boxing and acting as a PR man for the Pentagon. The war in Vietnam was already very unpopular. Ali could have served his time in relative safety and luxury...making appearances for the cameras and the clowns...talking up the war effort.

On the other hand, if he didn't go...the punishment would be severe. He would be stripped of his boxing title. He wouldn't be able to box; he would have a hard time earning a living, let alone paying the legal fees that would be needed to keep him out of jail. Plus, he would be called a traitor.

But Ali still said "No". It was against his Black Muslim religion. And he added: "I ain't got nothin' against them Viet Cong..." and "No Viet-Cong ever called me a nigger."

No medals were pinned on Muhammed Ali. They give you medals for helping the politicians with their public spectacles. They don't give you medals for standing in their way. Sophie Scholl and her brother stood up to Adolph Hitler. They were among the few in Germany to protest the Nazi's campaign of conquest and extermination. They were hanged for it.

Most brave Germans did their duty and won their medals. In his book Ordinary Men, Christopher Browning tells the story of the Hamburg Policemen who were sent to Poland to round up and murder Jews. At first, the men were reluctant to carry out their mission. Some were sickened by it. And at least one man refused - Lieutenant Heinz Buchmann. He announced that "in no case would he participate in such action, in which defenseless women and children are shot." The others considered him 'too weak' to do the work that had been given them. They saw him as a shirker...and a coward.

We don't know what happened to Lieutenant Buchmann. The record says only that he was 're-assigned.' We only regret that there weren't more like him.

Of course, not all heroes are in the military.

On January 13, 1982 at 3:59 in the afternoon, Air Florida Flight 90 took off in heavy snow from Washington's National airport, now known as Reagan National Airport. The pilots were not accustomed to snow. One had failed a flight simulator test earlier in the year. The plane's wings had been de-iced. But there was a long line waiting to take off from the airport that day. The wings should have been de-iced again, but the pilots decided not to spend the time. Instead, they took off. Heavily. A few minutes later, the black box recorded this brief conversation in the cockpit:

"Stalling...we're falling..."

"Larry, we're going down Larry."

"I know it."


Where they were going down was right onto Washington's busiest highway, U.S. 395, and just at the 14th Street Bridge. The plane smashed into the bridge and bounced into the Potomac River. Most of the crew and passengers were killed immediately, but seven survived and were thrown into the river...then, icy cold. They couldn't last long - a fact that must have been obvious to Roger Olian, who jumped from his truck, into the water to try to save them. Unfortunately, Olian wouldn't last very long either. He had almost stopped breathing and turned blue by the time a helicopter came to his rescue.

It was a bad day in Washington. The snowstorm had caused a train wreck too. And traffic was gridlocked. Emergency services had a very hard time getting to the scene. Helicopters, trying to operate in the heavy snow, were having a rough time too. People on the bridge saw the plane go down. They saw the survivors in the water. But what could they do? They fashioned a line out of scarves and belts and tried to get it to those in the water...but it didn't work. Olian jumped in. But that didn't work either. Finally, a helicopter arrived...and began to pluck the passengers out of the water. But by that time, the survivors were barely alert.

Then, one of them took the lifeline, wrapped it around himself, and was pulled to safety. Coming back for other passengers, the line came to Arland D. Williams, Jr. Arland had not expected a test that day. But he passed with glory. Instead of taking the line himself, he gave it to flight attendant Kelly Duncan. Then, on the next trip, he passed it to Joe Stiley, who was severely injured...and to Priscilla Tirada and Patricia Felch. Ms. Tirada's husband and baby had just been killed in the crash. She was so hysterical she fell back into the water...too weak to hold onto the line. And here, another hero appeared. Lenny Skutnik took off his coat and boots and swam out to help her. The two were rescued.

That left the sixth passenger, Arland D. Williams Jr., still in the river. The helicopter rushed back to get him. But he had been in the freezing water too long. When the helicopter got there...he had slipped into the river's icy embrace forever.

Skutnik, Olian, and Williams (posthumously) were given the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving medal.


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